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."

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  1. s September 15, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    I read the David Brooks article and it brought up some interesting points. There are many fine conservative leaders, but I think members of the Republican party can sometimes interpret the ethos of individualism as an exemption from caring for their neighbor, almost a license to become self-centered. Ezekiel describes Sodom’s sin as being “overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
    The beauty of the American dream is the hope that it provides- the ability to ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’ However, I think some conservatives use the ideology of meritocracy against the poor- a reason to blame them for their troubles when many are very hard-working citizens. (This is not an argument for welfare, but an argument for compassion.)
    Anyways, I like how you relate this to the American church. It’s obvious that the individualistic nature of our society has permeated the church, in both good ways and bad.

  2. jls September 16, 2008 at 7:11 am

    In the world that God created, human beings are inextricably tied to one another, and the choices made by one affect many. When Adam irresponsibly exercised his personal, God-given freedom, the sin he committed had devastating consequences for the whole human race. I have often wondered why God would give people such freedom, not just to ruin their own lives if they choose to do so, but to ruin the lives of others as well. For example, why didn’t God stop the wayward Cain from killing his righteous brother Abel? It doesn’t seem fair. Or why would God allow so many children to suffer in this world with damaged lives because of the wrong choices made by their parents? Perhaps God set up the world this way to teach us a sense of responsibility for our world and for the people around us.
    In the realm of politics and public policy, it is fair to say that some on the right have substituted a doctrine of self-reliance for real compassion and stewardship. Likewise, some on the left have been substituting support for hypothetical government programs that do not exist for real compassion and stewardship. So what’s the answer? In the policy realm, I’m not sure.
    But within the church, I do think that we need to take a hard look at the “gospel” that American evangelicals have been preaching for the last half century, with its heavy emphasis on personal salvation. Yes, Jesus is my personal Savior. But he is also the Savior of the world. The Bible emphasizes the latter much more than the former. Instilling the Church with a sense of community and shared responsibility will have to begin with reforming our gospel faith.

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