First, Nisbet called for “the revival of localism.”  Perhaps especially in a nation as large as America, the spirit of localism was a defining feature for much of the nation’s history, a feature that had been noted and praised in the early 19th-century by Alexis de Tocqueville as an essential feature of democracy’s success and vibrancy.  Yet, given the logic of modern liberalism, a deep hostility toward local identification that interfered with complete identification with what John Dewey called “The Great Community” of the nation informed much of progressive opinion during the 20th century.  Nisbet noted that progressives of various sorts had worked for decades in portraying a more local-based form of community as stifling, narrowing and unfulfilling.  – “The nation, the centralized nation freed of local regional encrustations, seemed to an ever larger extent  the true repository of the spirit of progress.  Suddenly, the local community became the symbol of reaction, dullness, mediocrity, and oppression of the mind…. [e.g., Babbitt, Main St., Winesburg, Ohio).”   Nisbet observed that fashionable portrayals of the recidivism of local life combined with enlightened arguments of the nation’s leading experts who urged the desirability, efficiency, and opportunities of greater national identification.  It’s instructive to recall that it was a socialist, after all, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance (sans the phrase “Under God”), in keeping with the ambition on the Left that our first and only allegiance should be to ever more comprehensive “communities” at the expense of partial or local attachments.  Of course, the logic behind this call to identify with ever-larger and more abstract “communities” necessarily means that eventually the nation itself will be understood to be too partial, and why on the Left today there are calls to move beyond narrowing allegiance to the nation and instead identify with a post-national global community.  What’s also instructive about Nisbet’s examination of this logic is it throws into relief how far the Right has ceded ground on this issue, combating the calls to “globalism” instead with urgent defenses of “national” identification and being more apt to defend the Pledge of Allegiance than to find its origins worrisome.  Conservatism is doubtless destined to playing defense against a moving target, but Nisbet helps to remind us how much ground has been ceded in the contemporary stances of conservatives who are more apt to be ardent nationalists than ardent localists.

Nisbet helps us see clearly that, as a response to contemporary calls for identification with globalism, a defense of the legitimacy of the nation-state is necessary.  However, such a defense is not sufficient, and indeed, absent a stronger defense of local attachments, in fact ultimately and ironically undermines the deepest preconditions of life at the heart of the conservative understanding of the flourishing human life.  Nisbet presciently argues that it is not sufficient to defend “family values” in the absence of a deep concern about the immediately surrounding conditions in which families exist, is ultimately to defend an organism without its necessary attendant ecology.  Thus Nisbet wrote (with amazing prescience), “our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends and psychological  gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society.  Family, local community, church and the whole network of informal interpersonal institutions have ceased to play a determining role  in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution.”  Absent a rich and interconnected set of mutually reinforcing local institutions and practices that supports the “work” of family, and are in turn supported by families, then family becomes untethered and increasingly irrelevant.  With the decline of strong ties of locality, Nisbet’s analysis fully predicts the decline of family, or its replacement by easy-going relationships that reflect a dominant ethic of mobility, individual self-expression and detachment.  While conservatives have been vocal in a defense of “family values,” they have been far less successful – one is even tempted to say even negligent – in defending the moral ecology in which good families thrive.

One of the main reasons for this implicates the second area of Nisbet’s concerns, namely, the Economy.  At base, Nisbet holds, a good economy exists for the sake of supporting and maintaining a diversity of local communities.  It exists to serve society – not vice versa.  A market comes into being inside the city walls or town limits, not vice-versa.  The basic presuppositions of modern economic theory – premised on the idea that economic decision-making is undertaken to increase individual profit and liberty, and undergirds a society of mobility and efficiency  – contradicts the central understanding of community as a place of continuity, stability, order, and interpersonal identification.  Modern economic demands of comparative advantage, mobility, efficiency and profit maximization result in a set of practices that undermine the existence of communities that, arguably, economic life was originally created to serve.  Instead of serving the sustenance of those institutions, the demands of modern economic life undermine or eviscerate their existence.   Human goods come to defined in almost exclusively economic and materialist terms, leading to an abandonment of informal and legal efforts to promote those social conditions in which families and communities flourish.    Among other things, local businesses and institutions are displaced by industries that can offer discounts based on economies of scale, but which have no fundamental investment in the places from which they siphon money and to which they return little to nothing of enduring social value.

