About one in three of the 7.8 billion people on earth are dependent on social networks for information. In America, this dependence has resulted in less desire for participation in community, religious, and civic organizations. Throughout the history of the United States, the benevolence and kindness generated through churches, clubs, and other groups has been a basic core value in our country.
Service clubs, associations, and religious groups are in significant decline in membership today. America has transformed, and formal groups have not changed to meet the new America. Unfortunately, the pandemic has increased how social America is often seen through the glow of a screen. Robert Putman, author of “Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community,” said, “Civic club membership declined 58% in the last two decades of the twentieth century and continues to decline today.” Not only has the pandemic reduced attendance and membership in civic groups, but has also greatly impacted the operation of churches. Before the pandemic, only about 20% of traditional churches were growing. The Gallup Poll tells us that “none” is the fastest growing designation of religious preference. Additionally, only about 40% of Americans attend church at least once per month and about 30% never attend church. For many churches current participation has been limited to online services and group meetings on online platforms such as Zoom.
How we build the character of our citizens is impacted by the kindness of our society. The development of character depends on how families raise their children, how schools educate them, and how local institutions work to build a sense of community. Rebuilding social trust in today’s present pandemic world and the coming post-pandemic world is extremely difficult. Isabel V. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution says that trust, norms, and social institutions are easier to destroy than to revive. She says we must create more social capital (building positive social and cultural relationships), universal national service, an enhanced subsidy for charitable giving, and additional resources and flexibility for local communities. This is necessary so we can innovate and rebuild in ways that fit our own values and circumstances. Leadership that is at once moral and effective at every level from the neighborhood to Congress will be critical to that revival.
Civic clubs and churches will need to regenerate membership by using innovative methods. The graying of membership has created a drop in clubs such as Rotary which decreased from 445,434 in 1996 to 360,790 last year. Rotary is down 20%. Masons are down 76%. Ruritan Clubs are down by over one-third. N.C. Jaycees are down 64%. Corresponding numbers are down in various religious groups in the United States.
During the pandemic determining the active numbers in organizations is difficult. As the pandemic eases, leaders will need to expand the appeal to younger citizens. Before the pandemic civic and religious leaders made significant effort to regenerate youth membership. Pressure on young people’s time and the high pressure for results, make it hard to take off for civic and religious meetings. Seth Godin, a blogger and author, says that people share ideas and values and are not bound by locations; thus, there is no need to be in a local organization. Churches and civic clubs depend on older volunteers since younger people have many more time constraints.
In smaller areas, mobility of industry executives and business leaders impacts civic involvement. Many of these leaders live elsewhere and see no need to be involved in local civic clubs or churches. Many young professional workers who live in counties such as Alexander or Catawba commute to Charlotte or get on planes to travel to parts unknown. The lack of time when both parents work and child-rearing provides many choices for children in sports, the arts, music, etc. take time precedence over church and civic activities. Plus, it is much easier to give to a “GoFundMe” page online than spending time at fund-raising events.
Social scientists say less social contact in groups is a detriment to social interaction skills that promote finding commonalities. Before social media, Americans with different points of view were perpetually forced to confront one another face to face. Americans spend more time today with self-improvement or self-help. e.g., gym memberships, running clubs, book clubs, etc. These eclipse civic involvement. Many of these chosen activities do not promote face-to-face connections.
Political leaders must also provide processes and resources to create more family locations such as parks, encourage development of local programs that will interest young people, and have frequent forums to discuss community needs. Providing affordable housing, senior housing, high-speed internet, etc. with small-town atmospheres and services may be more in demand as businesses see the validity of working from home. This, in turn, may create more demand for social, civic, and religious organizations.
In the end, we cannot depend on government to create an unrestricted society or even if that is what we want. Personally, I feel that our greatest hope may not be to depend on laws to fix what troubles our communities but rather to put more emphasis on kindness, increased social capital, and even social grace provided through our religious beliefs. Isabel V. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution says we must have a personal identity and a community identity, but we cannot forget that we are all Americans who, for some purposes, can only flourish if we act together.
Kindness is a key tenet to develop stronger social ties, find common views, value one another, and have sufficient trust in each other to focus on the questions that rise above our disagreements. Kind actions by citizens toward others should become part of our normal behaviors.
Dr. Warren Hollar is a retired Alexander County School administrator and clinician retiree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.