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"As with many other civil society groups ... it is the churches, synagogues, mosques and temples that are keeping alive the flame of brotherhood, sisterhood and neighbourhood." Photo: AFP

It's a counter-intuitive and controversial argument to make at a time like this - one might even say ''brave'', minister - but churches and faith communities are still the strongest centres of public good in modern society.

The clerical sex abuse crisis has certainly undermined the public esteem that churches once enjoyed. Recent research, however, confirms that in Australia, Britain and the US, religious congregations are the most effective civil institutions mediating between a bureaucratic state and a rapacious corporate sector.

The National Church Life Survey in Australia, a Demos study in Britain and research from the Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam in the US tell a similar story. Within parishes and other congregations, you will find a vast volunteer labour force and a disproportionate number of people employed in the so-called caring professions.

You will also find - perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not - political views that are, on the whole, more left-wing and education levels that are higher than those of the broader community.

As many other civil society groups, such as service clubs and political parties wane, it is the churches, synagogues, mosques and temples that are keeping alive the flame of brotherhood, sisterhood and neighbourhood.

With 260,000 people taking part across 3000 congregations, the National Church Life Survey is probably Australia's most comprehensive survey except for the federal census. Now that the results are in, we know that churchgoers are highly educated - 34 per cent have university degrees, compared with about 25 per cent of the broader community.

They also tend to concentrate in areas such as education, healthcare, medicine, welfare and social services. As the director of the survey, Dr Ruth Powell, points out, their faith and their occupation tend to affirm each other. Religious people often see their jobs as a ''mission'', even a form of lay ministry.

''It's … strong ways to live out faith or express one's values that come out of one's world view as a Christian, in the whole of one's life,'' she says.

Because 60 per cent of people in Australian congregations are women, there is also a bias towards ''relational'' jobs and pastimes, which also explains the high level of community involvement of religious people.

More than 25 per cent of attendees are involved in their church's ''welfare or justice activities'' - volunteering with groups such as St Vincent de Paul, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, World Vision or Caritas - and 23 per cent are involved in broader community activities, with organisations such as Meals on Wheels and Amnesty International cited frequently.

What Putnam found in the US, the survey (and research by Australian National University professor-turned-Labor MP Andrew Leigh) also found in Australia: people of faith are also more likely to give money to charity, including secular charities, and more likely to donate blood.

''It's not a case of people get busy in church, they get cut off from the wider world,'' Powell says. ''Far from it.''

Indeed, Australian faith communities are centres of Putnam's famous ''social capital'' in two critical ways. The first is ''bonding'' social capital, the development of close personal links between members of the same congregation, who are there for each other in times of unemployment, illness and bereavement.

The second is ''bridging'' social capital, the building of links to groups and individuals outside the congregation.

In Australia, this has been most obvious since the 1980s in issues such as nuclear disarmament, Aboriginal rights and justice for refugees and asylum seekers, where nuns (not always in habits) and bishops (frequently wearing pectoral crosses) linked arms with dreadlocked protesters.

And this observation leads to one of the more intriguing and myth-busting conclusions, this time by a British think tank. Earlier this year, a study by Demos called Faithful Citizens found religious people to be more left-wing. A total of 55 per cent described themselves as left of centre and 40 per cent said they were right of centre, while 41 per cent of religious people said they valued equality over freedom, compared with 36 per cent of non-believers.

In a democratic country such as Britain, ''freedom'' refers to economic liberty. Perhaps reflecting the biblical injunctions that one should not vex the stranger who sojourns in your land, the religious were also more open to immigration and asylum seekers - a view echoed in Australia in the past 10 to 12 years by those members of the Catholic and Uniting churches who were part of the ''sanctuary'' movement.

For tragic and understandable reasons, it is unfashionable right now to speak well of the institutional church. It will remain so for quite a while. But when someone with a friendly face delivers a meal to your aged parents' door, or dresses your wounds in an emergency ward, or leads a delegation to Canberra arguing for aid for the world's most wretched, it might be worth considering the role that faith has played in their lives and, by extension, yours.

Andrew West is presenter of the Religion and Ethics Report on ABC Radio National.

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