Our social fabric is tearing at the seams. We need cultural rites and civic institutions to offer individuals a meaningful membership in a community.
A few years ago, my wife wrote a short piece for our alumni newsletter about baptizing our first son and how college helped prepare us for parenthood. I stumbled across it recently and was struck by its relevance outside the religious rite of baptism.
There is something unique, of course, about baptism and the specific responsibilities Christian parents are assuming. But like all things Catholic, the religious rite “enhances” a natural human phenomenon. We are, each of us, born into a place and time, thrown into a community with various relationships and histories that are not chosen but given to us.
It is then the charge of parents to steward their kids through childhood into adulthood, choosing how they will help their children understand their communities and histories, how they will lead their kids into responsible adulthood. One way of doing this is baptism: welcoming children into a certain type of religious community with certain roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
But without the religious context, parents have the same charge: to welcome their children into a certain type of community with (again) certain roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Our civil society will stand or fall by this charge and whether and how parents offer their children a history and a membership in a community.
Unfortunately, children are receiving increasingly thin gruel standing in place of thick communities. The identities we receive and hand on, the larger communities of which we find ourselves, are losing their significance and leaving us homeless. We are right now reaping the rewards of so many Americans finding ourselves adrift in the world, not offered a membership in a community, not familiar with our history or having a sense of belonging to any one or any place.
This homelessness is at the root of our loneliness epidemic and it is contributing to the breakdown of civil society which has been many years in the making and is rising (it appears) to a sort of climax. What the future holds is a question for another time and for someone more prone to prognostication. But it is certainly the case that the future health of our society will depend upon the education and introduction of children into membership in a community and participation in a history. Left adrift, we will remain confused, lonely, “bored to death.”
In light of the current times, Philanthropy Daily recently started our new “Readings for Troubled Times” series, wherein we offer reading recommendations to understand the times in which we are living. These are books, articles, and speeches that will help readers fortify their minds against ideologues and forces that seek to undermine a free society. They are a diverse set, but they together present a vision of a healthy society for a free people.
It is the sort of freedom, though, that comes from knowing oneself and one’s place. This knowledge and membership must be strengthened as we seek to heal our divided and dividing society. Baptism is one answer to this need and an important one, but we’ll need more than that to remedy the spiritual homelessness of so many Americans. We need many ways for individuals to find themselves a part of some thing and some place, to receive the roles, responsibilities, and expectations that create an identity and a membership in a community.
The philanthropic sector has an important role to play here. It is not the whole answer, but it’s a beginning and an important one. I’ve posited in the past that one reason we are seeing fewer donors each year in America is because people are more separated from the organizations and institutions of civil society. Donors give to organizations they identify with, and so our thinning identities and decreasing civic commitments conduce to a shrinking pool of donors. We must fight against this.
Political parties are increasingly incapable of fulfilling this cultural need, but churches and schools, community centers and civic organizations—these will build frameworks of communities that we can find ourselves a part of, that will give us an identity and a home. They won’t be a panacea for what ails us, but they are a vital step forward for increasingly troubled times.