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John Schmalzbauer

Church as Civics 101

The robust civic engagement of Protestant clergy

Have Americans withdrawn from civic life? Have we become a "nation of couch potatoes," choosing HBO over the PTA, MTV over the YMCA? Political scientist Robert Putnam thinks so. Putnam argues that Americans have become increasingly disengaged from voluntary associations since the 1960s, spending more time in front of the television and less time with their fellow citizens. While surveys show that Americans devote less time to clubs and groups and belong to fewer of them, organizations such as the Red Cross, the PTA, labor unions, and fraternal organizations report steady declines in membership. Even worse, fewer Americans belong to bowling leagues, preferring to "bowl alone." 1

The publication of Putnam's article, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," along with a subsequent book, has led to a vigorous debate about the level of civic participation in America. Citing rival surveys, some scholars argue that participation in voluntary associations has actually increased.

Others argue that Putnam has focused on the wrong sorts of groups. To be sure, they concede, membership in bowling leagues and fraternal organizations has declined, but what about soccer leagues and Habitat for Humanity? 2

And what about churches? Religious congregations remain the most widespread form of voluntary associations in American society. Has participation in American congregations also declined? In Bowling Alone, Putnam estimates that "attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent" since the 1950s and 1960s. 3 Despite a temporary post-9/11 surge in religiosity, church attendance is back where it was before the attacks on Washington and New York. 4

But do attendance figures tell the whole story? In Congregation and Community, sociologist Nancy Ammerman argues that Putnam seriously underestimates the civic vitality of America's 300,000 congregations. Her own study found that many churches serve as civic places, "hosting community gatherings ...

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