Associations that once formed a critical piece of American social life are on the verge of extinction. The problem is often framed in terms of the familiar “old versus new” conflict. “As older members die off and younger generations find civic groups irrelevant, membership in centuries-old civic clubs like the Moose, the Elks, the Optimists and others is dwindling,” reports Marc Lallanilla in a recent ABC News story .
And so the issue appears really to be one of demographics. The antiquated and obsolete social clubs and groups are in the process of dying off, replaced by more efficient and relevant Internet chat rooms and virtual communities. The social process of natural selection is at work, weeding out the elements of society that don't deserve to flourish.
After all, critics point to the shortcomings of all-male fraternal societies as cause of their own decline. According to Lallanilla, “Most groups relegated women to provisional or auxiliary participation in a handful of select activities. And by excluding Jews, blacks, Asians and other minorities, these once-powerful fraternal organizations may have paved the way to their own demise.”
Shouldn't we then celebrate the death of such archaic “old boy” networks? Despite being afflicted by the sin and disruption that marks all human activities, civic groups like the Elks and the Lions do much that is praiseworthy and beneficial for society. And while Lallanilla admits that changes have been made within many of these groups to combat racism and other forms of discrimination, “change may have come too late.”
There is no doubt that flawed aspects of voluntary associations and fraternal societies have contributed in some part to their decline. The lion's share of blame, however, ought to be laid at the feet of the modernist view of individuality, which minimizes the importance of community and social structures.
In the words of theologian Stanley Grenz, who passed away earlier this year, “The modern world is an individualistic world, a realm of the autonomous human person endowed with inherent rights.” While there are many elements of this modern world that are compatible with biblical Christianity, Grenz writes that “we must shake ourselves loose from the radical individualism that has come to characterize the modern mind-set.”
And it is just this radical individualism that has undermined the vitality of civic and community groups, rendering them “irrelevant” in the minds of many. This was hardly the view of the founders of America, who realized the importance of a vibrant civil society. The First Amendment implicitly promotes voluntary associations by stating that Congress shall make no law infringing the “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that the right of association is a “fundamental” right, and in the Constitution, such rights, “even though not expressly guaranteed, have been recognized by the Court as indispensable to the enjoyment of rights explicitly defined.”
This coheres well with the view of sphere sovereignty articulated by Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Kuyper argued that social spheres enjoy independence or sovereignty, in that they are not created by the state but derive their authority and existence directly from God.
He emphasized that this idea should be identified as “sovereignty in the individual social spheres, in order that it may be sharply and decidedly expressed that these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and that the State cannot intrude here, and has nothing to command in their domain. As you feel at once, this is the deeply interesting question of our civil liberties.”
And here we see the continuing importance and relevance of the structures of civil society, including voluntary associations like the Elks and Kiwanis Club. These kinds of groups form an indispensable buffer between the individual and the State, fulfilling what Kuyper called the “organic life of society” as opposed to the “mechanical character of the government.”
The proper view of civic groups is one that embraces the comprehensive nature of the human person, as social individuals. We should embody attitudes neither of radical individualism nor of extreme communitarianism, but rather of balanced individuals within community. Civic groups and voluntary associations are anything but “irrelevant” within such a rich and complex view of human society. Indira Gandhi once said, “People tend to forget their duties but remember their rights.” In this case, it is our duty to exercise the right of association.