“I think it might be a crisis…”

Carol and I were talking about the ongoing trend of civic disengagement.

“I think it might be a crisis,” she said.

I think she’s right. There are fewer people than ever before who understand how to be good institutionalists. Most people don’t belong to more than one or two voluntary associations. There are many people who spend all their non-work hours doing nothing more than passively consuming entertainment.

We all know that civic disengagement has an adverse effect on democracy. But in a democracy, where religious organizations are voluntary associations, civic disengagement also has an adverse effect on organized religion. I’d be willing to say that of all the social factors that are pushing organized religion into decline, civic disengagement may be the most powerful such force.

12 thoughts on ““I think it might be a crisis…”

  1. Bill Baar

    I don’t know if there is an overall decline or it’s just institutions come and go, and you might be looking at the ones on the way out.

    I don’t know if I would put facebook into passive entertainment either. It’s building links that lead to face to face enconters which can well turn into something more permanent.

  2. Heather

    Agreed. Looking at it one way, this means that it’s increasingly difficult for UU congregations, districts and the association to really live their commitment to the democratic process. Looking at it another way, it’s an opportunity for UU congregations, districts and the association to be places where people can relearn the skills of civic engagement.

    Perhaps we need to identify those among us who have a particularly good grasp of these skills, and encourage them to teach those of us who are a little less sure of how to navigate within institutions.

  3. Carol

    @Heather: that’s exactly what I told Dan. If you haven’t seen effective democratic process, it’s hard to know how to do it.

  4. Dan

    I crossposted this post on my Facebook page, and there were some interesting comments there. I won’t post those comments here, but I’ll post one of my responses, which should be self-explanatory:

    S——: Yes, some leaders seem to demand mindless boosterism. To me, part of the problem is that after three decades when protest politics has been seen as the highest form of political action, we have little middle ground between sticking it to the Man, on the one hand, and being a boot-licking lackey, on the other hand. Therefore, many good people like you, who are neither boot-lickers nor stick-it-to-the-Man people, choose to disengage — and sadly, for the sake of self-protection, that may be your best option.

    In the long run, what I hope is that we get back to a better understanding of both good leadership and good followership. A good follower is not a mindless bootlicker, it is someone who can both support a good leader in moving forward to a shared goal, while also offering course corrections to the leader when necessary so we keep moving forward towards that shared goal.

  5. Volly

    Let me throw you one out of left field. Civic disengagement might be nothing more than just feeling bloody knocked out and tired from everyday life. I know that certainly applies to me. Just thinking about “getting more involved” brings to mind a scenario in which I show up for a meeting and some bright, energetic person in charge says “You’re here — glad to see ya. Here’s your assignment: Go stand on the corner of 2nd Street and Walnut with this sign from 6-8pm, then come back here and give a report.” But instead, we walk into a room with a half dozen other equally overextended folks who are all struggling with the bills, the kids, depression and guilt over not being involved enough. One person says “Okay, here’s what we’d like to do. Does anyone have any ideas?” You can almost hear us trying to jump-start the few brain cells that are still awake at 6:30 pm on a Wednesday. Nobody wants to just come out and say it, but we’re all thinking “Oh, c’mon, just tell us what to do so we don’t have to think.” But we all know each other. We know how busy and preoccupied everybody else is. So we feel guilty, that we’re not pulling our load. Then we think, “Hey, at least we showed up. There are 100 or more other people in this congregation who never do!”

    I confess to spending probably more time than I should, as you said, in the “non-work hours doing nothing more than passively consuming entertainment.” But I co-facilitate a small-group ministry, serve as usher/greeter about 4 times a year, fill in for kitchen duty here and there, and also participate in my economically disadvantaged neighborhood association. In the latter group, we suffer from exactly the same syndrome as at church: Only a few people ever volunteer for anything. And of those, three quarters actually show up.

    The solution? It may come when when we don’t all feel like we’re hanging on for dear life, as age and fatigue weaken the grip. I think many of us are doing our part. We’re waiting, not only for our peers to wake up, but for the leaders in government and corporate policy to wake up as well, to the fact that a significant slice of humanity is slowly going down the drain.

  6. Dan

    Volly @ 5 — The phenomenon of civic disengagement is pretty well documented in many different places — decreasing voter turnouts, decreasing numbers of people who belong to voluntary associations, increasing fragmentation in society. Frances Moore Lappe’s recent books, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and other books have popularized the trend.

