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Can we rebuild our civitas?

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Today is St. Patrick’s Day. Before he became synonymous with revelry and wearing green, Saint Patrick was an Irish theologian who was known for founding monasteries, churches, and schools. He contributed, in his own small way, to building the community—the civitas—of Ireland.

Saint Patrick got me thinking about our own community, our own civitas. About the dense web of interlocking civic associations that once characterized America—from churches to Key Clubs to bowling leagues to nonprofits to people willing to have their neighbors over for dinner or even just shovel snow off of their neighbors’ driveways. It got me thinking about how that civitas has been hollowed out in the past few decades.

I think rebuilding this civitas is essential to the work that we do here at Braver Angels. I hear from so many people who are terrified of the other side. One of my conservative friends told me in 2016 that if Hillary Clinton became our next president, it would spell the end of our great nation. She’s not alone: in 2020, a Pew survey found that an astounding 90% of voters on every side believed that a victory by the other side would lead to “lasting harm” for the country.

But why do we think this? I’m not sure any of us have our finger on the real pulse of our country. It’s just too big. Our union comprises 332 million members, spread over 3.8 million square miles. Even the most politically savvy of us couldn’t possibly get a feel for the entire nation.

Instead, when we evaluate the state of our country, I think we partially substitute the state of our community. Does our community feel strong? Does it feel full of neighbors who care about each other? Do we see kids playing in the parks and loving couples strolling hand in hand? Then we assume our country is also strong.

But what if our community feels weak? What if we barely know our neighbors? What if we’re part of the 58% of Americans who say they “always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well”? What if we aren’t in bowling leagues or Key Club or involved in our local place of worship? If our community feels weak, we might assume that our country is also weak. We might even be more scared of the other side winning in November—because we see our beloved nation as too fragile to handle four years of the “bad guys” in power.

So what can we do about this? What if we all invested just a little bit more in our local communities? What if we kept an eye on our widowed neighbor and invited her over for a home-cooked meal from time to time? What if we invited our neighbor who’s going through a divorce to our bowling league, even though we don’t know him all that well?

In Denver where I live, we just got two feet of snow. What if each of us took an extra 10 minutes to shovel our neighbor’s driveway so they could get to work on time?

We might all end up with a little more faith in our community, which in turn might give us a little more faith in the strength of our country. And if we saw our country as a little bit stronger, a little bit more resilient and robust, we might be just a little bit less terrified that four years of the other team being in power will bring it all crashing down.

Just an idea.

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