November 24, 2004


Will the secular left continue bowling alone? (William Davies, 15th November 2004, New Statesman)

In the days following the defeat of Boston's native son John Kerry, the city's newspapers echoed some of the questions raised in the months following 9/11: Why do they hate us? How did religious zeal come to overpower political reason?

Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor who wrote Bowling Alone and was recently described in the NS as one of the most important intellectual influences on Tony Blair, is the man most likely to have the answers. "Liberals," he says, "have allowed conservatives to dominate religious political expression over the past 30 years, but this was not true historically." At his Harvard office, he rattles off the progressive movements that depended on religious organisation: slave emancipation, reform of child labour laws, civil rights. "I think one of the problems liberals currently face," Putnam says, "is that they have allowed themselves to become alienated from that strand in American history." The next wave of liberalism, he thinks, will have to come at least partly from progressive Christian movements if it is to speak to Americans who live closer to the Mississippi River than to the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards.

The rise in voter turnout was expected to benefit Kerry. But Putnam says: "The election was a contest between the ability of evangelical Christians to mobilise their supporters at grass-roots level, and what you might call the 'old left' - the unions and Democratic Party. And the evangelical right won." Putnam is the man more responsible than anybody else for the idea of "social capital", a shorthand term for participation in politics and community and social life. Such participation, according to Bowling Alone, is associated with higher levels of health and happiness and lower levels of crime. These findings - Putnam is a very evidence-based man who, when he says half, truly means 50 per cent - have recently impressed policy-makers in London more than those in Washington, DC.

But, and here's the rub for the Democrats, he says "voluntary activity, philanthropy, membership of organisations - half of these activities occur in a religious context". And that "is something that Europeans often fail to understand".


Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2004 10:34 AM

This almost too obvious to comment on: "liberalism" has changed, not religion. .

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 24, 2004 11:54 AM

The Democrats' ideal is religion without the religiousity, which is what John Kerry tried to pull off during the campaign by saying he wouldn't impose any of his beliefs on others. It's not a new position for the party's politicians -- Mario Cuomo made it his mantra during the 1980s -- and it might work on a regional level in the northeast or along the west coast. But trying to sell a no-fault, guilt-free religious ideal across the country isn't going to fly no matter how many times the party's leaders read the lines to the masses.

Posted by: John at November 24, 2004 12:31 PM

"Allowed themselves to be alienated"

Translation: decided to declare open war upon.

Posted by: AML at November 24, 2004 4:20 PM


Bang on. It's a war prosecuted by passive-aggressives.

Posted by: luciferous at November 24, 2004 5:10 PM