On December 4, 2021, I presented this lecture for the Sunrise Foundation in Honolulu. The remarkable Wally Fukunaga, my Princeton Theological Seminary classmate, founder and president of the foundation, offered the invitation. At this critical moment in our nation’s democracy, it is no accident that Hawaii, with their vibrant understanding of community, has the best record of dealing with the virus. In meals over the following days, with old and new friends, we continued the conversation about the tug of war between individualism and community.
December 4, 2021
In my lifetime I have never felt such worry for the future of our democracy. Are you, like me, periodically saying to yourself, “I need to stop watching the news; it is so discouraging.” Yet, I am sure each of us this morning is committed to being informed and thoughtful people.
When we go to a physician, we will be asked not just about our present health, but about the health of our parents, and our grandparents. I suggest that in the same way our parents and grandparents, and great grandparents and great-great grandparents, can help us understand the possibilities for the healing of America today.
In the winter of 1838, twenty-nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln worried about the violence rising across the nation. Two and a half months earlier, in nearby Alton, Illinois, Presbyterian minister Elijah Lovejoy, editor of an antislavery newspaper, was killed by a pro-slavery mob. With this attack in mind, Lincoln mused about the future danger to America. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? — Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! –All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Lincoln’s warning has fresh meaning for today.
There are multiple crises facing America today: Covid 19, systemic racism, climate change, income inequality, gun violence. Underneath the efforts to confront and heal each crisis, we hear resistant shouts of “my freedom;” “my liberty.”
Virginia Republican Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears declared on November 21, “We have to remember that we’re America. We love our freedom. We love our liberty. People are dying to get into this country so that they can do well for themselves and their families. Let’s not make it like some other countries. Let’s let liberty shine.”
Yes, we do have to remember. Unfortunately, Lt. Governor Sears either does not know or does not remember what the founding leaders of our country understood when they spoke of “liberty.” Talk of freedom today is based too often on a misunderstanding of American history and a misguided interpretation of “liberty.”
When young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across America in the early 1830s, he helped give currency to a new word: “individualism.” In writing his Democracy in America, he determined to understand the nature of our democratic society. Appreciative of America’s distinctive individualism, he voiced concern: whether our democratic society would be able to maintain free political institutions or slip into the kinds of despotism he had witnessed in Europe. If he praised the vitality of this individualism, he worried about problems that might grow from it in the future.
Tocqueville was concerned that people who lift up individualism, might “forget their ancestors.” People who praise individualism tend to think about their descendants. Young people are saying to their parents and grandparents, you are forfeiting our future because of an unwillingness to deal with climate change. Finally, Tocqueville, worried that in the future individualism could result in citizens isolated from each other as the commitment to community present in the 19th century diminished in the 20th century.
The varieties of the virus have forced us to look at ourselves. American individualism, by itself, lacks the resources to confront the multiple social crises of our time.
What is the response to the individualism of our time? I suggest a rediscovery of community is the antidote for the excessive individualism we are experiencing today.
In accepting the invitation to offer this presentation, I decided to spend time listening again to our nation’s founders.
In 1630, John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, upon arriving in Salem harbor from England, preached a sermon on the ship Arabella. A layperson, he stated:
We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffertogether, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.
In hearing again Winthrop’s stirring words about the need for community in this new land, I revisited his greatest fear: that self-interest might destroy the new society before community had opportunity to take root and grow.
Barry Alan Shain, in The Myth of American Individualism, calls us back to the beliefs of America’s founders. He writes that “liberty” was a key word for the revolutionary generation. John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, stated in 1790, “civil liberty consists, not in a right to every man to do just what he pleases,” but only to do that which “the equal and constitutional laws of the country admit to be consistent with the public good.”
The subtitle of Shain’s book is The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Religion, at its best, has always been a promoter of community. At the time of the American Revolution, of those who attended churches, 85% were of the Reformed or Calvinist tradition. These churches included Congregational [today’s United Church of Christ], Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, French Huguenot, and some early Baptists.
These Christians in the revolutionary generation had little patience with those who claimed the rights of individuals over the public good. These church members believed the “autonomous self” to be at the core of sin. A common definition of corruption was understood as “a failure to devote one’s energies to the common good.”
You may need to forgive this historian for spending so much time in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but you get my point. The only way to move forward is to challenge the hyper-individualism of the early 21st century by remembering the understanding of community that formed the foundation of America’s origins.
Today the United States is 26th in its response to the Covid 19 Virus. Since 2020, nations as diverse as Norway, Spain, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Ireland have responded much better than the United States. Why? Because their citizens trusted their government for the public good.
If an Infrastructure Bill finally passed, there is a reason the United States ranks 13th in the world in infrastructure. The twelve countries ahead of us–Singapore, Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Spain, Germany, France–all place much more confidence in government.
Yuval Levin, in his insightful article “The Changing Face of Social Breakdown,” argues that social media has exasperated excessive individualism. It has turned large swaths of our personal lives into platforms for a new kind of individualism. We display ourselves and observe others without really connecting to each other.
How do we reestablish community? Tocqueville would applaud the Sunrise Foundation as one of what he called the voluntary societies that promote community. He singled out churches as building blocks of community.
Yet in speaking recently to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, I learned their clubs are finding it more difficult to attract new, younger members. The pandemic has dealt blows to faith communities forced to do worship by Zoom. In a pandemic world voluntary societies and faith communities need to think creatively about how to strengthen the precious connections of community.
Let’s conclude by contrasting the ethos of individualism and community.
Individualism, as John Winthrop worried, can lead to self-interest.
Community, as Tocqueville observed, is rooted in the interlocking of civic and religious voluntary societies.
Individualism too often divides — think of the politicization over masks.
Community can overcome the isolation that so many have experienced during Covid 19.
Social media, think Facebook, which promised to connect us, has led often to separation, especially among young people, its heaviest users.
Tocqueville praised the dynamism of individualism in the new nation, but feared that over time it could lead to an antagonistic individualism pitting individuals against each other.
Community can check and restrain an antagonistic individualism by putting in place an ethic of responsibility to the community. Sometimes this will mean sacrificing our individual desires for the greater public good.
When many feel discouraged about the present life of our democracy what is the path forward? The pendulum has swung much too far towards a self-absorbed individualism. It is time to swing back to an understanding of community which the founders of our nation expressed as loyalty to the public good. We need to overlay the admitted importance of individual choices with commitments to community–to others, to neighbors, to friends, to teachers, to mentors, to coworkers, to nation.
Community can go by many names. John Winthrop called it “members of the same body.” John Jay named it the “public good.” Alexis de Tocqueville declared, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, encouraged, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”