[Robert] Putnam introduced an influential distinction between “bridging” social capital, which is produced by civic-minded associations, including most mainline Protestant churches, and “bonding” social capital, which is produced by ethnic clubs and, he argued, conservative Protestant churches. If an organization, whatever its ostensible purposes, functions socially to promote solidarity among its members and build a moat around them, no real benefit accrues to the store of social capital in the wider society. By contrast, an association that produces bridging social capital motivates its members to contribute their selves, their time and their substance to the needs of the society. The worry in Bowling Alone was that it was precisely the churches that produce the most bridging capital that were on the decline and the bonding ones that were flourishing.
American Grace tackles this issue head on. Joined by fellow political scientist David Campbell and funded by the TempleÂton Foundation, Putnam collected new data (by way of the Faith Matters survey) and marshaled existing data from other surveys to analyze how, over time, religion has both united and divided us. As the most religiously active advanced society in the world and also one of the most religiously diverse, the U.S. would seem to be prime ground for deep and chronic social conflict. Hence the talk of religion-based “culture wars” and a “God gap” between the political parties. Yet the preponderance of evidence indicates that Americans get along fairly well in spite of having many different religions, including the growing number who subscribe to “no religion.”