Putnam speaks with Duke Univ.’s Faith & Leadership Program about American Grace

January 19, 2011
By tomsander

Excerpt of interview with American Grace co-author Robert Putnam:

Q: What’s your outlook about American society in “Bowling Alone”?

In “Bowling Alone” we were recounting the fact that many forms of social capital, many of which had been created roughly 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th century were disintegrating. The next-to-last chapter of “Bowling Alone” pointed out how similar the periods at the end of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century were.

There were a lot of parallels, but one of them was that older forms of social capital at the end of the 19th century were mostly in disarray. As we moved from a rural to an urban population, the older forms of connections, quilting bees and barn raisings and so on, didn’t cut it on the Lower East Side of New York. So there was a similar period of declining social capital at the end of the 19th century.

Then, in about 20 years, we basically fixed the problem by inventing a whole lot of new ways of connecting: the YMCAs and the Boy Scouts and the 4-H. It’s hard to name a major form of social capital in American life today — even though they’re mostly now declining — that were not invented in about 20 years at the turn of the 20th century in response to this problem, much like the problem we have today.

In “Bowling Alone” I said — and I continue to believe — that we would go through another period in which people invented new ways of connecting.

I don’t mean that I predicted the Internet, but in some respects social network sites and so on could be seen as a contemporary equivalent to the invention of these organizations. Today, you know, it’s hard to think of anybody having to invent the Red Cross or Kiwanis. They seem like they’ve been around forever, but all those were inventions — mostly by young people — trying to replace the quilting bees and barn raisings and things that didn’t work anymore as social connections….

Q: You talked about the nones — I think you said that the nones now are larger, percentage-wise, than mainline Protestants.

I don’t think that the fact of that increase is a surprise to most people. I think understanding when and why it happens may be more of a surprise to people.

The first thing you have to understand is that it’s unlike the long-term secularization in Europe. That is a process that has been occurring for 100 years. It has gone on so steadily and so long that it has a big effect.

The American phenomenon is actually very different from that. It is less than 20 years old, and it has risen very sharply. If you look at the graph, it looks like a hockey stick.

The fraction of Americans who disclaimed religious identity until 1990 had been essentially flat for a very long time — as long as we have records, actually. It was flat at about 5 or 7 percent.

But then, especially among young people, that has grown very rapidly since 1990. I think there’s a misunderstanding by all sides that it’s somehow to do with atheism. But it actually isn’t to do with atheism hardly at all. Most of these young nones say they believe in God. Most of them were raised in a religious home, and indeed most of them went to Sunday school or religious education of some sort. These are not people who have no exposure to religion, and they’re not people who reject the whole idea of religion. Many of them say that religion is important to them personally. A significant number of them even attend church occasionally.

But they reject the existing menu of organized religious alternatives in America. Most of the explanation for the rise — and this is another misunderstanding — by far the largest single cause, is that these are young people who are moderate to liberal.

The most distinguishing characteristic predicting which young people become nones and which don’t is their view on homosexuality. Because this is the generation, going back to about 1990, that has become substantially more open-minded about homosexual people. This very sharp generational change in attitudes toward homosexuality among young people coincided with a sharp move to the right on the issue among the most visible religious leaders.

Obviously, not all religious leaders or not all religious organizations, not all denominations or whatever, have made a big deal out of homosexuality. But the most visible religious leadership was zigging to the right just exactly as these young people were zagging to the left.

Many of them — actually, I think most of them — say they pray fairly often. So they’re not hostile to what you might call religious sentiment, but they certainly are hostile to organized religion.

Q: So they’ve rejected not religion but religious institutions.

Yes. I would say that they’ve rejected the existing array of religious institutions.

Some will actually come back to religion, because in general as people get married and have kids and settle down, there’s a modest increase in their religious affiliations. That’s always been true, and I’m sure it will be true for these people.

But these people are beginning at a level of disdain for and rejection of organized religion that is way higher than in any previous generation. So even if some of them move back toward religion, it won’t begin to change the trajectory away from religion, because it just can’t. The life-cycle effects as people get settled down and so on aren’t nearly as great as this huge increase from about 5 to 7 percent up to about 30 percent now, 25 to 30 percent.

Still, unlike the trends in Europe, we don’t think that it’s at all inevitable that this youthful rejection of religion will continue. Actually, [co-author] David Campbell and I are very impressed with the degree to which American religion has been adaptable and innovative over the centuries. That’s what is almost unique about American religion compared to religion in other parts of the world where there’s a lot of continuity.

