Laments of decline extend back at least as far as Homer, whose dour and tiresome Nestor never missed an opportunity to remind his fellow Achaeans of the decline they represented. They are usually given by conservatives. Robert Putnam is no conservative, but a progressive who has received generous funding from liberal foundations (including Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, and Pew) to investigate whether there has been a decline in “social capital” over the last several decades.
His answer is not only affirmative but alarmist: there has been an “ominous plunge in social connectedness,” a “civic decay,” a “virus of civic disengagement,” an “anti-civic contagion.” In Bowling Alone, Putnam documents the decline, explains its causes, tells us why we should care about it, and suggests some remedies. He thereby risks giving bittersweet confirmation to the conservatives’ suspicions that their talk of decline in American mores is something more than the result of old fogy-ism. He might likewise appear to drive down the first piles for a bridge between progressives and conservatives, who now share evidence of a decline in American mores and a blueprint for common action against it. In spite of itself, however, Bowling Alone helps explain the abiding nature of our cultural divide, and why—for better or worse—it is likely to widen.
Putnam marshals a massive array of evidence to support his claims of decline. His statistics record a sharp drop over the past 35 years in rates of charitable giving, reading of newspapers, interest in politics, volunteering, attending school board meetings, and joining PTAs. But what Putnam means by social capital is not political involvement, moral fiber, or virtue. The title of the work (we are bowling more, but not in leagues) deliberately refers to a subpolitical, relaxing sport activity. Putnam thus documents with equal diligence the decline of membership in the Zionist Organization of America and “The Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club.” He provides a wealth of statistics on “togetherness” or “connectedness” of a distinctly non-grand type, such as neighborhood parties, get-togethers with friends, and glee clubs.
For Putnam’s interest lies in our “doing with, not doing good for,” other people. This is not the “thick trust” in people we know intimately but “thin trust in the anonymous other.” This more tenuous form of trust grew from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, when it began a long decline. “Americans have been dropping out in droves, not merely from political life, but from organized community life more generally.” We are less likely to play poker regularly, gossip with neighbors, have reading groups, invite people to dinner—events through which we “connect with one another.” Even in our families, we eat 50 percent fewer evening meals together than we did 20 years ago. We are angrier drivers, hire more security guards, and use lawyers rather than a simple handshake.
Putnam’s most damning evidence is against Boomers and their children, the Gen-Xers. Neither the highest per capita college education rate in history nor the proliferation of sources of information available to them has prevented Boomers and Xers from manifesting a sharp decline in knowledge of public affairs as compared to their parents’ generation. And despite less housework, less childcare, and more leisure time, their membership in member-centered organizations has declined rapidly from its peak in the early 1960s. Among college graduates there was a 30 percent decline in organizational membership from 1973 to 1994. And since joiners are ten times more generous with time and money than non-joiners, it comes as no surprise that the Boomers’ charitable giving has shrunk, too: while per capita charitable giving nearly doubled between 1960 and 1998, Putnam shows total giving as a fraction of national income falling 29 percent in that period, from 2.26 percent to 1.61 percent. Members of our parents’ generation—the “long civic generation”—voted more, joined more, trusted more, and gave more. They still do. As they pass on, we are swiftly and quietly becoming a nation of civic slugs.
But are we really? After his 1995 article of the same title, Putnam’s critics had claimed that he was looking for social capital in all the wrong places. They pointed out that the number of national associations has increased by 67 percent over the past 30 years. Yet Putnam’s rebuttals are convincing. While older associations (the Boy Scouts or VFW) are indeed being replaced by new ones (the Children’s Defense Fund or Greenpeace), the latter are “professionally staffed advocacy organizations, not member-centered, locally based associations.” Members, tied to ideology and “not to each other,” merely appear on a mailing list and pay an annual check. Use of the Internet likewise involves an anonymity that increases invective and makes for “drive-by relationships” that are too easily entered and exited to promote trustworthiness.
The decline, then, is real. In searching for its cause, Putnam dismisses the usual suspects. He won’t accept the easy excuse that we are made too busy by economic necessities; as he notes, “our material aspirations [have] expanded” over the past 50 years. Nor does an AWOL upper middle class elite explain the problem, since the increase in disengagement cuts across all economic levels. The anonymity of metropolises? But civic disengagement has occurred in small towns, too. The four major culprits are, rather, technology and the mass media, especially television (25 percent), mobility and suburban sprawl (10 percent), generational change (35–50 percent) and two-career families (10 percent). (The remaining 20 percent is unknown.)
Unfortunately, Putnam’s argument on behalf of these four causes is highly problematic. The case against television is, to be sure, the strongest. Americans allow television alone to absorb 40 percent of their free time; 30 percent have it on all the time, and an astonishing 50 percent watch it during dinner. TV steals time, encourages lethargy and passivity, develops habits of low concentration, induces a need for auxiliary audio and visual stimulation and, as Ray Bradbury long ago warned, it encourages pseudopersonal connections to fictitious others.
Still, it is strange for a student of Tocqueville to blame TV as a cause rather than an effect. Putnam knows that individualism, a disposition of each citizen “to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends,” was already present in the 1830s. Moreover, Tocqueville’s description of liberal democracy’s necessary loss of high or sublime leisure—its tendency toward relaxing entertainment—and his descriptions of the kind of art that would characterize liberal democracy, fit TV to a T. We got TV because it was what we hankered for.
Putnam’s blame of suburban sprawl is similarly problematic. Just as the Internet, whose users retain anonymity, does not “force us to deal with diversity,” so, he suspects, the suburbs breed a homogeneous peace of isolated individuals; civic engagement requires conflicts to draw or force the citizenry into the public realm. But then the suburbs are problematic precisely because they are so successful at overcoming conflicts; to follow the argument to its conclusion, Putnam would have to recommend moving to Belfast or Belgrade.
Putnam’s third cause, “generational change,” is not so much an explanation of civic disengagement as an effect waiting to be explained; why were our parents more civic than we? The answer Putnam suggests is that they, but not we, engaged in a self-sacrificial fight against an enemy in a just war. This may well be true, but the last thing Putnam himself wants is to recommend war, civil or otherwise.
Putnam’s fourth cause, two-career families, is similarly problematic, but it begins to suggest a more serious answer. Behind two-career families was “the feminist revolution” or “the movement of women toward professional equality,” which aimed to “increase the individual autonomy” of women. One can hardly blame women for seeking the same degree of autonomy as men, even if it comes at some modest cost to community activities. But what if autonomy, and the elevation of tolerance that it requires, is itself the cause of our civic disengagement? Why is it that the “decline in social connectedness and social trust began just after the greatest successes of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s,” a revolution that aimed at individual autonomy and its necessary concomitant, tolerance of individual choices? Could the two somehow be related?
Putnam explores this serious possibility in his presentation of the Boomers’ high civic activity in the 1960s, an era in which “tolerance and diversity blossomed.” The 1960s brought more tolerance for “racial intermarriage, working women, homosexuality,” and since then Americans have been “increasingly liberated from stigma and oppression.” “American attitudes toward premarital sex,” too, have been “radically liberalized” as Boomers replaced stricter beliefs “with more relaxed norms.” “The Boomers have been from the beginning an unusually tolerant generation—more open-minded toward racial, sexual, and political minorities, less inclined to impose their own morality on others.” Yet the tolerance that emerged from the 1960s social movements has had “a high social cost.”
For the young Boomers’ “exhilarating, liberating marches on Washington,” their early “collective action” was taken on behalf of individual rights, “freedom from,” and tolerance of individuals’ choices. They aimed to increase autonomy. Hence, both marriage and parenthood became choices, not obligations; Boomers have “less respect for authority, religion, and patriotism;” they are “less loyal to a particular firm, more insistent on autonomy.” It is no accident, in other words, that Boomers “put great emphasis on individualism and tolerance for diversity.” For “belief in personal control and autonomy” is in tension with “a commitment to duty and common enterprise.” Like members of a giant self-help group, Boomers seek no obligations except “respect everyone’s opinion” and “never criticize.”
