Wellsprings of social capital: African American churchwomen in Philadelphia

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IN HIS SEMINALWORK The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois observed that the black church was a "social institution first and a religious [one] afterward." DuBois argued that black churches represented the "organized life of Negroes" in Philadelphia and that "all movements for social betterment [were] apt to centre in the churches."1 Today, one might say the black church simply had more "social capital," a concept popularized by Robert Putnam and others over the past decade. Putnam argues that churches of all stripes are "very important repositories of social capital"2 that "serve civic life both directly, by providing social support to their members and social services to the wider community, and indirectly, by nurturing civic skills, inculcating moral values, encouraging altruism and fostering civic recruitment among church people."3 Putnam credits black churches especially for having played a "role of unique importance" in creating a community stock of social capital that promoted civic engagement through such activities as voting and neighborhood improvement projects. Because the African American tradition "encourages mixing religion and community affairs" and because their churches often provided them with opportunities to hone and exercise civic skills, "church involvement among blacks has been strongly associated with civic engagement." Putnam also recognizes that African Americans are more "religiously observant than whites."4 According to Putnam, however, the black community's storehouse of social capital is on the decline, in large part because "African Americans have been dropping out of religious and civic organizations and other forms of social connectedness at least as rapidly as white Americans."5 Using data from the Roper Social and Political Trends, for example, Putnam shows that overall church attendance by blacks declined 11 percent between 1974 and 1994. In his view, less involvement by blacks translates into less participation in activities that benefit their communities, and this, in turn, adversely affects the quality of life and the socioeconomic well-being of black urban neighborhoods.6 Leaving aside the larger and more obvious issues-such as why minority communities still suffer from disparities in employment opportunities and social investment by the corporate world-it is important to note that Putnam's analysis overlooks important distinctions between the church-centered activity of the general African American population and that of African American women, a substratum that DuBois called the "main pillars" of the black church.7 Indeed, studies have shown that gender more than race affects such religious behavior as church attendance and membership and that women in general are more religious than men.8 Black women in particular appear to be "more committed" and "more engaged in church work than white women, black men or white men."9 In short, the religious involvement of black women and their contribution to the formation of church-based social capital is of such a unique nature that it must be studied as a distinct entity. This chapter uses survey data collected during summer and fall 2001 to examine the effect that church involvement has on civic engagement among African American churchwomen in Philadelphia.10 Involvement was measured first by church attendance, then by participation in church activities. Civic engagement was measured by participation in (1) voluntary associations, (2) social services, and (3) political activities. The survey sample was comprised of African American women eighteen years or older who either attended or were members of churches in Philadelphia. The majority of the surveys were distributed among three religious affiliations: (1) predominately black denominations;11 (2) predominately white denominations;12 and (3) nondenominational.13 Using standard statistical procedures, a select number of churches in each of the groupings received a certain percentage of surveys.14 The individual churches represented in each of the three denominational affiliations all had a general membership that was either exclusively or predominantly African American, even in those cases where the church itself was a member of a predominately white denomination.15 Survey questionnaires were delivered to twenty-four churches. Completed questionnaires were returned from twenty-one churches (four Baptist, three Presbyterian-USA, two United Methodist, two African Methodist Episcopal, two Apostolic, two Pentecostal, two nondenominational, one African Methodist Episcopal Zion, one Holiness, one Church of God in Christ, and one Catholic).16 Of 632 questionnaires distributed, 404 (64 percent) were returned. Of the returned questionnaires, twenty-seven had to be discarded because of incomplete data or because they arrived after the deadline for inclusion in the study, thus leaving 377 usable survey questionnaires. Of the usable questionnaires, 232 (62 percent) came from predominantly black denominations, 92 (25 percent) came from predominantly white denominations, 29 (8 percent) came from the category of nondenominational/ no religious affiliation, 15 (4 percent) came from churches designated by the respondents as "other" (Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian, Seventh-Day Adventist), and 9 (2 percent) came from churches citing no religious affiliation at all.17 The bulk of respondents were either mature or early to late middle-aged women with relatively high levels of educational attainment. Of the 377 final respondents, 91 (24 percent) were under the age of forty, 205 (55 percent) were between the ages of forty and fifty-nine, 48 (13 percent) were between the ages of sixty and sixty-nine, and 30 (8 percent) were seventy years old or older. In terms of education, 57 respondents (15 percent) had some graduate school education, 69 (19 percent) had a bachelors degree but no graduate school, 152 (41 percent) had completed one to three years of college or trade school, 72 (19 percent) had only a high school diploma or a GED, and 24 (6 percent) had less than a GED. Because earlier studies have shown a positive relationship between a person's age and educational level, the extent of their church involvement,18 and the extent of their more general civic engagement,19 it would be reasonable to expect higher than average reported levels of civic participation and church involvement from the survey respondents. On the other hand, if it is true, as Putnam claims, that baby boomers in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties and better educated than most are becoming less active in community affairs, then the churchwomen studied here should exhibit the same downturn in civic engagement and church involvement that Putnam reports finding in the general population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSocial Capital in The City
Subtitle of host publicationCommunity and Civic Life in Philadelphia
PublisherTemple University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)1592133452
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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