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Affinity and Lifestyle Enclaves

August 28, 2009

Although American culture is highly individualistic and its emphasis can be quite overpowering, the human tendency toward relationships is still present. Americans across the country still gather in small groups around the country: voluntary associations, country clubs, bowling leagues, church groups, sewing clubs, just to name a few. However, it is necessary to make the distinction between superficial and genuine communities, which Bellah calls lifestyle enclaves and communities of memory, respectively. Bellah notes that lifestyle, as opposed to community, is “fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity.”[1] Lifestyle enclaves, then, are self-contained groups in which only those with similar tastes and interests gather together. Lifestyle enclaves are sectarian. Due to their heavy reliance on affinity, they tend to create boundaries and fences, where those outside of the group who are dissimilar or different are unwelcomed. They fragment and limit the person, because they offer a narrow view of the world: the only one that is shared in common. Lifestyle enclaves impoverish relationships rather than enrich them. Any attempt on the part of the members to share other skills or values that may contradict or not completely align with the interests of the enclave can be considered a cause for conflict and division. The members of lifestyle enclaves do not enrich one another; they maintain a monologue among each other rather than a dialogue with outsiders. Thus, the search for our selves and for our identity as Christians within the American culture becomes fruitless in these lifestyle enclaves, because these groups do not offer us a window to the world through which we can understand how we fit in it as individuals and as a group. Instead, they are merely a mirror that reflects an image that we have invented or that we have allowed society to create for us.

Lifestyle enclaves thrive and owe their subsistence to the affinity that exists among their members. In California, the mega-church Saddleback Church relies greatly on small groups to make its members feel more of a part of the larger congregation. The small groups are formed through what they call “small-group connection sessions.” In these sessions, “people sit in sections of the hall that correspond to where they live and briefly tell one another about themselves” with a one-minute limit. At the end of the session, people are able to connect with small groups. One of the pastors admits that it is affinity that allows these groups to remain together beyond the curriculums they cover.[2] Whereas Saddleback Church intentionally relies on affinity among members to create and keep these small groups together, the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena intentionally brings dissimilar people together in small groups in order to “reflect its belief in inclusiveness and the essential oneness of all people.”[3] However, the small groups in the All Saints Church do not stay together after finishing their curriculums as often as they do in Saddleback. Hence, as Putnam concludes, “affinity is a more powerful glue than diversity.”[4] It is not diversity that can be blamed for the disbandment of some of the small groups at All Saints once they cover their curriculums. The problem is that diversity cannot exist for its own sake. Diversity needs to be coupled with a common goal that can bring the members together; otherwise, the group is really artificial—it becomes ambiguous and meaningless.[5] In both of these examples, nonetheless, we can see that weak bonds hold these groups together: one is bound by affinity and the other by a superficial diversity.

Individualism provides the proper ground for lifestyle enclaves to exist. Individuals who are mainly concerned with their private lives only relate to those who have matching tastes and interests, because they do not represent a potential cause for disturbance to the fenced life they protect so much. It is no surprise that the individualism—along with the springing up of lifestyle enclaves—that permeates American culture has made some headway into Christianity, as the previous examples show, and even into Catholicism. Increasingly, Catholics are commuting longer distances to the parishes of their choice, because of personal preferences, rather than attending the parish that is closest to them making these parishes are “enclaves of the like minded” that “cease to school us in getting along with others amid disagreement.”[6]

Lifestyle enclaves are fragile, built on sand, where any sign of dissimilarity can be fatal to their survival. In contrast to this approach to forming groups, we need communities with stronger foundations that can help us construct a coherent story of who we are as a people (not as individuals). This way we can form an authentic—not an artificial and superficial—image of ourselves as Christians in the American culture.


[1] Robert Bellah, et al.,  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, 3rd ed, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008), 72.

[2] Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 130.

[3] Ibid., 136-137.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Members of this church actually boast of the “ambiguity” that exists in their community as being more “than a lot of people can tolerate” elsewhere. For more similar views of the members of this church. See Putnam and  Feldstein, Better Together, 140.

[6] Vincent Miller, “Culture of Choice Creating Religious Enclaves,” 3 March 2008, 26 April 2009 <http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2008/03/culture_of_choice.html&gt;.

6 Comments
  1. G-Veg permalink
    August 29, 2009 8:50 am

    This is hogwash.

    It is an artificial distinction that postulates homogeneity where none actually exists.

    Could one have a more homogeneous group that the Puritans? And yet, their intolerance created a whole new colony in Rhode Island. Were the Puritan colonies mere “lifestyle enclaves?” What of the Mormon communities as they traveled West? I suppose the Hassids in NY are mere lifestyle enclaves too eh?

    Nonesense!