Nisbet perceptively argued that the very success of free-market capitalism rested upon a widespread and diverse set of local institutions and practices that the economic system not only did not create, but, over time, which it actively undermined.  We can see that fact in a microcosm by observing the way in which the current financial crisis was in part precipitated by divorcing financial transactions from the places where they took place.  By “upstreaming” mortgages out of the communities in which loans were made, lenders were divorced from accountability and absolved from the consequences of those loans, just as those taking loans felt no compunction or hesitation in thinking about their responsibilities and ability to repay, and later had no moral compunction in “walking away.”  Throughout the system it was increasingly believed that what was being purchased was a financial asset, not a home in a community.  By generating high degrees of abstraction and separation, the modern economic system actively obfuscates our economic actions from consequences, and origins from destinations.  It generates massive ignorance about our daily economic life, undermining any sense that what we purchase and sell in any way contributes to the good life and continuity of our communities.

Nisbet observed not only was the logic of free-market capitalism undermining local communities and their constitutive associational life, but that in the end its logic would end up undermining free-market capitalism itself.  Presciently he wrote, “Ultimately, human institutions depend for their preservation on the strength of the allegiances which such institutions create in human beings.  To divorce economic ends from the contexts of social association within which allegiance to these ends can be nourished is fatal….  Economic freedom cannot rest upon moral atomism or upon large-scale impersonalities.  It never has.  Economic freedom has prospered, and continues to prosper, only in areas and spheres where it has been joined to a flourishing associational life.”

Most stunningly, Nisbet recognized that the temptations proffered by imperialistic tendencies toward atomism and the destruction of associational life within free-market capitalism would culminate not in perfect liberation of humans, but profound bondage.  Again, I quote:  “But to weaken, whether from political or individualistic motives, the social structures of family, local community, labor union, cooperative, or industrial community, is to convert a culture into an atomized mass.  Such a mass will have neither the will, nor the incentive, nor the ability to combat tendencies toward political collectivism.  The transition from free capitalism to forced collectivism is easy and will hardly be noticed when a population has lost the sense of social and moral participation in the former.  Everything that separates the individual from this sense of participation pushes him inevitably in the direction of an iron collectivism, which will make a new kind of participation both possible and mandatory.”

Here again, we see how far contemporary conservatism has departed from a necessary defense of local and associational life in response to positions taken by the Left.  Against the specter of Soviet communism and creeping socialism, American conservatives became ardent proponents of free-market capitalism – understandably in that context – but in the process, lost sight of the more fundamental and necessary context in which any such free market system must exist in order to serve the goods of human community, rather than to destroy them.  In urging free-market values shorn of these more fundamental concerns and ends, modern conservatism ironically contributed to its own undermining and contemporary defeat.  Losing sight of the fundamental nature of society that is required in the conservative vision of human life in its passionate response to liberalism, modern conservatism ended up serving as a great if unintentional contributor to the advance of modern liberalism.

Lastly…both of these conditions (the destruction of localism and the destructive expansion of the logic of free-market capitalism) have been served by the modern educational system – particularly the universities.  And this has been the case not so much in spite of opposition by conservatives, but with their active support.  The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of “creating knowledge” and providing educations that allow our students to “succeed” and to “solve problems.”  Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly “conservative” administrations, one of which gave us “No Child Left Behind” and Margaret Spellings).  Nisbet saw these developments in their earliest stages, and lamented the loss of variety and diversity of the nation’s many institutions that derived from their origins and characters as primarily local (and one could add, religious) institutions and thus as defenders and conservators of particular ways of life and particular values.  “The situation is hardly different in the university.  It would be difficult to list accurately all the once-small, once-local colleges and schools which, after WWII, were swept into large, unified, centralized systems of university administration in the various states, all in the name of educational progress and efficiency.”

Students and parents alike now largely view a college education as a necessary credentialing process, acting increasingly like consumers of a product and demanding, for high dollars spent, high grades dispensed.  Faculty increasingly see their primary duty as research and publishing their findings which will be read by less than a handful of people.  Trained at the small number of increasingly identical Ph.D. granting institutions, future faculty are actively oriented to view their career as driven by their success in research; that teaching is a secondary activity; and that the aim is to put oneself into a position always to be moving to a better, more prestigious institution.  The idea of inculcating or encouraging a sense of institutional or local loyalty, and measuring one’s success by how deeply one’s roots are settled at an institution in a particular place, and how well one’s teaching helps advance the cultural and even religious commitments of a college, does not come into the picture.  As a result – even as the word “diversity” is on every academic’s lips these days – there is a rush among our rich patchwork of liberal arts colleges to be completely identical, beginning earlier last century in their rush to disaffiliate from the religious traditions in which they had been founded, and more recently in the widespread change their name from “College” to “University” (in order to signal their seriousness as a research institution – and, that they are no longer a “collegium,” (a word that means “community” or “association of colleagues.”).

