When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he marveled at the faith that motivated civic life. He wrote, “For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.” [1] He was dazzled by the array of voluntary associations–civic, philanthropic, political, neighborly, moral, educational—and the vibrant good will they harnessed. This kind of engagement was unique to America in this era, quite unlike the European culture. In old Europe, it was much more likely that the nobility or the church hierarchy would take on a project, but seldom would individuals simply band together. But in the years since the first colonials stepped ashore, these European immigrants had been helping one another settle in and thrive. It had become a way of life.

In the famous passage that illustrates the voluntary vibrancy of America, Tocqueville wrote:

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile…immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. [2]

The variety of such associations was truly staggering. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky gives us a snapshot of the kinds of groups Tocqueville would have seen on his visit here.

  • In New York, The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children was founded in 1797.[3]
  • In Boston the Fragment Society, founded in 1812, provided material for clothes and assisted more than 10,200 families in need.[4]
  • The St. Vincent de Paul societies set up hospitals and orphanages, and built the New York House of the Good Shepherd for what they delicately called “fallen women and girls.” [5]
  • The Female Domestic Missionary Society for the Poor, founded in 1816, distributed Bibles and provided schooling in poor parts of New York.
  • In Baltimore a group of Catholic women founded the Maria Marthian Society in 1827 to assist “all denominations, ages, sexes and colours.”[6]
  • In 1822, the Presbyterian women of Petersburg, Virginia established an Education Society, a Ladies’ Missionary Society, and a Dorcas Society, all to help the poor.
  • The Baltimore Female Association for the Relief of Distressed Objects, founded in 1808, assisted women in need.
  • In Charleston, beginning in 1813, the Ladies Benevolent Society aided the senile, both black and white. [7]
  • Jewish settlers established a Hebrew Benevolent Society in Charleston in 1784, a Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum Society in 1822, and a Hebrew Relief Society in New York in 1831, as well as other societies to assist “destitute pregnant women.” [8]

These associations sprang up across the countryside to meet every imaginable need, and their roots bound people together at the community level. They worked irrespective of denominational lines, racial or class barriers. The early Americans felt obligated to give wisely, for the sake of both giver and receiver. They linked the formation of character to acts of charity. Assistance was almost always given in the form of time, food, cloth, or coal, but not money. They looked at a person’s motivation, whether they could get assistance from friends or relatives,[9] and whether they were willing to work to support themselves. This was all in keeping with the Biblical teaching to give to those who ask, but that those who do not work should not eat.[10]

Fostering America’s Soul

Tocqueville observed that this kind of action has a steadying effect in encouraging people toward virtue, building their character as they practice it. He wrote, “The doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not inspire great sacrifices, but every day it prompts some small ones; by itself it cannot make a man virtuous, but its discipline shapes a lot of orderly, temperate, moderate, careful, and self-controlled citizens. If it does not lead the will directly to virtue, it establishes habits which unconsciously turn it that way.”[11] This is the acquisition of civic virtue. In caring for one another voluntarily, Americans foster their own character development.

Tocqueville dubbed these little units of interaction “voluntary associations.” He wrote in the tradition of Edmund Burke, who called them “little platoons” and “subdivisions” of society. Others today call this sector “civil society.” It is expressed in all the many ways people come together freely, in families, neighborhoods, schools, clubs, and communities. Burke and Tocqueville agreed that human beings interact best with each other when they engage in small civic units. To love mankind is abstract, but one can love particular people. Trying to help “the poor” is overwhelming, but helping one family in need is a manageable task. It is the most effective way of reaching individuals: face to face.

Civil society operates at the intersection of faith and free human action. This way of looking at civil society rests upon Christian thinking, both Catholic and Protestant. One of the core principles of Catholic social teaching is the concept of “subsidiarity,” which means in essence that if people closest to the problem can solve it through face-to-face relationships, particularly at the neighborhood level, that is where it should be solved. Catholic teaching says it is “both a serious evil and a disturbance of right order to assign to a larger and higher society what can be performed successfully by smaller and lower communities.”[12] This is altogether consistent with Protestant teaching by Calvin, who advocated people “dwelling together in community under the dominion of God.” [13] Scottish Enlightenment writer Adam Ferguson valued civil society “as a moral sphere.” [14] Christian teaching across the denominational spectrum promotes interaction that creates a civic good, while strengthening virtue.

The Contemporary Conflict Zone

If we “fast forward” to contemporary America, we discover a very different picture. The scope of the civic realm has shriveled in the past century. People who were once connected through voluntary relationships no longer are. We see the “little platoons” overwhelmed by big cities as urbanization has replaced the agrarian culture. Unbridled materialism and politicization have overwhelmed the public philosophy of life. This trend accelerated over the course of the 20th century, peaking in the 1960’s. It has unraveled the private sector and its morality, and shifted civic engagement from the voluntary associations toward the centralized state and bureaucracy.

