book cover imageThe New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism
by Bruce Frohnen.
University Press of Kansas, 1996.
vii + 271 pp., $30 cloth.

In seven concisely written chapters, Bruce Frohnen has captured in The New Communitarians the misguided arrogance and deceit of America’s elite, including but not limited to those associated with communitarianism. In fact, without entering fully into the communitarian debate, Frohnen demonstrates the essential incoherence of the so-called communitarians. He not only shows in what ways our contemporary elite are confused, but also brings to our attention the essential grounds of civilized life and of community. Frohnen’s positive insights alone are worth the price of this book.

At the core of Frohnen’s analysis is his claim that an important if not dominant part of the intellectual elite, as found in political theory, jurisprudence, history, and public policy, suffers from a loss of confidence in any enduring moral or theological truth. This elite, though, is committed to the creation of “useful” stories with which to explain American history and to shape American public discourse. Thus, as Frohnen himself recognizes, “this is a book about communitarianism. But, more fundamentally, it is a book about the relationship between religion and politics in American life. . . . Current debates over virtue revolve around questions of the proper form, use, and goals of religious understanding . . . [the elite, though, find religious life] too unreflective and too restrictive of individual experimentation.

Communitarians seek to instill in us a faith in civil or political rather than spiritual religion.” Frohnen, thus from the outset, understands that his deeper focus is not communitarianism, but the arrogant ambitions of our elite.

The elite’s presumptuousness is especially evident in its high regard for Bellah’s idea of civil religion. Here, as elsewhere, Frohnen is breaking fresh ground in his demonstration of the impoverished nature of civil religion and the desperation of those who have turned to it. Even more to the point is the reason why civil religion is unable to fulfill the tasks demanded of it. Frohnen asks, “why commit to something [like a civil religion] that is not important in and of itself? . . . Why serve a community or fulfill our duties to other people when fulfillment of our own desires, choices, and life plans is the final goal. . . . Such a self-imposed false consciousness seems unlikely to motivate unselfish conduct for long.” Frohnen shows our elites to be engaged in a massive experiment in the creation of meaning, if you will, a collective form of existentialism in which they tell us stories created with the hope that we will soon forget their source.

Frohnen also finds our elite, notwithstanding their democratic pretensions, defending a top-down authoritarianism that emanates from their hostility toward and distrust of the people for whom they claim to speak. Frohnen writes that “communitarians do not trust local citizens to choose social justice and authenticity on their own. They want the national government to guarantee both these values. They leave for local citizens the appearance of community control, but it is a derivative control, one that can be overruled at anytime by the true wielder of power and authority: the central government.” Frohnen acknowledges as well that the courts and the elite culture surrounding them, through the interpretation of fundamental texts, are the true masters. “Facilitators, those most skilled at manipulating language and the media, become the new elite, interpreting for the people the documents through which they understand their own past and purpose.” Frohnen, thus, questioned the legitimacy of our judiciary well in advance of Bork et al., in First Things.

With the communitarians in mind, Frohnen is no less devastating. He draws attention to the incoherence of their desire to be both good liberals and communitarians. Frohnen is surely right in noting that communitarians “seek to save liberalism from its own excessive hostility toward authority, to save liberalism from itself.” This leads them to embrace both individualism and communalism without recognizing that there are difficult, even unavoidable, trade-offs between them. In being simultaneously committed to equality, democracy, and individual autonomy, communitarians fail to recognize the tensions that exist in this new unholy trinity. But, as Frohnen points out, no amount of creative historiography will change the nature of man and the inherent conflicts between these competing ends. Real communities provide real benefits; but real communities are not free of costs.

In contrast, Frohnen follows Aristotle and argues that to live well human beings must be committed to and enmeshed in a common moral project. Group life is necessarily about education in the virtues and the right kind of moral life, and this necessitates that a democratic people be able to choose regarding such matters. “Local communities must make . . . fundamental moral decisions for themselves, rather than bowing to an elected federal body, if they are to retain their independence and moral cohesion.” As Frohnen emphasizes, civilized behavior is best learned at home, in the bosom of a local community, and in one’s house of worship. These overlapping arenas of life are, for Frohnen, the very ground of our being. He holds not only that localism, or as the Catholics would have it, subsidiarity, is the best path to a truly human life, but that this has been at the core of American life for over three centuries. Happily, though, America is large enough to allow “for great diversity among America’s towns and neighborhoods.” Put otherwise, we can live within a liberal national sea of tolerance with local communities committed to diverse religious and moral agendas.

In his final chapter, Frohnen firmly opposes the pretensions of the new elites. He argues that even if a few can live in the shadow of Athens and be sustained by the otherwise sparse fare of philosophy, or in contemporary parlance, the vanities of civil religion, most of us need something more to live well and within limits; we need the commands of religion as shaped by a community of worship. As Frohnen writes, “we can accept the inevitable pain, suffering, and defeat that is life only if we commit ourselves to something beyond it. Philosophers may find that something in their own words and theories, but most of us need something more concrete, something that promises to give our life meaning.” It is hard to conceive of him being wrong in this assessment.

This is indeed a rich and edifying book. But with this firmly in mind, let me make note of my sole criticism. It is that this book’s primary focus is not, as one might have expected, on what is normally understood to be contemporary communitarianism. Although in the introduction Frohnen promises to examine carefully the philosophical underpinnings of the communitarian debate, this is not an objective that he fully meets. This controversy, beginning in the early 1980s with the publication of Alasdair Maclntyre’s After Virtue and Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, is rather selectively examined. Indeed, Frohnen ignores, or nearly so,many of the most prominent participants in this debate, including Sandel. But again, what Frohnen does do in this creative book more than compensates for any sin of omission he may have committed. Maybe, in fact, we should thank him for a sleight of hand in which far more was delivered than we could have reasonably expected from the title.  

“Communitarians believe we can retain our social cohesion without its moral and religious basis, provided the intellectuals rear the masses in the proper civil religion. This assertion seems untenable. It rests on a highly exaggerated view of the power of words taken by themselves and on the belief that intellectuals can create new myths in the space of at most a few years or generations. But myths are not mere stories ‘got up’ to convince the people to serve their masters. Myths grow and change over time precisely because they are a people’s way of trying to understand truths that are beyond human knowledge.”

—Bruce Frohnen, The New Communitarians

Barry Alan Shain teaches political theory at Colgate University. He is the author of The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1994).