Andy Zehner: On Communitarianism


Note from CM: I have said often that I am a-political — I don’t care much for politics, and we don’t talk too much about that world here on IM, except when it impinges on some facet of religious discourse. In today’s terms, I consider myself a moderate and you will usually find me lamenting the severe partisan divides that keep our governmental leaders from being effective in working for the common good. My roots are deep in the Midwestern small town ethos, and I also lived for some time in New England, where town meeting was still the main political event of the year. One of the best socio-political expressions which represents the way I think politically goes by the designation “communitarianism.” My friend Andy Zehner (Damaris’s husband) is an eloquent proponent of this commonsense, neighborly approach to community and civic life. I’ve asked him to explain it for us today here at IM.

Andy blogs regularly at Jordan or Styx? It’s a great site; you should check it out.

• • •

Many of the urgent, practical questions that arise in life find no answer in the Bible or the catechisms and doctrinal texts of the various denominations. The Sermon on the Mount is wonderful, but it doesn’t help a young Christian woman decide whether her skirt shows too much leg. There’s nothing in the Westminster Confession of Faith to help a conscientious person decide what to think (or do) about fracking, Ferguson or flat tax. When we do find specific commands (e.g., Lev. 25:35-37 or I Cor. 11:6), we are quick to dismiss them as irrelevant to our time and culture. And because practical instruction is rare and often disregarded, practical decisions about how to live continue to perplex us.

Communitarianism is a social theory suggesting how people can develop a fair and effective society. Chaplain Mike has asked me to explain a bit about it. If you will agree that fairness, effectiveness, and possibly God’s favor are worthy goals, I’ll try to show how communitarian principles lead to those ends. Consider:

  • Psalm 68 offers a litany of God’s great works, among which David lists, “God sets the lonely in families,” and concludes, “Praise be to God!”
  • Cooperation and community are the very essence of the Christian life as described by the apostle Paul: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:4-5).
  • John Donne, the brilliant 16th century pastor and poet, declares: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (Meditation XVII).
  • Dorothy Gale from Kansas experiences wonders meteorological, anthropomorphic and occult, and concludes, “There’s no place like home.”

These glimpses attest that relationships are fundamental to the human experience. God intends us to live with and through others. Communitarianism accepts the central role of community, and then builds a social theory to suggest how we should live. Human happiness requires, according to this view, a balance of personal freedom and civic rules. This is in contrast to libertarianism, which contends that liberty alone secures happiness. Communitarianism also disagrees with any who say personal wellbeing should be compromised for the good of the state (fascism). Personal wellbeing is the communitarian priority. A healthy society is the means to that end.

A new movement based on old ideas

The roots of communitarianism go back to the Bible and to Aristotle. It emerged as a school of thought only in the 1980s. Some important modern thinkers associated with the theory are Harvard professors Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, whose 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes the decline of civic engagement in America; the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet; the political philosopher John Rawls; and Notre Dame theologian Alasdair MacIntyre. Its most fervent proponent is the Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who runs the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Caution: If you do any follow-up reading on this subject, you’ll likely come across dishonest articles equating communitarianism with one-world government and hidden agendas of domination. Here’s one. Here’s another. And here’s a third. These are fantastical misinterpretations. What the communitarian platform actually says is, “No social task should be assigned to an institution that is larger than necessary to do the job.” The important issues, in other words, should be resolved around the family dinner table more often than at the UN Headquarters or at Davos. Giving a voice to people in a Detroit slum or a Brazilian rain forest is the opposite of world domination.

Far from it

An informed and involved citizenry is the sine qua non of communitarianism. America today is far from that.

“It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.” Charles Dickens put these words into the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge, knowing they would mark him as an odious miser. In ancient Athens, a man of Scrooge’s mind was ιδιωτησ, an idiot. The word didn’t imply deficient mental capacity. A man was an idiot if he neglected his civic responsibilities. America today is a nation of avowed idiots, and of people proud to share Scrooge’s worst quality.

Let’s clarify what communitarianism isn’t. It is not politics. The purpose of politics is to gain power by winning elections. Communitarianism stands for a consistent idea whether it is popular or not. Communitarianism is not religion. The purpose of religion is to explain and regulate man’s relationship to what is transcendent, while communitarianism focuses on this life. Communitarianism is not ideology. Ideologies insist on a short-circuit path from principles to priorities to conclusions. Communitarianism asserts only foundational principles and leaves the conclusions to work themselves out through experience. I think it fair to say that communitarian principles are congruous with religion, but not so much with politics or ideology.

