How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society

Sociologists have been writing for years about the weakening of the bonds of association and community that once tied Americans together. My own doctoral adviser Steven Tipton coauthored the classic book Habits of the Heart, followed by its sequel The Good Society, to explore just this theme. As Robert Bellah, Tipton, and their other coauthors emphasized, Americans have long struggled to preserve community, virtue, and common institutions in a nation grounded on a faith in individual rights. Historically, in American history, individual rights nearly always trump group rights. My concerns are necessarily more important than our concerns.

The paradox is that the more weight we put on individuals, the more we need an enormously powerful government to ensure that those individuals rights are preserved. Someone has to prevent any other group or association from interfering with the individual, and ultimately that someone has to be Big Brother. The expansion of individual freedoms therefore goes hand and hand with the extended reach of the state.

In recent years this dynamic has led to growing conflict between government and religious communities. Note I did not say between government and religion. As long as religion is practiced individualistically, government cares little about what you do. Where religion is threatened is in its associational forms. Joseph Knippenburg writes in Christianity Today:

Examples of this intractable conflict come swiftly to mind. World Vision has defended its religious hiring rights against an employee lawsuit. Catholic Charities of Boston has abandoned its adoption placement services rather than submit to a state requirement to place children in same-sex households. The Supreme Court has affirmed the power of Hastings College of the Law to compel its chapter of the Christian Legal Society to consider non-Christian leadership candidates. Only months ago, the Obama administration failed (thanks, ironically, to the same Supreme Court) in its bid to force a Lutheran school to retain a teacher who had violated its teachings on conflict resolution. And the administration continues to defend its policy of mandating that all employers—with only the narrowest exemption for houses of worship—purchase health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

Knippenburg makes this point in a review of a book by Stephen V. Monsma,Pluralism and Freedom: Faith Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.He goes on,

According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or unbelieving) individual and the government. Conservatives see “big government” as shrinking the realm of individual choice, while liberals expect government power to protect and expand that realm. (Consider their vigorous defense of the contraceptive mandate as safeguarding women’s rights.) But Monsma contends that neither side has an adequate theoretical framework for comprehending “the host of intermediary social structures—families, neighborhoods, religious congregations, associations, and nonprofit service organizations—that lie between the individual and the government.”

Darryl Hart makes a similar point in a criticism of Jeffrey Bell’s The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Noting Bell’s defense of social conservatism based on the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of individual rights, Hart explains,

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions.

Sometimes individual rights trumps these lesser authorities and institutions in ways that people approve of. In other cases the consequences are more dire.

But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits… In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

In fact, most Americans care deeply about the civil institutions threatened by this trend, whether families, churches, communities, schools, or any other institution that makes life worth living. Even those who do not seem to care most definitely do care once these institutions fall apart. No one wants to live in a neighborhood with broken marriages, corrupt churches, and failing schools. No one wants to receive their livelihood in a monthly paycheck from Uncle Sam, particularly if that paycheck is accompanied by a set of regulations thicker than your old-fashioned phonebook.

As we wrestle with what it means to be loving neighbors in a world we share in common with people of many religions and many political persuasions, we would do well to think long and hard about the importance of our common bonds of association and our civil institutions. This is a point at which we can appeal to our neighbors for the advancement of our common good in a manner that makes sense to them because it has to do with what it means to be human, and with what it means to be human together. Again, as Knippenburg points out,

Structural pluralism can make an additional pitch to more secular-minded citizens. Consistent with the view that faith and church membership can’t be compelled, structural pluralists have to be neutral toward the kinds of associations human beings form. I can’t claim for my local Christian homeschooling group any status that I’m not willing to extend to my secular homeschooling neighbors, let alone to Jewish day schools, Catholic and other Christian schools, and charter and other public schools. In other words, there is a common ground that Christians can find with their secular fellows …

Of course, to take this approach we have to appreciate our common human solidarity with those among whom we live, whether they are Christians or not. But as far as I can tell, that is precisely what it means to love our neighbors and to promote the welfare of the city in which we live.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 24, 2012, in Social Issues and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How we are losing one another for the sake of ourselves: the death of civil society.

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