Once a nation of joiners, Americans are now suspicious of those who do

Why We Wrote This

The erosion of social groups in the United States is a widely recognized trend. But when distrust of membership spreads to faith groups, misunderstanding can breed fear and jeopardize constitutional protections.

Amanda Voisard/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Shahid Shafi speaks in Austin, Texas, in December before members of the State Republican Executive Committee, following a vote in favor of a resolution that opposes an effort by the Tarrant County Republican Party to remove him as vice chair because of his religion. County officials are scheduled to vote Jan. 10.

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The right to form organizations, religious ones in particular, is so foundational to American democracy that it’s enshrined in the First Amendment. Participation in such groups has eroded in recent decades, however, and two men have run into the negative consequences of that trend. Republicans in Tarrant County, Texas, vote Thursday on whether to remove Shahid Shafi from a local party position because he’s Muslim. Brian Buescher, a US District Court nominee, had his qualifications questioned by Senate Democrats because of his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Thus, a worrying social trend has bred constitutional threats. “The Republican Party is a party of religious freedom,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist. “To miss the forest for the trees on something like that is shocking and troubling.” But there are ongoing efforts to reconnect Americans with organizations and people with different political and cultural beliefs, says Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” He adds: “Naturally, the desire to find people who fit our niche will expand to include people who have a different viewpoint.”

Shahid Shafi and Brian Buescher may not seem to have much in common.

One is a recently naturalized citizen and a trauma surgeon in Southlake, Texas. The other is a lifelong Nebraskan and a lawyer in Omaha.

In recent months they have both run into two old and converging trends in American society. Almost since the country’s founding, Americans set about forming organizations and associations for purposes ranging from religious and social to the political. The concept is so foundational that it is enshrined in the First Amendment. At the same time, American history has also been rife with anxiety and distrust about some of those organizations, from George Washington’s concerns about political parties to the widespread belief that John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would be more loyal to the pope than the Constitution.

This broad participation in social groups and associations has been eroding in recent decades, according to sociologists and political scientists – and that includes participation in local faith communities. On those rarer occasions that they do choose to congregate, Americans are increasingly spending time primarily with people who share similar political and cultural beliefs. A result has been an increase in misunderstanding and fear of others, and when that is applied to religions and religious organizations, constitutional protections could be jeopardized.

Marc Dunkelman argues in his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” that a person’s social universe can be divided into three rings: an innermost ring made up of intimate family and friends; an outermost ring made up of occasional acquaintances with whom they share a common interest, like fans of the same sports team; and a middle ring made up of those in between, people whom they see fairly often at a PTA meeting or a bowling league or a church service.

Americans have been neglecting that middle ring in recent decades, says Professor Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University in Rhode Island.

“There you would have in many cases some variety of people who would have different points of view, and it’s there you would begin to say ‘I don’t agree with this person, I didn’t vote for the same person, but I can understand why,’ ” he adds. “Without those sorts of interactions you begin to assume that everybody on the other side is just completely out to lunch.”

Tarrant County vote

On Thursday, Republicans in Tarrant County in Texas will vote on whether to remove Dr. Shafi from his position as vice chair of the county GOP.

The vote is a culmination of months of objections from a small group of local Republicans in the north Texas county, citing his Muslim faith, to Shafi’s appointment last July.

“Dr. Shafi is a practicing, Mosque-attending muslim [sic] who claims not to follow sharia law or know what it is,” wrote Sara Legvold, a local Republican, on the Facebook page for a group called Protect Texas. “As a practicing muslim that is an overt falsehood. Sharia law is anathema to our Constitution because Islam recognizes no other law but shariah [sic].”

“I believe that the laws of our nation are our Constitution and the laws passed by our elected legislatures – I have never promoted any form of Sharia Law,” Shafi wrote in November. “I fully support and believe in American Laws for American Courts.”

There has been a significant show of support for Shafi, who joined the GOP shortly after becoming a US citizen in 2009, including from high-profile Texas Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Despite the backlash and reports of negotiations over the vote, it is scheduled to go ahead on Thursday. 

