Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore November 17th, 1996
Excerpts from the Communitarian Manifesto:
We hold that a moral revival in these United States is possible without Puritanism; that is, without busybodies meddling into our personal affairs, without thought police controlling our intellectual life. We can attain a recommitment to moral values--without puritanical excesses.
We hold that law and order can be restored without returning this country of the free into a police state, as long as we grant public authorities some carefully crafted and circumscribed new powers.
We hold that the family--without which no society has ever survived, let alone flourished--can be saved, without forcing women to stay at home or otherwise violating their rights.
We hold that schools can provide essential moral education--without indoctrinating young people.
We hold that people can again live in communities without turning into vigilantes or becoming hostile to one another.
We hold that our call for increased social responsibilities...is not a call for curbing rights. On the contrary, strong rights presume strong responsibilities.
The land of the free has never been freer.
Our evolving understanding of individual rights has steadily marched forward in the 20th century. The United States Supreme Court has greatly expanded the boundaries of the right of privacy. Via constitutional amendment, now everyone has the right to vote, not just white, land owning men. Minorities have the right to be free from discrimination. Women have expanded rights to control their own reproduction by terminating a pregnancy. We are well on our way to establishing a right for health care. We are hotly debating the right to die. The advance of individual rights has led to a level of freedom unknown in history except to a privileged few.
And crime threatens us from dark alleys. Our public education system is seriously challenged. Many families are broken by divorce and abuse. Children carry guns into their classrooms and sell drugs on their playgrounds. Record low numbers turn out to vote. Many are happy to ignore their civic duties and indulge instead their private pleasures. Just at the time when our freedoms are the greatest, our sense of community seems to be suffering the most.
Some progressive thinkers believe our community is being harmed by all of these new rights and freedoms. We have moved from a national value consensus held at the end of World War II by most Americans to a time of value crisis and reformation. We have moved away from a more patriotic culture where police and government officials were trusted to a suspicion and lack of respect for authority. The decline of participation in organized religion has often replaced traditional community centered religious values with self centered acquisitive ones. The values at the top controlling corporate board rooms more often than not are unbridled self-interest and greed rather than harmonizing profits with the public good. The glow of pulling together for the good of all which helped us win the great war and keep the Communist menace at bay has gradually dissolved as each pursues his or her own interests and concerns.
Into the struggle of individual freedom with traditional community values, a feared tug-of-war between the extremes of anarchy and fascism, are a small group of academics known as the Communitarians. In their short association during the 1990's they have gotten a tremendous amount of attention from both the liberals and the conservatives. Though they differ on many issues, both Al Gore and Jack Kemp are strong supporters for Communitarian ideas. Partly because of the strong interest in Unitarian Universalist circles in these ideas; because the former president of the UUA, Bill Schulz, signed the Communitarian manifesto; because there was an interview in the UU World with Amitai Etzioni, one of its main proponents, two years ago (that's at least how long I've been planning to do this sermon); and least of all because the word `unitarian' is buried in their name, I lift up this movement for your consideration this morning. The Communitarian movement is "dedicated to the betterment of our moral, social, and political environment...and [is] dedicated to working with [their] fellow citizens to bring about the changes in values, habits, and public policies that will allow us to do for society what the environmental movement seeks to do for nature: to safeguard and enhance our future." They plan to do this, in part, by seeking a middle path reestablishing the link between rights and responsibilities.
Much of the strain on our sense of community can be seen as the delayed effect of the transition from a rural, agricultural based society to an urban, industrialized society. Sociologists have generalized the differences between these two kinds of societies in the German terms "Gemeinschaft" and "Gesellschaft." Greg Smith, British author of Community - arianism: Community and Communitarianism; Concepts and contexts"3 gives us this definition of Gemeinschaft:
- In the idyllic (but perhaps imaginary) village life of two centuries ago community (Gemeinschaft) was a natural state of affairs. Interaction was on a human scale and people largely lived with, worked alongside, married, worshipped with, traded with, quarreled with and were even oppressed by, people who they had known face to face all through their lives. Inevitably status was ascribed rather than achieved and there were therefore many constraints on the ability of individuals, especially the poor, females and outsiders to achieve prosperity, power and personal fulfillment or a chosen lifestyle. Relationships between people were multiplex, i.e. the same people were linked by a multi-stranded pattern of roles. The Romantic argument is that this produces intimacy, social cohesion and sympathy between the participants.