Communitarianism is, as I’ve said, a social theory. It is a package of ideas that ideologues and politicians pick up and discard as it suits them. Political conservatives tend to talk the communitarian talk concerning morality and limited government. They part ways when communitarians defend labor unions, immigrant groups and other minority perspectives. They agree about Normal Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, in other words, but not about Norman’s Rockwell’s Golden Rule.


Communitarians and political liberals also maintain a tenuous alliance. A liberal regime seeks to act mainly through each individual’s dependence on the (national) government. Communitarianism prefers that families, church congregations, neighborhood associations and dozens of other groups provide the guidance and support the individual needs.

Communitarianism hovers on the periphery of public discourse. At his 1989 inaugural address, George H.W. Bush spoke of “a thousand points of light.” Since leaving office Bill Clinton has said the country (and world) needs, “Not liberal, but communitarian solutions.” According to Etzioni’s history of the movement, George W. Bush was also onboard until September 11, 2001, when urgent security concerns seemed to demand state power, secrets, and ruling by fiat  (all very anti-communitarian). Barack Obama has been more of a classic liberal, at least insofar as his signature health care reform is a big government program. Still, at his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama declaimed, “For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people. If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.”

Am I saying all or any of these men are communitarians? No, they are politicians. Their convictions are shallow and changing. But you can see that communitarian principles are not far from center stage. Indeed, they’ve been there since before America’s beginning.

We must, we must, we must

In 1630, as his puritan followers prepared to debark at their Massachusetts Bay settlement, John Winthrop delivered his famous “City on a Hill” sermon. It is one the highest, noblest agendas ever uttered. It thrills me every time I read it. It is thoroughly communitarian:

[W]e must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. 

Now, it is a fact that the Massachusetts Bay puritans fell short of these ideals. They argued over doctrine. They burned witches. They plundered their Abenaki, Narragansett and Pequod neighbors. But their failure doesn’t tarnish the ideals.

If community mattered to the earliest settlers, and top politicians of today continue to endorse the rhetoric of community, why has communitarianism failed to accomplish widespread social improvement? Perhaps it has done more than we know. But I think the answer is that people have too little regard for their neighbors, and too much regard for the distant halls of power.  The first of these is sin, and the second is madness.

Waiting for the government to solve your problems is a poor strategy at any time. With the dysfunction that pervades Washington now, it has become even less hopeful. A former presidential advisor said not long ago that it is not possible to coalesce all Americans around an idea. “We don’t have the ability to communicate with them . . . They are talking to people who agree with them, they are listening to news outlets that reinforce that point of view, and [President Obama] is probably the person with the least ability to break into that because of the partisan bias there.”

If, in today’s bifurcated society, even a president cannot rally the people to consensus, he still has the option of ramming through his policies irrespective of public support. Or does he? The Affordable Care Act was passed by a Democratic Congress and with little discussion. In the five years since, several million Americans have gained health coverage and the cost of health care has fallen. Yet a majority of Americans still distrust the law and many are working to undermine it. Without consensus and support, even federal law is weak. But laws based on communitarian consensus would be supported by the people who administer them, and the people who obey them.

And this is where communitarianism might disappoint potential adherents. Consensus takes time and patience. Working in hundreds of communities is harder than commanding once and for all from on high. When decisions are decentralized, laws and practices can vary from place to place. And that is OK. Communitarianism is comfortable with legal marijuana in Colorado, if Coloradans decide after careful consideration that they want it. Most communitarians would not force rules onto all Americans from above, even on critical issues such as abortion or gun control. Compelling people to do the right thing is just another sort of tyranny. From the communitarian platform: “[W]hen a community reaches the point at which these responsibilities are largely enforced by the powers of the state, it is in deep moral crisis. If communities are to function well, most members most of the time must discharge their responsibilities because they are committed to do so, not because they fear lawsuits, penalties, or jails.”

Count the failures

The Sandy Hook School massacre represents a failure of the federal congress to take action. And that is where most people’s analysis rests. But it was also failure at many other levels. Adam Lanza failed to respect his mother. She failed to raise him up in the way that he should go. Neighbors and school officials failed to notice that Mrs. Lanza had more than she could handle, or failed to do anything about it. The schools failed to even try to teach moral and civic duty. Local police and mental health officials failed to act on what they knew about Lanza’s morbid intentions. A communitarian society would instill many local checks – many points of intervention – before the bullets began to fly.

