Editor’s note: This essay won third place in the essay contest of the Acton Institute’s 2020 Poverty Cure Summit, which took place on Nov. 18-19, 2020. It first appeared at Acton.org.
The author of the following quotation has been hotly debated, but I fear that its significance has been forgotten: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” COVID-19 has heightened awareness of the physical body like no other recent phenomenon. Everyone is vigilant about handwashing, taking vitamins, and avoiding the ill. We have become curators of the body, while neglecting our souls. The Poverty Cure Summit panel event “Reducing Poverty: The Importance of Community” delved into the antisocial evolution of the postmodern era. Acton panelists, author Tim Carney and nonprofit leader Lucas Rouggly, have encouraged me to reject this isolating “new normal.”
The pandemic has accentuated and expedited this path from relational to transactional living. Robert D. Putnam addressed this trend in Bowling Alone. In 2000, more Americans began bowling than ever before, but a dwindling percentage belong to a league. In the last 25 years, membership in social clubs dropped 58%. More destructively, even families have become increasingly uninvolved with each other. The average square footage of homes has increased steadily while the average family size has decreased, epitomizing how materialistic standards are rising while the social value of life is diminishing. The frequency of family dinners has decreased by more than 30% in the last three decades. This statistic matters because children who have frequent family meals are 40% more likely to earn A’s and B’s on report cards, while children who have infrequent family meals are 2.5 times more likely to use marijuana and twice as likely to abuse alcohol. A solid family unit is the most vital tool for a healthy society, for as Ronald Reagan notably said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”
Tim Carney analyzes mankind’s drift away from community in the postmodern era in his book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. Carney explains why there is a growing sentiment that the American Dream is dead. Conversations with people from an expansive cross-section of the United States revealed that the American Dream is sociological, not economic. Discouraged citizens lament not their financial status, but the lack of community. Less parades, fewer block parties, and the decline of church attendance are among the common grievances. Carney’s cross-country tour serves as a critical reminder that humans crave and require community to thrive.
In an article titled “I Belong to Me,” Carney relays the decay of community in a once-idyllic but now-dilapidated Pennsylvanian town. The source of the article is a jarringly honest quotation from a man named Jason whom Carney interviewed. Carney asked Jason if he belonged to any group – a church, club, or school, perhaps. Jason replied, “I belong to me. Jesus Christ of Latter Day Jason. That’s what I belong to.” If that quotation does not invite a pit in your stomach about today’s antisocial, anti-religious culture, it should. Jason is not unique; he simply confessed how millions of Americans think. This encounter is one of infinite examples of the decline of community in the modern era.
Lucas Rouggly has witnessed the power of family and community through his mission work in St. Louis. Rouggly’s nonprofit organization, LOVEtheLOU, successfully demonstrates how a private organization centered around relationships can revive a failing neighborhood. LOVEtheLou began with a few of Rouggly’s friends and family and has flourished into a powerhouse of over 1,000 volunteers who tangibly serve the St. Louis area. By focusing on one neighborhood at a time, LOVEtheLOU has revitalized struggling businesses and families through fundraising, festivals, retreats and youth programs. LOVEtheLOU is a powerful example of how the private sector solves problems and how relationships are the best tool for correcting the trajectory of a neighborhood.
The decline in community—and trend toward anti-social individualism—has been wearing away at society for decades. The pandemic has only expedited this cultural revolution. While most people have focused on the war against COVID-19, there is a silent war between transactional versus relational living. In the past year, we have become consumers in every interaction. Church is no longer a time of fellowship, conversation, and service to others; it is a click on a webpage in your Sunday-best pajamas. Grocery shopping is no longer a place to bump into neighbors or chat with your cashier; it is a frantic mission on Amazon.com followed by the magical deposit of goods by an overworked delivery person at your doorstep, whom you rarely see let alone exchange words with. Date night is no longer a special occasion at your favorite local restaurant, where you can brighten your server’s day and leave a generous tip to reward her exceptional service; it is a lazy tap on a to-go app. In 2020, birthday parties, weddings, memorial services, coffee shop dates, library study sessions, block parties, and even holiday traditions have gut-wrenchingly become a relic of a quaint yesteryear. Be wary of those who boast of 2020 as a progressive “new normal” which glorifies our atomizing technology. The “new normal” is an attack on the social core of our souls.
