Religious Conservatives Are More Generous. But That's Only Half the Story

New polling shows that religious liberals are more generous than religious conservatives.


By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Religious conservatives are more generous and altruistic than the rest of the country. At least that's the central thesis of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, a 2006 book by Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute.

But Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone and of the forthcoming book American Grace, says Brooks has it only half right. Yes, Putnam says, religious people are more generous—measured by such behavior as charitable giving and volunteering—than secular folks. For instance, Putnam's recent polling shows that about half of the most secular Americans say that people need to look after themselves and not worry about others. Only about 1 in 5 of the most religious Americans, by contrast, feels that way.

But while the difference between more and less charitable Americans has a lot to do with religion, it has relatively little to do with political ideology. In a talk Putnam gave today at a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conference that I'm attending, he unveiled new polling that showed religious liberals actually tend to be more generous than religious conservatives. On the other hand, polls show that there are fewer and fewer religious liberals and more and more religious conservatives.

One of the most surprising findings of Putnam's recent research is that purely religious factors like frequency of prayer and church attendance don't explain the so-called generosity gap. Rather, the distinguishing factor is church-based (or synagogue- or mosque-based) friendships. The more church friends—Putnam calls them "supercharged friends"—you have, the more likely you are to be a generous person. "Faith is less important than communities of faith," Putnam says.

Bowling Alone brims with similar correlations between community involvement and desirable personality traits. It turns out that civic engagement is also a huge factor in what is commonly perceived as the goodness of believers. Will some believers see this as a demotion for God's role in individual goodness?

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