Have it your way

The mention of moral teaching and intervention evokes the thought of religious or cultural or ideological indoctrination. “Whose principles,” you might ask, “will these communitarian societies expound?” The surprising answer, if you are not a complete sociopath, is: “Yours!” Again from the communitarian platform:

“We ought to teach those values Americans share, for example, that the dignity of all persons ought to be respected, that tolerance is a virtue and discrimination abhorrent, that peaceful resolution of conflicts is superior to violence, that generally truth-telling is morally superior to lying, that democratic government is morally superior to totalitarianism and authoritarianism, that one ought to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, that saving for one’s own and one’s country’s future is better than squandering one’s income and relying on others to attend to one’s future needs.”

And now….

Before ending I should give you some proof of communitarianism in action. I don’t presume to urge the iMonk community to be communitarian or to join any social movement based on communitarian principles. I just want you to know things are happening and it’s not just a theory. The nature of a human-scale, decentralized ethic is that it will never be large and headline-grabbing. But there are plenty of growing initiatives with communitarian values:

Urban farming is one example. Rather than settling for what giant retail and agro corporations provide, people in the hearts of big cities are growing fresh, healthy food on vacant city land and sharing it with their neighbors. For people who live nearer to farm production, community supported agriculture cooperatives connect conscientious growers with customers eager to pay a premium for fresher meat, fruits and vegetables than the stores supply.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund helps communities defy “unsustainable economic and environmental policies set by state and federal governments” in order to achieve “sustainable energy production, sustainable land development, and sustainable water use, among others.”

The best and most extensive example of success built on a foundation of community and cooperation is the Mondragon Corporation of Spain. The company is a major enterprise with nearly 75,000 employees worldwide and sales of €12.5 billion. But Mondragon operates according to principles laid down in 1941by Catholic priest and corporate founder José María Arizmendiarrieta. Those principles are cooperation, empowerment, innovation and social responsibility. This video shows more. Most workers own shares in the company. Layoffs almost never happen, even during the severe recession of 2008-2010. Such things might not work in America where focus on maximum profits forces out other priorities. And then again, they just might work in Ohio, too.

42 thoughts on “Andy Zehner: On Communitarianism

  1. You can really see when exploring how the white flight and suburban expansion occurred, where the wealthy neighborhoods were, when areas jumped a few decades, etc. Even in the 2 mile stretch from my parent’s home to the next town over, you go from big lawns and random house types (old farm land), to rows of identical square 2-3 bedroom houses with no driveways and alleyways (old worker houses).

    Here in North Orange County (CA), I can tell within ten years when an area was built-up from the size and style of the houses.


  2. Because a lot of “the latest spiritual warfare stuff” has crossed the line into Magick and superstition.

    Also, it’s a great piece of misdirection for Screwtape & Co. While everyone is running around rebuking, spiritual mapping, etc, Screwtape & Wormwood nudge and tweak the selfishness and corruption in the physical realms.


  3. Which ended up concentrating “black trash” in a deteriorating ‘hood as everyone who could got out.

    Add “Black Pride” self-esteem activist movements to the resulting pressure-cooker and you can easily get a photographic negative of those white trash rank-and-file Klansmen of 1950s Mississippi (copping an attitude about their Whiteness as the only thing they could brag about).


  4. And as a counter to that, there’s 1939: Lost World of the Fair by David Gelertner, which compares and contrasts 1939 and 1999 through the device of a tour of the 1939 World’s Fair. In it, Prof Gelertner shows how Suburbia was a Bright Future to the urban dwellers of the Great Depression — your own house on your own piece of land (instead of a city apartment/tenement) with your own car to free yourself from dependency on trollies, trains, and buses.


  5. I’m noticing more and more that my more conservative, survivalist, homeschooled, family first type friends are leaving the city for the country or extreme suburbs. I don’t think they are creating community out there.

    No, they’re creating their own little Sovereign Citizen “Kingdom of Jones”/Galt’s Gulch, as isolated as possible from the Big Bad World outside.


  6. Thank you, Danielle, for putting narrative flesh on the bones of questions; these are precisely my concerns.


  7. It’s always worth discussing, even if just to understand how each other think, whether we agree or disagree.

    I’m familiar with the idea of “spiritual mapping” and some spiritual warfare type stuff, and at one point even was convinced I needed to walk around my house annointing doors with oil, but I’ll admit to being on the outs with the latest spiritual warfare stuff.


  8. All other things being equal, the very disinterest of the distant “Empire” may make it possible for those among its administrators who are fair-minded and equipped with a natural sense of justice to rectify wrongs that the locals abide by as tradition. Even the Roman Empire, which we rightly criticize for its frequent brutality and political cynicism, depended on more than only its ability to coerce subject states to prolong its influence and rule for so many centuries; it had a system of law, and when applied by its more conscientious administrators in even far-flung regions of the empire, real justice was sometimes approximated. This is easy to forget.


