The Heart of Religion Q&A (Part 1)

With Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post

How did you three authors, each of you a Ph.D. and expert in your own field, come to the decision to work together on The Heart of Religion?

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 9.21.20 PMStephen and Margaret had met at a local coffee shop near their homes in northeast Ohio on a couple of occasions to talk about doing research together on “nature and grace,” a shorthand phrase Stephen used to describe how God’s unlimited love might affect human behavior. In many ways, Stephen and Margaret were an odd couple, with his theologically trained mind ever soaring toward the big questions of life and Margaret’s sociological training forcing her feet to remain planted in a ground more amenable to scientific assessment. She would soon catch his vision, as each recognized the complementary gifts the other brought to the proposed project.

But something was still missing. Both were senior scholars and closer to the end of their careers than the beginning; the project needed the energy and insight from a member of a younger generation. For Margaret, Matthew seemed to be the perfect person. Margaret had many intellectually stimulating exchanges with Matt, a sociologist who joined the faculty at the University of Akron as a specialist in criminology and whose office was across the hall from hers. Despite their dissimilar specialties—hers in religion and his in crime—they developed a friendship, and Matt would in time share his interest in developing a course in the sociology of love, partly as an antidote to the depressing effects of studying crime for a living. Margaret was confident that Matt was just the person needed to complete the team. The three of us strongly suspected, based on our own research and the scholarship of others, that powerful experiences of God’s love could be important for benevolence. Yet we had relatively little systematically collected empirical data about how this love is experienced. We decided to work together in order to begin to remedy this gap.

You mention that Americans are engaged in a never-ending struggle. Please explain what that means—what kind of struggle?

 Each of us strives to make a positive difference in the lives of others and to find meaning in this effort.  In other words, we are unlikely to be truly happy until we wake up from a selfish existence and embrace our interconnectedness and responsibilities to ourselves and to others. Religion is one institution that organizes this effort, at least for a majority of Americans, and indeed it is often very hard work. Perhaps the most important way that religion shapes us in this regard is that it gets many of us in touch with the experience of divine love – not just the idea of divine love.  It is the powerful emotional experience of God’s love that energizes us when our human capacity to love others (or ourselves) seems stretched to the breaking point.  In the midst of hopelessness, there is a divine hope that empowers us to love the unlovable. The people we interviewed are in touch with a sustaining love that revitalizes them when they feel like giving up and helps them see beyond their immediate circumstances to better understand how their lives fit into an overarching, loving plan for all. Our national survey found that experiences of divine love have a positive impact on having a sense of purpose and meaning in life and also on benevolent service to others.

Tell us about the survey you conducted. How did you decide whom to interview? Did you interview the 120 individuals in person, online, or how exactly?

Heart of Religion_cover The primary scientific data for our book are based on two separate studies. Our national telephone survey was open to all American adults whether or not they were religious. In the fall of 2009, we collected a random sample involving 1,208 American adults. Our results can be generalized to the vast majority of Americans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The survey was conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron under the direction of the three of us and John C. Green, a leading survey researcher. Unlike the telephone survey, which was not targeted to a specific group, our face-to-face interviews focus on Christianity because the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christians—and because our survey shows that their religious experiences do make a difference in their willingness to benevolently serve others. We interviewed 120 Christian exemplars of benevolence and their collaborators. There was much diversity among our interviewees: young and old, black and white, Hispanic and Euro-American, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, famous and unknown. We interviewed well-known public figures—ranging from Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in American history, to Jim Wallis, best-selling author and spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama—as well as those who serve others in significant ways without ever receiving awards or public notice of any kind. Our approach was to collect diverse narratives from across the political, social, and religious spectrum. Some group differences turned out to be especially important in shaping the nature of godly love. A major purpose of this book is to better understand these differences while not losing sight of the common finding that unites these groups: experiences of divine love are clearly related to a life of benevolent service.


This can be used with permission and credit to The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post. Oxford University Press 2012


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