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Civility, Civics and Church Vitality

In this week when the impeachment trial has begun—the second presidential impeachment trial Americans have witnessed within two decades—it should be clear to all that political civility is in a crisis. It’s on life support. Diagnoses differ as to who or what is most responsible for the steep decline of political civility, and that’s part of the very problem: Too many politicians and public figures don’t have a common understanding and practice of the habit of civility that allows them to “agree to disagree” or to hold a contentious debate but then still find a way to work on common interests. The politicians aren’t the only ones affected—all citizens lose out when government is in gridlock. The habits of incivility seep into us, and in some ways, they started with us.

As goes civility, so goes civics. The connection has been driven home to me by a fascinating new book, Politics is for Power. Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh names the problem of “political hobbyism,” which is following of political news, websites and podcasts and then commenting and complaining to family and friends and in online forums. Hersh conducted a survey finding that one-third of Americans say they spend at least two hours a day involved in “politics,” but for four-fifths of this group, the political hobby activities are all they do. This isn’t real politics, argues Hersh—hobbyism doesn’t serve others concretely, it doesn’t build coalitions, it doesn’t win votes and it doesn’t convince other people to join your cause.

Readers of this post will likely recognize people they know, but they should also likely recognize themselves in some measure. A vast number of Americans of all walks of life are susceptible to this behavior, and Hersh finds it’s particularly prominent among white, educated, somewhat older men, and among independents and Democrats. It’s not just the stereotypical Fox News watcher.

What does all of this have to do with Catholic Church reform? I propose that the crisis of civility and the crisis of civics are closely bound up with the crisis of civil society institutions, including attendance and active participation in churches. As is well known, transformation is occurring among all U.S. religions, with Christianity the numerical loser. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the decline of Christianity is continuing at a rapid pace, with 65 percent of American adults describing themselves as Christians, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. In many Catholic dioceses and parishes, membership is graying and the young adults don’t keep attending after they are confirmed. Wealthy suburban parishes and various kinds of nonwhite or ethnically diverse parishes are exceptions.

But why should one care? What is church good for? Church participation makes significant contributions to small and large social fabrics. Active participation in a religious community makes people healthier and happier. Ample research shows these associations, including that of sociologist Brad Wilcox, who finds that religious-service-attending Americans are less likely to cheat on their partners and more likely to enjoy happier marriages; and of political scientist Robert Putnam, who states that “churchgoing kids have better relationships with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities” and are less prone to drug use and delinquency.

Both of these claims are cited by journalist Timothy Carney in his 2019 book Alienated America that traces the influence of stronger and weaker communal connections on the health of the public square. Like Hersh’s book, Carney’s is essential reading for those who are looking for fresh, constructive takes on what ails American public life. Carney plumbs voting patterns from the 2016 Republican presidential primaries to show that, for both individual voters and communities, each level down in church attendance brought a step up in Trump support.” This finding matters because, if the presidency of Donald Trump is emblematic of, and a contributor to, the erosion of civility and the exacerbation of political polarization, then participation in church could well be a counterbalancing force against these trends.

The erosion of civil society, the decline of the public’s trust in just about every social institution, the decline of church attendance and the rise of political polarization with its attendant rise in incivility are interrelated phenomena, I believe. They constitute a huge, interconnected social challenge that yields to no easy solution. But I can confidently say that churches can be part of the solution. It matters to the quality of social and political life in the U.S. that churches are healthy, in the sense both of having an active and growing (or at least stable) membership, and of living out their faith in a way that bolsters civility, peace and justice.

So, for the Catholic Church to become a stronger and lasting part of the solution—for it does already do much for the common good, but the trends of decline are undeniable— it has to be vital at the parish level and in the active participation of its lay members. I believe that won’t happen without the Church taking on board the kinds of suggestions that all the contributors to this blog have been advancing. Just going to church is not a magic bullet for building community. It matters how the people do community. The connection between Carney’s suggestions, which focus on building neighborly networks, and Hersh’s suggestions, which are to stop posting on Facebook and get out and do politics with your neighbors, are that building community requires developing face-to-face relationships.

Whether in the paradigm of community organizing, or small church communities or other methods, Catholics need to meet—for more than 60 minutes a week—and they have to be allowed and encouraged to make their parishes the communities they dream they can be.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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