  9. Thanks Stuart. It would be a complete whole post to tackle the subject if why spiritual and sociological things work here and not there. Basically I believe it’s an issue of principalities, powers, and territories in the spiritual realms. I don’t think most of the good folk of the Monastery would go there or have a grid to as to the subject of spiritual warfare.


  10. Old Prophet, selfishness isn’t the best way to start, but even selfishness is a basis to improve society along communitarian lines.

    Start, for example, with the selfish position: “I want better roads and lower taxes.” The status quo cannot deliver that, though it can lie to you and say better roads and lower taxes are only a vote away. Better roads and lower taxes are possible only if more people are paying taxes. And those people have to be part of your community. Otherwise their tax dollars will build better roads someplace else. So a wisely selfish person would support local jobs and local merchants. They would be communitarian without knowing it.

    The selfish statement: “I want to live in a neighborhood and is safe and pleasant” would spur them to join (or start) neighborhood crime watch groups and other useful community resources.

    I have no ready solution to the sins of laziness and distrust.


  11. Source? I’ve heard that before but I honestly don’t know enough history in this area, would love to learn more.


  12. Well as the podcast I listened to this morning said, LA/California is an entirely different beast…

    So, what will work elsewhat might not work in California. What will work in California, then?


  13. One church that I know about that is attempting to minister in a way similar to this is the Englewood Christian Church located in the Englewood Neighborhood of the Near East Side of Indianapolis. I visited this church one year ago for three days and came away convinced that they are on the right track.

    To read their story do the following Google search: “Indiana church lives its faith by being a good neighbor” for an article from USA Today.

    The article just touches on what’s happening there. And it isn’t a program. It’s a way of relating to the community and of being a neighbor. It’s incarnational caring.


  14. Not here in SoCal. It’s not even happening in the churches here. Agendas’, that’s all that matters to people.


  15. Andy, let’s not overlook a “downside” to the end of segregation (and NO I am NOT suggesting that Jim Crow laws and lack of civil rights was or is a GOOD idea…..)

    Prior to the end of segregation, black neighborhoods (as with many other minority race/language/nationality enclaves) benefited from the fact that the black attorney, black doctor, black business owner, and other successful adults lived side-by-side with the black domestic worker, janitor, and good-for-nothin’ drunks. Young people saw role models that were live and working around them, not on TV or dealing drugs on the corner. When those that COULD leave the old neighborhood DID leave the old neighborhood, most of those left were on the low end of the social and economic spectrum, or too old or sick to leave.


  16. “Providing social services previously provided by the government….” is actually totally bass-ackwards. The government took over services that had previously been provided by the community and/or church!!! The latter involved a certain amount of reciprocity between those in need and those answering the need, in a way that largess from on high from a government entity does NOT!


  17. OldProphet, I hate to break into your nay saying prophesy, but it is already happening at places in our country. It is alive an well in some neighborhoods where Christians and churches are acting in the middle of the nitty-gritty of the real world. Followers of Jesus are rubbing shoulders with others wherever a vision can be shared and human need can be met. After all, we serve the God who was able to raise Jesus from the dead and Who is alive and well through the power of the Spirit.

    As StuartB says “The Kingdom of God is here.” Open your eyes and you will see and ears and you will hear.


  18. The notion that the social net is provided by the government is long-standing. However, the notion that it is provided by the *national* government is fairly recent – my grandparents knew that as one of the radical ideas of their youth. Before that, the social net was provided first by kin, second by church and then if needed by the the local community through its government.

    As one who does genealogy as a hobby, I believe I have been able to solve an ancestral adoption mystery in the decade before the civil war because I know how that social net worked. Each town was responsible for providing for its own poor, which led to various records being created that genealogists use. It also led to lawsuits between towns, such as Machias v. East Machias (27 Me. 489), over which town was responsible for which poor person. And to the colonial New England practice (derived from English law) of “warning out” essentially everyone new to town to ensure that the town would not become responsible for them.

    These practices produced great records for my hobby. But they also provided standards of care that we would deplore as inadequate. Early on, care of paupers for a year was auctioned to the lowest bidder (the bids being the amount to be paid to the caregiver). Then there were the workhouses. Then there was a form of locally provided cash relief – but when the community suffered, need increased while local ability to provide relief decreased, and conditions could be very miserable. The state acted as backup – but in the Great Depression even states were suffering, so couldn’t provide effective relief.


  19. Noble goals are often great things to work towards, whether we get there fully or not.

    The Kingdom of God is here.


