Religion and NGOs

The Changing and Unchanging Face of U.S. Civil Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 1, September 2003

By Marcella Ridlen Ray. Foreword by Francis Fukuyama.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2002.
269 pp. $39.95.

Civil society is not merely a set of institutions, writes Marcella Ridlen Ray. It is also a process: “talking, meeting, reasoning, and acting together on varied matters,” in a fashion that can be “spontaneous or customary, formal or informal, but … is necessarily voluntary and autonomous.”

A senior fellow at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy in Fairfax, Virginia, Ray undertakes an empirical study focusing on five elements of democratic civil society: “voluntary association, diversity of association, communication, autonomy of voluntary association, and mediation of democratic tension.” She finds American civil society thriving but evolving–in particular, “more democratic and flexible than ever.” By contrast to such scholars as Robert Putnam, author of the influential 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” Ray believes that Americans are still active participants in civil society. “Fortunately,” she concludes, “the vulnerability of U.S. civil society is not pivotally attributable to apathy, indifference, or self-centeredness of the public. Rather, the greatest challenges it confronts–sustaining autonomy and effectively mediating conflict and consensus–actually stem from successes in achieving democratic goals.”