The Protestant Structure of American Culture, Robert N. Bellah

William O. Pate II
Sep 27 · 6 min read

Good read:

In the book Putnam describes the sharp decline of what he calls “social capital” in just about every sphere of American life for the last 30 years or more, all the more remarkable since the first 60 or 70 years of the twentieth century saw a significant increase in social capital. By social capital Putnam means social connectedness of almost every sort and finds all of them — from voting, to political activism, to membership in a wide variety of civic organizations (he takes his title from the stunning decline of bowling leagues), to informal socializing (including even having dinner with one’s own family), to church-going, membership, and giving — weaker today than they have been for decades. But more is changing than a decline in belonging of all sorts. Social capital also consists in norms and expectations — that we stop at boulevard stops, for example, or that we expect that most people can be trusted — and all those measures are dramatically down as well. Anyone serious about understanding our society today will have to read Bowling Alone carefully to find out how we have changed in each different sphere. In a nutshell I can summarize it by saying we live in a very different society from the one I grew up in. Loyalty to others is not high on the agenda of most younger Americans, who can, not entirely inaccurately, be caricatured as sitting alone at their computers calculating how to maximize their self-interest. Rather than give the bad news across the board, let me turn to the most relevant field for our topic, the field of religion. For a long time many people, including me, thought that religion was relatively immune to these trends, that both church membership and church attendance were remarkably stable except for the unusual bump up in the 1950s, but, as it turns out, both membership and attendance have been in decline over the same period as other forms of engagement, that is, since 1960. Though a wide variety of groups, for example the PTA and the League of Women Voters, but also the Jaycees, the Kiwanis, and the Shriners, have been in precipitate decline in this period, the decline in the churches has been more gradual and has taken a bit longer to become evident. In fact, church giving has declined more sharply than church membership or church attendance, but all have steadily fallen for 40 years.

While it is the quantitative data that are most reliable, there are some things we can say about the quality of participation as well. We can discern in the life of religious communities something that is going on in the society in general: participation is less about loyalty and a strong conviction of membership and more about what one will get out of participating. Even evangelical churches that used to be able to count on their members now have to offer incentives, to “sell” their programs as adding value to the participants. Attachment to all groups, including churches, but even families, is increasingly evaluated in the following terms: What will I get out of it? What’s in it for me? Before making the connection between all this and my theme of the Protestant structure of American culture, which I think is a close one, I want to look at Putnam’s effort to explain what has happened to us in the last 30 or 40 years.

Putnam’s primary explanation is generational change. On almost every variable in which he is interested, each generation starts lower than the one before and stays lower. On the other hand, those who started high have stayed high. My generation (note: not Putnam’s generation — he is not just an old man being nostalgic), that is, those born between 1925 and 1930, which Putnam calls the most civic generation in American history, started out voting and we still vote, started out going to church and we still go to church, started out reading newspapers and we still read newspapers, and so on down the line, but each succeeding generation has started lower and remains lower. Another important variable in Putnam’s analysis, one that overlaps with generation, is television watching. The number of hours spent watching television per person has gone up through the whole period when almost every form of participation has been declining, and again, the increase by generation is clear. But the correlation is not just general, it is quite specific: that is, within every generation, those who watch more television participate less in politics, civic life, informal socializing, and religion. Looking more closely, not all television watching has these negative effects. Watching educational television or network news (network news now has a largely geriatric audience) is not negatively correlated with participation, but, like newspaper reading, is positively correlated. The kind of television that is negatively correlated with participation, and is by far the most common type, is television as entertainment, television for its own sake, simple channel hopping to find something to watch. Thus, I think what we can say is that attentive watching, or reading in the case of newspapers, does not undermine social connectedness. But it is the decline of attentiveness across the board that is problematic.

What I am suggesting is that the kind of people Americans are becoming, and increasingly so with each succeeding generation, makes it ever more difficult for them to sustain commitments to religious communities, to understand ritual, to organize their lives around sacred texts, and even to understand why some texts are sacred at all. (Let me remind you that we are talking about statistical trends here — among every generation, including the youngest, there are many civically minded, socially responsible, and religiously active people; there are just fewer of them.) Dense, multistranded commitments to many kinds of communities are being replaced, as Putnam puts it, with “single-stranded, surf-by interactions” so that “more of our social connectedness is one shot, special purpose, and self oriented.”18 This shift obviously is closely related to the dramatic change in the economic orientation of our society from an inadequate welfare state in the early postwar period to an increasingly marketized, privatized society at the end of the century. Someone recently asked a group of college students what makes their generation different, and their response was “we’re more entrepreneurial than our parents.” That says it all. If everything is commodified, if even religion is just one more consumer preference, then why do we need churches? Why not just buy our religious goodies on the web?

If we see a variety of symptoms that all is not well in our society, in spite of surface appearances, what is there about our deep cultural code that might be a significant part of the problem? Just when we are in many ways moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. This is in part because of the fact that our invincible individualism, deriving as I have argued from the Protestant religious tradition in America, is linked to an economic individualism which, ironically, knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual. Its only standard is money, and the only thing more sacred than money is more money. What economic individualism destroys and what our kind of religious individualism cannot restore is solidarity, a sense of being members of the same body. In most other North Atlantic societies, including other Protestant societies, a tradition of an established church, however secularized, provides some notion that we are in this thing together, that we need each other, that our precious and unique selves aren’t going to make it all alone.

Roger Williams was a moral genius, but he was a sociological catastrophe. After he founded the First Baptist Church, he left it for a smaller and purer one. That, too, he found inadequate, so he founded a church that consisted only of himself, his wife, and one other person. One wonders how he stood even those two. Since Williams ignored secular society, money took over in Rhode Island in a way that would not be true in Massachusetts or Connecticut for a long time. Rhode Island under Williams gives us an early and local example of what happens when the sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.

William O. Pate II

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Writer | Critic | Essayist | Public Policy | Marketing in Austin, Texas.

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