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Texas Faith: Obama sparked a conversation about communitarianism v. individualism: Where do you fall?


The following ran on the July 24, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology Professor William Lawrence and Political Scientist Matthew Wilson provided expertise for this story.

August 1, 2012

By William McKenzie

The divide between individualism and communitarianism flashed to the surface last week during the presidential campaign. It came about after President Obama rather famously told a Virginia audience:
 ”If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.
 There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to
 create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you
 to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a
 business. you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The
 Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created
 the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the
What I would like to hear from you this week is where you fall along
 this spectrum. Does your theology place you closer to the dignity of
 the individual or to the importance of the community?
If you lean toward the individualism camp, how far can you really go
 in that direction? After all, businesses do need workers trained by
 good teachers whose salaries are paid by governments. And they need
 roads on which to move their products.
On the other hand, if you lean toward the communitarian camp, how can
 you assure that the community doesn’t take precedent over the
 individual? I’m being somewhat extreme here, but communitarianism run
 amok has led to individuals losing their personal freedoms. Or,
 economically, individuals get tired of seeing so much of their labor
 taxed, they stop investing or move their jobs offshore.
This may sound like an esoteric question, but it really gets at the
 heart of the discussion now going on within the presidential campaign.
Communitarianism or individualism? Where do you fall?
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
In a move that may surprise some, I’d like to take up for President Obama a little bit here.  I think his remarks have been taken out of context by some of his critics to support their caricatured notion of “Obama the socialist” — just as Mitt Romney’s remarks about liking to fire people and not being concerned with the very poor were taken out of context by opponents looking to advance a “Mr. Burns” caricature of the Republican.
What the president was saying, in my view, is very reasonable and indisputably true — not that entrepreneurs didn’t build their businesses, but that they didn’t individually build the transportation, energy, education, and communication infrastructures that allow business to function. Those are necessarily communal tasks undertaken by government, and they are the sorts of classic public goods that we ought to all be willing to pay reasonable taxes in order to support.  In that sense, I suppose I am a communitarian, though this modest stance is more an aversion to anarchy than an embrace of a leviathan state.
At the same time, however, my Catholic theology tells me that a choice between the dignity of the individual and the importance of community is a false dichotomy.  Individuals find their greatest dignity and fulfillment only in the context of communities — the family, the Church, the neighborhood, the workplace, and, in a somewhat attenuated sense, the nation.
Within these communities, there is no need that all be equal, either materially or in terms of authority.  Some will have more wealth and power than others, often by virtue of their own greater talent, effort, and tolerance for risk.  These distinctions are not immoral, so long as all members of the community remember their inter-connectedness with other members, and so long as activity within the community remains oriented toward the common good.
So I am an individualist in the sense that I see no reason for successful people to apologize for their attainments, but communitarian in that I would ask them always to be conscious of how they are contributing to the common good of the various communities of which they are a part–including the nation....

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
While many Christians celebrate the triumph of the individual who comes to faith by accepting Jesus as Lord and who overcomes the wages of sin by professing faith in Christ, the pages of the New Testament clearly testify that the community is more important than the individual. The book of Acts describes the early church as a community in which “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” The gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to Romans and I Corinthians, are blessings bestowed on the community first and then are expressed through individuals. The letter to the Hebrews describes the long journey of faith through many generations and concludes that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”
Political ideologies may emphasize the unfettered freedom of the individual to survive, thrive, and drive by the values of personal thoughts or private feelings. This was the conclusion that a desperate, starving, suffering Scarlett O’Hara reached in the novel Gone with the Wind. She said she would lie, cheat, steal, even kill if she had to, but she would never be hungry again. The second half of her story is that she did exactly that. And she grew rich, well-fed,  and alone.
The community does take precedence over the individual. Rush Limbaugh can say whatever he wants to say, but only because the nation has granted broadcasters a license to use some of the band width in the radio spectrum and because a community of advertisers pays him to say it. Walmart has built a mammoth network of stores because the country has constructed a highway system for its trucks to use and has protected air quality so that its customers can breathe in its vast parking lots.
The best-known words of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament make clear that individual actions, no matter how mighty or monumental, are meaningless apart from love. And love is what creates community. So without the community, individuals are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals....