Religion as Social Capital: Producing the Common Good / Edition 1

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While Robert Putnam'sBowling Alone(2000) highlighted the notion of volunteerism, little attention has been paid to religion's role in generating social capital - an ironic omission since religion constitutes the most common form of voluntary association in America today. Featuring essays by prominent social scientists, this is the first book-length systematic examination of the relationship between religion and social capital and what effects religious social capital has on democratic life in the United States.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780918954855
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 273
  • Lexile: 1490L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 0.63 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 6.00 (d)

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Religion as Social Capital
Producing the Common Good
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2003 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-918954-85-5

Chapter One

Corwin Smidt

Culture plays a central role in political life because political institutions do not operate in a vacuum, isolated and cut off from the society of which they are a part. Cultural values and practices influence the tone and style of political life as well as the operation of political institutions, and changes in cultural life have a profound impact on how politics is practiced.

Such an understanding of politics served to undergird Tocqueville's analysis of political life in early Jacksonian America. He contended that democracy requires the presence and vitality of civic associations that are not necessarily political in nature but that serve as sources of meaning and social engagement. Associational life served a double purpose-not only did it function to protect individual liberty against the coercive powers of the state, but it also served to mitigate against the dangers of rampant individualism within the political community. For Tocqueville, associational life actually provided the foundation for democratic life, because democracy could not survive unless citizens continued to participate actively, joining with others of similar mind and interest to address matters of common concern.

Given this alleged importance of civil associations, it is hardly surprising that Putnam's (1995a) contention that "the vibrancy of American civil society ... has notably declined over the past several decades" has received considerable attention both within and outside the scholarly community. Like Tocqueville, Putnam views the vibrancy of democratic life to be an outgrowth of these associations and the positive attitudes and actions they evoke from their members. Consequently, he finds it alarming that Americans are not only less likely today to interact with one another than three decades ago, but they are less likely to trust either government or others as well. Though other scholars have challenged this contention (e.g., Ladd 1996), Putnam's assertion has helped to place the examination of associational life once again at the heart of scholarly analyses of democratic life. In fact, in recent years, there has been a "growth industry" in studies related to "civil society" and the role that civic associations may play in forging "social capital." For Putnam (1993a), associational life contributes to the formation of social capital, which, in turn, fosters civic engagement. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note simply that the term "social capital" is generally used to denote any facet of social relations that serve to enable members of society to work together to accomplish collective goals. Though he did not coin the term, it has been Putnam's scholarly works that have brought the analysis of social capital into prominence.

In light of this scholarly interest and attention, it is noteworthy that relatively little scholarly attention has been given to the role of religion in social capital formation. In part, this may be due to the fact that religious associations can be viewed, in many ways, to be similar to other kinds of associations that individuals may forge. Yet, there are also aspects of religious life that tend to make religious associations distinctive from other kinds of association. Putnam (2000, 66) himself has recognized that "faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America." Yet, despite this recognition, Putnam and others have treated religion primarily as one form, among many such forms, of association. Little attention, as yet, has been devoted to the unique role that religion may play in building social capital.

There are a variety of reasons why the relationship between religion and social capital formation and its consequences should be examined more carefully. Certainly, as noted earlier, congregational life has traditionally been a major component of associational life in the United States. Not only is church affiliation the most common form of association in American life, but these associations provide important services and resources to their members and others in the community-e.g., by providing physical care, social support, and social networks. Likewise, religious beliefs can serve to shape the level, form, and goals of one's associational life. Different religious doctrines may affect the ways in which people may view human nature generally, the extent to which such believers choose to relate to those outside their religious community, and the priorities given to political life generally and personal political agendas specifically. Finally, religious behavior may contribute to social capital formation in that volunteering, charitable contributions, and other distinct acts of mercy can, at least in the short run, help to provide a "safety net" for members of society who are "at risk." Given these characteristics, Miller (1998) has asserted that religion has more potential to contribute to America's social capital than any other institution in American society.

But religion's potential importance with regard to social capital formation is not limited to the extent to which religion likely contributes to social capital formation. Religion is important because of the sectors of society in which this social capital formation may occur. Wood (1997), for example, argues that church-based social organizing in urban settings has proved more successful than other bases for such organizational efforts due, in large part, to the demise of other forms of civic associations in urban areas. According to Wood (1997, 601), religious institutions play a distinctive role within inner-city contexts because "those settings that previously generated trust and sustained broad social networks have deteriorated badly: unions, blue-collar workplaces, cultural associations, families and so forth." In fact, within many inner-city neighborhoods, religious institutions are among the few institutions that still are trusted (Miller 1998, 24).