Life in the city was different. Smith continues with this understanding of Gesellschaft:
- Industry, urbanization and improved transport gradually eroded this pattern of community life, so that increasingly people resided in one place, worked in another and took their leisure in another. The appropriate description of modern urban society was associational (Gesellschaft); here people might be in contact with far greater numbers of people, but each contact was likely to be fleeting, instrumental, and only involve a single role relationship. In the city, people would live in one neighborhood, travel to work in another, take leisure in another and make contact with different sets of people in each. Organizational life would also be segmented, limited companies and unions for the work place, residents associations and groups for women, children and the retired in the neighborhood, with special interest associations such as sports clubs, arts and drama groups, religious groups, disability support groups, serving a "community of interest" often spread over a wider catchment area.
Concentrating people together in large and frequently transient groupings in which people don't get to know each other very well (if at all) has both positive and negative results. All of us are probably happy to have some privacy that comes with anonymity and not having other people constantly minding our business. In the small, insular village, everyone is in each other's pockets usually with little toleration for social difference. In such an insular village, free thinking Unitarian Universalists are unlikely to survive long without persecution. The long persecution of Unitarians in Eastern Europe is a case in point. But the apparent drawback to urban social isolation and anonymity is a generalized decline in commitment to the social whole. It is much harder to feel connected to those who may not even speak the same language or share common habits and customs--certainly not impossible, but challenging for the average person. Because people have the freedom now to choose the community to which they belong, their commitment to their geographical community gets weaker. Of course we here in Southwestern Florida struggle with this because seasonal residents often have split loyalty with their summer community. Because 90% didn't grow up in Florida and probably 99% were not born here, residents of Charlotte County have little shared history and experience to bring them together.
The big problem generated by the move from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from the rural to the urban lifestyle, is the failure to develop and internalize shared norms and values of the geographic civic community be it local, state, or federal. Generally in rural life, acceptance in the community is conditional on the embrace of the town's norms and values within an acceptable range of dissent. In the urban community, the social imposition of norms and values is much weaker. Because people create their own satisfying associational communities based on preference and interest, they develop some immunity from civic community values and norms.
Passing on norms and values from generation to generation in the city can also be a problem. Children's values come primarily from their parents and their parent's voluntary associations. Public schools today are limited in their ability to pass on values in the classroom. The Democrats are for it and the Republicans are against it. In the anonymity of the urban and suburban culture, people who live on the same street or neighborhood generally don't pay much positive attention to each other's kids, let alone try to instill the community values in them putting a greater burden on the family as source of values transmission. In the fast pace of modern life, close attention to the weighty role as values transmitter can get lost or ignored in the rush to the next appointment.
(This, by the way, highlights again the importance of belonging to a religious community which cherishes and passes on these values. The values upheld by our culture have strong roots in Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic faith. We are fortunate in our UU religious tradition to recognize all of these as valid sources supporting our common values. The religious community is one important answer to the problem of helping people internalize social values at every age.)
Given that the changes in our society which I can but briefly review and to which most can add their own mental proof are real, even ominous, our sense of common identity and purpose forged at the end of World War II is being threatened from many directions. Today we are squarely faced with the question, "How do we create greater social cohesion? What motivation will drive people toward internalizing civic values avoiding a descent into an authoritarian police state while preserving our new rights and freedoms which few of us would like to give up?"
This morning I'd like to do a little verbal improvisation with one primary Communitarian proposal to solve this problem. The Communitarians recommend a new balancing of civic rights with responsibilities. The problem today, as they see it, is that many rights come without a sense of obligation to the granter of that right. And as any parent knows, if you give your child rights without responsibilities, you are unlikely to get spontaneously responsible behavior in return.
So let's pause for a moment and imagine what balancing rights with responsibilities might look like. What if the right to vote was conditional on regular participation in elections? What if the protection against illegal search and seizure was lost after conviction of a serious crime? (This would certainly cramp drug dealer's style) What if the right to a jury trial was conditional on being willing to serve or having served on one? (Everyone wants one but few will serve when called today.) What if the right to take deductions against income for federal taxes was conditional on filing honest returns? What if everyone had to earn their citizenship the same way immigrants to this country do?
