Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 2, Church and Politics

In Part 1 of Alone, Suburban & Sorted we noted that Americans are entertaining less and less in their own homes. In addition, Americans are withdrawing from informal recreational and social activities in their communities (e.g., bowling leagues). In this post we return to Bowling Alone to talk about trends affecting more formal social affiliations: Church and politics.

The big point I want to highlight from Putnam's analysis is the "hollowing out" of political and religious life. On the surface one can measure religious and political participation by watching the simplest of barometers, voting and church attendance. Both of those numbers have been declining. Since the 1960s, voter turnout has been steadily dropping. Zeroing in, this decline has been the steepest for local elections, primaries, and non-presidential election cycles. That is, interest in local politics--the politics of my town, schools and neighborhood--has seen the steepest declines in voter engagement. Again, this is a sign of social impoverishment at the neighborhood level.

Moving from voting to church attendance we see a similar decline in participation. From the 1930s to the 1960s church membership was rising. Membership leveled off in the 60s and 70s and then began to fall. Between the 50s and the 90s church attendance declined by about 1/3.

But Putnam's analysis goes deeper. It's not just that Americans are participating less in church and politics. Patterns of involvement are also changing.

For example, Putnam reviews many surveys that assess the various political activities that Americans might engage in. From the 60s to the late 90s political activities that employ the words "serve," "work," and "attend" have experienced the steepest declines. Solitary political activities have also declined but less so when compared to group activities. For example, the activity "working for a political party" declined by 42% from the 70s to the 90s. By contrast, "wrote a letter to the paper" declined by only 14%. The point here is that when Americans do participate in the political process they are tending to do this more and more often as individuals. We write letters, donate online, participate in political blogs, and put out a campaign sign in our front yard. That is, there may be a great deal of political activity in a person's life but much of that activity has been hollowed out, socially speaking.

Similar trends are seen in American churches. We've noted the declines in church attendance, but church members are also participating less and less in church social activities (e.g., attending bible class, being involved in church ministries). That is, although formal church membership has declined only about 10% over the last few decades the decline in participating in church ministries and groups has been very steep, a decline around 25%-30%. Again, it's a process of hollowing out. Church attendance and membership are issues of individual participation. But what is most rapidly declining in American churches is the degree of social engagement. This trend is exacerbated by the rise of church "surfing" and "shopping" where people drift from church to church. In sum, although Americans might be just as religious as they have been in the past, they are slowly withdrawing from church life. Americans might believe in God but they don't belong anywhere, religiously speaking. Faith has become a solo activity.

I'm guessing none of this is news to you. These trends have been well documented in the media. Also, just ask your children's minister if it is becoming harder and harder to find people to volunteer to teach Sunday School classes.

My point in talking about these trends isn't to sing a sad song of lament. Mainly I'm just trying to illustrate how alone we are. Americans are disengaged informally (less entertaining in the home, fewer bowling leagues), civically (less engagement in local politics) and religiously (less church participation). Across the board we are "bowling alone" more and more often.

Next Post: Broken Bridges

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7 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 2, Church and Politics”

  1. Richard,

    I wonder how you might connect this series, and specifically this post, to your previous series about the bourgeoisie. I wasn't able to comment as much as I would have liked in that series, but one of the questions I wanted to raise was about the kind of objective analysis you were providing in (some) support of the bourgeois lifestyle.

    This post seems to support the notion that, although perceived on a macro level we might say "life has improved" due to capitalism/the middle class/whatever, the form and quality and character of our life has drastically reduced. And that reduction is tragically connected to the pursuit and creation of wealth, among other things, because we have slowly lost the ability to discern the differences, value and otherwise, between human beings, social interaction, play, community, etc., and consumption, possessions, personal pleasure, pure functionalism, etc. Without a telos for life or society we have utterly confused the "quality" of life with the "quantity" of what we have or our lifespans or what have you.

    All that to say, I would love to see connections drawn between the two. Thanks, as always, for the excellent posts.

  2. Richard,

    Two observation:

    (1) Putnam's thinking, like that in Christopher Lasch's 1970s classic "The Culture of Narcissism," suggests the breakdown of "community" and the exaltation and isolation or alienation of the individual. His work and and the earlier 1950s work "The Lonely Crowd," of Riesman, Glazer, and Denney echo Ferdinand Toennies "Gemeinchaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society)" and Max's Weber's notions of the social impact of rationalizing. Marx and several others wrestled with the same problem--a problem which was at the heart of literary and artistic romanticism and ultimately, for us moderns, rooted in Cartesian thinking. Alas, we have been going to the dogs for millenia. Some of this kind of thinking is based in golden age nostalgia--ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the New Testament church. The need for communal habits and comfort is real and dies hard if at all.

    (2) There are, of course, things to fear and adjustments to be made. But fear and insecurity regarding the unknown future and possible loss of status is, I think, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which sets us up for loneliness, isolation, and alienation and ongoing fear.


  3. Richard, I find this series fascinating and look forward to where you take it. Speaking from my own experience, I seldom stay abreast of local politics simply because I feel I don't have the time. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever voted in local elections.

    I think the decline in church involvement stems partly from a lack of a sense of investment or obligation to the church community. As you mentioned, church shopping exacerbates the problem since the shoppers are looking for a church experience that fulfills them as individuals.

    For those who stick to one church, I'd suggest intensely personalized theology--how to be saved, how to be blessed, how to have a "personal relationship" with Christ--and a focus on Sunday morning worship contribute to a decline in church involvement.

  4. Richard,

    This line from a review essay by Gary Saul Morson on Russian culture before, during and after the Soviet Union is instructive here.

    "Culture matters, and culture, above all, consists of habits we do not even notice because they shape the very possibilities of action, or even thought."


  5. Hi Brad,
    I, personally, would hesitate to strongly link the bourgeoisie with these trends. That is, the trends we are talking about have to do with something happening in America over the last few decades, and the bourgeoisie have been around a lot longer than that. That is, the bourgeoisie-life can be very socially connected. It's just not moving in that direction in America. This series is a search for the answer to "Why?"

    Hi George,
    I do want to fight against nostalgia. But I do think some things have been happening in the last few decades that warrant reflecting on. Particularly when we get to the book The Big Sort. That is, by the end of it this series will be about more than loneliness and isolation.

    Hi Jason,
    I like to think of the church trends you mention as the "mallification" (as in shopping mall) of the church.

  6. I think an element of those church trends is because people are tired of feeling alienated WITHIN the church system and are leaving to try to find community outside.

    Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much outside either because of the weird alienated disenfranchised "I can't do anything off my own steam without someone telling me from the television first" beings we have become. Creepy. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

  7. I think "community" has changed, but not necessarily disappeared over time. People may not bowl in leagues as much, but how are softball leagues faring? And this being West Texas, the Friday night lights shine to a packed stadium, at least on home games. Lots of parents are involved in their kids' sports, school activities, band, and extra-curriculars, for good or ill, given the temperaments that show themselves. Wii gaming has brought bowling to nursing homes to those who can't get to lanes. Try counting the number of people talking on cell phones in Wal-Mart. Surely someone is at the other end of the line. Even better, eavesdrop at restaurants.

    As for churches, the social-politics of who's who, who's in, and who's not "one of us" run people out and off. At least, they did us. And good grief, the "spiritual" showboating. Perhaps in our grandparents' time they would have simply stayed and endured it, for lack of alternatives, or perhaps they never gave themselves permission to think critically about church. It just "wasn't done." But it is now.

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