The present volume seeks to address this lack of attention. It is distinctive in its focus in that it analyzes the role religion plays in social capital formation and how such social capital forged through religion shapes civic engagement in American public life. It addresses how religious social capital is similar to, or different from, the social capital generated through other forms of association. It analyzes how the social capital generated through religion contributes to a greater and richer democratic life. Finally, it examines how the influence of religious associational life in the formation of social capital may vary across different domains or contexts. Thus, the volume focuses on the relationship between social capital and democratic life, but it does so primarily through the lens of religious life.

Because the social capital framework may not be familiar to all, this introductory chapter first provides a brief review of the larger debate about the topic that is currently enjoined within the scholarly community. Second, the chapter provides a discussion of the various concepts and analytical distinctions employed in the volume and identifies some of the major issues associated with the social capital framework of analysis. And, finally, the chapter provides an overview of the volume, indicating how the various chapters are organized and interrelated.


While the term "civil society" has had a variety of different meanings, it is generally used to denote "those forms of communal and associational life which are organized neither by self-interest of the market nor by the coercive potential of the state" (Wolfe 1998, 9). Because such associations are not formed on the basis of coercive means, civil society is viewed to be composed of voluntary associations. And because they are not formed purely on the basis of personal self-interest, the motivational basis for forming such associations is viewed as constituting a more civic, rather than self-centered, foundation.

Most civic associations do not fall directly within the public realm in that civic engagement denotes "people's connection with the life of their communities, not merely with politics" (Putnam 1995b, 665). In fact, much of associational life is not explicitly political in nature. Still, while most civic associations do not fall directly within the public realm and while much of associational life may not be explicitly political in nature, such "non-political" civic associations have important political consequences, e.g., with regard to the role that civic associations may play in promoting civic education, fostering civic skills, and bridging social cleavages. Moreover, such associational life may well serve to undergird the public realm by helping to keep the power of governmental coercion at bay. Thus, while much of associational life may not be explicitly political in nature, it is inherently political given its possible ramifications for fostering democratic life.

More recent analyses of associational life, and its impact politically, have focused largely on what has been called "social capital," a framework of analysis that refers to features of social organization (e.g., friendship networks, norms, and social trust) that facilitate working and cooperating together for mutual benefit. Accordingly, social capital can be viewed as a set of "moral resources" that lead to increased cooperation among individuals. In the words of James Coleman (1990, 302-4):

Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence.... For example, a group whose members manifest trustworthiness and place extensive trust in one another will be able to accomplish much more than a comparable group lacking that trustworthiness and trust.

While it is difficult to specify everything that social capital might entail, Coleman does provide us with a starting point. He lists several elements of social relationships that include social capital (1990, 311-13). First, there are social obligations and expectations. Such obligations and expectations help to forge the element of social trust that is inherent in interpersonal relationships where "if A does something for B and trusts B to reciprocate in the future, this establishes an expectation in A and an obligation on the part of B" (Coleman 1988, S102). These obligations and expectations are often enforced by a second element of social capital-norms and sanctions. For Coleman, one important form of social capital found within a collectivity is the "prescriptive norm that ... one should forgo self-interest to act in the interest of the collectivity" (Coleman 1990, 311). Third, social support reinforces these norms and applies sanctions if the norms are not followed: "This social capital ... not only facilitates certain actions but also constrains others" (1990, 311). Finally, social capital is tied to voluntary associations because such group involvement tends to generate obligations and expectations as well as foster social trust (Coleman 1990, 311-13).

The concept of civil society is much more encompassing than that of social capital. Social capital originates in, but does not constitute, civil society. The concepts of civil society and social capital are interrelated in that both the current debate over civil society generally and social capital more specifically are concerned both with the extent and quality of social interaction as well as with the kinds of relationships that serve to build and sustain moral commitment and character (Wuthnow 1996a, 2).

