Monday, October 16, 2006

The Lonely Commute

Last spring I taught a seminar on "Urban Altruism" that explored the material conditions of community--how aspects of urban planning, architecture, and other social arrangements either foster or detract from community-building (friendships, civic concern, neighbor-love, etc.). Two recent reports confirm much of what we discussed in the class:

1. This past summer the American Sociological Review published a landmark study on "Social Isolation in America" (pdf). Over a twenty year period, the study considers the change in the circle of close friends ("confidants") that Americans have. Over the 20-year span these social networks decreased by 1/3. This might be at least partially be explained by a report unveiled this week...

2. The Transportation Research Board released the third edition of its report, Commuting in America. The report indicates that the lonely commute has gotten even lonlier: as more commuting traffics from suburb to suburb (rather than suburb to core city), the number of new solo drivers grew by almost 13 million from 1990 to 2000. The report also indicates that the number of workers with commutes over 60 minutes grew by 50 percent (!), and that more Americans are leaving for work between 5:00-6:30am.

Pretty hard to cultivate significant friendships when we're spending so much time by ourselves in our cars. Instead, we have more and more people listening to the inanity of talk radio in America. Someone needs to do a study that consider the correlation between increased solo commuting, the explosion of talk radio, and the increased polarization of American "civic" discourse.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Do Tax Breaks "Establish" Religion?

[Breaking blog silence here. General craziness has kept me from spending much time on Fors Clavigera. What blogging time/energy I've had has gone into The Church and Postmodern Culture blog and Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank.]

The New York Times recently published an interesting series of articles on the ways in which religious organizations receive all kinds of benefits and exemptions from various agencies and arms of the federal government: see "In God's Name," Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Granted, such policies do not seem to violate the "establishment" clause, since the same benefits are extended to all religions. So the government is clearly not in the business of establishing "a" religion. However, the Part 4 article raises a question that has always nagged me: what about non-religious ("secular") organizations and individuals who sacrificially devote themselves to the common good? Should the pastor of the megachurch in a wealthy Chicago suburb get tax-free housing, while the inner-city teacher who devotes her life to serving the disadvantaged does not? While such policies do not establish "a" religion, they do seem to establish "religion" over non-religious commitments to serve the common good. And it doesn't seem to me that a "liberal" or constitutionally "secular" state has the resources to extend such benefits to religious organizations but not non-religious ones.