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A hefty advance proof of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us arrived yesterday. Professors Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame have compiled and interpreted significant new research on the impact of religion on American life.

The book from Simon & Schuster is scheduled for release in October. I’ll need much more time to work through it before offering a review. But, in my spot reading, one matter caught my attention quickly.

The writers conclude that most Americans are acquainted with and accepting of persons of faith backgrounds other than their own. This may come as a surprise to other readers as it did to me.

The ability to combine devotion and diversity, they say, can be attributed to the “Aunt Susan Principle.”

Their explanation is that most every American has a relative — perhaps an Aunt Susan — who is highly regarded for her goodness and faithfulness, even though she is of a different faith. Debating doctrinal differences with strangers is different from pouring condemnation on a beloved relative it seems.

Putnam and Campbell give additional reasons for inter-religious acceptance than their hypothetical relative. But that alone is worth considering.

However, my own upbringing provided exposure to very little religious diversity. Most relatives were either active Baptists or Methodists or guilt-ridden for their unfaithful church attendance.

However, there was unconventional Uncle Delmas who found delight in being the only confessed pagan in the family tree. Yet we even found him to quite tolerable and often enjoyable.

So these writers seem to be on to something. That is, personal relationships can create space for better acceptance of those with religious beliefs and practices different from our own.

It is easy to speak in generalities about religious groups that do not align with one’s own understanding of faith. But it is another to dismiss a beloved relative or close friend as a heretic.

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