The Collapse and Revival of American Community
—Robert D. Putnam
I'm reading the book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Harvard professor of Public Policy Robert D. Putnam charts a significant social change of the last third of the 20th century in which Americans changed their behavior patterns in ways that caused us to become more disconnected from one another. We did this without conscious thought about how important those communal bonds were to our health, education, safety and happiness.
At its heart, the book is about the idea of social capital, which refers to the real value to the individual and the society of all “social networks.” It turns out that there is a massive amount of data to suggest that while we are busily running around, our business doesn't have us more involved with others but less. Participation is down across the board from the PTA, to the church, to political parties, from what it was in the 1950s. But the connections formed in these groups held great value for us as a society.
Putnam says that the problem has been looked at individually, so that the Elks Club or the PTA has seen this as an Elks or PTA problem. But the problem is much broader. The issue was put succinctly by Yogi Berra who said, "If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours." He was right. Putnam argues that society depends on general reciprocity, which means that I do nice things for people not in the hope that they will do something nice, but confident that others will do something for me down the road. It's not a tit for tat, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, like the Volunteer Fire Department T-shirt slogan advertising a fundraising breakfast with the words, "Come to our breakfast, we'll come to your fire." It's a more Golden Rule, if we all treat each other well, then we will be treated well.
No where does Putnam seem more concerned than with the church where he sees the move in the 1960s and 70s as toward a private faith with no public expression. He writes,
Privitized religion may be morally compelling and psychically fulfilling, but it embodies less social capital. More people are "surfing" from congregation to congregation more frequently, so that while they may still be "religious," they are less committeed to a particular community of believers....Putnam is not pushing a theological agenda, but noting an important change in our cultural behavior. The reason this matters is that
It is not my argument here that privitized religion is morally or theologically frivilous, or that inherited religious traditions are inherently superior.
Where once we could fall back on our social captial—families, churches, friends—these no longer are strong enough to cushion our fall. In our personal lives as well as in our collective life, the evidence...suggests, we are paying a significant price for a quarter century's disengagement from one another.I see this in my own ministry that so often I am the one to meet with people in crisis. I am the one to try to help them negotiate a health crisis or a job crisis and so on. This is not only fine, but I enjoy doing it. Yet, many of the people I speak with do not already have a church home and are looking for me (and God) as their source of hope. God backs me up well and I can bring some help and some comfort, but nothing like the ongoing participation in a community of faith. I see others who are better connected who get real help through the connections they have in church and the community at large. I have seen and experienced enough to know that Putnam is on to something.
I am still reading and he is no working through the what change occured how, toward a conclusion of what he feels we can and should do about the problem. But for now I share his premise that social capital is as real as money or things and the networks of connections we have with other people are important to our health and happiness. I agree with him. What do you think?
In the archives are the related religion columns Why a Non-Believer May Want a Church and the more theological Get Connected which looks at this from the Doctrine of the Trinity.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor
Labels: social capital