    If one has been a part of any group of more than about three people, one knows that the commonality of experience and viewpoint is generally on the surface alone. There is as great a diversity of experience in a bowling league as there is in a Monastery or a New England village.

    What differentiates a community from some sort of mere association must have something to do with the level of communication and the interaction with others. My interactions with fellow parishioners or Knights is different than that which I share with people at work. In most cases it is closer. However, I have had partners at work who are closer than cousins.

    The description above is utterly unhelpful and poorly articulates any distinction at all between the self-created groups.

  2. August 31, 2009 1:03 pm

    It seems like communities are often based on some sort of “affinity”. After all, medieval guilds were made up of people in the same profession living in the same town, and provided the basis for socializing, financial solidarity, and even worship.

    I suppose part of the difference that’s being reached for here is whether the community goes at all beyond the affinity area. If a bowling league never gets together or does anything not related to bowling, you’re not going to have much real community. But there’s no real reason a bowling clubs members might not move on to socializing, helping each other in times of difficulty, etc. in which case it would pretty clearly be a real community.

  3. August 31, 2009 2:57 pm

    The kind of group that this paper dealt with was specifically the parish community (hence the tag “Parish Life”), so other group or community parallels do not really apply here. This paper is much longer and the context may not have been provided properly in this post. I just didn’t want to do 10 parts of the paper, because people usually don’t read them. The paper addressed how to create a “Civic Ministry” within a Catholic parish and the section above, among the others, established the ground for that.

  4. September 1, 2009 7:46 am

    I found this helpful in articulating some of the problems we still have in the Society of Jesus. These problems are often easily related back to groups forming lifestyle enclaves rather than trying to build community around the central memory of the Spiritual Exercises. These enclaves continue to cause much strife and division.

  5. September 2, 2009 12:59 am

    You seem to criticize Saddleback Church for creating affinity groups based around “where people live,” but also criticize Catholics who flee the parish where they live for something more to their liking.

    Isn’t this contradictory? One doesn’t always choose one’s neighbors, so a place-based affinity would be less “artificial.”

    There aren’t too many “skills or values that may contradict or not completely align with the interests of the enclave” when that enclave is place-based, right?

    Also, do you engage Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Benedict Option”? Isn’t that a non-individualist advocacy of the lifestyle enclave?

    Lifestyle enclaves of “shared interest” are by necessity superficial because informal enclaves based on more substantive shared characteristics such as ethnicity, sex and religion are often forbidden by U.S. law.

    For instance, an immigrant woman seeking a roommate or downstairs renter can’t advertise for someone from the old country. A businessman who wants to run his bike shop as a “Catholic business” can run afoul of anti-discrimination law.

    I like the point about diversity not being the highest good.

    For myself, I’ve grown increasingly weary of praising diversity and pretending I want to surround myself with new people. If everyone’s a stranger, it’s much harder to welcome them all. But take the lone stranger around to your friends and neighbors, and pretty soon he’s not a stranger anymore.

    • September 2, 2009 4:23 pm

      You seem to criticize Saddleback Church for creating affinity groups based around “where people live,” but also criticize Catholics who flee the parish where they live for something more to their liking.

      I don’t think I understand your point. Maybe you can help me out?

      This is where I’m coming from: Saddleback church is a mega-church, so most church attendees are not going to be neighbors by default. They are attracted to the church even if it is far away from their homes, but then try to localize their church by finding people who live close to them and who are, therefore, like them (to some extent) to gather in small groups. In Saddleback, based on what I read in literature, you would have people forming small groups based on their shared neighborhoods or tastes, etc. That is not the Catholic experience, or at least you would hope is not.

      The Catholic experience is a bit different, because there are so many parishes in the U.S. that are usually attended by people who live close by. Therefore, by default, the congregation of a Catholic parish is going to be composed of neighbors mainly. If you have a small group in a parish, it is going to be centered around the parish life and parish members are not going to pick-and-choose which group they go to based on their specific neighborhoods. Rather, they will attend the “Adult Bible Study” group, or “Youth Ministry”, or “Married couples” group, etc, which will be composed of a variety of people from different backgrounds even if they happen to be your neighbors.

      Catholics will not, for the most part, leave their parish (based on location) because they don’t like the people who live around them and that also go to the same parish (why wouldn’t they move instead?). Rather, it comes down more to the pastor, liturgical practices, variety of ministries offered, etc. Maybe they want a church that is more child-friendly, for instance. Those become more personal preferences, which you could say falls on the “pick-and-choose” that people from Saddleback church do.

      By the way, I think it is OK not to attend your parish if there is something fundamentally wrong with it. My husband and I went to a parish that purposely skipped the Nicene creed among other things that were just not acceptable! That was not our assigned parish, but if it would’ve been, I think God would’ve understood our reasons (or anyone else’s for that matter) to go to another parish!

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