Man Is a Social Being

John ArmstrongThe Church

On my way to New York last Friday I bought a copy of the New York Times. I sometimes read it online but I wanted to see the print edition while I was traveling. The coverage of the interview by ABC host Charles Gibson of Sarah Palin seemed even-handed and accurate. The Chicago Sun-Times, our rag-sheet daily newspaper, as opposed to the serious and more reliable Chicago Tribune, headlined: "Hockey Mom Checked!" I knew immediately their agenda was not reporting the news.

Anyway, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote fine piece in the New York Times ("The Social Animal") that suggested Republicans were pretty tone deaf to the communitarian nature of how we should actually live our lives. Brooks quoted the late conservative champion Senator Barry Goldwater:

"Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being."

Brooks further noted that the implications of this are clear. So Goldwater added, "Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?"

This vision is highly individualistic and celebrates the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the true American hero fighting the collectivist foe. But Brooks suggests that this view of human nature has been consistently proven to be wrong. Not only does a growing tide of social research disprove this thesis but the obvious fact here is clear—this expression of self-reliance is one sided. We all get to where we are in life through various means and socialization might be the most important means of all, at least for most of us.

Brooks has a more balanced view of conservatism and thus concludes:

"What emerges is not a picture of self-creating individuals gloriously free from one another, but of autonomous creatures deeply interconnected with one another. Recent Republican Party doctrine has emphasized the power of the individual, but underestimates the importance of connections, relationships, institutions and social filaments that organize personal choices and make individuals what they are."

I believe exactly the same thing can be said about the church. We need to stress the truth that each of us is personally responsible for our choices and actions. But we also need to stress that the power of connections and social relationships is immensely important as well. This is in the very DNA of the church as God’s community.

Not only have Republicans missed this emphasis since Goldwater’s brand of conservatism captured the party, but so have most conservative Christians. (Is there a connection? Perhaps.) I want to see a renewal of the church that truly stresses a proper conservatism toward tradition and doctrine while at the same time we have a proper stress on real community and collective responsibility.

This very debate surfaced last week on 9/11 in the McCain and Obama comments in the community service forum in New York City. McCain tried to stress community service, and did better than most conservatives, but he seemed much less comfortable with this whole emphasis than Obama did. I think conservatives need to learn that the "rugged individualist" might have conquered the old West, but something else is needed desperately now. I am, in fact, "my brother’s keeper" if I really believe and practice  the Great Commandment to "love my neighbor."