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I recently heard sociologist Robert Putnam speak at a Georgetown University event that gathered people of faith and no faith to discuss the common good. In his speech, he complained about America's "radically shriveled sense of we." The author of "Bowling Alone," the famous 1995 essay on the decline of social capital—our connection to each other through activities and institutions—Putnam converted to Judaism in part because of its strong sense of community.

There was a time, Putnam argued, when churches and schools threw together youth of differing social class in ways that connected and motivated them, and helped poor youth escape poverty. This is not mere nostalgia. Putnam has surveyed decades of data to show how communities have become more segregated, and how the children of parents without a college education are now deprived of the things that create equal opportunity.

Kids from working-class homes used to be "our kids," he said. Now they are other people's kids, and we expect other people to solve their problems. But young people are our future. Their problems are ours.

Putnam was talking about inequality, which, he said, causes problems that need both conservative and liberal solutions. Liberals, he said, must learn to appreciate the conservative stress on family structures and the potential of faith communities. Solutions "have to involve churches," he said in a 2012 speech.

Further, he said, "I happen to think that hugs and time are more important than money." But, he went on, "money is important, too," and that means conservatives are going to have to recognize the need for government action in everything from tax structure ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Past Imperfect Columns:
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July/August 2014

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