  20. Communitariasm? Great theory. Never wil happen in this country. We have a better chance of experiencing Thomas Mores’ Utopia Unfortunately, they’ll be serving ice cream Sundaes in Hell before that lofty pie-in-the-sky idea would work. We’re way to selfish and sinful.


  21. “The real world often gets in the way”

    This is true. The reach of communitarianism is pretty limited so long as status quo values and priorities prevail. Amitai Etzioni is a strong critic of the ACLU when it seeks to enforce privacy as a top priority. He argues that safety and happiness and freedom ought to be the goals, and that the balance of privacy and civic action ought to maximize those — not just maximize privacy at whatever cost. He argues that we don’t have to choose between privacy and order. The only choice is both or neither:

    “Criminal acts are best prevented when a community abhors the behavior that is considered criminal by law makers; conversely, law enforcement works poorly when not supported by the community’s moral and informal enforcement systems. For instance, abuse of controlled substances and alcohol is very rare in religious communities that object to such behavior, such as in Mormon, Hasidic Jewish, Amish, and black Moslem communities, and is relatively rare in much of the Bible Belt and segments of small-town America.”

    Click to access A279.pdf


  22. StuartB, if you haven’t read The Geography of Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler, I recommend it heartily. It’s a history and indictment of suburbia — I learned a lot.


  23. There are several small playgrounds. If the boy wants to play, we go where the other families also take their kids. I am not tempted to build a giant playgym in my backyard for our private enjoyment, because my yard is too small. As a result, I have an immediate interest in those playgrounds being picked up. I feel the same way about the sidewalks that are not strictly mine.

    There is a rather large Catholic family that lives on the end of my parent’s dead end street. Within two blocks is a very large park, huge hill for sledding, basketball courts, a half baseball diamond/soccer field, tennis courts, etc. Within a mile is another large park with a small lake.

    The kids are not allowed to leave their dead end street. I saw one of the youngest recently trying to fly a kite in between trees and power lines on a dead end street. They ride their bikes up and down, run back and forth for exercise, and never leave their dead end street.

    As I grow older, I strive to keep my mouth shut and not criticize anyone’s parenting. It helps keep the peace with my friends who swear the Pearls wrote a book of the Bible. But seeing stuff like that is heartbreaking to me. There’s a huge, beautiful park nearby, surrounded by houses, everything in full public view, and the kids aren’t allowed to go there themselves.

    I’m noticing more and more that my more conservative, survivalist, homeschooled, family first type friends are leaving the city for the country or extreme suburbs. I don’t think they are creating community out there. Family first, protect the kids, raise them up right…maybe they will see others at church or the local homeschool co-op. But there is no true community.

    Community is just as much a liberal concept as a conservative one. For true community, you have to be moderate, compassionate, and tolerant. Those aren’t virtues to many.

    Sorta depressing to think about.


  24. Can confirm that Minneapolis has similar history in regards to #2. As helpful as having a giant interstate between Minneapolis and St Paul is, you can look at the maps and news articles to prove how it destroyed historic areas that were predominantly black. There are little pockets that still survive, indications of how it used to be, but mostly it’s just concrete lanes. The northern tip still kinda exists, anchored by some schools and Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist, and then one or two landmarks in the south, but the rest is gone.

    I’ve been really on the outs with the suburbs lately. Part of it is everything else going on in my life; I feel like just now, finally, I’m allowed to have my own damn opinion about things, what do I actually like and appreciate, and I’ve discovered I really hate the suburban life. I work in the suburbs, and I can’t afford to live anywhere within 20 miles of my job. If I were to move to the country, I could live, but half my job and life involves going to downtown or inner ring neighborhoods, and the commute would be killer. But the city itself is not affordable unless you want to live in a 350 sq ft bedroom “apartment” for $800, and that’s sharing a house with 3-4 roommates.

    So my burgeoning love affair with urban environments continues from afar. I’ve been exploring some of those inner suburbs a bit more and loving them. You can really see when exploring how the white flight and suburban expansion occurred, where the wealthy neighborhoods were, when areas jumped a few decades, etc. Even in the 2 mile stretch from my parent’s home to the next town over, you go from big lawns and random house types (old farm land), to rows of identical square 2-3 bedroom houses with no driveways and alleyways (old worker houses).

    I don’t see community occurring in the suburbs. I see a little more occurring in the city. I’ve lived everywhere, and at this point in life, I’d rather be urban.


  25. “I wonder if the urban/suburban environment removes opportunities for sharing.”

    I’m sure that it can. The obvious advantage, or disadvantage, urban life affords is the option of remaining anonymous.

