We’ve been through this before, and Muncie is again instructive. Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions. But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.
Perhaps the problem is merely cyclical. “To a degree unlike any time since the Lynds’ time, we’ve lost trust in one another and the institutions that are supposed to hold us together,” says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University here. Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don’t always restore Americans’ faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations’ power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don’t recover—and our faith dies with them?
Yes, frustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It’s how things get done.
When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. “Institutions—even dysfunctional ones—are why we don’t run amok in the woods,” Hansen says.
Still, no metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.
What if, in the future, they don’t? People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain their mojo? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.
GUTENBERG TO GOOGLE
Beneath a 110-foot Gothic tower, 180 worshippers at High Street Methodist Church scatter across pews that could hold twice that many. A balcony capable of seating hundreds more rings three sides of the church. It is empty. Nattily dressed worshippers crane their necks to watch robed choir members, a cross bearer, and two ministers walk down the main sanctuary aisle. A booming pipe organ marks each step. After an opening prayer, a dozen white-gloved handbell ringers perform “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” composed by an Englishman in 1881.
Ten or so children are among the worshippers, a couple of them small enough to fit on a parent’s lap, but the vast majority of congregants are middle-aged or older. Pastor N. Dale Mendenhall uses his prayer to ask the Lord to help guide “the best in people of all ages” in the community. “We live in a city struggling to regain its future direction,” he tells them.
Away from his pulpit, Mendenhall confesses that his own downtown church is struggling to regain its direction. The 176-year-old institution is emblematic of a trend in Muncie and America: Mainline churches are losing relevancy and worshippers because they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of their communities. From 1981 to 2011, High Street’s membership dropped 52 percent to 700. The average Sunday attendance declined 27 percent to 379.