Trading in duty and common activity for a belief in personal autonomy, as the Boomers did, meant abandoning the demands of honor or devotion to the common good for the relaxed, “don’t bother me” virtue of tolerance. But the dirty little secret about tolerance is that it encourages indifference to one’s neighbor. Hence Boomers are “less trusting, less participatory, more cynical about authorities, more self-centered, and more materialistic.” They are “highly individualistic” and “more comfortable with values than with rules.” And Gen-Xers, products of the Boomers’ broken homes and endless therapeutic sessions in blamelessness, are still less engaged civically and less informed about current events. In other words, once laws supporting autonomy and toleration of all choices were achieved through brief, collective action, the temporary nature of the Boomers’ civic engagement became visible. We were left with individuals tolerant of each other, and with the grounds at the bottom of the cup: social disengagement, “fewer, weaker, more fluid friendships;” higher suicide rates; and general discontentment.
These provocative suggestions about the high cost of autonomy and its concomitant, tolerance of all choices, run throughout Putnam’s work. But while one is moved to put them together and draw the conclusion we’ve drawn, Putnam himself does not do so. In fact, when he finally addresses the question head on (“Can it be a coincidence that as social capital has crumbled, tolerance has increased?”) his answer is, surprisingly, “yes;” it is a mere coincidence. Universal tolerance, he wishes to believe, has no necessary relation to loss of social engagement.
But no matter how much he protests his point, Putnam cannot avoid the hard fact that the new generation of Americans is simultaneously “less engaged and more tolerant.” That Gen-Xers are less engaged than equally tolerant Boomers, moreover, further suggests that as the battle to secure tolerance winds down to victory, engagement ceases. We are left with the explanation that tolerance fosters indifference. Why, then, does Putnam ignore his own evidence?
The short answer is that Putnam’s agenda does not differ in kind from that of the Boomers. He finds their tolerance and laid-back style an “admirable facet of their political outlook” and he wishes us to have more of it. This is not, to be sure, always evident. Putnam occasionally speaks in a manner that suggests the need to restore what one might call vestiges of a pre-liberal, classical republicanism, especially in his descriptions of the need for democratic deliberation. These appear to call for respectful debate in a search for rational guidance in our common life together. The mere “voicing of opinion,” he points out, “may lead not to deliberation, but to din.” Speech, and not mere voice or expression, is required for democratic deliberation. He therefore makes tolerance and respect for diversity a means to deliberation: toleration allows opinions to be heard, so that one is able “to test the veracity” of one’s own views in “reasoned debate” or in “the give-and-take of casual conversation, or in more formal deliberation.” Such give-and-take means being open to “potentially enlightening alternative viewpoints” (emphasis added), and entails admiration of persuasive or convincing speakers, whom we honor by following their advice.
Putnam’s more consistent argument about deliberation is for inclusion of all “voices,” or freedom of expression over and against “social control” by elites. He challenges American artists and philanthropists, for example, “to transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves.” Not wiser, not more persuasive, not more virtuous, just unlike. To remain what you are (no matter how virtuous you might be) is to fail to “transcend” your “identity.” It turns out that connection, not learning from or teaching others, is what is required.
Deliberation is thus valued as “inclusive,” an opportunity for all, especially those with certain “interests,” to be “heard” and “have influence.” Hence, all participation in political life (even by demagogues) is called a “virtue.” One attends forums not to contribute and to learn, but to “speak up for our views and values” or to be “exposed to broader social networks.” Deliberation of this sort requires us to abandon the pursuit of “veracity;” it requires that esteem of the opponent’s opinion both precede argument and abide regardless of how the opinion survives the test of veracity.
To take a principled stance is not possible, since stances are judged, not on the basis of argument or reason, but on the basis of will: they are either “strongly held” and hence “extreme” or “paranoid” or “parochial,” or they are weakly held and hence “moderate” and healthy. Deliberation of this sort is intended to keep individuals “tethered” to the community so that they don’t fall prey to “extremists.”