In recent decades demographers have charted a number of changes in the American religious landscape. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased, from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014; the number of Americans who seldom or never attend religious services ticked up from 27 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2014. Those Americans who do regularly attend religious services are much more likely to travel to attend the services they like best rather than attend neighborhood churches, wrote Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

“When we have everything curated for our own personal consumption, including our worship services, we are absolutely missing out on a really important in-person community,” says Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based religion writer and author of a forthcoming book about the cultural history of anxiety.

Ms. Turner, who recently wrote about the effect of the rise of livestreamed church services, adds that misunderstanding and mischaracterizing religions has been a regular feature of American history. If it’s Islam today, it was Catholicism in the early 20th century, and new Protestant denominations a century earlier.

But other experts have suggested a link between religious attendance and tolerance. In their book “Religion and Politics in the United States,” Kenneth Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown write that religious groups “perform the important task of reminding us that public decisions inescapably involve and reflect values.”

When cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, “they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation,” Peter Beinert wrote in a 2017 article for The Atlantic.

Constitutional implications?

This context helps explain the belief among some in Tarrant County that, because some Muslims believe Islamic law comes ahead of everything else, Shafi does as well. He says he doesn’t.

“I don’t doubt from their perspective they think they’re doing what’s right,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist and chairman of the Travis County GOP. “I just think you have a couple bigoted people who are behind the times and fear what they don’t understand.”

“The Republican Party is a party of religious freedom,” he adds. “To miss the forest for the trees on something like that is shocking and troubling.”

The Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, has similar thoughts about two Democratic senators at the moment.

Mr. Buescher, a US District Court nominee and a member of the Knights since he was 18, received pointed written questions in December after appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of particular interest were comments he made on the campaign trail in 2014 that being “an avidly pro-life person” was “simply [his] moral fabric.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked if a woman seeking to enforce her right to an abortion “should have confidence that you will treat her fairly.” In addition, she asked if he would recuse himself from any cases relating to abortion rights, and if he would end his membership in the Knights of Columbus “to avoid any appearance of bias.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who described the Knights of Columbus as “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men,” asked if he was aware when he joined that the organization opposed a woman’s right to choose. She also asked whether he agreed with a 2016 statement from Carl Anderson, the organization’s leader, that abortion is “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.”

Buescher responded that, if confirmed, he would apply all legal precedent “on all issues without regard to any personal beliefs I may have.” The Knights of Columbus, he told Senator Hirono, “simply doesn’t have the authority to take personal positions on behalf of all of its approximately 2 million members.”

Mr. Anderson has been less diplomatic. “Any suggestion that the Order’s adherence to the beliefs of the Catholic Church makes a Brother Knight unfit for public office blatantly violates [First Amendment] constitutional guarantees,” he wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to members.

Reversing the trends

Organizations in the “middle ring,” like the Knights of Columbus, aren’t always good, Dunkelman points out. (The Ku Klux Klan is also a middle ring organization, for example.) But in response to Buescher’s confirmation process, he and others have cited Alexis de Tocqueville in arguing that their societal good far outweighs the bad.

Americans are “forever forming associations,” the French diplomat and historian noted in the 1830s, because in democracies like the US “all the citizens are independent and feeble… [and] therefore become powerless if they do not learn to voluntarily help one another.”

But as Turner, the religion writer, notes, misunderstanding and fear of associations, particularly religious ones, has been common in the past and will likely never disappear. And, she adds, “it’s important to not weaponize good-faith questioning.”

The questions asked of Buescher qualify as good faith questions, she says, and such questions are “a good place to start increasing understanding across religious divides.”

Other efforts are ongoing to shrink these divides. For two years the nonprofit Knight Foundation has funded a national civic engagement initiative called On The Table that brings a diverse group of residents together to discuss community issues. Nextdoor, a social network app that lets neighborhoods build private online communities, has been gaining popularity.

“My sense is people are in many ways eager to feel connected to people who live nearby. I think that’s reflected in all these books about loneliness that are coming out,” says Dunkelman. “Naturally, the desire to find people who fit our niche will expand to include people who have a different viewpoint, a different experience.”

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