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It's Church Not Prayer That Makes Us Good

Mike Gerson has a column up today laying out some of the key findings to be featured in Bob Putnam and David Campbell's upcoming book, "American Grace," that I mentioned on Wednesday

In a nutshell, writes Gerson:

Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier, and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

The interesting wrinkle that (as Gerson notes) promises to perturb many religious folks is that the increased "niceness," as Putnam kept apologetically describing this set of desirable behaviors, has nothing to do with the content of a person's beliefs. Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Anabaptist--some of you may not believe that the others are headed for Heaven, but the research indicates you're all better citizens than your unchurched counterparts. Theology doesn't matter. What does matter is how deeply immersed in a religious congregation you are and how many friends you have within it.

(In fact, one of Putnam's quirkier findings is that people who attend religious services but don't have many friends there--that is, those who not only bowl alone but pray alone--score lower on the niceness scale than others.)

Columnist E.J. Dionne (reading my mind) asked Putnam about the degree to which this phenomenon can be explained by the self-sorting joiners-are-joiners principle. After all, it's well established that people's personal relationships and social bonds in general are a huge predictor of how happy and, almost by definition, how engaged they are. Isolationism is good for neither the soul nor the community. Doesn't it make sense that those who are inclined to be social and get involved in a religious community would be the same people compelled in general to reach out to other people and get involved in other organizations? What's more, I threw in, joining a religious congregation isn't for people just seeking community; it's for people specifically seeking a community with a moral element to it. Otherwise, why not just join a book club? 

Putnam acknowledged that it's tough to tease out such causal relationships. He did point to one aspect of their research that seemed to indicate that religious participation actively propels people up the niceness scale. By going back a year after first interviewing people and conducting a follow up, he and Campbell were able to track behavioral changes among interviewees who had, in the meantime, become more frequent churchgoers. In those cases, niceness indeed tended to rise with participation. 

Of course, Putnam did allow that the subset in question was tiny. And he didn't have much data to offer when I pressed him about what sort of life events had prompted members of this subset to get more churched-up, so to speak. I assume that whatever spurs someone to immerse herself more deeply in a congregation--having kids, losing a job, turning 40, losing a spouse, moving to a new town--impacts other aspects of behavior as well. Again: Joiners will be joiners, even if they come late to the game.

All that said, it certainly makes sense that there exists a mutually reinforcing aspect to the "niceness" of people who come together in religious congregations. And anyway, such correlation-vs.-causation parsing doesn't negate the civic implications of Putnam's findings: religious community makes for a better citizenry.

Coupled with Putnam's findings that young people today are significantly more secular than previous generations, this raises some troubling questions about our civic life going forward. Although, before any Jerry Falwell types start wagging their pious fingers, note that Putnam's research also suggests that the rise of the Christian Right and its politicization of religon played a major role in driving young people out the church. Luring them back, he argues, calls for decoupling faith and politics once more. Unhappy news for some of the old-school demagogues who have made their career flogging this union. But a very welcome prescription for the rest of us. 

--Michelle Cottle