A Quick Question
Do Americans Bowl Alone or Together?
Two Perspectives on Civic Engagement
The quick answer: It depends if you take congregational interactions into account.
The longer answer: Americans are increasingly using their leisure time in private activities, according to one noted political scientist. They are watching TV, surfing the Net, and in Robert Putnam’s much touted estimation, bowling alone. In his influential 1995 article, Putnam rued this growing isolation arguing that civic engagement — the building block of democratic society — is disappearing as a result. His article on the subject “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” charts falling membership in all kinds of voluntary organizations from the PTA to fraternal associations such as the Lions and Elks.
Nancy T. Ammerman begs to differ. A sociologist, she takes Putnam to task for underestimating one association that may contribute most to America’s civic order: its churches. From her research of 300 congregations across nine U.S. cities, she found that civic involvement is alive and well. Nearly a quarter of the congregations she studied were formed over the past 20 years and half showed signs of growth.
More important, nearly all the congregations reported doing some sort of human service project. “From affordable housing to shelters for abused women, from food pantries to refugee resettlement, congregations are often the organizational vehicles for the ameliorative work that needs to be done in a community,” writes Ammerman in her article “Bowling Together: Congregations and the American Civic Order.”
Far from being places where people retreat to focus on themselves, congregations may best be tested in the ways they respond to others. During the 1992 riots that resulted in the burning and looting of south-central Los Angeles, for example, churches and religious charities were the first to mobilize, making sure people were fed, clothed and sheltered. Indeed, congregations are often the first place where assistance is given at a time of crisis. Church buildings also provide the infrastructure where other civic organizations meet, and their social programs welcome non-members who may volunteer at a soup kitchen or in a tutoring program once a week.
Unlike some fraternal organizations or special-cause associations, congregations are egalitarian in membership. Churches, synagogues and mosques welcome disadvantaged groups and new immigrants. In addition, they provide another element often missing from other voluntary associations — the experience of transcendence. Rituals such as weekly worship allow congregants to envision a better world and work to bring it about. “In congregations, collective grievances are voiced, solutions envisioned, divine sanction sought, material goods gathered, networks built, time and energy invested,” Ammerman writes.
On occasion, congregations use religion to perpetuate the status-quo. Ammerman does not deny that congregations may try to persuade others that God wants the world the way it is. But, she writes, that’s not always the case. Conversations with the divine may also provide built-in opportunities for reflection and critique.
Finally, Ammerman writes, the decline of bowling leagues, so strikingly illustrated in Putnam’s influential article, may spell doom for the league system, but not necessarily for communal bowling. People may be bowling with friends, family or Sunday School classes as opposed to formal leagues. “Whether bowling together or worshipping together,” Ammerman concludes, “we are continuing to create the social capital and nurture the civil skills necessary for a healthy society.”
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