At the same time, there was a push in the name of efficiency to turn over the care of the poor to the government, shifting the responsibility from the civic space, where actions were personal, to the public space, where they are not. What individuals once did became the responsibility of a vast institution. As we have decreased our civic engagement, our expectations of government have risen. The weaker our horizontal local ties are in the community, the stronger the dependency on the vertical ties of the state.[15] A ripple effect has resulted, Charles Murray tells us: “When the government takes away a core function, it depletes not only the source of vitality pertaining to that particular function, but also the vitality of a much larger family of responses.” [16] The middle sector of civic engagement and the mediating institutions have shriveled. Underlying all of these shifts is the broad secularization of our culture, the post-Enlightenment mentality writ large. We see an overt ejection of faith from the public square. We see that the First Amendment, which was intended to preserve freedom of religion, has now become interpreted as a mandate to protect Americans from religion. And we see the private voluntary sector severed from its religious roots.

The centrifugal forces of modernity have accelerated at a dizzying pace from the 1960s to the present. What has happened in less than fifty years has been the demise of the traditional family, which has been replaced by a culture of “alternative lifestyles.” We see skyrocketing rates of illegitimate births and abortion, an explosion of divorce and domestic violence, and the evaporation of multi-generational families in one place together. Quite often those living in poverty are single mothers, with their children. In the tonier parts of town, neighborhood has been replaced by “lifestyle enclaves” and gated communities for those who can afford them, where it is never necessary to encounter poverty. Private civic engagement has radically atrophied, with fewer true volunteers.  Women, who had been the backbone of volunteerism, are increasingly in the workforce instead, with no spare time. Family time that was once spent serving others is now spent in electronic media.

Americans are “Bowling Alone”

Civic engagement in America remained relatively strong well into the 20th century. Robert Putnam tells us in Bowling Alone[17] that from the Moose and Elk Lodges to the Salvation Army, from the Knights of Columbus to Hadassah, Americans historically have been deeply engaged in civic organizations. They flourished well into the 20th century, diminishing slightly during the Depression, and then rising smartly after World War II and through the 1950s. But Putnam has discovered that since the late sixties, civic engagement has taken a free-fall plummet. A nation that volunteered together or bowled in leagues has abandoned these activities and is now “bowling alone”–hence Putnam’s title.

The Harvard professor has examined patterns of political and religious participation, volunteering, community activity, and philanthropy as indicators of “social capital.” In graph after graph, he presents visible evidence of the decline of civic engagement since the 1960s in everything from churches to political organizations and service clubs. He finds that more Americans are living in cities but are relationally alone, severed from their extended families, surrounded by people but living a life in isolation.

There are several contributing factors to this malaise, Putnam concludes.
Most markedly, there has been a stark change of mindset between the generations born before the end of World War II and the “Baby Boomers” born 1946-64. The plummet began as the boomers began to reach adulthood, and showed little of the civic engagement of their parents, who were still volunteering actively. Putnam looks at the entry of women into the workplace and the pressures of two-career families, and concludes this is one factor, but not the only one. Urban sprawl is another factor, which necessitates longer commutes and thins out the sense of community. Putnam finds a striking correlation between the amount of time spent watching television and slack civic engagement.

The religious community has been hit harder that it would appear. Over the past four decades, church membership has slipped by a mere 10%. But more telling is the fact that “actual attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent.”[18] What used to be a commitment beyond Sunday worship no longer is. This one-time pillar of American life has been “hollowed out,” Putnam tells us. “Seen from without, the institutional edifice appears virtually intact – little decline in profession of faith, formal membership down just a bit, and so on. When examined more closely, however, it seems clear that decay has consumed the load-bearing beams of our civic infrastructure.”[19]

Tocqueville worried about this tendency he could already see in some Americans in the 1830s to pull back into one’s private sphere, which he claimed would lead to civic stagnation. “Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.’”[20] Add a television, and you have a perfect recipe for inaction.

Mall as Modern Temple

But the drive toward material consumption is alive and well. Over the same time frame since the 1960s, Putnam finds that 70 percent of young people have decided that making a lot of money is their top priority. Participating in the community is a priority for only one in five.[21] In an eerily prophetic insight, Tocqueville could already see these conflicting tendencies in the bosom of America. At the same time he admired the thriving voluntary associations and the selfless impulse of Americans, he also saw that a strong streak of individualism and materialism ran through the character of the country. As long as they stayed in balance, it created a sustainable tension. But tip the balance toward materialism and individualism, and order unravels, producing the Modern Man, or Modman.[22]

We see the Modman around us everywhere today. Robert Bellah calls this creature the “radically unencumbered and improvisational self,” cut off from any ties to community, history, tradition, or civic engagement. The culture of the “self” has grown, as have the publications, spas, therapists and support groups to massage our bodies and egos. What Tom Wolfe described as the “Me Decade” has turned into several decades of self-absorption by the Baby Boomers, followed by Generations X and Y, and the Millennials. The “pursuit of happiness” in America is increasingly expressed by material consumption. Tocqueville foresaw this also, warning that a decrease in religion was likely to “lay the soul open to an inordinate love of material pleasure.”[23] His words were prophetic. The shopping mall has become the new American temple.

