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The Role of Religion in Fostering Civic Responsibility

The research and results of the Civic Responsibility study will be reported, in part, through written summaries of the research (two of which follow), including articles published in scholarly journals and in various other magazines and periodicals. At the conclusion of first phase of the study, a major volume addressing the topic of religion and civic responsibility will compile the data and conclusions.


Article: Churches provide opportunities for disadvantaged Americans to develop civic skills

Article: Religious Americans give more time and money to charity than non-religious Americans

Book: Pews, Prayers and Participation: Religion and Civic Responsibility in America
forthcoming October, 2008 from Georgetown University Press


Churches provide opportunities for disadvantaged Americans to develop civic skills
--by James Penning--

Churches can be important sources of civic skills for their members, particularly for those Americans who appear to need such skills the most. Churches provide unique opportunities for the unemployed and poor, as well as disadvantaged groups like women and minorities, to build civic skills which they are often unable to acquire elsewhere.

There is a growing concern today over a seeming decline in civic engagement as evidenced by diminished rates of civic volunteerism and low levels of political participation. One of the most widely accepted explanations for this decline is that Americans today lack certain key resources needed to participate in civic engagement, most notably civic skills such as the ability to lead a meeting, organize a group, raise funds, and communicate both orally and via the written word.

Dr. James Penning, Calvin College Professor of Political Science, looked at the ways in which membership in voluntary religious associations, namely churches, helps Americans develop these civic skills. “While at church, congregants engage in a wide variety of activities which have the potential for generating civic skills,” said Penning. “By chairing church committees, working together on mission projects, teaching church school, and writing letters to public officials and newspapers, congregants learn skills which are readily transferable into other civic activities.”

Among Penning's findings:

  • While Americans are most likely to acquire and practice civic skills on the job, a majority of respondents analyzed had practiced some civic skill in church, confirming that churches do provide the opportunities to learn and practice these essential skills
  • Those who have higher income levels or higher education levels practice civic skills more than those with lower incomes or education.
  • Those who attend church more frequently tend to practice civic skills at higher rates than do those who attend less often, regardless of income levels.
  • When considering religious tradition, members of mainline Protestant denominations are the most likely to practice civic skills, suggesting that these denominations are more effective in imparting civic skills than are other denominations.
  • Among African-Americans, particularly those falling in the lowest income categories, churches provide skill-building opportunities which otherwise might be unavailable to them. Similarly, churches provide important skill-building opportunities for women.

“Both income and church attendance proved to be strongly and positively related to the practice of civic skills among virtually all religious traditions and religious orthodoxy groups,” said Penning. “Religion does indeed appear to matter.”

Source: “Developing Civic Skills: Does Religion Matter?” Paper presented by James M. Penning at the Third Biennial Symposium on Religion and Politics, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 27-29, 2006.

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Religious Americans give more time and money to charity than nonreligious Americans
--by Steven Monsma--

Americans who attend religious services every week are more likely to give money to charities, both religious and secular, than those who seldom or never attend church. Faithful church attendees are also more likely to volunteer and to volunteer more hours to charitable organizations.

The study's findings have confirmed that those who are more religious tend to be more active in various aspects of civic life. In the case of philanthropic giving, not only are members of religious congregations more likely to give and give larger amounts to religious charities, they are also more likely than their secular counterparts to give to secular charities.

The giving and volunteering aspect of civic responsibility was studied by Dr. Steven Monsma, Research Fellow for the Henry Institute. Among Monsma's findings:

  • Across the four national data files analyzed, respondents who say religion is very important in their lives, who hold traditional Christian beliefs, and who engage in private devotional activities apart from public religious services generally give and volunteer more than those with opposite characteristics.
  • Church attendance, with its associated integration into a social network of fellow church members, has a stronger influence on giving and volunteering than the personal, internalized religious beliefs and behaviors listed above.
  • Those who reported no religious affiliation tended to give less to charity than the adherents of any the other religious traditions analyzed, even in giving to secular charity organizations.
  • Mainline Protestants tended to be more likely to give to charity than the other traditions, although they were closely followed by evangelical Protestants.

Despite conventional beliefs that categorize evangelical Protestants as inward-looking and primarily concerned with individual salvation, as opposed to social causes, the findings in this study suggest the opposite. Evangelical Protestants are more active in volunteering and giving to both religious and secular causes than their secular counterparts.

Respondents who gave money to charity or volunteered for charitable organizations also showed higher levels of political involvement than those who didn't give or volunteer, suggesting that religiously committed people who give and volunteer are also active citizens in other areas of civic life.

“My findings suggest the religiously committed and active citizens may be the chief exemplars of civic responsibility,” said Monsma. “At the very least, these results demonstrate that those who wish to understand and strengthen giving and volunteering the United States need to take religion into account. To do otherwise is to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room.”

Source: “Religion and Philanthropic Giving and Volunteering: Building Blocks for Civic Responsibility” Paper presented by Dr. Steven Monsma at the Third Biennial Symposium on Religion and Politics, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 27-29, 2006.

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  Please continue to watch this web page for written information about the project results and conclusions.