The Other Civic America: Religion and Social Capital

By Greeley, Andrew M. | The American Prospect, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Other Civic America: Religion and Social Capital

Greeley, Andrew M., The American Prospect

Since the time of the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, Americans have lamented the decline of their society. Something has gone terribly wrong, we hear; the future looks grim unless we repent. This may be effective homiletics, but it is usually not very good social science. Massive trends with enormous, society-shaping impact are rare; more commonly, changes don't all move in the same direction. Thus the metaphor "sexual revolution" suggests a shift toward more sexual freedom in all areas. In fact, while premarital sex has increased (probably because of the birth control pill), extramarital sex has not.

Recent critics have lamented a supposedly general decline in civic concern and social responsibility. Among the astonishing developments of the last decade and a half, however, is a notable increase of volunteer service in our society. The rate of volunteering in America is higher than anywhere else in the world. The United States is also a country with very high levels of religious devotion, more than any country in the West save Ireland. Might these two aspects of American society be related? To put the question in terms that social scientists have helped to popularize, is religious practice a source of social capital? The evidence I present here suggests that it is.


Two studies of volunteering in Western countries, the European Value Studies (EVS) conducted in 1981 and 1991, provide data about comparative trends that help to answer whether religious practice contributes to America's high rate of volunteering. The more recent 1991 survey asked respondents in 16 countries whether they "belong to" or are "currently doing unpaid voluntary work for" any of the following organizations:

* social welfare services for elderly, handicapped, or deprived people

* religious or church organizations

* education, arts, music, or cultural activities

* trade unions

* political parties or groups

* local community action on issues like poverty, employment, house, and racial equality n Third World development or human rights

* conservation, the environment, ecology

* professional associations

* youth work (for example, scouts, guides, youth clubs, etc.)

* sports or recreation

* women's groups

* peace movement

* animal rights

* voluntary organizations concerned with health

* other groups

Adding up the number of people who volunteered for at least one activity provides a basis for estimating the proportion of a population volunteering in 1991 (see "Volunteering by Country," at right). The rate of volunteering in the United States, 47 percent of the population, is the highest and is consistent with the proportion reported in 1992 survey conducted by Virginia Hodgkinson, who is vice president for research and executive director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at Independent Sector, and Murray Weitzman, a private economic consultant who was formerly chief of staff for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Studies done in England and France approximate the findings of the Value Study for those two countries.

Only Canada had a rate comparable to that of the United States. Most European countries reported rates between 20 percent and 30 percent; three Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands had higher rates (between 30 percent and 40 percent) while Portugal and Great Britain were lower.

The survey also showed how volunteering varies by sex, age, and education. Men are marginally more likely to volunteer than women, and people between 30 and 50 are more likely to volunteer than those who are younger or older. Hodgkinson and Weitzman have shown the same differences by age for the United States, but they report that women are more likely to volunteer than men (53 percent to 49 percent). The seeming contradiction between the two studies is a result of differences in wording; the EVS questionnaire enumerates more activities that men favor.

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