Let me conclude:  what Robert Nisbet teaches conservatives today is a valuable lesson about the inherent dangers of conservatism.  Conservatism was born in early-modern times as a reaction to the radicalism of political ideology.  It was reactive, and in that sense defined itself in reference to liberalism.  In modern American history – in reaction to the radicalism of the Left on the world stage, particularly given the threat of Communism – American conservatism reacted by occupying space that had recently been vacated by the Left.  In responding to calls for global citizenship, conservatism defended the nation-state – while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to localities.  In responding to the threat of economic socialism, conservatism defended the free market – while losing sight of a deeper allegiance to the associational life that an economy was brought into being to sustain and preserve.  In responding to the dogmatic “multiculturalism” on college campuses, conservatism defended a form of rationalist universalism that contributed to the deracination and homogenization of our colleges – while losing sight of a defensible form of true diversity, a diversity of places, localities, and actual cultures.  Nisbet, finally, is an invaluable teacher for today’s conservatives because he teaches us that, more than a simple reaction against, conservatism must always be for something, and that something must be finally more than merely “the quest for community,” but the reality and flourishing of community itself.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Very thought provoking.

    “Exceeding the capacities of our senses or the reality of actual experience or memory, it was expected by some of the key philosophers discussed by Nisbet – such as Rousseau or Marx – that what was needful – and thus to be expected – was a change in human nature, specifically, an enlargement of our consciousness. To put it in Marxist terms, what was needed was our intuitive knowledge of our “species being,” our immediate sense of our mutual obligation to every and all human beings, regardless of limits of space and time.”

    Couldn’t one say that Jesus Christ had a similar goal in mind with this:

    “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

    But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

  2. Then there’s 1 Peter 2:17: “Honor everyone; love the brotherhood….” Or, conversely, this verse: “When every one is somebody, then no-one is anybody…” (Gilbert and Sullivan, The Gondoliers).

  3. Dr. Deneen, this:

    Aristotle, and Aristotelians like Aquinas, insisted that such any conception of a good and flourishing human community required a basis in familiarity with a particular people and one that had continuity over time. Theirs was an argument about human scale: our ability to comprehend a common good, and our willingness to act on its behalf – to feel a sense of obligation and indebtedness to our inheritance from the past and a sense of duty born of gratitude toward the future – requires a fairly intimate, on in which we can have some sensory connection of our actions upon others and theirs upon us, and a setting in which memory plays a large role. Such a community has an enlarged sense of humanity’s temporal dimension, one that expands beyond merely one lifetime instead to include a strong sense of generational gratitude and obligation. Only in such a setting can we intuitively understand that without our forbears, we would not have achieved our own humanity, and thus that we are obligated to give as good as possible to future generations.

    reminded me of this:

    MacIntyre’s most concentrated statement of his understanding of action is in “The Intelligibility of Action,” an article written in 1986. Here he argues that essential to our learning to act is that we learn to behave in a way that others can construe our actions as intelligible. In other words, the intelligibility of an action depends on the narrative continuities in an agent’s life. Yet the ability to narrate my life depends on having narratives available that make my peculiar life fit within narratives of a community that direct me toward an end that is not of my own making. The intelligibility of my life, therefore, depends on the stock of descriptions at a particular time, place, and culture. I am, at best, no more than a co-author of my life… The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the ­community.

    from Stanley Hauerwas’s article on MacIntyre.

  4. Patrick,

    While not meaning to glibly proof-text (Well honestly that is sort of what I meant, but it was wrong, and I’m a bad bad man) there is a larger point. It seems that the logic working itself out throughout the New Testament is a logic of rejecting traditional institutions and prejudices in favor of an ethical stance that is, as they say, not a respecter of persons.

    Is this logic wrong or am I wrong in my reading of the New Testament?

