Acton Institute Powerblog

Reviving civil society: Formative vs. performative institutions

In the wake of modernity, we’ve seen plenty of disruption across American life—political, social, economic, and otherwise. Alongside the glorious expansion of freedom and prosperity, we’ve also seen new waves of fragmentation, isolation, and materialism—a “liberal paradox,” as Gaylen Byker once described it, “a hunger for meaning and values in an age of freedom and plenty.”

Throughout America’s history, disruptive progress has traditionally been buoyed by the strength of various institutions. Yet the religious and community vibrancy that Alexis de Tocqueville once admired appears to be dwindling. Fortunately, many have been waking up to the crisis, and we’ve seen a calls to restore national unity and strengthen the “building blocks” of American civil society. But how?

As Yuval Levin has keenly observed, even our “restorative” efforts tend to be either overly idealistic or narrowly ideological. Whereas conservatives and libertarians approach tend to promote civil society as a mere buffer or cushion against state intervention (protecting the individual), progressives tend to treat it as a useful bridge to greater centralization (expanding government control). Will either approach lead us to actually embody and cultivate these institutions as we should?

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Levin expands on that critique, reminding us that our crisis of connection isn’t simply a matter of randomly emptied enterprises that need an artificial boost. It’s about a deeper breakdown of intangible norms and social structures—an ever expanding void of cultural imagination, which gives way to ambivalence and misaligned action.

“When we think about our problems, we tend to imagine our society as a vast open space filled with individuals who are having trouble linking hands,” Levin explains. “And so we talk about breaking down walls, building bridges, leveling playing fields or casting unifying narratives. But what we are missing is not simply greater connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, purpose, concrete meaning and identity to the things we do together.”

Indeed, beyond simply meeting certain needs or performing certain civilizational tasks, institutions are profoundly formative to individuals and communities. Each institution “forms the people within it to carry out that task responsibly and reliably,” Levin observes. “It shapes behavior and character, fostering an ethic built around some idea of integrity.” Thus, when institutions fail in this role—inspiring corruption or incubating various vices and destructive behavior—they lose public trust.

Yet institutional lapses are nothing new, so what’s so unique about our current deficit of public trust?

Levin argues that much of it stems from a shift in attitudes and behaviors about institutions themselves. Rather than allowing ourselves to be formed by certain disciplines or longstanding structures and the wisdom behind them, we are becoming ever more eager to bypass character formation altogether, moving instead to wield our own reactionary influence on such structures from the outside in:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

The examples are everywhere, from politics to business to journalism to the academy to the arts and beyond—with leaders using their positions to grandstand and build personal “platforms” instead of investing in the daily stewardship of their surrounding communities and enterprises.

“Consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both.” Levin observes, “Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.”

The void is apparent, but there isn’t an easy solution—certainly not in the realms of quick-and-fast policy grabs or coercive social engineering. To truly revive our communities and civic life, we’ll need a renewed focus on the value of formative institutions, which begins with a renewed responsibility about tending to such work and being open to such formation in our own daily lives.

As Levin explains:

All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.

As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”

…Asking such questions of ourselves would be a first step toward grasping our responsibilities, recovering the great diversity of interlocking purposes that our institutions ought to serve, and constraining elites and people in power so that the larger society can better trust them.

This may seem either overly simplistic and overly complex, but for the Christian, it comes down to a basic pursuit of vocational clarity—connecting the dots between spiritual formation, personal wholeness, and relational integrity, and then applying the fruits of that process across the communities and institutions within our spheres of stewardship. (Perhaps this is why many religious communities are surviving and even thriving amid the recent waves of disruption, and why even agnostics like Charles Murray are convinced that spiritual awakening is part of the answer to societal decay.)

God calls us to a “higher freedom” than the isolationism of this age, one that fully embodies the space between individual and state, but not as some means to a political end. It is up to us, then, to be the moral witnesses of such freedom, investing in our families, churches, schools, businesses, and communities as formative communities, while also having enough wisdom and humility to continue being formed and reformed ourselves.

Image: Festival, Daniel Celentano, 1934 (Public Domain)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.