Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Putnam’s Upswing: when will we ‘we’ again?

Thanks to the brilliant Tortoise Media, I recently spent 90 minutes at the feet of the great Robert Putnam (pictured), hearing about his coming book on ‘the Upswing’[i] 

Putnam’s famous big idea is that democracy is sustained by a certain kind of community – one rich in the type of ‘social capital’ which is open and inclusive (‘bridging’) rather than dense and exclusive (‘bonding’). 25 years ago his ‘Bowling Alone’ pointed to a continuing decline in bridging capital in America, with rising individualism replacing commitment to community. Now he and his research team have greatly expanded the scope of his study and reflection.

Professor Putnam showed us a series of measurements over time of four aspects of American life often thought to favour a healthy society: relative economic equality, cross-party political co-operation, membership of social organisations and lower cultural individualism. The indicators show a common pattern on a bell curve: starting low in the 1890s, rising to a peak around the mid-1970s and falling away to current levels, back to where they were 120 years ago (in America’s ‘Gilded Age’). The age at which people start families tracks this curve (peaking in the early twenties around 1970, falling back to the early thirties now). Economic inequality, he said, is a lagging indicator – suggesting that cultural acceptance of greater relative privilege comes first, and the economic outcomes follow.

So how to measure cultural individualism? Using Google Ngram, you can get a graph showing the incidence of any one word or phrase in all books published since 1800. When Putnam asked Ngram the ratio of occurrences of the word ‘we’ to the word ‘I’, he found the results matched the bell curve – books were far more likely to use ‘we’ compared with ‘I’ in the 1970s, than at the lower ends of the curve. Hence Putnam’s handy nickname for his findings – ‘I-We-I’.

The move from ‘I’ to ‘We’ he calls the ‘Upswing’. He has a story about how it happened in America. Worried local communities explored ways to tackle the problem they realised they had. Learning from each other, they hit on a solution that emerged from around 1910: the public high school, offering four years of free secondary education for all, funded by local taxation. This turned out to be the main driver of rising living standards with well distributed benefits - with of course a significant reservation around race. Political leadership in the shape of the ‘progressives’ was important, but came later, following the grassroots movement. Putnam challenges us to find the models that will prompt the next upswing.  Rather than mourn the loss of community, he wants us to study what caused the rise through the six decades to the peak, and apply these lessons.

‘The Upswing’, to be published in April 2020, is sure to provoke much discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. Putnam has a great gift for simple narration of complex findings. The rising curve of  American ‘We’ tracked the USA’s rise to world power – how far, I wondered, was being ‘We’ to do with confidence in America’s ability to project force and authority, a confidence cruelly taunted by the plane-loads of bodies returning from Vietnam? And when deindustrialised towns voted MAGA for its promise of retrieving departed hope and prosperity, were they longing to be ‘We’ again?

In the UK, Giles Fraser (pictured - a Church of England Canon who calls himself a ‘Marxist’) writes on Unherd that (in the Brexit context) Leavers are for ‘We’ and Remainers are for ‘I’. Leavers, he says, live in places with ‘thick’ communities; Remainers are globalist liberals in ‘thin’ communities. This reflects Canon Fraser’s Anglican sensibility that loves the traditional Christianity of the parish system - where the church claims all by birth - and mistrusts ‘choice’ in a liberal society adapted to religious diversity. In modern conditions, this sensibility (it seems to me) plays out in nationalism and populism (which is not to suggest that Canon Fraser adheres to either of these).   

Yes, part of the Thatcher-Blair legacy has been neglect of the aspirations of those whose sense of community is rooted in lasting locality. But the greater peril now is denying the validity of the thin community – shape-shifting, transnational, the product of choice and individual moral agency.

[i] The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again is to be published in April 2020 by Simon and Schuster

Saturday, 17 August 2019

I reject the idea of a Christian state. Why?

Responding to my review of his book Mission of God and related booklets, Joe Boot (pictured), head of public theology for Christian Concern, says that I oppose the Lordship of Christ. If that were so, I could not be a Christian, since the founding claim of Christianity is that 'Jesus is Lord.' But of course, being a Christian, I do believe that Jesus is Lord. 

Why then do I say that Christians should not try to work towards a state which says that Jesus is its Lord, with Christianity as the state's only religion? Why do I make this rejection the central argument in my book The Jesus Candidate?

The short answer is this. For the state to endorse Christianity as the official public religion, it must define what it means by Christianity - with both a legal definition (for courts to apply) and a political one (to guide public policy). Inevitably this will restrict the right of Christians to decide for themselves what they consider true Christianity to be. The solution to this conundrum is a liberal state - one that sees its role as being not to decide what is 'good', but to enable people to follow their own idea of the 'good life'.  We do not need to reinvent all this.  Four centuries ago, Christians worked this out and laid the foundation for liberal democracy - the key figure here being the New England Puritan Roger Williams. Persecuted by the Christian state in Massachusetts for opposing the laws that compelled attendance at state-recognised churches, he fled and formed the modern world's first democracy, in Rhode Island.  His book, The Bloudy tenent of persecution, published in London in 1644, provided the groundwork for the separation of church and state. Roger Williams' achievement is recognised on the Reformation Wall built in the early twentieth century in Geneva, where he is the only representative of the New England Puritans. But today shockingly few British evangelicals have even heard of him, and so are open to be persuaded that it was Williams' authoritarian oppressors - the advocates of a Christian state - who were the  authors of modern liberty.