  5. Regarding Marx requiring what Jesus asked for: sure, but with crucial differences, one being that Jesus did not see the eschaton as arriving via the all-powerful state. Marxism takes Christianity and perverts its ideas and ideals, making the end times part of human history, and a result of human social engineering under the aegis of some historical dialectic.

    In contrast, Christians are to act as if all are brothers; but we don’t expect heaven on this earth: “the poor you will have always with you” exists in tension with “whosoever does so to the least of my brethren does so to me,” as well as “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” (Pardon paraphrases, please.)

    In fact, Patrick, might you somewhat ignore or at least downplay the central tension in Christianity between the human person and the human collectivity that exists in Christianity? Christians do not believe along with Stalin that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million a statistic,” but rather that each death is tragic, but each life is a life lived in community, both with other persons and with God. To miss out on either of these experiences of communion is to be less than human. As Aristotle says in the Poetics, a man who does not live in community is either a God or a monster. Marxism makes humans a monster by constituting an all powerful state; Christianity agrees with the Greek view that community exists in a tension between persons and the beyond personal.

    I’ve deliberately used person here instead of “individual” because, as Fr. Thomas Hopko (?) said in a Parabola magazine interview in the 1990s, “the individual is an invention of the enlightenment university” or words to that effect. We are persons; but “individuality” with its competing interests, harsh in Hobbes–the state of war before society– and gentler in Locke is not personhood; the two words are not synonymous even if they accidentally overlap.

    In Orthodox Christian terms, this complex relationship exists in the different “functions” of the Son and the Spirit: the Son saves all humankind at least potentially; the Spirit makes it real for each person.

    I’d appreciate it if anyone could comment on this “tension” (though tension seems vaguely Lockean, and a little inaccurate); my apologies for going on at such length.


  6. PDGM,

    Good thoughts. I believe you are right when you say that Christians are to act as if all are brothers but what do we then make of this,

    “By contrast, Nisbet noted, achievement of any such national – or, increasingly, supra-national or even global “community” – is “unnatural” to us.”

    Even if it is “unnatural”, it seems like the right thing to do.

  7. First of all, you have to take Christ’s words in the context he spoke them: of temple Judaism, with its tribalism and legalism. Christianity expands the chosen race, expands it (through Paul) to the whole world. Christianity thus becomes more than a reform Jewish movement. But Christ’s words are about the ritual legalism of uncleanness in the parable about the Samaritan; they don’t make sense–or at least a lot less sense– w/o this context.

    Does this mean that Christ means that we are to treat all as we’d treat our neighbor or family? Probably not, except insofar as we have charity towards all.

    One of the more moving prayers I’ve heard was when, much younger, I used to go to a Ukranian monastery in Northern Calif. for retreat. The monks would pray “for those who love us, and those who hate us.” This we have to do; but this universal love does not preclude other more basic forms of love.

    Also: Christianity is making a supernatural appeal; perhaps Nisbet is writing of more natural forms of life. And again, Christianity has a tension between the natural and the supernatural that’s meant to be fruitful, not destructive.

  8. This is an interesting explanation of the flummoxed nature of the so called “conservative ” cause and our wobbly surrender to the blandishments of “Centrism”. Conservatives have demonstrated a pervasive ability to be dragged into a conflict with the so called “Liberals” who then set the rules of engagement and after invariably winning as a result of, among other reasons, their ability to craft solutions that are “all things for all people” (funded by reserve currency status) , the conservatives then occupy the remains of the battlefield and set immediately to work defending the recently vacated “Liberal” position from ‘Liberals” who have moved on to a higher degree of Omnivorous Statism. Consensus is the mad object, a boiled down high proof liquor of suspended belief. As a result, the prize vintage becomes that roaring bit of tomfoolery gone hilariously goony known as “Big Government Conservatism” or, in it’s Karl Rove Bait and Switch “be nice fer appearances” version: “Compassionate Conservatism”. No wonder we arrive at candidates devoid of anything more than the thinnest veneer of conservative principles , let alone any form of erudite discrimination. To drink a beer or wink sardonically with them is enough to build a platform.

    In this kinder gentler Fascism of the Corporate-State combine with its constant peddling of fear and want, Clans or guilds have been replaced by branding and through this branding, whether it be in the form of sports team support or fashion or food or whatever other kind of packaged good we consume, the human urge to clan affiliation is sated with a high carb, low protein diet that leaves little muscle and a lot of flab. It is inexorably a moveable feast, changing with the season. The individual is glorified in the pitch as the dignity of the soul…the temple of the individual… is pick-pocketed in the distraction. We then have neither individual nor group, we have only consumer or focus group masquerading as individual in a collective of half-truth discount house idolatry. A reverence for life is replaced by reveries in the vicarious agora. Knowledge becomes illusion.

