The other thing that nudged me was Robert Putnam’s most-recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam, you’ll remember, is the Bowling Alone guy. That 2001 book, hinting at the decline of community in American life and backing the argument with sociological surveys and analyses, started crossover conversations about “social capital” and the components of successful communities among planners, designers, sociologists, and many general readers. This more recent book explores the positive and not-so-positive impulses towards community linked to various degrees of religiosity. People who identify themselves as religious may be more intolerant of others’ beliefs — just as many non-believers suspect — but they’re also more likely than people who aren’t religious to give money to strangers, help people outside their own households, and be more civically engaged.
And we’re not just talking about those on the conservative end of the political spectrum. “In fact,” says Putnam, “across all surveys we have explored, holding religiosity constant (by looking only at regular churchgoers, for example, or only non-churchgoers), liberals are never less generous than conservatives and are, by some measures, better neighbors.”