Community and Tradition: Conservative Perspectives on the American Experience,
edited by George W. Carey and Bruce Frohnen.
Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Paper, 216pp., $23.

This is a valuable and timely book, and a welcome reminder that the conservative mind is alive and well in America. While a collaboration by eight writers, the volume holds together in both theme and style. The editors, George W. Carey of Georgetown University and Bruce Frohnen, currently on the staff of U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham, have asked the right questions: What is the true nature of the good community? Was America “born modern” as liberal and individualistic, or was there an authentic communitarianism in its past? What is helpful in and what is disturbing about current communitarian thought? The answers provided give splendid insights into modern political theory and cut to the heart of our current national discontents.

The “Introduction” to the volume and Kenneth Grasso’s chapter on the “Modern Quest for Community” lay the groundwork. Both stress that true or real community require that people share important things in common and that they be bound by something stronger than individual choice. Drawing openly on the work of Robert Nisbet, both emphasize the role played by intermediate institutions—families, clans, villages, churches—in sheltering individuals from the demands of the overweening state. The good society is “a community of communities,” resting on the principles of functional autonomy, the dispersion of power, respect for hierarchy, and reliance on custom, folkway, and tradition as guides to behavior.

They also analyze the source of the new communitarian debate. Modern liberalism, born in the mind of Jean-Jaques Rousseau and brought to a kind of American fruition in the theories of Herbert Croly, celebrated the principles of individualism and equality. It used government to “liberate” individuals from the bonds of family, place, inherited religion, and tradition, so they might be redirected to the needs of “the nation” and “the world.” By the 1980s, though, some heirs to the liberal dream openly admitted that the scheme had not worked. The liberated, atomistic individual, cut free from obligations to family, faith, and place, refused to adhere to the new liberal creed. Instead, social decay and moral anarchy were the result. Modern communitarianism grew out of this situation, as figures such as Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and William Galston set out to save liberalism from itself, by trying to give it a badly needed theory of virtue.

Three chapters of this book address the issue of whether authentic communitarianism existed in America’s past. Barry Shain of Colgate University surveys the vast new work on the American colonial and Revolutionary periods, and finds “a rich inheritance that is at once conservative and communal.” Writing in a refreshingly direct manner, he explains that “real communities” are “invariably illiberal,” offering “little protection to deviant individuals and ethnic or religious minorities.” He emphasizes that 95 percent of Americans in the late-eighteenth century were farm or village people; their townships were commonly homogeneous by ethnicity and faith; and their families were patriarchal. Government, such as it was, served as an instrument of Christian social order, not personal liberation. Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights, for example, urged “laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality,” language found in our day only among the Taliban in Afghanistan. In short, Shain argues that Americans before 1800 were “conservative, largely Protestant, local communalists.”

Carey looks for evidence of communitarianism in the crafting of the U.S. Constitution. He concludes that the founders “presumed” that families, churches, and little communities would produce the morality needed for the operation of the constitutional system. As Madison once explained, proponents of the Constitution clearly assumed there would be a “sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” a virtue that could only come out of the institutions of civil society. The equality of the states in the Senate, buttressed by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, would serve to protect those very institutions from an ambitious central government.

Historian Wilfred McClay offers a delightful account of the limits of liberalism in his essay, “Mr. Emerson’s Tombstone.” He shows that Protestant Christianity in the Colonial era, often seen as the source of corrosive individualism, actually advanced a “constrained individuality,” where the person was bound tightly by covenants and moral constraints. Social atomism came only later as Protestant vitality waned, but early enough for Tocqueville to note that “not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” McClay shows how nineteenth-century Whigs such as Horace Mann and William Ellery Channing sought to fill the void with the common schools, where character would be the substitute for the faith-encumbered notion of virtue. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his declaration that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” seemed to mark the endpoint of this campaign, opening society to moral anarchy. But McClay draws hope for reclaiming the old “Protestant Principle” from the metaphor of Mr. Emerson’s tombstone: a large and rough boulder in the otherwise tidy Sleepy Hollow Cemetery flanked by two small, symmetrical, conventional stones, marking the graves of his wife and daughter. Without “the domestic stability and satisfaction provided by them,” the author explains, Emerson’s career as an “individualist” could never have prospered.

Several chapters follow that dissect the “liberal communitarianism” of three prominent advocates. Norman Barry shows the logical inconsistencies in Charles Taylor’s attempt to preserve the liberal principles of free conscience and equality in league with his simultaneous call for multiculturalism. Barry argues that the “community” which Taylor winds up defending is, in fact, “simply the liberal community.” Brad Lowell Stone of Oglethorpe University cleverly turns to Robert Bellah’s early essays on “civil religion’’ to expose the statist, utopian, and universalist goals underlying the communitarianism advanced in Habits of the Heart.

William Galston’s vision of liberalism as moral pluralism is ably dissected by Peter Augustine Lawler of Berry College. He shows how Galston acknowledges as true virtually all of the right-wing critique of liberalism, including judgment that “the United States is in trouble because it has failed to attend to the dependence of sound politics on sound culture.” Galston also admits that the central purpose—and thrill—of liberals is to question or rebel against all inherited authority and doctrines. As Lawler concludes: “Not only fundamentalists but all traditionalists and all Christians are justified in believing that today’s liberalism threatens the integrity of their way of life. Galston calls that one of liberalism’s virtues.” But Galston also knows that it carries the seeds of its own destruction, and so he looks for ways to shore up “illiberal” institutions just enough to keep them alive. Galston’s ideal world would keep enough traditional parents and priests around so that each new generation of youth could know the joy of that rebellion. In this sense, his liberalism emerges as parasitic, and his communitarianism as disingenuous.

The main weakness of the book is the frail nature of its positive agenda for renewal. The authorsdo try. Shain calls for reassertion of “a coherent vision of man as an ethical being with a divine nature that understands the importance of family, congregation, and local community.” But according to his account, the earlier version of this has been dying or dead for about two hundred years. Given this legacy, from where shall renewal come? He doesn’t say. Carey suggests that Constitutional erosion might be reversed by a new division of revenues between the federal government and the states, or by creation of a new neutral arbiter, to handle disputes between the central government and the states, or by returning enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment to Congress. This reviewer suspects that only the repeal of that Amendment would even begin to set things right. Frohnen comes closest to a plausible agenda when he discusses the necessary rule of “the sacred” in the sustenance of any community. Until vital, and necessarily intolerant and illiberal, faith returns—in some guise we probably cannot guess and certainly cannot order up—the quest for communitarianism will remain muddled and frustrated. 

Allan Carlson is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois and author of books including The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in 20th Century America.