    Individualism has been turned on its head to mean the freest expression of the brand of the moment.
    In Cognitive Dissonance We Trust.

    This explains, of course, why the Conservatives remain unable to reverse the crippling descent into profligate and dehumanizing statism. The chance to do so weakened in the 50’s and vanished under George W. Bush. Conservatives will continue to self-contradict themselves into objects of ridicule while the Liberals….with only the best of intentions….will drive the national family in search of a picnic only to spread the blanket in a bankrupt factory while informing any remaining skeptics that rust in their hotdog is good for the “people”. This is why Conservation is now a “liberal” position. It is why infanticide is a “reproductive right” and why armed, tax and legislative protection of corporate freebooters as the local economies of scale rot in an accelerating manner is considered “Free Market Protection”.

    Best intentions are only as good as the wisdom supporting them. Wisdom, in this glib age is passe….something for the “close-minded” to hold onto like an anchor descending into a deep sea of confusion. The nation can only succeed if her individuals and their localities are vibrant and full of opportunity….while cognizant of their obligations within a polity and respectful of the poetry of labor. Mysteries should be loved rather than pulverized. This was once a conservative philosophy and the zero sum game that presents its carcass to us now would have been an abhorrent anathema to it.

    Deneen, you hit a homer here.

  9. Dan,

    Perhaps you might clarify for us the tension you see here; and perhaps a couple questions might help you organize your thoughts:

    How, precisely, does Nisbet’s emphasis on communities of scale exist in tension with the Christian obligations of charity? E.g., how does a recognition that I, as a human being, am limited in important ways by time and space, prevent me from relating in full Christian charity to those who are not necessarily part of my community/ies?

    To ask the converse question, how does Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all, regardless of community membership, necessitate a rejection of traditional institutions in favor of increasingly globalized economic and political bureaucracies to which most people have little or no real connection?

    It would be helpful if you explained the process you used to translate this ethical commandment into political practice.

  10. Dr. Deneen, I’ve been in politics all my adult life on the moderate-left and it is pieces like this that I find extremely instructive in trying to understand the forces that define how we got to where we are.

    I have read very little of Nisbet (but will be reading more I assure you), but one thing about the work you cite is that it appears to have been written before the explosion of suburbia beyond the post-World War II first-tier bedroom communities that were in close proximity to urban cores and whose residents worked in the urban core.

    In my work (government affairs work for public school districts), I find that there is little sense of community in the newer suburbs that have been spawned by sprawl and they are almost centerless in that there is no real local economy. Often times associations are fleeting and found through the school system (where consumers of the system bond for 13 or so years) and churches, which are often of a non-denominational flavor in these areas (at least in Minnesota). Little wonder that there is this sense of “soft” anomie, anxiety, and amorphousness in many of these communities.

    Thanks again for the insightful piece. I’m smarter for having read it, but I’m sure a lot of the conservatives here believe I have a ways to go.

  11. Great article. Thank you.

    Catherine Pickstock takes MacIntyrean and Nisbetian localism to task, though, in its potential lack of macrocosmic, architectonic political ambition and extension. Nisbet and you are exactly right in the path that goes from from atomism to collectivism, but what about the real tension between localism and universalism? As it seems to me, the local and immanent must somehow be, almost sacramentally, transparent to and an embodiment of the universal and transcendent, and, as Claes Ryn points out, pace Strauss, that the universal and transcendent are only encountered by us “culture-dependent rational animals” in the local and immanent.

    Pickstock, in this remarkably insightful passage, illuminates how the political ideal of local tradition-constituted communities, as well as any political program aiming at merely local social and political embodiment and authority, can serve to sustain a liberal, contractual social order:

    “There are unresolved problems about the pure communitarian celebration of the resistance exercised by the local organic community. First, how does one distinguish it from a kind of liberalism to a higher power in which the freely choosing subjects are not individuals but organic collectivities? Secondly, while these organic localities may be characterized by practices oriented towards substantive value-laded goals, it is difficult to see how this will be true for a confederation of such groups. Will not their collectively agreed-upon goals be extremely minimal and, indeed, given the degree of divergence, will not the only binding glue be pragmatist and contractualist in character? One may say that that if one is applying the principle of subsidiarity, that this does not matter, but if the only common language is after all liberal, then the universalism intrinsic to liberalism will tend to reassert itself, and press once more towards centralization, even if this remains concealed. The spaces of communitarian association in the local societies will tend, therefore, to become more carnivalesque spaces, where people can “play” at having substantive creative and pre-modern freedoms.”

