Is Autonomy Turning UCC Authorized Ministers and Churchgoers into Turtles?

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on August 14, 2017

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).

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.