This kind of civic life entails nothing morally demanding, merely a disposition to do anything that is done with others. Above all, any active and involved ties must be to strangers, and will entail a loosening of ties to one’s nearest and dearest. This is the second meaning of Putnam’s title: he likes league bowling because it requires “regular participation with a diverse set of acquaintances.” The central teaching of the work, in fact, is a distinction between two types of social capital: “bonding” and “bridging.” Bridging social capital is a “concern for the generalized other,” while bonding is a thicker or deeper concern with one’s close friends. Bridging is flexible, relaxed; bonding entails deep loves and aversions. While bonding social capital “bolsters our narrower selves,” bridging social capital links one to distant acquaintances—it “can generate broader identities.” Forms of bonding social capital like the family may have “positive externalities,” but since they are exclusivist or unfriendly to outsiders, they are at odds with “bridging” social capital, and so they are essentially worrisome, even dangerous. The end of our associational life is apparently not trustworthiness, sense of obligation, virtue, or wisdom, but merely moderation understood as tolerance.
Yet, to encourage one’s fellow citizens to accord one another the respect they are due as human beings and to honor them as they deserve, one need not and cannot demand tolerance of all choices. Putnam’s elevation of tolerance as the highest principle belongs to liberalism, not to democracy as such. And while liberalism includes a view of government as established merely to keep us from harming or oppressing one another, democracy may entail something more—a collective aspiring to the good life. How then did a communitarian like Putnam become so libertarian?
The answer is that Putnam is impressed with a certain argument against justice and the self-sacrifice that it always entails. For this reason, at the heart of his book on civic engagement stands the selfish, autonomous self.
Civic engagement and social capital, Putnam observes, “entail mutual obligation and responsibility.” But what is the source of these obligations? Putnam wishes the case for them to stand not on the basis of an exalted common good, but on long-range self interest or “generalized reciprocity.” For he claims that the alternative—being “honor bound” or righteous—is not what it appears to be. Those who feel honor bound to perform their civic duties, like paying taxes, have a “confident expectation” that others will too. They suffer “disillusionment” if they discover that most others are shirking or cheating; they no longer feel “bound” to duty. This suggests (though it only suggests) that we feel obligated to do the honorable or just thing when, and to the extent that, it will serve our own individual good. This critique of honor or duty leads Putnam to reject the prospect of “obeying some impossibly idealistic rule of selflessness,” to sneer at the “seeker of sainthood” who would persist in his honesty among persistent crooks. He quotes Charles Tilly (born in 1928) saying on behalf of his generation, “we were the last suckers,” and he takes up the same tone himself: if one should act responsibly when others don’t, one would be “the only sucker.” And Putnam is convinced that democracy, as he says with an audible sigh of relief, “does not require that citizens be selfless saints.”
Since justice—real justice, the justice that demands we do the right thing even against our interests—has no hold on our souls, according to the disillusioned sucker, one is left appealing to interest to promote civic engagement. In fact, the whole of Section IV of Bowling Alone intends to demonstrate the profitability or salutary effects of social capital, for individuals and nations—to show how civil communities “help make us healthy, wealthy, and wise” or “smarter, healthier, safer, richer.” We collectively pursue goals, according to Putnam, in order to benefit individually.
Still, Putnam is aware that the argument from long-range self-interest will not deter a thoughtful person from noticing that it serves his interest best if others do the short-term sacrificing; he will become a “free rider” or a careful thief. His solution to the problem is telling: it is “best solved by an institutional mechanism with the power to ensure compliance with the collectively desirable behavior.” In plain English this means the solution is laws with teeth in them. Now, there is no doubt a need for such laws, but Putnam’s appeal to them in this context discloses his conventionalist understanding of law: it is nothing more than a means of social control devised by an individual or a collection of individuals to serve their long-range self-interests. This understanding of law tells the unjust: you won’t get away with it. But it won’t convince anyone of the obligation to be honest or just when one can be sure of getting away with injustice.
More importantly, it doesn’t capture the longing for devoted, self-sacrificial service to a transcendent good that moves a trustworthy person to do the right thing and to seek laws that give political support for, and expression to, this longing. Lacking this, Putnam’s view of law is that it is essentially “repressive.” He has learned from modern psychologists to view us as complex animals who merely use appeals to the noble or self-sacrificial love of neighbor as unconscious, overreaching, and quite unnecessary means of attaining peaceful security and comfort in a nasty world.