  12. Patrick,

    “How, precisely, does Nisbet’s emphasis on communities of scale exist in tension with the Christian obligations of charity? E.g., how does a recognition that I, as a human being, am limited in important ways by time and space, prevent me from relating in full Christian charity to those who are not necessarily part of my community/ies?”

    Nisbet’s analysis of communities of scale is unproblematic in and of itself, it’s the suspicion of the authenticity and utility of any community apart from/in addition to it which is problematic from a Christian prospective. When Christ uses the language of neighbor in a way that is emphatically not linked to the sort of community of scale Nisbet is discussing this seems problematic. When St. Paul says,

    For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

    ,Does this not speak to a being and community outside of such limited communities of scale? The Church itself seems to be such a project. The question then is not how is the expression of Christian charity thwarted but how can it even be cultivated apart from what is beyond the mere sense community of scale Nisbet is discussing if we are to take the entire concept of the church and the friendship of God seriously.

    “To ask the converse question, how does Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all, regardless of community membership, necessitate a rejection of traditional institutions in favor of increasingly globalized economic and political bureaucracies to which most people have little or no real connection?”

    It does not. There is no reason that Christ compels you to buy a BMW or like the DMV. That however is not the point. Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all does seem to at least sometimes require the rejection of traditional institutions for His sake and the sake of the church,

    Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

  13. Dan,

    Thanks for those clarifications. I am in total agreement that there do exist authentic communities beyond the local. Your example of the Church was already the one foremost in my mind, and I agree that Christ reveals that human beings are–by sharing a common nature and thus, at some important level, a common relationship to God–members of a singular community. If Nisbet rejects this possibility, I would depart from him at that point. I’m not sure he does, though.

    Once we can agree on this important point, the next question is the one you asked: “[H]ow can [Christian charity] even be cultivated apart from what is beyond the mere sense community of scale Nisbet is discussing…?”

    Given your positive acknowledgment of Nisbet’s communities of scale, part of the answer must be that we cultivate it best within those communities. The simple recognition that I am limited by time and space suggests that I will cultivate Christian charity most effectively within my own parish, community, etc.–amongst those human beings I am actually in contact with. That does not mean that I don’t wish the same sort of cultivation to take place in other communities, and if I see ways of helping that along without creating other serious problems, I have an obligation to pursue them (like the disciples sending money back to the church in Jerusalem, perhaps?).

    And, fortunately (fortune actually having nothing to do with it), the Church is a genuine community that defies the normal limits of space and time, so that it can cultivate Christian charity on a wider scale than is possible for smaller communities. But it still does that mostly through its smaller units–parishes, dioceses, congregations, etc. This presents a worthwhile analogy. We might think of the situation Nisbet laments as one similar to what would obtain if, for instance, the Vatican started taking over the management and execution of ever larger sections of the Catholic church’s activities, rather than leaving dioceses and parishes the freedom to do things in ways that best suit their more localized needs, talents, etc. Christians can do what you want to do–cultivate Christian charity widely–precisely because larger organizing church bodies have respected and maintained the health of the smaller institutions/associations within them. I don’t really think I’m saying anything you’d disagree with.

    That Christ’s reinterpretation of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself requires the rejection of some traditional institutions is true when applied to certain situations–such as those in which the community of God’s people is interpreted as being open only to some human beings and not others, or in other situations in which inherent injustice is perpetuated. I’m not sure it requires the Italian Club down the street to grant me, an Anglo-Teuton, full membership. This may be the point to which you want to bring the discussion–a point which you have hammered on before here on the Porch, and which I don’t think was ever resolved satisfactorily: how do “traditional conservatives” or “communitarians” deal with the existence of communities founded or perpetuated in injustice? I think there is an answer to that, maybe even a simple one, but I’m not sure I’m the one to give it.