Citizenship in a democracy is a precious privilege which cannot be upheld over time without strong commitment throughout the nation to its laws and principles. It takes an elaborate system of checks and balances to keep the forces of oppression at bay. Making constitutionally guaranteed rights conditional on behavior could be a great motivation for good citizenship. The fine example for me of the way this can work is the process of gaining a driver's license. When I was a teenager, getting my driver's license was the most important moment of my existence. I took a semester of driver's education. I practiced in driving simulators. I drove with my teacher in a Plymouth Duster with a second break pedal above which he kept his foot poised. When I got that license, I had arrived. I had come of age and become an adult. Getting my voter's card was important to me as well, but paled by comparison. I think the reality should be the other way around.
My driver's license is a privilege I'd like to keep into old age. I'm very careful while I am driving and do not drive after consuming any significant amount of alcohol. I pay careful attention to the laws and regulations regarding the operation of my motor vehicle. My expectation is all of us would do the same if the enormous benefits of United States citizenship became conditional on fulfilling its responsibilities. If you have any doubt about the tremendous value of United States citizenship, take a short trip south of our border.
What I like about making citizenship a privilege is that it is a non-coercive path toward building a stronger community. One can get along in this country without a driver's license. It limits the way one can lead one's life but it is doable. I expect the same would be true of doing away with the idea that citizenship is a birthright. One could function without citizenship in the society without being punished but also without access to a number of opportunities. The most effective way to move away from the risk of authoritarianism that could follow from making citizenship a privilege is to skillfully use and direct the desire for the rights and privileges of United States citizenship.
Let me follow this immediately with an important caveat to this way to balance rights with responsibilities. At all times, those who have not yet won or lost their rights connected with citizenship should be able to earn them or earn them back through a just and fair course of action to demonstrate a willingness to accept or resume the responsibilities of citizenship. And a floor of basic human rights should be guaranteed. Because we all have a core worth and dignity born of our common humanity, we should always stand ready to welcome back into our community those who have demonstrated a genuine change of heart and a willingness to share and exercise our civic values. Our goal should always be full inclusion of everyone in citizenship by choice rather than by entitlement or coercion.
A society is better able to be good and just when it values and encourages the growth and development of it's members. No matter whether we were born with a silver spoon in our mouth or straw for a cradle, we must all grow and develop throughout our lives. If a society gives its members its inheritance of power without preparing and requiring them to be responsible stewards of that power, it casts its jewels before swine.
I fear this may be what is happening today.
So I applaud the courage of the Communitarians to suggest rights must be paired with responsibilities. We are living in a time of great transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from rural agricultural culture to a new kind of urban social environment which requires an internalization of the demands of good citizenship. To preserve the quality of our democratic heritage, the rights and benefits of citizenship must be balanced with responsibilities. And to those who have fallen away or become confused, an open hand should always be extended to assist in finding their way back into the fold. Learning to accept social responsibility is crucial in the preservation of our political heritage and in the growth of each member into a healthy, whole, and happy human being and in the development of each one's religious life..
May we all honor the precious gift of citizenship, accept willingly its responsibilities, and pass them on to the next generation better and stronger than we found them.
Copyright (c) 1996 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.
 Etzioni, Amitai, The Spirit of Community, 1993, Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-671-88524-3 pp. 1-2
 Etzioni, Amitai, pp. 2-4.
3 http://www.webserve.bt.com/communities/greg/gsum.html, Author can be contacted at: Aston Charities Community Involvement Unit Durning Hall London E7 9AB tel (44) 0181 519 2244 Email email@example.com
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Communitarianism by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore
Here's a nice religious view of communitarianism. It partly explains why people who embrace it are so nauseating. These more moral people do not believe we are born with our natural rights endowed by our Creator. They do not obey constitutional law because they think they are somehow above the law. Changing the entire purpose for the Bill of Rights is their mission (and their sedition is almost complete). As the preacher man says, "Making constitutionally guaranteed rights conditional on behavior could be a great motivation for good citizenship."