Assembly and Belonging
Ensuring meaningful protections for groups is one way to battle loneliness
The right of assembly protects difference, protest, and dissent in a pluralistic society. It is also for many people essential to a sense of belonging.
Assembly is inherently relational—the only First Amendment right that requires more than one person to be exercised. Alexis de Tocqueville described it as “the art of pursuing in common the objects of common desires.” The common pursuit of common desires shapes our individual identities while drawing us together as part of a collective whole. But not everyone experiences this sense of belonging.
In the News
The unmet desire for belonging and acceptance can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation—what Pete Buttigieg in 2019 called a “crisis of belonging.”
Writing at the end of last year, psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen observed:
About 1 in 5 Americans suffers from chronic loneliness, which is as destructive to our bodies as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. As Americans have become disconnected from their community and society, they have been stricken with what the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case call “diseases of despair.” In 2017, they write, 158,000 Americans died either through a slow process of addiction to alcohol, painkillers, or other drugs or through suicide by gunshot or overdose.
Cohen notes that others who experience loneliness and isolation are drawn to extremist groups that use animus and hate as means of solidarity. But most of us do not join hate groups. We join groups that connect us with others around a shared purpose or common interest. Within these groups, we engage with people in the ordinary activities of planning, meeting, eating, and organizing. Over time, these groups shape our beliefs and practices as relational beings rather than as isolated individuals.
In my Head
The sense of belonging protected and cultivated by the private groups of civil society has been core to my own work on the right of assembly. Importantly, the value of belonging is itself pluralistic: everyone does not belong together, but everyone belongs somewhere. And that means respecting the many groups that emerge to fulfill this sense of belonging—some open and welcoming, others closed and inhospitable to outsiders; some that make sense to us and others that seem incomprehensible; some that we find normatively attractive and some that we see as morally compromised.
One of my longstanding critiques of Supreme Court doctrine is its artificial distinction between “intimate” and “non-intimate” groups, implying that only the former meaningfully contribute to a sense of belonging. The Court adopted this distinction in its 1984 decision, Roberts v. United States Jaycees. Justice Brennan suggested that intimate associations deserved heightened constitutional protection because they are capable of “cultivating and transmitting shared ideals and beliefs,” they “foster diversity and act as a critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State,” they provide “emotional enrichment from close ties with others,” and they help “safeguard the ability independently to define one’s identity that is central to any concept of liberty.” In subsequent decisions, the Court has left unclear where or how to draw the line between intimate and non-intimate groups.
As I point out in my book, Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly, many “non-intimate” associations perform the functions that Justice Brennan attributed to intimate associations. Even large groups can foster an acute sense of collective belonging. I recall this phenomenon vividly in my own life while I was in basic training with the United States Air Force. During that time, an Air Force pilot was shot down over Bosnia and Herzegovina and spent a week evading enemy forces until he was rescued. We had no idea who this guy was—we were college students marching and doing pushups in the middle of Texas. But the thick sense of “we” forged by shared words, rituals, and a sense of belonging made us feel a part of the rescue operation. And when we learned of the pilot’s successful rescue, we celebrated as if it had been our own.
The collective “we” of our assemblies is becoming increasingly important as our society reflects a diminishing sense of belonging. As I noted last week, these developments are exacerbated by a growing mistrust in institutions and the fraying of a sense that we have a stake in groups and organizations greater than ourselves, whether social, religious, or political. But any effort to rehabilitate our institutions will also require protecting them—something that current constitutional doctrine leaves woefully underdeveloped.
In the World
Nancy Rosenblum’s Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America is one of the foundational texts linking constitutional protections for groups to a sense of belonging. Writing in 1998, Professor Rosenblum observed declining membership in groups combined with an increase in “associations whose norms and purposes are antiliberal or undemocratic.” At the time, she underscored related concerns about “political mistrust,” “pervasive contempt for major institutions,” and “even clinical depression.” Things do not appear to have become any better in recent years.
Rosenblum notes that the collective identity that emerges from groups is complicated both by its individual members and their shared interaction: “forming, joining, schism, and disassociation are as much a part of freedom of association as the solidarity of identification and belonging.” Nobody enters or exits a group from precisely the same perspective. Instead, people bring their own histories and experiences to groups and “they attribute meaning to association and respond morally and emotionally to belonging in ways that are far from generalizable.”
I first read Membership and Morals in graduate school and revisited it a few months ago. I continue to find it full of helpful insights about the challenges and opportunities of the groups that we form.
As a church pastor for 38 years, I have had numerous conversations with people telling me their reasons for joining or leaving a church. Some of their reasons have been theological, some political, some circumstantial, some relational, but "far from generalizable," as Professor Rosenblum said. Thank you for writing thoughtfully about our desire to belong. As far as I can recall in those 38 years, the desire to belong was a constant impetus for the choices to join and a constant sorrow in the choices to leave.