What brings about positive social change? According to Robert Putnam, the answer is not material but “social capital,” – the willingness of people to join with their energies for the common good:
- Putnam has been described as the most influential academic in the world today…He has been the focus of seminars hosted by Bill Clinton at Camp David and Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. His ideas have popped up in speeches by George W. Bush and William Hague.
Putnam became alarmed by indications of serious social decay. For instance,
- “When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, 75 percent of Americans said that they trusted their government to do the right thing. Last year , same survey, same question, it was 19 percent…what worried me as an American citizen — namely, the sense that our national experiment in democratic self- government is faltering.”
- “A broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago. High on our scholarly agenda should be the question of whether a comparable erosion of social capital may be under way in other advanced democracies, perhaps in different institutional and behavioral guises. High on America’s agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust.”
Putnam later supported his conclusions with a broad range of data:
- Political and civic engagement. Voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30 per cent fewer petitions and are 40 per cent less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. The declines are equally visible in non-political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid-1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, by 1998 that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60 per cent.
- Informal social ties. In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure (1998) is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining.
Interestingly, many will cite greater tolerance as a positive development of our growingly secular society. However, Putnam found that:
- “Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this…In the last quarter century these occupations boomed, as people have increasingly turned to the courts and the police.”
- “Trust (even of one’s own ‘race’) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer” (Putnam 2007).
All of these factors tend to stifle the development of social capital. Therefore, Putnam became interested in the factors that generate social capital – the mobilization of human energy:
- Putnam has also sought to track emerging, significant generators of social capital – and to examine some of the qualities that make them significant. Religion has been a particular focus – not surprising as in his view religious affiliations account for half of all US social capital.
- “They [churches] have very low barriers to entry – the doors are open, there are folding chairs out on the patio – they make it very easy to surf by. You can leave easily. But then they ramp people up to a huge commitment – at some megachurches, half of all members are tithing [giving a tenth of their income]. How do they get from the low to the high commitment? By a honeycomb structure of thousands of small groups: they have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, the breast cancer survivors for God, the spouses of the breast cancer survivors for God, and so on.”
- “The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group. Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together – doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends. These churches form in places of high mobility – people live there for six weeks and the church provides the community connection. When you lose your job, they’ll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they’ll bring the chicken soup.”
In a 2011 interview with Faith and Leadership regarding his new book, American Grace, Putnam claimed:
- “Specifically, we find that people who are active in religious communities are systematically more generous, better neighbors. They’re more likely to work on community projects. They’re more likely to give to secular causes as well as religious causes. They’re much more likely to volunteer for secular causes as well as religious causes. They’re more likely to give blood. They’re more likely to let a stranger cut in front of them in line. http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/robert-d-putnam-americas-grace
- They’re better neighbors and they’re better citizens. But it turns out that — and we were shocked at what I’m about to say — that virtually none of that seems to have anything to do with the context of people’s theology.
- That is, it isn’t how strongly people believe in God. How strongly you say you assert your belief in God actually isn’t that related to these good deeds, and it doesn’t depend on whether you believe in justification by faith or justification by deeds. That’s irrelevant to this finding. It doesn’t even depend upon whether you say that you’re a religious person.
- I do not know what it is about religious groups that make the difference. Something does, and it seems that that something is probably not embodied in the beliefs of the individual worshippers.”
However, Putnam dismisses the Christian faith in favor of the Christian community as the social capital engine.
But what is it about the Christian community that has made it such an engine, and why – if social capital is so esteemed – haven’t other groups been able to replicate the Christian community for any length of time? How was the Christian West able to surge forward with its mobilization of social capital? Coincidently, Putnam observed that:
- The 1960s witnessed a significant drop in weekly churchgoing — from roughly 48 percent in the late 1950s to roughly 41 percent in the early 1970s. Since then, it has stagnated or (according to some surveys) declined still further.
This drop is church attendance is associated with the rise of secularism and a decline in volunteerism:
- These data show some striking patterns. First, membership in traditional women’s groups has declined more or less steadily since the 1960s. For example, membership in the national Federation of Women’s Clubs is down by more than half (59 percent) since 1964, while membership in the League of Women Voters (LWV) is off 42 percent since 1969. Similar reductions are apparent in the numbers of volunteers for mainline civic organizations, such as the Boy Scouts (off by 26 percent since 1970) and the Red Cross (off by 61 percent since 1970). At all educational (and hence social) levels of American society, and counting all sorts of group memberships, the average number of associational memberships has fallen by about a fourth over the last quarter century.
What is it about modern secular society that is both so corrosive to the church and the production of social capital and why? What does this mean for America’s future?