This reductionist understanding of law and of the noble holds that sanctions are not merely a necessary but a sufficient condition for good laws; what a collective of individuals decides to call just is just, so long as it is enforced. Members of society willfully or arbitrarily construct a version of what is good and noble and then enforce this judgment of deviancy on individuals. If some fail to meet the constructed expectations, they can “voice their interests” and seek to change or minimize the laws. Laws offer “social control” over individuals to save them from the control that would otherwise befall them from a clever or “extremist” elite. They in no way are a response to deeper human longings.
Putnam’s society would still have virtues and vices, but they must be understood merely as compliance with established and enforced laws, or “norms of commitment and performance” that are the products of long-range self-interest. The vices, or “wrong turns” or “misbehaviors” of which we must become collectively intolerant include a disposition to have babies out of wedlock, to be idle, to be apathetic about education, to play hooky, to hang out in the street, to bring weapons to school, to die premature deaths, and to engage in physical violence. Kids must become devoted to being healthy, safe, peaceful, unarmed, and cheerfully diligent in pursuit of a school curriculum that will, we gather, have to exclude stories of Tom Sawyer, Achilles, Geronimo, or Joan of Arc. “Social capital,” he concludes, means “connection through trusting networks and common values,” which “allows for the enforcement of positive standards” or “positive norms,” norms that counteract “self-destructive impulses.”
Putnam would have us believe that Alexis de Tocqueville, “patron saint of American communitarians,” supports his appeal to self-interest. “As Tocqueville pointed out, American democracy worked not because Americans obeyed some impossibly idealistic rule of selflessness, but rather because we pursued ‘self-interest rightly understood.’” From Putnam’s account one would never know that for Tocqueville, the appeal to long-range self-interest represented a novel solution to a novel and highly problematic individualism. In Tocqueville’s eyes, it was merely a first step toward awakening some of the deeper motives that were present but unspoken in American life.
Still, Putnam is not so consistently ruthless as we have made him out to be. He chooses the “realistic” course of long-range self-interest over the “hopelessly idealistic” course of virtue. Yet he also wishes us to be more than individuals, or to be not just for ourselves, but for the community, to develop “public-spiritedness.” As impressed as he is with the weakness of self-sacrificial justice, he is equally impressed by what he believes to be the powers of interaction that mysteriously produce trustworthiness and even generosity.
The perfect example for him of social capital is of a white bowler who donated a kidney to his fellow bowler, an African American. It is a touching story, even if it is not as instructive as Putnam would wish. (The bowling surely brought these two together, but did it engender the donor’s generous disposition?) He fears making a case for self-sacrificial obligation, yet there is in his argument some abiding attachment to it. As he sees it, trustworthiness (not shirking or cheating), or learning to “trust one another to behave honorably” is achieved through “repeated interactions,” or merely being in associations. Here again, the argument itself is unconvincing. (For since behaving honorably is silent to the call of interests, it is unlikely to be achieved merely through repeated interactions.) Still, what Putnam demonstrates here as elsewhere is that he himself is moved by, and wishes others to be moved by, a longing for something other than self-interest.
A sociality that serves only the long-range interests of its members, rather than one that demands self-sacrificial obligations, does not account for this longing. It cannot account for Putnam’s abiding attachment to the nobility of justice, honor, trustworthiness, or steadfast friendship. If we assume so readily as Putnam does that duty is only long-range self-interest, it seems, we run the risk of overlooking, like Putnam, something important about our longings and ourselves. Perhaps the fact that we do not fully wish to be saints does not tell us that we ought not to be. In fact, if we take justice seriously, we may well come to see that it ever requires sacrifice of us for the sake of a higher, nobler end. Unfortunately, owing to Putnam’s liberal fear that a call to self-sacrifice would constitute “‘Big Brother-ism,’ American style,” his book contains no sustained discussion of the noble or high, of a common good that is held to be high and worthy of devotion or sacrifice, of the togetherness that stems from awe or reverence.
In fact, his description of the one common American experience that manifestly entailed a reverence for the high or noble, World War II, is re-interpreted in a crabbed manner that fits Putnam’s reductionist understanding. The war, he acknowledges, required and fostered a spirit of “self-sacrifice” or “collective sacrifice” that spilled over into the rest of the lives of “the long civic generation.” But the spirit of self-sacrifice faded, Putnam notes, as the war lengthened, and it was only vindicated, he suggests, by victory. That is, the sacrifice was accepted by the parents of the dead soldiers as a price for “victory,” in a “desperate” if just enterprise.
