Bowling Alone

Every Wednesday night, a man I'll call Steve takes part in an activity that's become popular with huge numbers of Americans: He goes bowling--all by himself. Now, the fact that millions of people go bowling alone may not seem like anything to put on your worry list. But a Harvard political scientist sees this trend as a sign that civil society is disintegrating--and I think he's got a point. In the Journal of Democracy, Robert Putnam points out that the total number of bowlers has soared in recent years. And yet, membership in bowling leagues is less than half what it was 10 years ago. Putnam warns that solo bowlers forgo the social interaction that league bowlers typically engage in. And that's where the danger lies. Putnam sees the growing preference for bowling alone as symptomatic of a larger trend--one that threatens democracy itself. Decades of research shows that democracies become strong and stay that way only if citizens stay involved in one another's lives through activities like voting, volunteering, and joining civic societies. But, Putnam says, in recent years this kind of public-spiritedness has declined sharply. A Roper poll reveals that since 1973, the number of Americans who say they attended a town or a school meeting in the past year fell by more than one third. Membership in social service clubs has dropped substantially. And Putnam says that people who once served as Red Cross aides and Boy Scout troop leaders are now "missing in action." Why are Americans becoming less civic-minded? Putnam believes that civic involvement is directly related to social involvement. For example, he quotes a survey that found that the number of Americans who say they socialize with their neighbors at least once a year has slowly declined over the past 20 years. And people who spend most of their leisure time watching television don't join civic groups or even vote, Putnam found. Our lack of concern for our communities is in part a result of our relentless pursuit of what political scientist Michael Sandel calls "the unencumbered self." Freedom is now defined as what we want when we want it. We don't want to be hemmed in by commitments and structures that limit our freedom--like having to meet our bowling partners on a night when we feel like doing something else. But in America and elsewhere, voter turnout and membership in everything from choral societies to football clubs are, as Putnam puts it, "the hallmarks of a successful region." That's because when citizens form groups to feed the hungry, take care of the elderly, and raise funds for schools, the result is a thriving neighborhood that has less crime, poverty and unemployment. Best of all, if we're taking care of our own communities, we don't have to passively sit by and allow a strong, centralized government to intrude into every aspect of our lives. And that's why civil society strengthens democracy. As Christians we need to help reverse the damaging national trend toward social disengagement. We need to make sure we don't shirk our own civic responsibilities. And then we ought to draw our neighbors out of their social isolation--to bring them into warm fellowship in our homes and churches--and demonstrate the true meaning of community.      


Chuck Colson


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