The Ties That Free Cherie Harder

These are lonely times. By many measures, rates of loneliness in the US have doubled. We are more likely to live alone, to lack confidantes, to feel ourselves abandoned in the world. We report enjoying fewer friendships, particularly close ones. Nearly one in four of us claim that we are rarely understood. And we increasingly doubt the good faith and motives of those around us, particularly those of different political persuasions.

The consequences are harsh. The more isolated we feel, the more likely we are to get hurt, sick, addicted, or depressed, and die prematurely. And our very alienation also leaves us less likely to reach out to others, to join groups, to vote, to volunteer, to worship, to make efforts to connect with others – or even see the point of doing so. Those who don’t see the point of making an effort will often look for a scapegoat to blame for their frustration – and generally find what they are looking for. The result? Even more disconnection, fueled by resentment.

Such angry loneliness is misery for those that suffer from it. But the problems do not end there. In fact, new problems start precisely at the point of convergence of growing public distrust and disconnection. As dangerous as loneliness is for the individual, it can be even more destructive to a society.

This coming week, Trinity Forum will release its spring Reading featuring excerpts from political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant and unsettling classic The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s work sprang from an effort to make sense of a widespread horror: how do cruel and totalitarian regimes come to power? Why do so many hundreds of millions of seemingly ordinary people enable, tolerate, even admire tyrannical leaders? Her conclusions are fascinating and instructive. Writing in the mid-20th century, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and just two years before the death of Stalin, she observed that totalitarianism sprouts in the hard ground of alienation, estrangement, and distrust – when citizens lose their connection to each other or to a sense of the common good, and fragment into a mass of atomized individuals. Or in short, when a critical mass of society becomes lonely.

 Arendt wrote: 

Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. This demand is made by the party leaders of totalitarian movements even before they seize power. It usually precedes the total organization of the country under their actual rule and it follows from the claim of their ideologies that their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race… Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party. 

And later:

. . . What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century….

The atomized society Arendt describes forms a direct contrast to what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the genius of America – its proliferation of community associations based on shared affections, affinities, and goals (“civil society”) that wind up mediating between the individual and the state (and often, constraining the power of both). Such bonds between people and group efforts are not without friction or downsides, but often have the paradoxical effect of enlarging the scope of human freedom – or, at the least, throwing up roadblocks to the aspirations of a bulldozing state or strongman.

So, what then can be done? Addressing a problem as deep and profound as human loneliness cannot be done quickly or en masse, as the antidote – connections, friendship, love itself – requires an often slow, accretive building of trust and regard. But if America’s history offers a guide, a vital piece of scaffolding to the growth of friendship and community is found in what may seem an unlikely place: the local (flawed, often gossipy, foible-prone) church.

In an Evening Conversation Trinity Forum hosted last month (viewable here), Tim Carney, the author of Alienated America observed that the health of America’s houses of worship was so closely tied to a robust civil society that “the retreat of churches in America is [emphasis added] the erosion of civil society in America. And conversely “When the church manifests itself on the local level, on the human scale, it becomes the tool for lifting up us fallen humans from what we are in nature to what we are called to be.” Or, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reported in Bowling Alone: “Nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.”

Moreover, while regular churchgoers are often portrayed as hard-edged, some recent studies have found that church membership and attendance is positively correlated with concern for the poor, immigrants, and others in need, in addition to a variety of “pro-social” effects. For all of the institutional shortcomings that attend a gathering of fallen and fractious people, local houses of worship often form the trellis on which the vine of human connection and care grows.

It may seem unlikely, even naive to suggest that one of the most potent pushbacks against the deep individual alienation and creeping authoritarianism that menaces our time is to belong to and consistently show up at a local house of worship. But at root, many of our problems – both personal and geo-political –  stem from a failure of care and love. And in worshipping together, we learn to know and emulate Love embodied, who came to save the world.

Recommended Reading and Resources:

  • Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2019.
  • Tim Carney, Alienated America, Harper Collins, 2019.
  • Vaclav Havel, “Politics, Morality, and Civility,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2017.
  • Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2018.
  • Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2018.

Cherie Harder is the President of the Trinity Forum.