Community, liberty and freedom

December 3, 2012
Filed under Ethics

Michael Miller writes that the battles for religious liberty are only beginning. Americans are faced with the choice of being governed by its citizens or surrendering the culture to a massive, uncaring government bureaucracy. He argues that one of the ways we can have the strength and integrity to stand up is by not being dependent upon taxpayer dollars . . .

Michael M. Miller

by Michael Miller

I’ve been thinking lately that much of the division in America about the role of the state, the Church, the family, and religious liberty comes down to a clash between the intellectual visions of two Frenchmen: Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Many of the differences can be boiled down to what we mean by community. Rousseau’s vision of community is what the sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “political community.” For Rousseau, the two main elements of society are the individual and the state. All other groups — including the Church — are viewed as inhibiting individual freedom and detracting from political community that is found in the state.

Tocqueville’s vision of community, on the other hand, is not reduced to the “political community” but instead means a wide variety of associations, different levels of groups, and layers of authority. Society is not made up of autonomous individuals and an omnicompetent state, but is a diverse group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.

Tocqueville worried that democracies could slide into what he called “soft despotism.” He said that this type of despotism “would be more extensive and milder and it would degrade men without tormenting them.” In Democracy in America, he wrote: “I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is a stranger to the destiny of others.”

Over this multitude a massive government exists, “which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, [and] divides their inheritances.” He says it would be like a father. But unlike a father, the state doesn’t want citizens to grow up; it wants to regulate and manage all their little decisions, even though the external forms of freedom remain.

He wrote this in the 1830s and his words today are prophetic. Think, for example, of President Obama’s “Life of Julia” campaign, where he envisions that big government is there to assist us at every stage of our lives. What was supposed to be a social safety net has become the social fabric of our lives.

Tocqueville believed that the way to counter the rise of soft despotism was to encourage people to get involved in their communities — and to work with their neighbors to solve problems rather than relying on the state. This requires active local politics, a rich diversity of private associations, and of course, religion. Religion, religious institutions, schools, and ministries play a central role in creating the conditions for freedom and resisting soft despotism. Religion helps fight the negative forces of “love of comfort” and “individualism” by providing an eternal perspective.

Intellectually, Christians need to be aware of these two visions of community and what they mean. We should reject the Rousseauian vision of community and adopt Tocqueville’s, where a diversity of organizations possess the local and appropriate knowledge to help those in need. His idea is similar to the Catholic social doctrine of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity not only limits the role of the state, but it enables authentic human interaction. The Church (this means us) needs to think creatively to provide local solutions to social issues.

From this, I believe that in our current political and cultural situation, Catholic institutions should be wary of taking government money, which can end up making these institutions an arm of state services. The Church needs freedom to follow God’s laws and to live out its mission, preaching the gospel, getting souls to heaven, and helping to create the conditions for human flourishing. Clearly it’s not wrong to take government money, but in today’s climate — with an increasingly secular state hostile to Judeo-Christian teaching — I wonder if this is the most prudent course.

The battles for religious liberty are only beginning and the road ahead will be hard. One of the ways we can have the strength and integrity to stand up is by not being dependent upon taxpayer dollars. What vision of community do we want? Rousseau’s with a small, isolated, and so-called emanciapted individual over whom hovers the protective, watchful state — or Tocqueville’s vision of a rich diversity and layers of association where citizens can find something much better than raw, amoral emancipation: They can find human flourishing and human love.

Michael Matheson Miller is a research fellow and director of media at the Acton Institute. He is currently leading PovertyCure, an international network of organizations promoting enterprise solutions to poverty rooted in a Christian understanding of the human person.

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  1. […] group of overlapping associations like families, churches, schools, and mutual-aid societies.Read “Community, liberty and freedom” in Legatus here.Category: Acton MediaRelated Tags: alexis de tocqueville, community, freedom, Jean-Jacques […]

  2. […] 5. Community, liberty and freedom: Michael Miller challenges us to choose between the divergent visions of community represented in Rousseau and Tocqueville. […]



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