The strength of communities has an inverse relationship with deaths of despair – death by suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease. Deaths of despair have been increasing in recent decades, directly correlating with the rise of cultural secularism. Deaths of despair increased 180% between 2000 to 2017 alone. 2014 signaled a massive red flag for American culture, as life expectancy began to decrease, in large part due to deaths of despair. Many experts are quick to blame capitalism for deaths of despair, which is shocking considering capitalism has lifted more nations out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of the world. Material well-being has only increased in the Western world with the advent of free markets, so it is not our economic system that is failing us. The deaths of despair show that material well-being and quality of life are not the same measure.
There is something social and spiritual – not merely economic – to blame for the deaths of despair. Being involved in community proves to increase quality and longevity of life. Joining and participating in one group decreases a person’s odds of dying next year by 50%. Community involvement has been declining as deaths of despair have increased. Church attendance and membership have also decreased during this time. The number of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation is now equal to the number of American Christians. It is simple to understand why a secular culture leads to deaths of despair. Secularism makes life exclusively about this world. The only hope for non-religious friends is what happens here and now. Look at our broken country. I am thankful that my hope is not on earth. Religion points the individual to a higher power and a next life which provides the follower with an unshakable hope. Without this hope, despair is the only logical result.
Experts have laser-focused on coronavirus statistics, while ignoring the deaths of despair and mental health epidemic within the pandemic. The pandemic lockdowns skyrocketed the already rising deaths of despair by 10% to 60%. Government officials essentially put the anti-social, anti-religious trends into law, and these numbers are the result. University of Chicago Economics Professor Casey Mulligan explains, “Social isolation is part of the mechanism that turns a pandemic into a wave of deaths of despair.” In September 2020, over eight in 10 people who took a depression screen scored with symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression beginning in March 2020. More people have reported suicidal and self-harming thoughts than ever before recorded by Mental Health America. Over a third of Americans reported having suicidal thoughts in September 2020. Why are the experts not talking about this public health crisis?
This failure is an example of economist Friedrich Hayek’s “Knowledge Problem.” No expert or bureaucrat – or even a group of them – can ever obtain enough information to accurately judge the needs of specific individuals in unique circumstances. That is why individuals ought to make decisions for themselves, not the government. Society functions best when individuals freely act in accordance with their subjective valuations. Many of those suffering from mental illness brought on by lockdowns would rather risk infection with the disease and gamble that they will be in the 97% to 99.75% who recover than continue their downward spiral. To live comfortably in a locked-down America is a privilege that low-income earning Americans are not afforded. The negative emotional and financial effects of the lockdowns have been disproportionately borne by low-income earners and people of color. If politicians sincerely want to better the lives of these groups, they ought to allow them to make decisions about their physical and mental health and return the right to proudly earn a paycheck.
I do not resist the recommendations to use appropriate caution and protect our vulnerable populations from COVID-19. After listening to “The Importance of Community,” however, I vehemently reject the pressure to embrace the insidious “new normal.” We are in a war between transactional versus relational living. Despite the convenience of transactional living, I refuse to settle for the mud pie of shallow efficiency. In our eagerness to live in fear of the virus and claim moral superiority to those taking less precautions than ourselves, we have far-too willingly relinquished basic freedoms and redefined what it means to live. If the “new normal” persists, we will be a people having forgotten that it is only through relationships that we truly live.
— Margo Weller studies Business Economics and Business Analysis at Grove City College. She is on the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council and serves as a Research Fellow for the Institute for Faith and Freedom.