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).