It may be objected that my argument is political, not theological. What does the bible say? Doesn't the bible call for a theocratic state? It does not. The state is permitted but not prescribed, and the story of state formation in the Old Testament warns against the claim the God rules directly in the state. My short commentary on three passages explains this in a bit more detail.

Joe knows, but does not agree with, my argument (he thinks the idea that the Christian state will persecute Christians is a 'non-sequitur'). He makes three accusations that might explain my position. I am (he says) an anabaptist (and a follower of John Howard Yoder), a bureaucrat and a progressive liberal (impressively hard to be all three at once!).

The Anabaptists (so-called 're-baptisers') rejected the validity of the infant baptism that was compulsory in most jurisdictions during the 16th century Reformation. Their loose, dispersed movement tried with some success in the face of brutal persecution (and at least one disaster of their own making) to promote adult (believers') baptism and create churches outside state control. In the twentieth century, Yoder and the 'Neo-anabaptist' school identified the Anabaptist legacy with Mennonite evangelicals who are pacifist and reject Christian involvement with the state (if you want to know about the 'disgraced' bit, google it.) His influence extends to the likes of Stanley Hauerwas (not a baptist), John Milbank (likewise) and even the now fashionable Rod Dreher in seeing 'God's politics' as the church being faithfully itself and not engaging in practical debate about the political settlement which enables Christians to live freely. I do not agree with this - though I do agree that the Lordship of Christ is to be experienced and expressed in the collective life of the church, the 'body of Christ'.  I argue that one (not the only) strand in the Anabaptist legacy passes through Roger Williams and into the early English baptist movement to lay the foundation for liberalism. This is not accepted by some Anabaptist-minded friends but I find they are ready to discuss the character and legacy of the movement without vituperation. I am working on a publication to put a case for a rethink of the Anabaptist/baptist origins of liberalism, with a close look at the 1646 London confession - please sign up for my occasional newsletter for a link to this paper when it appears. 

Some 'bureaucrats' whose paths I've crossed would be surprised to hear I was one of them! As Joe knows, most of my career was in the private sector, as a trainer and consultant concerned with shifting power over public services to neighbourhood and community groups. I think what he means by 'bureaucracy' here is government by people with expertise. Neither in principle nor practice am a bureaucrat (but I do think that there is space for Christian social commentary informed by people who actually know stuff about taxation, healthcare, education and so forth.) 'Progressive liberalism' may mean belief in a universal tendency to moral improvement - what the philosopher John Gray calls 'meliorism'. It may refer to the version of 'liberalism' that emerged in response to the first world war and the great depression, with a powerful role for state intervention and regulation in restoring prosperity and trade, for example in the New Deal in the USA and the post-war international institutions.  Joe seems to say that (for him) this term actually means 'cultural marxism'.

Joe thinks I want to 'save Britain' from the 'Christian Right' (I prefer the term 'Religious Right' since its defining claim is that religion is the foundation of all politics) - specifically Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, who want to restore a Christian state and use 'religious freedom cases' to this end. The Jesus Candidate includes an analysis of twelve court cases featuring claimed anti-Christian state action. Neither body has ever disputed my account (and both had many months' notice of publication and an invitation, not accepted, to comment on the draft.) I show that some (not all) of these twelve cases are misrepresented in the right-wing press, are pursued mainly for publicity (even at the expense of weakening a case in court), and have little justification in terms of Christian thought and practice. Sometimes there is a need for legal action to protect the freedoms of Christians along with others (for example in the case of Ashers bakery) but arguing weak cases for propaganda purposes while stridently demanding the award of baseless 'rights' is a distraction from the task of maintaining the essential Christian voice in the public square. But my biggest worry about the Religious Right is its part in the international, right-wing movement to undermine the liberal state and multi-state structures - what, in the end, it really promotes is religious nationalism.

What's this about the National Secular Society (NSS)? The issue that brought me into its orbit illustrates my argument about the threat to Christians from a Christian state. One of the cases studied in The Jesus Candidate is Bideford Town Council, where 'Christian' prayer (one time Catholic, another Quaker, etc) was placed on the agenda for meetings (thus taking place during, not before, a meeting). The courts ruled that prayer could not legitimately appear on the agenda. Christian Concern and the Christian Institute agitated against this finding and the final days of the Cameron-Clegg coalition government saw legislation to allow prayer on the agenda at council meetings. Muslim-dominated councils started to pray, in Arabic, in their meetings. Christian Concern objected to the 'pluralism' at work here, arousing the derision of the NSS. I submitted a comment from a Christian perspective. 

The  NSS review (by two different writers) of my book  illustrates the tensions within secularism. Does it mean adopting an alternative state-sponsored anti-religion, along the lines of the French Revolution's cult of reason? Or does it mean a genuine state neutrality, whereby a range of faith positions are heard but no one religion has the right to shape state policy? The Religious Right holds that the latter position is impossible since all law is the expression of a shared public faith and accordingly secularism must default to become an anti-Christian public religion: court cases are then assembled in evidence. 

I think that Christianity has always offered an alternative: as the early church said, Christians would honour and obey the Emperor without worshiping him as god, since everyone has the human right to worship in the way they choose without threatening the integrity of the state. The 'After Christendom' argument is about how we recover this vision and apply it in today's conditions.

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