Putnam’s account of the war would reduce the spirit of self-sacrifice to long-range collective self-interest and “connectivity,” with the nobility removed from it. For Putnam wants to have the “powerfully positive” consequences of war “without at the same time glorifying martial virtues or mortal sacrifice.” He wishes that the spirit of mortal sacrifice not be essential to civic engagement, and would probably be pleased with a tomb to the unknown “contributor to civic connectedness.” But one need not praise war to recognize that there is no “moral equivalent” of it, and not because war means “desperation.” It is rather because a just war, offering the mysterious call to a higher, nobler end, or the grandeur of duty whispering “you must,” stirs our deepest longings, longings that even Putnam feels.
The understanding that is missing in Putnam’s account of our lives together—the understanding of a common life that entails common reverence or looking up to something above ourselves—finds one form of living expression in the lives of serious religious believers. The trouble with Putnam’s vision of civic engagement comes out most clearly in his study of and recommendations for this large group of Americans.
The past 35 years, Putnam shows, have seen a 10-12 percent decline in church membership, a 25-50 percent decline in actual attendance and participation in religious activities, and a 9 percent rise in professions of “no religion.” This might seem to be cause for concern to Putnam, since religious faith, as he notes, has a high impact on civic engagement, provision of social services, volunteerism, and philanthropy. More than 50 percent of all charitable giving in the United States, for example, is religious in nature. Volunteering and philanthropy had a religious context until the end of the 19th century, he notes, and even today, it is among the devoutly religious, and “not the ideological heirs of the 1960s” that one finds an “upwelling of civic engagement.” Putnam recognizes, too, that at least according to its adherents, religious faith has this impact by prompting human beings to sacrifice themselves.
Putnam’s explanation for the decline, which is “generational,” would appear to bear this out. Fully 58 percent of Boomers have shed their religious traditions, and Putnam points once again to Boomers’ promotion of the autonomous self, and the tolerance that it demands, as the cause. Seeking greater “personal fulfillment,” Boomers’ religion is “more anchored in the personal realms” than in a shared, public realm of faith. The Boomers’ “privatized” religion transforms an obligatory, exalted common activity into a boutique religiosity, or religion understood as a matter of arbitrary personal choice. This soon gave way to no religion at all.
But Putnam is not impressed with the self-sacrificial side of religious faith, nor is he at all interested in sustaining or renewing it. In fact, he does not lament the decline of religion per se so much as the “division” that the decline has brought about. As he explains, the aggregate decline reflects a decrease in the ranks of one particular group of American believers—mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, or Reformed Jews—who are or were lukewarm practitioners. The percentage of the population that describes itself as “intensely involved” in religion, on the other hand, has remained stable, while the percentage of those claiming “no religion” has increased dramatically. The ranks of the orthodox and the secular have grown, while “the middle has collapsed.” As a result, “the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups—the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched.” Yet Putnam’s solution to the division is to make the devout more lukewarm or “moderate.” In other words, he blames the division on the desire of the devoutly observant or orthodox to remain so.
For whatever their “positive externalities,” orthodox or devout believers as such are limited, as Putnam never tires of reminding his readers, in what they can do for “social connectedness,” and even pose a serious threat to “bridging” social capital. Like a criminal gang, they are a form of social capital with “bad external effects” or “out-group antagonisms.” Their “cohesive non-ethnic communities” are, to some mainline Protestants, “exclusivist” in character. They don’t “reach out” to “the wider community.” Or rather, they do, but by building a political community that sustains faith and virtue. To Putnam and mainline Protestants, the deep concern that the devoutly religious have about the souls of their fellow citizens is wrong, unprogressive, disrespectful of personal autonomy, intolerant. The devoutly religious, it seems, are guilty of “drawing both social and religious boundaries.” Still worse, they are guilty of being too concerned about prayer, about reverence for God—of being “focused more on individual piety” than on “progressive social betterment programs” or “community projects.” They are the cause of the growing divide in American society. They must become lukewarm, progressive, tolerant of all things.
