The Decline of Myth, Social Capital & Community in America
Exploring the Work of Robert G. Putnam and Joseph Campbell
For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.
— Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 27
Unless the myths can be understood — or felt — to be true in some such way as this, they lose their force, their magic, their charm for the tender-minded and become mere archaeological curiosities, fit only for some sort of reductive classification
— Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander, 52
United by the shared national mythology of America, the Progressive Era generation fought for fairness and wholesome "sensible" solutions to the ills of their newly industrialized urban world. Described as "broad and internally diverse," the "Progressive coalition united around the optimistic assumption that society was capable of improvement via internal reform" (Putnam, 370) and that ordinary hard-working Americans were just the ones to do the job.
Nearly one century later the optimism of the Progressives has been replaced by suspicion, indifference and pessimism. Baby Boomers "are distrusting of institutions, alienated from politics, and . . . distinctively less involved in civic life than their predecessors" (Putnam, 257). And Putnam wrote that before the 2016 American Presidential Election! Without shared faith in an American mythology — or an American dream — individuals became increasingly isolated. Because of this it is now all but impossible for communities to work together to cultivate social capital in a meaningful and consistent way.
Author Robert Putnam discusses this disintegration of social capital in America in his book Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). He explores many elements of that decline. One component he addresses is America's diminished reliance upon spiritual community, which Putnam measures using statistics on church membership and participation. Putnam makes clear that "for simplicity's sake I use the term church here to refer to all religious institutions of whatever faith, including mosques, temples, and synagogues" (65). He goes on;
As the twenty-first century opens, Americans are going to church less often than we did three or four decades ago, and the churches we go to are less engaged with the wider community. Trends in religious life reinforce rather than counterbalance the ominous plunge in social connectedness in the secular community. (79)
Putnam's conclusion is that, as with the many other elements he considers, a generational shift is the cause of the decline in church participation. Across the spectrum in modern America, Putnam argues, the Progressive Era's activism and the New Deal generation's willingness to participate in the creation of social capital had been replaced by Baby Boomers and their children, who share a "sense of civic malaise" (Putnam, 25). According to Putnam, the decline in church attendance is just another symptom of that generational shift. The work of scholar Joseph Campbell, however, makes apparent how critical the element of spirituality and shared mythology is to community and the maintenance of social capital.
Not having read Putnam's work, Campbell nevertheless identifies and addresses the reasons behind the existence of Putnam's "civic malaise" (25) in the modern world. In his ground-breaking work The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell includes the thesis that declining belief in and understanding of myth is the cause of a serious cultural void in the modern world. Putnam discusses a symptom of that void — declining social capital attributable to a generational shift. Campbell, however, attributes that decline in social capital — and the resultant decline in community — to modern American culture's disconnection from the myths and symbols of the universal unknown;
"Mythology and the rites through which its imagery is rendered open the mind, that is to say, not only to the local social order but also to the mystery dimension of being — of nature — which is within as well as without, and thereby finally at one with itself" (86).
Earlier American generations had faith that a brighter future was possible. Contemporary Americans, for the most part, seem to have lost that belief and resign themselves to waiting for the inevitable disappointments and let-downs they have come to expect from their government, fellow citizens, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Without mythology individuals fail to cultivate their imaginations and therefore lose the ability to imagine moving forward in life. As Campbell states;
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. (Campbell, 7)
Without contemporary exploration of the symbols and metaphors within myth, individuals are, argues Campbell, trapped in an eternal adolescence and never able to fully mature.
Because these stunted adults cannot participate in their community as a mature individuals (7), or help to shape that community for future generations, culture becomes dysfunctional in many ways. One of those ways is the resultant reduction in social capital that Putnam writes about. In his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell states;
In short, the social, as opposed to the mystical function of a mythology, is not to open the mind, but to enclose it: to bind a local people together in mutual support by offering images that awaken the heart to recognitions of commonality. (xxiv)
Community is thus based upon a shared understanding of a common mythology.