    Interpreting your last citation of Christ’s rather cryptic words strictly literally is not helpful, either, though I realize you’re just being lightly provocative. I don’t think Christ’s commands require, in any literal sense, that I “reject” or abandon my wife, or son, or parents, or local parish–and I suspect you don’t think so, either (though a sort of “rejection” of certain behaviors, attitudes, etc., might be required).

    Thanks, by the way, for bringing things back to theology so regularly. Keep it up.

  14. Addendum:

    Dan, in my antepenultimate paragraph, I was clearly assuming that you were a particular Dan who had discussed earlier the issue I associated with you–i.e., traditional conservatives vs. communities of injustice. If you are not said Dan, forgive my presumption.

  15. Patrick,

    A great comment and you are right in saying that there is nothing in it to which I would take much exception.

    “Given your positive acknowledgment of Nisbet’s communities of scale, part of the answer must be that we cultivate it best within those communities.”

    This is of course a truism which I don’t think anyone could reasonably disagree. The question is what kind of political philosophy one can build off of merely this. It’s a great insight of conservatism/traditionalism but hardly a justification for them.

    “And, fortunately (fortune actually having nothing to do with it), the Church is a genuine community that defies the normal limits of space and time, so that it can cultivate Christian charity on a wider scale than is possible for smaller communities. But it still does that mostly through its smaller units–parishes, dioceses, congregations, etc.”

    I can’t blame Nisbet, as a sociologist for not delving into these matters but the truth of the matter is every Christian believes in the sort of “species being” that is critiqued by him in the form of the church. The church, at is most base level is merely abstract, but I don’t think a single Christian doesn’t think that it is very real at the same time. I am never merely a member of a community but also always a member of the Church and a friend of God. This tells me something about myself, others, and justice (among many other things)
    that are simultaneously mediated through the small scale community (Nisbet Community) and by the Grace of God (The “species being” which transforms me and animates my being in a very abstract/real way).

    I guess the question I’m asking is should Jesus Christ have anything to do with our political theory? In a broader way the question falls under the rubric of what does Jerusalem have to do with Athens.

    Thanks for the kind comments and you were correct. I am that same Dan, for lo I am with you always…

  16. Unfortunately, Marx is strapped with the fatal error of “eliminating” the undesireable elements of humankind via the same methods employed by the very system that he desires to “eliminate”. The result would be the same as well, tyranny.

  17. Dan you are confusing Intellect(in the Platonic sense.), faith and Agape with the more mundane human faculties. Certainly we have great resources in our being but most people do not use them to their full effect, most aren’t Saints, and they do not usually stretch to mundane political, economic and social levels(and those like Buddha who can stretch it this far would not wish to use it in such a way anyway.).

  18. While struck by MacIntyre’s localism in the ’90’s — in fact, more convinced of it all the time — I came across a professor from Rome’s Salesianum University who pointed out that MacIntyre’s original proposal in “After Virtue” was not, after all “Thomist” yet. I.e., Thomas took the Holy Roman Empire for granted: the unifying glue of Christendom. In his article “Natural Law as Subversive,” MacIntyre later showed us that Aquinas was a localist as well. I think the point my friend Thaddaeus is making is that the ideal would be for local communities to embody universal ideals; and, as an ideal, I definitely agree. At the same time, localism is localism. While I’m not ready to follow Peter Simpson back to the Articles of Confederation — or any version of neo-Confederacy for that matter — the point of legislating certain moral issues at the national level, beyond the 14th-16th Amendements, perplexes me with some frequency.

    As to Pickstock, while inclined to suspect it’s Fabian welfarism and not Redy Toryism she’s defending, she, too, has a point. In “Dependent Rational Animals,” MacIntyre admitted that modern nation-states may have their place — so long as they’re not repositories of ultimate values. Let’s face it: if anyone one of us were elected President, we’d be obliged to inherit the Washington Consensus and “deal” with macroeconomic big picture stuff realting to national national employment, affecting those most vulnerable among us — who don’t teach for a living. Academics run the risk of being mesmerized by a single ruling Idea, and not grounded; that’s our potential Achilles heel. That said, our “big picture” could be much aided by the likes of neo-Aristotelian Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen; Thomist Burkean developmental economist Grace Goodell; and “human capital” Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker (who serves on the Pontifical Council of Peace and justice or something); I’d even thrown a word for a de-centralized banking gold standard — after all: Aquinas thought those debasing the currency should be liable to execution. (Inflation destroys the bread of the poor…)

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