Religion as Social Capital in America and in Russia

Over the past twenty years, the concept of social capital has attracted a great deal of attention among scholars in the West and considerable research and debate has resulted. One significant part of this discussion relates to social capital that is tied to religious life.

The Formation of Democracy in America

As scholars have analyzed the development of American society, it has been clear that culture plays an important role in shaping political life because political institutions do not operate in a vacuum. This insight was first articulated when Alexis de Tocqueville studied political life in early Jacksonian America. Tocqueville noted that democracy requires the presence and vitality of civic associations. These associations not only protect individual liberty from the coercive powers of the state, they also work against the dangers of rampant individualism within the political community. In Tocqueville’s judgment, voluntary associations provided the foundation for democratic life because democracy would not survive unless its citizens continued to work actively with others to deal with issues related to the “common good.”

The discussion among scholars in the West has taken a fascinating turn, as analysts are now focusing their attention on the particular role of religion in social capital formation. The term “social capital” is generally used to denote any facet of social relations that enables members of society to work cooperatively to achieve common goals. Some scholars are now emphasizing that religious life makes distinctive contributions to the formation of social capital and therefore deserves special attention.

In America, congregational life has traditionally been the largest component of associational life. Nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church-related, half of all charitable giving is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context. This means that the social capital generated by religious organizations far exceeds the level of social capital produced by any other means. Research has also shown that the social capital produced by religious associations is more durable and long-lasting, covers a wider range of community needs, and uniquely nourishes reciprocity among those served.

In a study entitled Religion as Social Capital: Producing the Common Good, edited by Calvin College’s Corwin Smidt, the authors highlight an important connection between religion and democracy by analyzing how social capital, shaped by religious associational life, lent strength to political structures in the United States and Canada. In fact, Smidt argues in the final chapter of this book that the absence of religious faith from public life is far more dangerous than an excess of religious passion. Why? Because religion serves public life by shaping individual character and virtue – something the Founding Fathers clearly recognized. In addition, religion contributes to public life through its participatory activities. Churches are by far the most prevalent form of voluntary association in American society, and affiliation with religious bodies provides opportunities for social outreach, for making collective decisions, for learning to compromise. In this way, religion undergirds political life.

Religion also provides a voice for the “voiceless” and religious associations often see their role to be prophetic, to speak out against injustice and to live as model communities. In addition, religion can also help protect democratic society from increasingly moving toward greater centralized state power. Democratic governments are based on the principle of limited government, and religious associations often serve as a major bulwark that can challenge the authority of the state when it exceeds its rightful boundaries.

Lessons for the “New Russia”

Russia’s development as a nation has clearly been very different than that of the United States and other nations of the West. In particular, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church with its view of a “symphonic relationship” to political authority – a close partnership to ruling elites – means that religion has not played the same role as in the West. But things are undergoing dramatic change in Russia. The reforms of the Yeltsin-Putin administrations are slowly moving Russia toward democratic capitalism, and these reforms are opening up new possibilities.

Part of the current debate in Russia involves how to structure church-state relations in a society where the Russian Orthodox Church has historically played the dominant role. But the current reality is that as many Protestants attend religious services on any given Sunday as Orthodox Believers, and when figures from both traditions are tabulated the total weekly attendance is approximately 2%. Based on the experience of the West, Russian leaders should not view these traditions as rivals, but rather see them as allies – together with other religions groups in Russia – in creating valuable social capital. They can become allies in the effort to build democracy in Russia, by creating a widespread network of volunteers active in their local communities, by teaching moral character and virtues, and by speaking on behalf of the powerless. All these activities are creating the “stuff” of democracy on the local level.

Rather than attempting to control religious organizations, as has been the pattern in Russia for centuries, a wiser move would be to empower them, to encourage them, to create new opportunities for people of faith to exercise their beliefs and to live out their values in society; this will ultimately contribute to the building of a new foundation for democracy in the Russian Federation. A helpful lesson learned in the West, after many failures, is that religious associations create social capital, and this contribution is to be valued and nurtured in order to build the “common good” in any society, including Russia.