WASHINGTON -- There is a book that everyone will be talking about -- when it appears over a year from now. "American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives," being written by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," is the pre-eminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven't yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.
At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of "American Grace," based on research still being sifted and refined. 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.
Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."
Yet this kind of religious affiliation has declined in America since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in "one shock and two aftershocks."
The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents at the same age -- the probable result, says Putnam, of a "very rapid change in morals and customs."