2011 News

Go to church and kiss your Aunt Susan: Scholarship, civic vitality, and Livable Lives

The university-wide Livable Lives Initiative investigates what social conditions and policy supports can make life with a low or moderate income stable, secure, satisfying, and successful. Robert Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and author of the acclaimed “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” provided some answers during a recent lecture at Washington University: regular church attendance and a close relationship with your Aunt Susan.

Church, according to Putnam’s newest book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” seems to be linked to greater civic involvement and strong social support. Regular church goers, he notes, are more likely to volunteer and give blood. Church communities, by extension serve as an extraordinary source of social support: “Church friends,” Putnam has noted, “are in some sense supercharged friends.”

Putnam also finds that Americans remain surprisingly tolerant of religious difference despite increased polarization along religious lines. Close relationships that cross lines, he suggests, are the reason for this tolerance. Everyone, says Putnam, has an “Aunt Susan,” an extended family member who holds different religious views than the rest of the family. According to the family’s faith, Aunt Susan is not going to heaven. “But, come on,” says Putnam, “it’s Aunt Susan. You know, if anybody is going to heaven, it’s Aunt Susan.”

Putnam’s work in “American Grace” and “Bowling Alone” speaks to the way social capital and civic renewal can make life more “livable.” Similarly, the Livable Lives initiative pursues a wide range of research and innovation to: document conditions that may inhibit or promote the achievement of livable lives; formulate and test innovations; inform policies and practices that may lead to more livable lives; and study impacts of these policies and practices. A conference in February will address the role of employment in supporting livable lives.

The Putnam lecture was co-sponsored by the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy; the Gephardt Institute for Public Service; the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics; the Center for Social Development at the Brown School; the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital at the School of Law; and the Assembly Series.