Still, the concept of social capital is used more narrowly to denote those features of social organization that facilitate working and cooperating together for mutual benefit (e.g., friendship networks, norms, and social trust). Generally speaking, however, the social capital framework presumes that associational life and interpersonal trust are simply interrelated. According to Putnam (1995b, 665): "the more we connect with other people, the more we trust them, and vice versa."

The importance of social capital is tied to its capacity to bind together autonomous individuals into communal relationships. Social capital serves to transform self-interested individuals exhibiting little social conscience and weak feelings of mutual obligation into members of a community expressing shared interests and a sense of the common good. And, "spontaneous cooperation is facilitated by social capital" (Putnam 1993, 167).

What ingredients provide social capital with such a transforming capacity? Two, in particular, have been frequently cited as crucial aspects of social capital- trust and reciprocity. According to Putnam (1993, 170), trust constitutes "an essential component of social capital." Trust facilitates and "lubricates" cooperation in that increased trust leads to the likelihood of increased cooperation.

Still, not all social trust is likely to be the same; the nature of social trust is likely to vary by the particular social context within which it is expressed. In communities in which face-to-face interactions predominate, "thick" trust is more likely to be evident, a trust that is produced through intensive, highly regular, and relatively frequent contact between and among people (Williams 1988, 8). Not surprisingly, these kinds of communities tend to be ones that are relatively homogeneous socially and isolated geographically, where members can apply the relatively strict sanctions needed to sustain such thick trust (Coleman 1988, 105-8). Modern societies, however, tend to generate a thinner form of social trust, a kind of trust that is tied to "looser, more amorphous, secondary relations" (Newton 1997, 578). In large, more complex, social settings, it is difficult to generate the thick kind of trust produced in more face-to-face communities. In its place, a less personal, more indirect, form of trust tends to be generated. This "thin" form of trust is the result of weak social ties-but even such weak ties can nevertheless serve as a relatively powerful and enduring basis for social integration in these larger, more complex, modern societies (Granovetter 1973).

Just how does the social trust that tends to be generated in more face-to-face settings, where people are relatively well known, become evident in modern, large-scale societies as some form of a more generalized social trust? Within modern, relatively complex social contexts, social trust is thought to be generated through two different but related means-norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement (Putnam 1993, 171). With regard to the first means, the term "reciprocity" is used not to suggest some form of "eye for eye" mentality. Rather, what is suggested here is something akin to the expectation that "good deeds will not go unrewarded." It is the assumption that good deeds, though not necessarily rewarded in the short term, will nevertheless be "repaid" at some, though unknown, point in the future-perhaps even by some stranger who may not have been a recipient of that particular kindness. Thus, there are risks and uncertainties associated with exhibiting good deeds in more impersonalized settings, because one's deeds of kindness may not be rewarded. Such acts of kindness rest, in part, on trust in others that such actions will, at some point, be reciprocated. Moreover, even ordinary daily life entails so many small risks that life would be impossible to handle without placing some trust in one's fellow citizens (e.g., one largely takes for granted, or trusts, that the stranger in the car approaching the stoplight will stop his or her car when the light turns red). Thus, the Hobbesian state of nature in which life is characterized as nasty, brutish, and short is transformed through social trust; it serves to create a social context in which life is more pleasant and less dangerous (Newton 1997, 576).


Excerpted from Religion as Social Capital Copyright © 2003 by Baylor University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1 Introduction 1
2 Bowling Alone But Serving Together: The Congregational Norm of Community Involvement 19
3 Religious Social Capital: Its Nature, Social Location, and Limits 33
4 Faith and Leadership in the Inner City: How Social Capital Contributes to Democratic Renewal 49
5 Does Religion Matter? Projecting Democratic Power into the Public Arena 69
6 Religion and Volunteering in America 87
7 The Religious Basis of Charitable Giving in America: A Social Capital Perspective 107
8 Ties That Bind and Flourish: Religion as Social Capital in African-American Politics and Society 121
9 Social Capital and Societal Vision: A Study of Six Farm Communities in Iowa 139
10 Religious Involvement, Social Capital, and Political Engagement: A Comparison of the United States and Canada 153
11 The Language of God in the City of Man: Religious Discourse and Public Politics in America 171
12 Can Religion Revitalize Civil Society? An Institutional Perspective 191
13 Religion, Social Capital, and Democratic Life: Concluding Thoughts 211
Notes 223
References 239
About the Contributors 255
Index 259
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