Introducing Robert Putnam

I had the pleasure of introducing Robert Putnam at an ANU public lecture yesterday. Remarks below.
Introducing Robert Putnam’s public lecture on American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites America
Australian National University
5 April 2011

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners whose lands we meet upon today, and thanking the Crawford School, the HC Coombs Policy Forum, and the US Studies Centre for making today’s event possible.

The first thing I need to tell you is that there are three Robert Putnams.

  • The first Robert Putnam is a major figure in international relations. After working in the Carter White House, Bob developed two-level game theory, a model suggesting that international agreements will only be struck if they satisfy domestic constituencies. Putnam’s theory of two-level games, published in the journal International Organization, and in several influential books, revamped how many scholars thought about issues like global arms control agreements.

  • The second Robert Putnam is the world’s most influential scholar of social capital. In Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, he has shown that community life in America collapsed during the last forty years of the twentieth century. In Democracies in Flux, he shows that this is true in most developed nations around the world. And in Better Together, he has suggested a few ideas for revitalising community. Putnam’s work on social capital has earned him the Johan Skytte Prize (sometimes called the ‘Nobel Prize in Political Science’). It has influenced thousands of scholars, including my own slim volume, Disconnected, which looked at community life in Australia.

  • But it’s the third Robert Putnam that we’re here today to listen to. This is the Robert Putnam who has – with David Campbell – produced a 700-page book on religion in the US: American Grace.

How do these three Robert Putnams – this trinity of Robert Putnams – manage to produce such a volume of high quality output? The secret is that while most social scientists use an artisan model, Professor Putnam’s research model looks more like a well-run factory than a craft workshop. A team of research assistants craft memos that summarise research findings on a particular narrow issue. Before your memo is finalised, you must present it to the full team, chaired by Bob, and comprising graduate students in politics, economics and sociology. Only then does it make it through to the man himself, who digests the findings, and then uses it to churn out beautifully readable prose – usually at around 3 in the morning. Being part of Bob’s research team was a highlight of my time at Harvard – and I learned why one of my predecessors described him as ‘the General Motors of American academia’.

He is also famously good at multitasking. When I visited the US last April, I arranged to see Bob at his home in Cambridge. He met me with a warm smile, and said ‘my students arrive here in an hour, and I’ve promised them dinner – how do you feel about coming with me to help me shop?’. An hour later, we’d enjoyed a thoroughly enjoyable conversation about David Cameron, Barack Obama and Australian politics, and returned to the house with a carload of food just as the first students arrived. I know few people in the world who work harder than Bob – or have more fun doing it.

Bob’s talk today is about religion in America. The US holds a central fascination for many of us, a fascination aptly summed up by WH Auden:

'God bless the USA, so large, so friendly, and so rich'

But I’m sure we’ll also be looking to draw comparisons with Australia, so let me make a few.

In one sense, Australia is less religious than the US. Many Australians are comfortable describing themselves as atheists – yet only about 1 in 1000 Americans call themselves atheists. Weekly churchgoing in Australia has fallen from 1 in 3 in the 1940s to 1 in 8 today.[1] In the US, it has slipped only slightly, and still remains around 1 in 3.

Both countries’ Constitutions prohibit laws establishing any religion.[2] Yet the US Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that religious schools cannot receive government money, while the Australian High Court has decided that religious schools can receive substantial government funding. Even as a student at Pennant Hills Public School, my sixth grade teacher Mrs Clements had us recite the Lord’s Prayer each morning. My US-born wife Gweneth gasped when I told her that.

And yet similarities exist too. In both countries, churchgoers are far more likely to vote for the party of the right. Like the US Democrats, we in the Australian Labor Party are sometimes tongue-tied in conversations about religion, too ready to vacate the pulpit. For every Biblical passage about sex, there are many more about social justice. We need to get better at engaging in honest and robust conversations with religious Australians.

It is now my enormous pleasure to introduce to you (the third) Robert Putnam. The world’s best known political scientist. A rockstar in the research world. A superb teacher. And a generous mentor.  Bob, the floor is yours.

[1] See Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace, Ch 3 and Andrew Leigh, Disconnected, Ch 3. Since Christianity is the main religion in both countries, I use the simple term ‘churchgoing’ to cover all forms of religious attendance.

[2] See the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and section 116 of the Australian Constitution.

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