    That said, I think cities can also create opportunities for community and the fostering of the values communitarians are touting. People live in close proximity to each other. They share more spaces. When we decided to put down roots, our family moved into the city – not away from it – to try to find more connection, more shared space. We live in a city neighborhood where houses run small. The minute you step outside, you are in shared space. I know my long-term neighbors and see them, by sheer happenstance, all the time.

    There are several small playgrounds. If the boy wants to play, we go where the other families also take their kids. I am not tempted to build a giant playgym in my backyard for our private enjoyment, because my yard is too small. As a result, I have an immediate interest in those playgrounds being picked up. I feel the same way about the sidewalks that are not strictly mine.

    My “urban garden” consists of lots of pots in my backyard and a front yard that contains and 4’ by 8’ raised bed with flowers and vegetables. If I work front, I’m visible to all the passersby, and we live on the street with the second or third most foot traffic in the ‘hood.

    If I wanted more garden space, I would have to find some other people and make space.

    One neighborhood over, there’s an urban farm. Someone got control of what used to be a pile of concrete, and took a jackhammar to it.


  26. Rather than starting with the existing number of battered women and asking if local donations can shelter them adequately, maybe the number of battered woman should be reduced. Usually it costs less to prevent misfortune than to repair the damage.

    Devil is in the details. Reducing the number of battered women is extremely important…but how? By giving more to churches that teach morality? Changing laws to empower and protect women more easily? Holding conferences on rape culture and similar topics? Defeating complementarianism and the Patriarchy?

    It’s tough.

    Recently a friend of mine who works with a lot of child and spousal abuse cases suggested her idea for a cell phone app that picked up on code words and automatically called/recorded any abuse cases. Great idea, and I see where she’s coming from…but it would never work. There are too many privacy issues, data issues, cost issues, manpower issues…

    Good intentions and a good idea, but the real world often gets in the way, and I hated having to ruin her thoughts by talking through the problems it would face…


  27. “When the less fortunate are members of the community, and visible to all, (some) people do care.”

    Yes, and Jesus says that’s not good enough: Matthew 5:46-48. But we also need arguments to convince the people who aren’t motivated to do what Jesus says. The communitarian suggestion (which is not perfect) is to establish and strengthen associations and relationships so more people are visible to others.

    “Sometimes I think that the key to all human misunderstanding is the failure to recognize the humanity and dignity in all others.”

    Yes, it is almost a perfect relationship. Oppression and injustice on a large scale are not possible unless the oppressors deny the humanity and dignity of the people they are stepping on. Hence the poignancy of Lincoln’s (rhetorical) question: “Is the negro a man?” Because if he is a man, then he must be treated fairly!

    Professor Haig Bosmajian has written about this:


  28. ‘And the intervention ought to come, when possible, from the next nearest community. If a parent is abusive of a child, then the parent’s siblings, or neighbors or church leaders (rather than a state-run children’s aid bureaucracy) ought to act.”

    Of course, they key word here is “ought.” I am ready to agree that communitarians are correct to point out that local communities are important. It is difficult to make up for serious faults, particularly when they are serious and multiple, at a local level. Likewise, it is difficult to underestimate the value of strong and functional local communities.

    The problem is that local communities often do have flaws. Local communities are often vested in the very systems of oppression from which an individual is trying to get free, such that they are no an ally. Families and local communities are just as likely to close ranks around an abuser, or the local business elites, or a favorite quarterback, as they are to embrace the victim.

    When a remote power – perhaps the machinery of the state and its bureaucracies – or outside “busybodies” (“radical” activists, the “pesky” itinerant Methodist circuit rider who keeps “stirring things up”, etc) intervene, it / they may be seeing problems that the local community isn’t acknowleding or in which it is complicit. Truth is, sometimes the fish in the basement have in fact been stinking for years – but when attention is drawn, the local community will be tempted at this point to see all intervention as outside meddling in “our pure, strong community.”

    To be sure, there is no guarantee, as Burro points out, that the outsider or the empire is going to do what is right. Since they are not invested in the local community, they may in fact make bad mistakes. But they are, by virtue of being remote, also in the position to see and act in ways the local community won’t.

    The problems are myriad, but it’s good that to have both local communities as well as larger bodies. They may fight, and neither or both may be corrupt. But at least they play off one another and place checks on one another.


  29. “The problem is that churches and Christians don’t CARE enough about those less fortunate! That is devastating.”

    When the less fortunate are members of the community, and visible to all, (some) people do care. It’s the segregation within our geographic realms by interest and resources that makes some invisible to others.

