Acton Institute Powerblog

A Liberal Wolf in Communitarian Clothing

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The problem with communitarianism, claims Bradley C. S. Watson, is that it views religion as an instrumental good and individual virtue as destructive:

Communitarianism comes to sight as a movement that sees, far more clearly than liberalism, that the private sphere and private goods are rooted in, and in turn have an effect on, public goods. President Clinton, as a “new” Democrat, has effectively enlisted the intellectual backing of the communitarian theorists in his efforts to distance himself and his party from the more extravagantly individualist claims of the old left. However, communitarianism is but a liberal wolf in communal clothing. This is a central claim of Bruce Frohnen, a political scientist who is currently a speechwriter for U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham. In The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, Frohnen argues that the new communitarians eschew the authority of what they see as oppressive tradition, natural law, or traditional religion. For these, they seek to substitute a desiccated, politically nationalizing civil religion, communal loyalty to which will help ensure that their particular vision of the future comes to pass.

Although the precise contours and extent of civil religion are not always fleshed out (by Frohnen, or by the communitarians themselves), it is clear that traditional religion is an instrumental good only, useful to the extent it teaches the intertwined liberal social goods of tolerance, equality, authenticity, and participation in community life. Communitarian virtues are not the Aristotelian ones-courage, moderation, prudence, justice, and so forth-but liberal ones. Indeed, in Frohnen’s interpretation of Bellah, the promotion of individual virtue is at once atomizing and hegemonic, destructive therefore of both liberal community and authenticity.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Roger McKinney

    Nice! Thanks!

    Christianity Today has a review of “Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society
    (Rowman & Littlefield), by Monsma—senior research fellow at Calvin
    College’s Henry Institute and one of the world’s leading students of
    faith-based social service organizations—looks beyond our borders for a
    fresh perspective on this most contentious issue.”

    The reviewer wrote “According to Monsma, both conservatives and liberals devote their
    attention primarily to the relationship between the (believing or
    unbelieving) individual and the government.”

    However, as I wrote there “Both should read Hayek’s “Individualism: True and False.” The
    individualism they write about came from the atheists of the French
    revolution and was preached by socialists, not classical liberals. John
    Stuart Mill, a British economist of the late 19th century did his best
    to confuse the fake individualism of the Enlightenment with classical
    liberalism and apparently he succeeded.”

    Communitarians need to understand that the word “individualism” has two very distinct meanings, one created by the atheist of the enlightenment and one used by classical liberals. The classical liberal concept of individualism has nothing to do with the atomized individual of the enlightenment. The classical liberal individual is very community oriented.

    However, the classical liberal does not want to force individuals into communities by means of state power. Individuals have a God-given nature that seeks community without any coercion. If freed from state coercion, individuals will create thriving, powerful communities.