First in a three-part series on the practice of civic life

“We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.” — Stephen L. Carter[1]

Running a society always seems to be the job of someone else — someone with more influence, more money, more time. Perhaps we expect some program or sponsor to take the lead. But when it comes to taking care of people, there is no someone else; there is only us. Civic engagement requires space for people to act on their beliefs and solve the problems of their communities. But this space is only as big and free as we make it.

Societies are a lot like organisms. They have many parts that function together. It might be said that government acts as the bone structure. Commerce feeds the appetites. Schools direct like the brain. Industry is the muscle. Law enforcement the arms. And the vast voluntary sphere of people helping people is the heart that sends goodwill throughout the body politic. This lifeblood of human affections is called a civil society and includes the work of churches, charities, clubs and a host of nonprofit organizations.

Civil society is the space in public life separate from government and business. It promotes networks of relationships that grow organically. This architecture of social life allows us to join with others of like minds and pursue our visions of the good. People working with people on their own initiative and in their own environment — this is the catalyst of community.

For example, the Parent Teacher Association empowers children and brings the knowledge of the community into schools. Prison ministries give hope to the incarcerated and restore broken families. Soup kitchens feed those who can’t feed themselves. Shelters give the homeless a place to sleep. Churches provide moral direction and belonging. The global efforts of Doctors Without Borders and Habitat for Humanity gather volunteers and resources to help the needy. Even little things like joining a book club or coaching a youth team strengthen civil society.

Why is all this interaction so necessary? Isn’t life easier without other people’s problems? Maybe, but easier isn’t always better. Modern communication is a wonder. Never before have we been within reach of so many people. Nevertheless, we tend to isolate ourselves in our own online worlds, favoring the views we like and dismissing the views we dislike. Opinions harden. Tolerance for difference wanes. We seem content to interact with images more than people.

Even before social media began, a study by scholar Robert Putnam found that “we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.”[2] One academic study showed “a large social change” toward isolation in recent years, reporting that people have “fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods.”[3] Our common spheres are shrinking.

“In healthy societies,” explains columnist David Brooks, “people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole.”[4] But this ideal is clouded by individualism. According to Putnam, “A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”[5] In such a climate people avoid attachments. A recent Gallup survey indicates that “Americans’ confidence in most major U.S. institutions remains below the historical average.”[6]

By encouraging people to get outside themselves, civil society guards against such isolation. No culture, regardless of how advanced, can prosper without cultivating trust and cooperation among its citizens. The wealth of a society is measured by its social capital — the human connections that bridge differences and enable understanding.

More than laws or legislatures, the affections of the heart are the glue that holds society together. Manners matter as much as rules. Human connection doesn’t just happen magically; it is an art and, like all crafts, requires patience, collaboration and hard work.

[1] Stephen L. Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998).

[2] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).

[3] Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 2006; 71; 353.

[4] David Brooks, “How to Fix Politics,” New York Times, Apr. 12, 2016.

[5] Robert D. Putnam, 19.

[6] Jeffrey M. Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Still Below Historical Norms,” Gallup, June 15, 2015.