Today’s ‘Little Platoons’

Schools in Self-Government

This winter’s brutal storms would have cost one little girl her life—if it hadn’t been for a host of volunteers.

Three-year-old Michelle Schmitt had been on a waiting list for a liver transplant for two long, frustrating years. Finally the electrifying news came: A transplant was available. Michelle had just hours to fly from Louisville, Kentucky, to a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.

Every minute counted. But heavy snows had shut down the entire city. If only Michelle could get to a county airfield, a helicopter ambulance service offered to pick her up and fly her to the Louisville airport, where a runway was being cleared.

But getting to the county airfield would eat up precious hours. That’s when Southeast Christian Church came to the rescue. Church members had already helped raise money to cover the costs of the transplant operation. Now they had a brilliant thought: Let’s not bring Michelle to the helicopter, let’s bring the helicopter to Michelle. The aircraft could land on the church parking lot.

Members ran door to door, asking for help. Neighbors hurried to the church parking lot, shovels on their shoulders, to clear off a landing pad. Soon Michelle was on her way. The transplant operation was a complete success, and a little girl’s life was saved.

April is national volunteer month, and the members of Southeast Christian Church have my vote as this year’s model. They demonstrate the real difference caring volunteers can make.

But volunteerism is critical in other ways we don’t often think about: It fosters a distinctively American brand of civic responsibility.

The American founders did not believe governments could create virtue; government attempts to make people good are inherently coercive. Instead, our Constitution rests on the premise that virtue comes from citizens themselves—acting through smaller groups such as the family, church, community, and voluntary associations.

These are what English statesman Edmund Burke called the “little platoons.” They create the arena where virtue is best cultivated: both the disposition to be good and the impulse to do good. The little platoons are the roots of social order—schools in citizenship, where the art of self-government is practiced.

Historically, Americans have always impressed outsiders with their habit of volunteerism. In the nineteenth century, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville marveled that Americans form associations for everything—to start libraries, send out missionaries, build hospitals and schools. By contrast, Tocqueville remarked, in his own France there were not 10 men doing what ordinary Americans do routinely.

As Christians we need to grasp the broad cultural impact of the ministries we devote our time to. Volunteerism is more than individual acts of justice and kindness, important though they are. When the members of Southeast Christian Church save the life of a little girl, or when you and I give up our Tuesday nights to drive out and visit a prisoner, in a very real sense we’re helping to maintain the distinctive character of our society—to preserve America’s richest heritage.

We are strengthening the “little platoons” that foster virtue and are the bedrock of America’s freedom.


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