    The problem that you’re facing comes, I think, from the fact that the few people who remain engaged in civic life have to take on an increasing burden. There are fewer and fewer people (for one example) to run local congregations, and more and more people who just want to come to church, or temple or whatever, and just sit and passively consume. So no wonder you feel fried — you’re one of the ever smaller number of people trying to keep civic life afloat.

    This to em is why it feels like a crisis — we’ve got a negative feedback loop going.

  7. Jean

    Hm. I think the east and west coasts need to take a look at the Midwest. We are very engaged out here. Small towns, small cities, depend on their citizens to be involved in schools, community organizations, civic organizations, independent organizations (Girls Inc, Boys and Girls club, Habitat for Humanity, etc.) — people run these places through their involvement. And our churches are packed. The average religious liberal may not agree with the politics of many of the folks out here, nor care for the religious ideas and ideologies, but this is a busy place. (Thoughts abuot this divide, below.)

    I just returned from a monthlong residency at a swanky place on the the east coast and it struck me forcibly that the loudest complaints about non-involvement (those over dinner conversations) came from the east and west coast dwellers. Those of us in the Midwest (and we were a minority) just shook our heads. Come see what we’re doing.

    I also couldn’t help but notice a tone of condescension and intolerance for the Midwest among the liberal elite of the east and west coast at this residency. One person even declared, based on a single experience, “I hate Indiana.” Really? That’s not very open minded, smart person. I would suggest that along with getting involved, that developing some tolerance and openmindedness about the conservative other — no matter where this other may be — would go a long way toward making our country a healthier place.

  8. Dan

    Jean @ 7 — Based on my one-year stint in a Midwest congregation, I’m willing to believe that the Midwest has more civic engagement than the coasts. However, I would suspect that in the Midwest the trend is still downwards. I say this based on thinking that the Midwest is also facing declining voter turnouts, declining membership in various voluntary associations, declining attention paid to current events as measured by amount of time spent with various news media, etc.

    I’m also willing to state that the level of civic engagement can vary quite a bit within a region — New Bedford, where we used to live, faced a decline in civic engagement while a hundred miles away, our home town of Concord has a high level of civic engagement. Again, the general trend is downwards, even though some areas may retain a higher level of civic engagement.

    As for hating Indiana, that’s a fairly absurd thing to say. It’s a big state. I mean, I can see hating Gary — it’s a pretty depressing place (sorry, everyone who comes from Gary). But — assuming a certain kind of east coast bias — does that person also hate the outer suburbs of Chicago, Bloomington, Amish country, and the Indiana Dunes? Assuming the absolute worst case — does that person even know where Indiana is, or has that person got Indiana mixed up with Illinois or Iowa? (you know, all those Midwest states that start with the letter “I” are confusing to some people)

  9. Jean

    Yes, it was quite absurd. In this particular high brow crowd, it did seem completely acceptable to scorn all things Midwestern. I dare say if the Midwest were suddenly decreed to be a chic little country with various social ills (that needed fixing) and cute handicrafts (that one could bring back to NYC to sell to the ladies who lunch), why then the Midwest would be just the place to go. And write about. And have articles in, oh, Oprah magazine or something. Sigh. Whatever.

    As for disengagement — maybe it’s more useful to point out who IS doing things, and celebrate that, and emulate it and spread the word, and the deed. You know. A positive spin and stuff.

  10. Amy

    Chiming in with Heather and Carol. Civic engagement is something we learn–we aren’t born knowing how. Congregations can be a great place to learn it (or, as in Volly’s example, a great place to learn to fear it). To me this is one promise implicit in our fifth principle. If you value democracy, you teach each other how to engage fruitfully.

    It’s also something our elders might be able to teach our youngers, just by remembering what lessons they absorbed from their parents, teachers, churches, etc. about institution-building. (I’m going to put it down for my next free Elder Journey session right now.)

    Obviously there is a major economic reason for the shift: salaries are way down in real dollars over the past generation. (And union membership is down. Hm!) But spending on luxuries is also up–we “need” to pay for more square feet of living space per person than our parents did. Some voluntary simplicity would help us spend our time in keeping with our values.

  11. James Field

    You have this discussion and the equalitarian vs. libertarian discussion separated but I am not sure they are distinct. Jean Luc-Goddard one defined a generation as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” So many Gen X folks grew up under Reagan. I meet very few people my age or slightly younger who don’t harbor the fear that all collective action is negative and restrictive and only that which is individual can be meaninful or free.

    I found something very similar in post-communist Transylvania. Too many problems were too complex to be solved by individuals but there was a universal skepticism of anything that sounded collectivist because of their experience of communist dictatorship and the malappropriation of that rhetoric.

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