Historically, we’ve invented a lot of new religions, and we’ve certainly invented new ways of doing religion, and I personally think that’s pretty likely to happen here. I think it’s likely that as religious leaders see the consequence of having gotten so close to politics, they’ll change. And for the religions that don’t change, the ones that stay really involved in politics, I think the handwriting is on the wall, frankly.

I would bet that 20 years from now, this period of a close entanglement between conservative politics and religion will be seen as a kind of a passing phase of American religion, and one which was in the long run quite harmful to religion.

I can’t say that I know what’s going to happen, and I do not know exactly which brand of religion — that is, which denomination or whatever — will take this lead, but what I’m mainly saying is I’m disassociating myself from any view that this rise of secularism among young people is an ineluctable, inevitable long-term trend….

Q: To what degree is it the organization or the institution that is the carrier of the social capital? I was intrigued by the notion that the religious are better citizens but it’s not the theology but the network that makes them that way.

We were shocked to discover that. 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.

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.

What it does depend on is how many friends you have in church and how closely integrated you are in your community of faith — that is, in your congregation. It has nothing to do with denomination. If you’re connected with your faith community, if you go to church suppers, it doesn’t matter what church that is. It doesn’t even matter that it be Christian. I mean, Jews or anybody else, the Mormons or whatever, that are deep and have a lot of social ties, community ties to their congregation are just as likely to be good neighbors.

In fact, even if you don’t believe in God at all, and you’re not all that religious, but you go to a lot of church suppers, say, because your spouse is religious, you’re just as good a neighbor as somebody who is deeply religious and goes to church.

Conversely, if you are unbelievably deeply religious, you pray every day, five times a day, and you say that religion is the most important thing in your life, but you sit alone in the pews and pray alone and don’t have friends in church, then you’re, statistically speaking, not any better a neighbor than a secular person is.

So it’s a pretty strong relationship. It’s not so much faith as communities of faith that seem to make people nicer.

It’s the church friends somehow. When I say “church,” I don’t just mean Christian churches, but the friends in your congregation. They seem to be like supercharged friends. The more friends you have like that in your religious congregation, the more generous you are, the more likely you are to volunteer, the more likely you are to help old ladies across the street and so on, and we actually can see in our data — because we interviewed people twice — we can see that when somebody gets a new friend in church, they become nicer. Conversely, if they stop being so involved in their community of faith, they stop being so nice.

Q: I wonder if a theologian might say that community is part of the Christian theology, so maybe they wouldn’t make a distinction in that way, the way a social scientist would.

Well, it’s clearly true that there’s something about religious friends, as I said, that is supercharged. They’re different from other kinds of friends. The friends that you have in your bowling league or the friends that you have at work are nice and they’re helpful to you and make you a little bit nicer, but they don’t have the same oomph that religious friends do.

So in that sense, yes, at some level it must have something to do with religion, but it doesn’t have to do with the individual theological beliefs of individual people. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in an angry God or a loving God. It doesn’t much matter how strongly you believe in God at all. It doesn’t matter whether you feel God’s presence every day or you don’t feel God’s presence every day. So in that sense, these subjective, attitudinal or ideational measures of religion don’t seem to explain the good citizenship finding.

Q: That’s fascinating.

We’re trying to figure out what it is about religious groups that make them so special, and there are many different hypotheses.

Maybe it’s because the people in your religious community are people you share very emotional moments with. You share birth and death and marriage and confirmation or bar mitzvah or something, so maybe it’s the emotional connections you have with people in your congregation.

Or maybe it’s because the people in your congregation are people that you find it hard to say no to. If somebody you know from the gym says, “Bob, would you like to contribute to a charity?” it may be just easier to do that.

Maybe it’s because you get prestige in any given group you’re in depending on what the content of the group is. So if you’re a bowler, the most prestigious person in the bowling league is the one who bowls the highest score, but maybe the person who gets prestige in a religious group, in a prayer group or whatever, is the nicest person, the one who is the most notably generous and outgoing and so on. So maybe it’s a kind of a competitive emulation in a way. I don’t mean this is in anybody’s mind, but maybe implicitly that’s what’s going on.

The short answer is, 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….

Read “Robert Putnam: America’s Grace” (Interview with Faith & Leadership Program at Duke)


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