“Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” Phillip Blond, quoted by David Brooks
The United States is breaking apart. That, according to a bracing piece earlier this year by New York Times columnist David Brooks. As Brooks tells it, public disdain for politicians and widespread cynicism about the political process have combined to tear at an already enfeebled social fabric.
It began with two revolutions from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Brooks writes,
“First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.
“Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away.”
The first created a welfare state and the second a market state. Together they displaced small, local businesses, “weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers,” all which required a gargantuan government to administer programs and audit the market. Ironically, both revolutions, which were aimed at increasing personal freedoms, ended up putting the individual under greater state control. Of course.
Once traditional morality is jettisoned, so is moral duty, leaving only legal rights and a litigious society overseen by a Leviathan state to adjudicate disputes between competing interests.
Whether of the right or the left, libertarianism, removed from external moral standards, atomizes society into self-interested individuals alienated from each other, fearing that any loss of personal autonomy will result in a little death to self.
Great Britain is a case in point. Phillip Blond, director of British think tank ResPublica, notes that in Britain, these two revolutions have led to a bloated centralized government and a country with “rising crime” and “four million security cameras.” His solution? In a nutshell, “subsidiarity.”
According to the principle of subsidiarity, the responsibility and authority for any action should be left to the lowest level competent to handle it. In civil society, the levels are three: the individual, “mediating” institutions, and the state.
As the name implies, “mediating” institutions are those that stand between the individual and the state, protecting the former against the overreaching tendencies of the latter. They include churches, schools, civic organizations, volunteer associations, and, foremost, the family.
Subsidiarity is the basis of federalism, whereby the powers of government are divided between the central authority and its constituent parts (e.g., states), recognizing that civil affairs are most effectively governed by those closest to them and most directly affected by them.
Subsidiarity means that the concerns of the individual (like whether or not to buy health care insurance) are best handled by the individual, concerns of the family (like decisions about the rearing and education of children) are best handled within the family, the concerns of the neighborhood (graffiti, gangs, and feral teens) are best handled within the neighborhood, and likewise for the city, county and state.
For instance, recognizing that charitable institutions are closer to the needs of people than the state, Blond recommends that more state-run services be run by charities. Blond doesn’t give specifics, but consider welfare and entitlement programs.
Such programs have greatly benefited individuals who are permanently disabled or temporarily in need of assistance. But administered by bureaucrats in the withdrawn centers of governmental power, they have created an underclass held captive in a perpetual orbit of dependence and idleness. It is a condition helped along by misery merchants who secure their messianic role by keeping the downtrodden in their back pocket.
For most of its history, the Church took responsibility for the comprehensive care of its own. But with the social programs spawned by the New Deal, the Church began abdicating that responsibility en masse. It is time that the Church, along with other faith-based organizations, reclaim its role from the overweening state.
Subsidiarity requires a virtuous society, where character informs the space between what the heart desires and what is morally right. Without virtue, law, not character, must fill that space. When individuals renege on their pledges, when companies operate unethically, when parents fail to exercise responsible parenting, the state, using the full force of law, must step in.
For example, when disagreeing parties fail to reach a decision over their disagreements, the magistrate can be counted on to impose a decision guaranteed to further alienate and embitter. Hence, the timeless warning of Jesus: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.”
But when people take seriously their moral duties and resolve their disputes at the lowest levels, the need for a paternal state is reduced. Regrettably, that is far from our current situation.
A mosque and a convent
In the ongoing brouhaha over the mosque at Ground Zero, we've heard a lot about rights and a lot about wisdom. But one thing that we haven't heard much about is responsibility.
Rights are about what we can do, wisdom is about what we should do, but responsibility is about what we are obliged to do. Responsibility is doing what is morally right over what is legally allowed. It is character operating in permissible spaces of social action.
In a free society, rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand. Honoring our individual freedoms while serving the common good can only work when rights are exercised responsibly.
For example, although the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations has the rights of free speech and assembly, it has the responsibility to refrain from exercising them in front of the Holocaust Museum. Likewise, adults have the right to own and view sexually explicit material. But they have the responsibility to do so away from the eyes of children.
In the same manner, Muslims have the constitutional right to build a mosque anywhere they desire, consistent with local zoning laws. However, those who would do so in lower Manhattan, especially those who claim that the motives are to promote tolerance and better interfaith relations, are obliged,as citizens of a pluralistic nation, to build one with sensitivity, compassion, and respect for the victims of individuals whose actions were informed by Islamic teaching.
Which begs the question: If Muslims should refrain from building a mosque near ground zero, should Christians do the same in communities that would be upset over the building of a church? They should, and have.
In the 1980’s, a group of Carmelite nuns set up a convent at Auschwitz. A Christian presence on a site where over 1.5 million Jews were executed was an immediate affront to Jewish sensibilities. The Jewish reaction was understandable to many, but others wondered how a mendicant order devoted to contemplative prayer could offend anyone. Sound familiar?
For years the convent was a festering sore in Jewish-Christian relations; then Pope John Paul II stepped in. Although everyone agreed that the nuns were acting within their legal rights, the pope knew that they were not acting rightly. So in 1993, he ordered the Carmelites to move to a different location in the province. In his statement, the pope expressed regret that the decision to do the right thing wasn’t made at a lower ecclesial level. Did I mention that subsidiarity is a core principle of Catholic social teaching?
In the same way, if the Muslim community does not stand down from its decision to build a mosque near the sacred soil of the fallen towers, what it’s doing is sure to be anything but salve to American-Muslim relations.
The controversies over the convent and mosque are emblematic of our sad condition: a fractured society of self-concerned selves, straining against the little death of putting the concerns of others above the desire to exercise their untrammeled freedoms.
While the first controversy was settled, eventually, by what was morally and civilly right, it remains to be seen whether the second one will, or whether it will only widen the crack in Humpty Dumpty’s shell.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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