    Sometimes I think that the key to all human misunderstanding is the failure to recognize the humanity and dignity in all others.


  30. In general, peoples’ interests lay on this arc: Self, Family, Tribe, Group, in ascending order. Communitarianism, as a THEORY, can work in that particular grouping as an adjunct to regular governmental flailing. I can see it filling the niche between government regulations and services so that the overlooked can be helped to prosper and thrive, as in that Cleveland neighborhood where I grew up. In THAT instance, many were subsisting on the government dole of welfare, disability, section 8 housing, food stamps, and the like. Evergreen gave SOME (many did not wish to participate) the chance to rise above their situation. Despite its limited scope it is STILL a good thing.

    Communitarianism, as a THEORY, can never solve all problems, but it can definitely help SOME. There will always be the low end of the Bell Curve where some people will always sit in poverty in relation to the rest, not because they are “victims” of circumstance, but because they just do not have the wherewithal to do better. For these few we must depend on the government for help.

    I’m assuming that most of the regular posters here are middle class or above, so, what does Communitarianism look like for US? My answer would be to get involved in your neighborhood, through associations such as Home Owners Associations, service organizations, or just by being active in promoting well being around where you live and making it a better place to be. And, of course, by helping to support those entities that WILL help the “overlooked”.

    The problem, as I divine it, would be if we try to take it on a national, that is GOVERNMENTAL, scale. All government is, by nature, coercive, and the “majority” does not speak for all, so we must keep our eyes focussed on the immediate horizon.

    Just my OPINION as one who DOES participate in my small world…


  31. “We practice communitarianism without even knowing it’s called that. We tend to think of it as just being neighborly.”


    “I wonder if the urban/suburban environment removes opportunities for sharing.”

    I don’t have a universal answer, but in the case of the city I know best, Indianapolis, the answer is absolutely. The ruination of community (especially black community) was accomplished by three deliberate public policies: the movement of the railroad industry from a then-thriving neighborhood to a rural area; the routing of interstate highways through black and catholic neighborhoods on purpose to split them, and a federal school desegregation order that emptied city schools and bused all the kids to the suburbs. The first of these was, I think, a reasonable business decision. The second and third were done with malice.


  32. I remember hearing and thinking the same about Geo. H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” It seemed like an excuse to cut social programs and replace them with untried alternatives. The fact that there were “a thousand” of them didn’t mean any of them were any good.

    I’ve learned that the equation needs to take into account more than the number of charitable dollars donated. Rather than starting with the existing number of battered women and asking if local donations can shelter them adequately, maybe the number of battered woman should be reduced. Usually it costs less to prevent misfortune than to repair the damage.

    May I focus on your last statement: “It’s simply not reasonable to expect churches or Christians as a whole to care enough about those less fortunate to voluntarily give enough money to support them.”

    The problem is that churches and Christians don’t CARE enough about those less fortunate! That is devastating.


  33. Thank you for the shout-out to Urban Gardening and CSAs. I live in a rural community where we practice communitarianism without even knowing it’s called that. We tend to think of it as just being neighborly. I hatched out some chicks and gave them to a neighbor. Why? Because I got the eggs free from a friend, so in good conscience, I couldn’t charge for them. Same with produce. I picked up some planting trays on the way home from church Sunday for free from another neighbor who gave us a bunch of free pepper and tomato starts last year. I’ll be returning the favor this year by sharing whatever we manage to get started (kohlrabi and broccoli were promised, so hopefully these little sprouts will do well….)

    My point is that among Homesteaders and permaculturists, a lot of this is already being practiced. At the meeting last night of a local chapter of our state’s organic farming organization, this communitarian ideal was in evidence as farmers were cooperating with one another even though they are ostensibly competing with one another. The speaker was a commercial apple farmer with a huge operation while many of the attendees were small-scale farmers or homesteaders and there was no animosity, only helpfulness as we respected one another’s right to pursue individual ideals within a community of practitioners.

    I wonder if the urban/suburban environment removes opportunities for sharing. I live in a rural area on purpose. I want my kids to grow up connected to a community of neighbors. It is good to read Andy’s explanation of it here because until I did, I had no vocabulary for defining exactly what it is that makes life here superior to what I’ve experienced in the city and suburbs. Communitarianism it is. That is not to say it isn’t possible to foster such a spirit elsewhere, because many cities have neighborhood pride that is similar. I think what this article does is outline the contrast between a true community neighborhood and a HOA. The former is about helping, the latter is about the exercise of power.