There was a time when the mythology of what America represented bonded it's citizens together. During the Progressive Era, and on through the Great Depression and the New Deal, a miraculous blend of what Putnam refers to as "discontent and hopefulness" (382) motivated average, every day individuals in America's newly developing middle class to create a multitude of civic institutions still relied upon today (385). These individuals believed in the dream of America — a revolutionary democracy where everyone had a fair shot. Although this American dream was really only available to white males, the mythology of such a dream motivated two generations to create an American community. These individuals were proud of who they were and what they stood for. Their community valued a level playing field and a moral obligation to care for one another.
With the rise to maturity of the Baby Boomer generation and their children, involvement in community and cultivation of social capital declines across every aspect of society that Putnam measures. The disillusionment of the 1960's and 1970's, with Vietnam and Watergate striping away American's trust for the government, created a new generation. That new generation became increasingly distrustful not just of government but of their neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens.
The false myth of America as a democracy full of opportunity for everyone has been exposed and the American community needs a new understanding of and relationship to mythology in order re-form its civil society. For example, writer Sara Miller Llana describes the reasons an Argentinian community began restricting access to Western influence: "as teens adopt the lifestyles of Westerners, even with such seemingly innocuous acts as surfing the net, they are more alienated from their roots and lose a sense of identity and purpose" (2). The myths and cultural history that tie a community together must be maintained, and reinvigorated if necessary. America is in desperate need of such reinvigoration. Only then can individuals with a "sense of identity and purpose" create a healthy modern community within America.
Joseph Campbell argues that the organized religions of today are not properly adapted to these needs of the modern world because they rely upon interpretations of myths created in another time and place. As Putnam's work clearly shows, however, even belonging to a faith with a flawed myth structure encourages and supports a level of optimism, which motivates individuals to action. "Regular worshipers and people who say that religion is very important to them are much more likely than other people to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups" (67). To have faith in a spiritual tradition would seem a good way to combat the cynicism and distrust rampant in modern capitalist culture. If an individual believes, for example, in miracles — that the impossible is possible – perhaps they are more likely to engage in battles for social justice and political change.
Furthermore, were that spiritual life centered around current interpretations of the universal mythologies, it would be relatable to the diverse modern American community. As Putnam stated, "Churches provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment. . .churchgoers are substantially more likely to be involved in secular organizations, to vote and participate politically in other ways, and to have deeper informal social connections" (66). America needs a new type of "church," rooted in current interpretations of mythology, for all those who do not attend church. Campbell states that when "Mythology is misread. . .as direct history or science, symbol becomes fact, metaphor dogma, and the quarrels of the sects arise, each mistaking its own symbolic signs for the ultimate reality" (53). These new "churches" must include all and exclude none.
In order to combat cynicism, people need to have faith in themselves and others - and in community as a whole. In describing the Progressives Putnam made the point that ". . .their outlook was activist and optimistic, not fatalist and despondent" (382). It was that attitude and its associated ability to motivate individuals that drove the entire era. And what the Progressives had faith in was a mythological American ideal that has now been shown as hollow and false. To a certain extent, as Putnam's analysis illustrated, church attendance has represented one group of individuals who have maintained a sense of optimism through their faith in something more or bigger or universal. The result is that ". . .faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America" (66). However, not everyone in the diverse modern world can find space within the more traditional organized faiths of our society. Despite the fact that Putnam carefully included "all religious institutions," such as, "mosques, temples, and synagogues" (65) under the umbrella term "church," a vast number of individuals are not included under any of those headings.
More importantly, according to Campbell, those traditional monotheistic religions are not accurate representations of our culture; ". . .we today (. . .in so far as our inherited beliefs fail to represent the real problems of contemporary life) must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance" (87). Americans must learn to "worship" together - to see the common ground in their spiritual practices. Perhaps then there is a chance the generations of cynicism, hopelessness and distrust can move into the past.
Campbell, J. (2002a). The Flight of the Wild Gander.
Novato, CA: New World Library.
Campbell, J. (2002b). The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Novato, CA: New World Library.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Llana, S. M. (2007, November 2). After teen suicides an Argentine tribe outlaws 'white' vices. (Christian Science Monitor).