The importance of community has been the subject of several recent Country Parson columns. I’ve taken up the cause because popular right wing media has distorted the American myth of rugged individualism, making community subordinate to it, even attacking it as the enemy. Individualism has become an idolatrous religion sometimes vested in Christian garb, which is as heretical as it gets. Country Parson objects.
Anything intended to strengthen community, particularly if related to social welfare, gets labeled progressive or liberal, and is suspected of being an entrée for socialist government control of every aspect of life. Those who stand against systemic racism, systemic economic inequalities, and for higher standards of restorative justice have become “snow flakes” who threaten the American way of life. Curiously, the same people who distrust everything governmental also support a president who behaves like a petty dictator, and favor a Republican party refusing to do anything about it. When the obvious threat of creeping fascism is called out for what it is, the GOP and Trump supporters shrink from recognition or responsibility, claiming it’s all fake news.
What’s enabled the American experiment to endure until now, in spite of everything up to and including a civil war, has been an underlying commitment to the rule of law in a representative democracy through which governments have been established at every level to build and sustain community. Before the Civil War, there was a move to let states nullify federal laws they didn’t like. It was a cruel effort to protect the institution of slavery, but at least it recognized the importance of community, the rule of law, and the obligation of the people to obey the laws of the jurisdictions in which they lived. The war may have confirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the federal government as the agencies setting rules of law for the entire nation, but it didn’t stop the fight for state’s rights. Nevertheless, it was a fight conducted within the context of respect for the rule of law as defined by our constitutional democracy.
Now, it seems, we are beset by nullifiers who, in the name of individualism, declare their right to decide for themselves what the rule of law means, and to obey or not as they choose. Curiously, a number of conservative thinkers in the public forum have become alarmed at the trend to disunite the fabric of community through the incautiousness of this extreme nullifying individualism.
In keeping with their distrust of government, they want to reweave the fabric of community through voluntary work and local non governmental organizations. They want to reestablish shared moral values through revitalized religious orthodoxy of an acceptable Christian sort, yet a sort that other religions would endorse. It’s all very worthwhile, but it skirts the role of government at every level, and it assumes things about religious plurality that are unlikely to stand.
David Brooks, conservative NYT columnist, is on a campaign to encourage what he calls “weavers.” They’re people who do the work of reweaving the fabric of community in the places where they live. The stories he tells about them are uplifting and encouraging. May there be more of them. They’re reweaving because, says Brooks, the fabric has been torn to shreds by the excessive individualism of our times. For him, the process of reweaving is exemplified by individual volunteer effort to build relationships that strengthen the bonds of community. It takes place at the local level with government, from Brooks’ point of view, simply hovering in the background, providing the basic structure within which community building can take place. It’s a rather vague understanding of government’s role, but at least he recognizes there is one.
The key ingredient to reweaving the fabric of community is a shared moral culture he believes the nation once had, and needs to regain. It’s needed to act as a restraint on laissez-faire capitalism run amok, and pretend meritocracy that exacerbates extremes in economic and social inequalities. They are the playgrounds of excessive individualism that destroy the fabric of community. He would not abandon the virtues of individualism, but they must be subordinate to the virtues of relationships in community that are at the center of the American ideal. It’s a center historically defined by The Federalist Papers, the Constitution with all its amendments, and a nostalgic sense that there was a time, not long ago, when America had a united moral culture. There never was such a time, but the nostalgic sense of it endures.
Brooks recently shared a piece by Lee Drutman showing a scattergram of 2016 voters according to whether they were more liberal or more conservative on social and economic dimensions. From it, Brooks asserted that what will define a shared morality will be moderately liberal economically, and moderately conservative socially. Perhaps he’s right, at least in the sense that center-right to center-left is where aggregate public sentiment tends to fall, even if what is liberal or conservative is poorly understood. The extremes seem to get all the publicity, and political leaders, clearly moderate in their views, are nonetheless caricatured as extremists by those who disagree with them. It’s the trumpian way, and many have adopted it as their own way of attacking others.
I’m not sure Brooks is ready to accept a pallet of shared moral cultures that integrates new understandings from a variety of ethnicities unwilling to be subordinated to the white middle class, yet willing to live in cooperative accommodation with others not like themselves. I’m not sure he’s ready to firmly reject shared moral values that have used oppression and injustice as tools for maintaining individualistic rights of some while denying them to others. It’s just a guess. I’ve never met the man. I could be wrong.
Brooks’ theme of weaving community reminded me of three books from the first decade or so of this century: Prothero’s on Religious Literacy; Haidt’s on The Righteous Mind; and Douthat’s on Bad Religion. Each of them seems to believe that the dissolution of an American shared morality, more or less based on Protestant orthodoxy, has contributed to the overall decline in American political and social moral standards.
Prothero is disturbed by religious illiteracy that is a common denominator of believers and unbelievers alike. It makes it difficult to give meaning to history, and to the development of democratic political thought. He would like bible studies, but not evangelism, to be a part of public education from kindergarten through college. Other religious texts should be included, but it is the bible that would restore a shared vocabulary of moral values, so he says.
Haidt appears to have a Hobbesian view of human nature, and so favors strong institutions to curb our “unruly wills and affections.” Religious institutions with well defined standards could do what government never can, but government can provide the structure in which religious institutions can prosper. It’s a sort of weak government with strong churches thing. A 21st century version of Plymouth Plantation?
Douthat believes we’ve become a nation of heretics, adhering to everything but orthodoxy, which he finds in the pre Vatican II Catholic Church and old time mainline Protestantism. Our floundering disunity and divisive politics are a function of wandering heresies at war with each other. Recovering a shared sense of Christian orthodoxy is the key to reweaving a shared moral culture.
All the nones, spiritual but not religious, and followers of other religions would, in their collective view, find a more secure place to live if religious institutions were once again the arbiters of a shared American morality. If we weren’t so paranoid about separation of church and state, government could help make that happen –– again. They are never explicit about favoring Christian institutions, but the bias is always there, and there’s always a sense that they have in mind a certain brand of Christianity that doesn’t include others (Douthat, at least, is up front about his bias).
It’s a romantic notion, and as much as I treasure romance, when it comes to this I favor more realism that is unafraid to use government as the appropriate tool for addressing community wide issues, at every level of community. Religious or not, we need an informed and involved electorate willing to engage in political life as the defenders of the rule of law according to our constitutional form of government.
More especially, Christians, well versed in historical development of the faith, are obligated to exercise their civic duties first as followers of Christ Jesus, and secondarily as political partisans. Yes, absolutely, they’re to do what they can to influence public policy in a Christlike direction, which is not the same as a direction favoring Christianity. Moreover, and this is the really hard part, they’re to try as best they can not to confuse their treasured social values with what orthodoxy means. What Jesus commanded must inform social values, not the other way round, and Jesus commanded very few things.