  34. Robert F, I don’t think communitarians assume local networks are healthy. Putnam’s book describes their deficiencies at length. But the connections closest to the individual are vital. If they are rotten, then it is all the more urgent that they be restored. And the intervention ought to come, when possible, from the next nearest community. If a parent is abusive of a child, then the parent’s siblings, or neighbors or church leaders (rather than a state-run children’s aid bureaucracy) ought to act.

    As regards the possibility of a communitarian/local autonomy endorsement of slavery, Abraham Lincoln (Peoria Speech, 1854) has got the answer: “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

    You are right that there is “an important advantage to having recourse to laws that do not depend on the beneficence of local communities.” If there is to be individual liberty that doesn’t devolve into tyranny, it must be based on a strong and nearly universal moral foundation. That might conceivably be instilled in some people by church teaching, in others by cultural tradition, and in others via a constitutional statement of basic rights (which would have to be much stronger than the one we have in the US). The little bit of the communitarian platform I quote above says, “the dignity of all persons ought to be respected.”

    The question is whether you want the maximum of state and federal laws, with people habitually deferring to the government, or a maximum of morally actuated individuals who do what’s right because they care. Edmund Burke tells us it’s got to be one of the other: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”


  35. In most ways your description of communitarianism matches my own political leanings rather closely. But, I’m rather wary of the “thousand points of light” approach: the idea that you can count on private charities to provide some of the social services that in the past have been provided by the government. The average Christian gives away less than 2.5% of their income, and most of that is to support church ministries rather than social services. Bush used the “thousand points of light” as an excuse to cut government funding for education, single mothers, etc., and the result was rising inequality and homelessness, as well as a rising abortion rate. Churches and private charities were not able to make up the difference. It’s simply not reasonable to expect churches or Christians as a whole to care enough about those less fortunate to voluntarily give enough money to support them.


  36. “And this is where communitarianism might disappoint potential adherents. Consensus takes time and patience. Working in hundreds of communities is harder than commanding once and for all from on high. When decisions are decentralized, laws and practices can vary from place to place. And that is OK.”

    No one could have written a better description of Orthodox ecclesiology.


  37. What assurance is there that, if the local community with personal knowledge of the situation cannot be persuaded to do the right thing, that the distant Empire would do so? The same abstraction that allow for “greater tyranny” also allow for greater tyranny.


  38. What strikes me most about this post is how difficult it is for me to not get lost down an ideological rabbit-hole of my own digging.

    I first think to myself, “Hey, libertarians, when pressed, are usually more communitarian in practice than they sometimes let on.” Then I think, “Hmmm, maybe that’s the difference between Ayn Rand Objectivist types and libertarians: Objectivists reduce life to glorified selfishness, but libertarians at least recognize the practical need for strong communities and families in the context of a limited state.” And so on. But all I’m doing is trying to think along ideological lines, even if I myself, like Chaplain Mike, am just a moderate sort of guy.

    On the other hand, communitarianism ideals remind me a lot of what I learned in David Graeber’s recent book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” If I could sum it up in one sentence, it would be: “It’s the anthropology, stupid.” That is to say, currently ascendant market economic theories aren’t so much wrong as just historically naive: the market only exists in states, not in traditional societies, and there are many other ways that things have been, and could be arranged, to better align with local needs. Perhaps communitarianism speaks to at least some of the ideas that Graeber, as an anarchist, is promoting (e.g., the abolition of the World Bank, etc.)

    In any case, and as a first small step, one could convince the spell-checker that communitarianism is a real word.


  39. An assumption of communitarianism seems to be that the relational networks nearest to an individual, such as family and town, are inherently good and healthy. What if that’s not true? What if in a significant minority of cases these nearby relational networks are dysfunctional, constraining, oppressive and abusive? How does communitarinism provide ways to help or free the individual embedded and enmeshed in such dysfunctional nearby relational networks? In cases where the dysfunction is so bad that the only means of ameliorating it for the individual is escape, where would one escape to in a society rooted in communitarian networks and structures? If the local communitarians of Colorado were to decide that, instead of marijuana, they wanted to legalize indentured servitude, what would that be okay with the communitarians in other places? Supposing that the Coloradans were unable to legalize indentured servitude because they would still be bound, as they are now, by the Constitution and federal law, how could local communitarian structures maintain their essential communitarian character when the individual, and groups of individuals, would always have recourse to the distant authority of federal law and government? And isn’t there an important advantage to having recourse to laws that do not depend on the beneficence of local communities, laws that make for greater justice precisely because they function without regard to the familiarity or anonymity of the people who have recourse to them? How would communitarianism protect local minorities against the tyranny of local majorities, if not by recourse to non-local laws and government?


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