Joining a Church (or Knitting Club) Could End the Loneliness Epidemic

For a young political scientist curious about polarization, social isolation, and democracy, the 1970 regionalization of Italy was the perfect case study.  

As Italy established 20 brand new regional governments, Robert Putnam wanted to know what the key variable for citizen satisfaction and effective governance would be. Would it be wealth or cultural homogeneity? He traveled from region to region, gathering data and testing hypothesis after hypothesis, but he couldn’t crack the code.  

Then he went to church, and everything fell into place.  

It was while listening to a church choir rehearse that Putnam realized that there was a variable he still hadn’t considered: civic engagement. And what he found was that there was a clear and direct correlation between civic engagement and both effective government and citizen satisfaction.  

Renowned author of Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, Putnam is now also the star of Join or Die, an award-winning documentary produced and directed by siblings Rebecca and Pete Davis. Join or Die is described in promotional materials as, “A film about why you should join a club…and why the fate of America depends on it.” Featuring heavy-hitters like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, along with many influential scholars, the film argues that the loneliness epidemic is a threat to democracy and the public health of the nation.

Murthy has made loneliness one of his department’s top issues, saying that in his travels across the country, “No issue has resonated more deeply [than social isolation] … When we are lonely, it impacts how we show up in the rest of our lives.” People experiencing loneliness have higher rates of mental health disorders, substance abuse problems, sleep problems, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disorders.  

Civic engagement, the proposed cure for loneliness, can look like a lot of things: regular participation in book clubs, service organizations, affinity organizations, athletic teams or clubs, unions, or religious congregations, to name a few. Participation in any sort of collectivist activity builds social capital, a term pioneered by economist Glenn Loury and later popularized by Putnam.  

Social capital, in the most basic sense, is the network of relationships you have with people in your community that helps build a general sense of trust and reciprocity. And for as long as they have existed, communities of faith have always contributed to healthy networks of social capital.  

“Religion provides at least half of the social capital in the United States,” David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, says in the documentary. But membership in groups that provide civic engagement has declined, including among religious congregations. According to the documentary, there has been a 66 percent decline in union membership from the 1960s to the 2010s, a 50 percent decline in club meeting attendance from the 1970s to the 1990s, and a 35 percent decline in religious congregation membership from the 1960s to the 2020s.

Some people have blamed the development of technology for decreased civic engagement — and television, the internet, and social media have certainly made an impact on how people choose to spend their free time — but Jane McAlevey, a union organizer and scholar featured in the documentary, argues that the decline was intentional and strategic. “I believe a deliberate strategy of cultivating individualism begins in the early 1970s to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the trade union movement,” she says.  

When individualism dominates a culture instead of collectivism, big businesses benefit more than consumers, as aptly illustrated in the documentary by a dramatic overhead shot of a neighborhood in which each house has their own pool. At some point, people began to believe that if they wanted to swim, they needed to have their own personal pool. And once you get a personal pool, you’re responsible for pool maintenance, and for the 20,000 gallons of water the average backyard pool requires. Then you need to spend time cleaning the leaves and bugs out of your pool, or you hire someone to do that, and you also need to buy pool noodles and toys and probably some pool chairs, and maybe you even decide to build a shed for all-things pool. Eventually, you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on a pool that you will have to maintain, and on the other side of your fence is your neighbor’s equally big, blue, and expensive pool. At the end of the day, the ultimate winner is the pool company.  

There are all sorts of arguments against this type of overconsumption, but from a civic engagement standpoint, individualistic behavior is damaging because it requires you to work harder to be able to afford things that were once shared. We get exhausted from working more, and the last thing we want to do after a long day of work is go be a part of a club. And so, McAlevey argues, the rise of individualism was the death of union membership, and all sorts of other clubs were caught in the crossfire. We didn’t just lose our appetite for community; we were given an appetite suppressant.

But Putnam doesn’t think it’s too late for us. “America doesn’t have to be the kind of America you’ve lived in your whole life,” he says. Join or Die highlights multiple groups, from a Black bike collective in Atlanta, to a bowling league in Maine, an Odd Fellows lodge in Texas, an Episcopal farming collective in Michigan, an Indigenous mutual aid and advocacy group in Los Angeles, and a rideshare driver’s alliance in Chicago. These groups all have vastly different missions, but they have one thing in common: They all boost civic engagement within their communities.  

With Join or Die, the Davis siblings have made it their mission to get more Americans to join (or form!) clubs, and one way they are doing that is by hosting screenings across the country. For Christians, the easiest club to join might be one that goes by a different name — a congregation.  

So many people of faith (myself included) are too often believing alone — identifying or resonating with a certain faith tradition but not finding the time to actually go to church. With everything we have to juggle, church on a Sunday morning feels inconsequential: If our relationship with God is personal, why should we need to worship together at all? But church has never just been about worship. It’s about potlucks, community service, music, friends, mutual aid, childcare, and learning. It is about lighting each other’s candles on Christmas Eve, passing a tiny flame around a room until everyone’s face is aglow.

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