The market economy has created a higher standard of living, materially speaking, and many lucrative jobs. Even in austere times, Americans enjoy an enviable life in comparison to most of the world. But as the nation has become more intensely market driven, it has also exacted a price on civil society. Markets tend to undermine what makes them work. Economist Joseph Schumpeter characterized market processes as “creative destruction.” Trust is necessary for a marketplace to function, but the market depends on a driving self-interest, which can rupture trust. Cooperation is necessary for the market, but a climate of competition can fracture cooperation. The quieter personal attributes can be jeopardized by a stampede toward wealth. This cuts to the heart of the contemporary dilemma in America. At some point, the human conditions that allow markets to flourish are undone by the markets themselves.

Dislocation and ruptured families severed from geographic community roots have also weakened the fabric of our nation. People who move every seven years on average, regardless of how much they earn, are relationally impoverished. The mobility that was efficient for the marketplace has been slowly unraveling the rootedness of American people. Community is dissolved by constant geographic relocation. As small shopkeepers are driven out of business by large chains, the character of our towns is homogenized and depersonalized. It is a delicate order that makes markets sustainable in a free country, and we in America teeter in a precarious balancing act.

Economist Wilhelm Roepke addressed these concerns in A Humane Economy,[24] concluding that there is a point of diminishing returns with unfettered economic growth. Roepke observed that as economic improvement grows, discontentment rises in proportion to expectations. He contends that a growing economy does not necessarily improve the welfare of individuals, because other costs accompany economic growth. The creation of more goods creates new wants, envy, and the social compulsion to acquire. This discontent, however, comes from a mind-set that equates our satisfaction with our material goods, and assumes that our possessions define our worth.

But the real question is the human heart and our attitude toward wealth, not prosperity itself. From the Biblical perspective, wealth is bestowed as a blessing, but with it comes responsibility to use it both wisely and compassionately. If we do not, the result is an atrophied soul, and materialism writ large. The bitter fruit is alienation.

The Demise of Mediating Institutions

Mediating institutions historically have provided a bridge between individuals and the overarching structures above them. But in the push of the modern age toward big business and big bureaucracy, the bridges of mediating institutions have fallen into disrepair or disappeared. Mediating institutions are the antidote to isolation and alienation of the individual and the dissolution of society by the centrifugal forces of modernity. They are crucial in preserving the good character of the country. We live in a fragile order.

One of the most powerful mediating institutions was always the church. But over the course of time, this beam in our nation has become hollow. Marginalized in the drive toward secular materialism, which appears to be the new national religion, the transformational power of the church has less influence on the culture. Fewer and fewer people venture outside the pews in any other manifestation of their faith. The voices of self-interest and self-indulgence have become louder to fill the space left in the retreat of virtue.

We have increasingly placed our faith in the power of government to provide solutions for human misery. What was once a strong level of responsibility and autonomy at the city, county, and state level has shifted toward a massive concentration at the federal level, especially in recent years. So we see another kind of polarization taking place, where the mediating institutions have shriveled, leaving at one end alienated individuals, and at the other end a vast bureaucracy, in which we have placed our hopes, but which by its nature cannot meet individual, personal needs.

For other essays in this series, read here and here.

Adapted from Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now


1. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1955) p. 153. Quoted in Novak, p. 31.
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 513.
3. Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992) p. 13.
4. Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, p. 14.
5. The Charities of New York, Brooklyn, and Staten Island (New York, NY: Hurd and Houghton, 1873), p. 46, Quoted in Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, p. 17.
6. Olasky, pp. 16-17.
7. Olasky, p. 15.
8. Charities of New York, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, p. 48; referenced in Olasky p. 17.
9. The laws of the Northwest Territory required relatives to care for members of their family in need.
10. 2 Thes. 3:10.
11. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 527.
12. Quadragesimo Anno, 79
13. Don E. Eberly, Ed., The Essential Civil Society Reader, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) p. 24.
14. Eberly, p. 24
15. See Robert Nisbet, Quest for Community (San Francisco, CA: ICS Press, 1999).
16. Charles Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 274.
17. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
18. Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 72.
19. Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 72.
20. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 506.
21. Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 260.
22. Alexander Boot. How the West Was Lost (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.)
23. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 444.
24. Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998 Third Edition).


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