After listening to endless media debates over fake news and alternative facts, Russian intrigues in our politics and elections, and how angry and divided America has become, I thought about the social atomization in our communities, and how so many churches and Christian people are cut off from one another. Then I thought briefly about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which we have been celebrating this year, and about Martin Luther’s courageous devotion to truth, and his principled stand against religious legalism and corruption. But mostly, I thought about Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” (Journal of Democracy 6:1, January 1995, pp. 65-78).
In his essay, Putnam argues that Americans’ level of “civic engagement” and “the vibrancy of American civil society ha[ve] declined notably [in recent] decades” (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, p. 65).
Trust in public institutions has collapsed, Putnam explains. “In the 1950s and 1960s, 75 percent of Americans said that they trusted their government to do the right thing.” Today, only 19 percent say they do (Putnam, interviewed by Russ Edgerton, American Association for Higher Education, 1995).
Putnam is not simply entertaining nostalgia for a bygone era when he says this. “School performance, public health, crime rates, race relations, community development, teen suicide, economic productivity, even simple human happiness—all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers” (“Lonely in America” [Putnam interviewed by Sage Stossel], The Atlantic, September 21, 2000).
In the past, we Americans were not as isolated from one another as we are now. “When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was [our] propensity for civic association”—our “social capital”—“that impressed him as the key to mak[ing American] democracy work.” If a neighbor’s barn burned down, the entire community came together to help rebuild it (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, pp. 65-66).
For Putnam, social capital is crucial. This term “refers to [the] networks, norms, and trust that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.” It encompasses our “connections [to] our friends, neighbors, community, and institutions.” Indeed, “life [is much] easier in a community blessed with substantial social capital,” Putnam argues—but social capital is in short supply in America today (“Does Diversity Really Work?” [Putnam, interviewed by Michel Martin], National Public Radio, August 15, 2007, and “Bowling Alone,” 1995, p. 67).
Over several decades, Putnam has noted fundamental shifts in the United States, in:
Political Engagement. Since “the 1960s, voter turnout [has declined] by nearly a quarter. The number of Americans who report [having] ‘attended a public meeting on town or school affairs in the past year’ has fallen by [over] a third.” We are not reading or watching the news the way we used to, and our “direct engagement in politics and government has [deteriorated] over the last generation,” despite our relatively high levels of education (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, pp. 68-69).
Informal social and civic ties. “Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing [team sports] to playing chamber music, are declining.” Americans still go bowling, but increasingly they are “bowling alone.” They no longer participate in civic and fraternal organizations such as Rotary, the Masons, or the Boy Scouts in large numbers. Labor union membership—once “the most common organizational affiliation [of] American workers—has been falling for decades.” PTA participation and church attendance have also dropped precipitously. Today, “the only act of membership” that many church and civic organization members perform is “writing a check for dues, or perhaps reading a newsletter.” Many will not intentionally associate with other members, let alone attend meetings (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, pp. 69, 71).
“Tolerance and trust. Americans are more tolerant of one another than they were in previous generations, [but] they trust [each o]ther less.” There is an increase in dishonesty; “employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel [have boomed] as people increasingly turn to the courts and the police” to settle grievances (Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000], cited in “Harvard Kennedy School Press Release,” April 28, 2000).
Meanwhile, television viewing has “privatized our leisure time”—and may have supplanted real community (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, p. 75). Ditto for our use of smart phones, the Internet, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies. Why drive to a school board meeting, when you can stay home in sweat pants and a t-shirt and “attend” the same meeting on Zoom, or discuss it on Facebook?
Collectively, these features of modern American life “bring out the turtle in all of us,” Putnam notes. People pull into their shells, and lock themselves in (“E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30 , 2007, 137-174).
As a pastor who is concerned about the future of our churches and denomination, I worry about the loss of social capital and the exaggerated sense of autonomy that I see in churches and among my fellow Authorized Ministers. Here in the New York Conference, I’ve watched neighboring UCC congregations engage in contentious cross-town rivalries with each other. I’ve looked on as pastors isolated themselves from our denomination, engaged in competitive interactions with other UCC churches and pastoral colleagues, and avoided participating in collaborative ministries with them. I’ve seen monthly ministers’ meetings atrophy as Authorized Ministers explained how they “didn’t need the fellowship,” or were “too busy,” or “didn’t like traveling long distances” to attend. And I’ve observed our Conference Staff struggle to get reluctant pastors to join Communities of Practice. What gives? Somehow, I don’t think we in the New York Conference are alone in these lapses. When did we Authorized Ministers and our congregants become turtles—hiding from each other in our shells?
Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber is persuasive when she writes that “trying not to need others isn’t about strength and independence.” It isn’t saying, “I want to make my own decisions. I am strong as hell.” Rather, “it’s about fear. To allow myself to need someone else is to [make] myself [vulnerable] to be betrayed or look weak” (Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People [New York: Convergent, 2015], p. 99).
Perhaps we should heed spiritual director Barbara A. Sheehan, S.P., when she writes that “the Christian community is a community of care.” We are all “called to companion [our] brothers and sisters along the paths of spiritual growth. Companionship is a ministry and an art [that is] much needed today among Christians. People yearn for meaning and spiritual connection in [a] disconnected and seemingly meaningless world” (Partners in Covenant: The Art of Spiritual Companionship [Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2010], pp. vii-viii, p. 3).
Is it time for us to discard autonomy from our polity? If you’ve ever taken a UCC History and Polity course, you know that we in the United Church of Christ understand the twin concepts of covenant and autonomy as coexisting in a kind of living, symbiotic balance with one another: local UCC churches are “independent” in that they don’t answer to any higher authority, yet they are also “in covenant” with one another and the “Wider Church”—our Associations, Conferences, and the National Church.
Historically and theologically, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is an important and enduring part of our Reformation tradition. Five centuries ago, this core conviction was mobilized by Martin Luther and the Protestant Christian movement in sharp reaction to the abusive theologies and practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. And the related concept of local church autonomy has stood like a bulwark against the “Episcopal” polities of some Protestant denominations that stressed hierarchy and the authority of high church officials over local churches and pastors. This was, and remains, commendable. But today these core ideas have morphed into a kind of religious rugged individualism. But “not needing anybody,” and “going it alone” are a lonely way to be, and amount to tilting at windmills. By all means, let us continue to celebrate the Protestant Reformation—but let us celebrate together, in collegiality and friendship! And let us stop waging private wars against popes and bishops, and fighting five-hundred-year-old ghosts.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.