Monday 29 November 2010

Amazing Grace!

The Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has become somewhat of a sector guru. Why, David Cameron even had him flown in to talk about civil society and his views on it all.

He became famous for his book "Bowling Alone". This pointed to the crucial role that civil society and third sector organisations play in underpinning a vibrant democracy and a healthy society.

Yet he also worried that many people were becoming less involved in organisations in civil society. He illustrated that by arguing people were going bowling but fewer were joining teams. It was a symbol of what he saw as an increasingly individualistic and atomised culture. Our bonds of belonging or "social capital" were growing weaker.

He has written a new book "American Grace" and it's worth looking at his arguments there.

He argues that one powerful source of social capital still exists; religion. This brings people together in shared communities and mutual responsibility. Evidence (remember this is America) defined by regular attendance at a place of worship makes better neighbours. Frequent church or synagogue attenders are more likely to give to charity (whether religious or not) and more likely to volunteer donate blood or help a neighbour for example.

They are also significantly more active citizens; more likely to belong to community organisations or voluntary organisations and more likely to be involved as office holders. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform.

Importantly this is more based on the frequency people attend rather than simple religious belief.

Let's beware drawing the wrong conclusions from all this in the UK! Indeed there is far too much unintelligent importing of American ideas on social welfare at the moment. An interesting article in The Observer in Nov, "How Britain's welfare reforms were born in the USA", showed just how persuasive American models were. This is not necessarily a good thing. Taking examples from a culturally specific contact and transplanting them willy nilly is foolhardy. And some will end in tears.

As The Observer article pointed out in relation to their welfare approach,

"One US phenomenon that might serve as a warning is that of the so-called 99ers –people who lost their jobs and have been unable to find work for 99 weeks – the point at which their unemployment welfare is turned off. There are now upwards of 1.4million 99ers in America facing a life with no benefits and few prospects for finding a job in a market in which companies are still not hiring."

Back to the book! It is a fact that the Church in Britain in particular has played a crucial role in developing charity. Indeed, as I pointed out in my recent Lecture for centuries the role of church and charity was the same.

Click here to read it.

And today we can see among ACEVO's membership, faith groups play an important role. We have a special interest group that brings those members together. So let's celebrate the contribution they make.

And let's also remember this isn't just about jam and Jerusalem. The faith groups play a crucial role in social action. Just remember the role they played in make poverty history.

And never mind "American Grace", let's remember Amazing Grace, the hymn written by an Anglican priest, Fr Newton, a great friend of Wilberforce, who campaigned against the slave trade and his hymn became the anthem of all those who stood up against a recalcitrant establishment for universal human rights.

Our sector will always stand up to support the oppressed. Our voice is going to be much needed over the coming years.

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