Since the evidence of decline in religion that Putnam himself presents points to moderate or middling religiosity as untenable—a mere stepping stone to secularism or atheism—the results of his solution would be predictable: an accelerated decline in devout or orthodox religious faith. Putnam would shed no tears over this outcome; we’d all get along or be “connected,” after all. But would the devoutly religious not view the price of such connectivity as too high? They crave not the sociality of the herd, after all, but the self-sacrifice that makes one deserving in the eyes of the divine. But to Putnam, the devoutly religious have long been mistakenly abjuring the happiness that is available to us on our own. The rejection of Putnam’s modern liberal conviction––the conviction that this world can and ought to satisfy us––makes the devoutly religious the kulaks of liberal democracy—the group whose mere existence is a threat to the reigning liberal orthodoxy of the regime. They must stop being busybodies, stop trying to “impose their own morality on others,” and accept the principle of the autonomous self.
To achieve this end, Putnam would separate religious “connectedness” from the common faithful devotion of worshippers, view it as something independent of its origin, and claim to have exhausted its meaning. “[T]he social ties embodied in religious communities are at least as important as religious beliefs per se in accounting for volunteering and philanthropy. Connectedness, not merely faith, is responsible for the beneficence of church people.” Hence, while orthodox Jews fulfill a mitzvah, Putnam has them pursuing a “philanthropic purpose”; the Biblical Jeremiah speaks of disobedience and waywardness, while Putnam’s reconstructed Jeremiahs lament “declines of community.”
But in presenting this case for connectedness, Putnam necessarily does violence to the religious traditions he is allegedly representing. His description of the life of religious people is not an accurate but a hegemonic description. It attempts to drive out of the reader’s vision the fact that the “connectedness” or “social capital” of believers entails looking up, reverence, shared awe. It cannot be compared to the connectedness of a bridge party, or a criminal gang, without distorting the phenomena. His concluding challenge to “faith-based communities” would require adopting a moral theology that is compatible with his vision of lighthearted fluidity, making what he wants from them into their central mission: “Let us spur a new, pluralistic, socially responsible ‘great awakening’ so that by 2010 Americans will be more deeply engaged than we are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning, while at the same time becoming more tolerant of the faiths and practices of other Americans.”
This call for Revival meetings under a Really Big Tent asks devout or orthodox believers to emulate those denominations that have abandoned their faith for a secular agenda, to become believers in a God who solemnly demands of them that they create a society in which they and everyone else can build an identity as they please. Devout believers, who can see by Putnam’s own argument where such “moderate” faith has led, will doubtless be dumbfounded that he is asking them to follow him there. The growing divide Putnam recognizes is real, but his argument is likely to increase it.
According to Putnam, however, the future would be bright for us all. Having eschewed appeals to our longings for the noble and substituted appeals to dry, cold duty (or “organized altruism”), Putnam would ensure that the demands of the new, identity-transcending connectedness will be made exciting and appealing by including new, innovative, fun things that will keep engagement “relevant” or “meaningful,” especially to young people. Philanthropists are asked to fund participatory cultural activities “from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals.” And if your identity tells you there’s something wrong with the song? Putnam won’t hear of it. “Singing together does not require shared ideology or shared social or ethnic provenance.” In Putnam’s America, an orthodox Rabbi would join with Madonna in a new rendition of “Spank Me,” and Pete Seeger would be heard belting out “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
But wouldn’t Wednesday Adams rather die than sing “Kumbaya” at Camp Chippewa? Not to worry. A new kind of art will overcome all cultural differences. It will be “bridging social capital art,” and it will be funded by America’s leading philanthropists. An example of the new art that you should fund: a “novel combination of hip-hop, rap poetry, and improvisational poetry slams, to attract people from all walks of life.” It’s “great” art, Putnam believes, and more impressively, produces “great bridging social capital.” It’s loud, cool, politicized “creativity,” the kind of art that evaporates with the particular issue it is protesting. This art will help you to transcend your identity. So get rappin’, you stodgy orthodox!
Timothy W. Burns is assistant professor of government at Skidmore College.