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Of church and civic engagement

(Photo by Richard Thomas)

A recent story on National Public Radio focused on the relationship between a decline in church attendance across the United States and the rise of American nationalist sentiments. Surprisingly, the rise came predominantly from people who consider themselves faith-based but don’t regularly attend a church.

My wife and I attend regular services and I consider myself a person grounded in my faith. This puts me in both the majority ... and the minority. A recent Pew Research Poll found that while most Americans believe in some form of God, they do not attend regular services or consider themselves associated with a religion. This divide is more pronounced the younger the demographic.

The point of the NPR story was not that more people should join a church or other organized religion. Instead, the point was about the decline of civic institutions within our American democracy.  The researcher was hypothesizing that because churches have historically been one a predominant civic mixing place for Americans, the lack of a church community was a major contributing factor.

Broadly defined, civic institutions are those places within our community where we do the work of “small d” democracy. They cross social and economic divides. They provide for opportunities to create “bridging” social capital, to know and work with those who are not exactly like us. A faith affinity has historically been one of those places where people from various economic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds are drawn together.

Churches, of course, are not the only places civic engagement takes place. Nor are they the only civic institutions suffering from declining attendance and participation. Dr. Robert Putnam is renowned for his research and writing on this topic. In 2001, he spoke to a large audience at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation’s annual meeting about his findings. Dr. Putnam shared that surveys of Americans indicate that since 1965 time spent on informal socializing and visiting is down by as much as 25 percent and time devoted to clubs and organizations is down even more sharply, by over 50 percent. Organizations as diverse as the PTA, the Elks Club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions and even bowling leagues (thus his famous book, “Bowling Alone”) show that participation in these organizations has declined sharply over the past several decades. Measures of traditional political participation, like attendance at city council or school board meeting or involvement in a political party, show similar declines.

Does this mean we’re just not interacting with each other anymore? No. A surprising subtext of these declines is the growth in “self-sorting.” Self-sorting is when we choose to live in neighborhoods, communities and political districts where the way others look and think is very closely aligned to, well, the way we do. Self-sorting is enabled by the historic degree of mobility we now enjoy and is occurring at a degree never seen before in our country’s history. It’s been highlighted by many political observers as one of the most significant factors in the ever-increasing polarization of politics.

We do better than many communities with our levels of civic participation. People in Duluth are involved; it’s a part of who we are. But we can also self-sort with the best of them. As with so many things in life, the first positive step we can take is to simply be aware.

Roger Reinert

Roger Reinert is a Duluth resident.