Individuality or Community: A False Choice

One-dimensional political commitments, on both sides of the aisle, have made “middle-ground politics impossible.” That is a concern expressed by E. J. Dionne Jr. in his splendid book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury, 2012, p. 248).

Dionne traces the root of our current political gridlock to a faulty reading of American history. He asserts that the “true American trajectory is defined by balance,” which includes “an understanding of the indispensability of both the individual and the community” (p. 123, italics added). Dionne maintains that “our quest, from the very beginning of the republic, [has been] to achieve individual liberty rooted in a thriving sense of community and mutual obligation” (p. 242).

In our contemporary situation, Dionne asserts that the tension between these two dimensions is “reflected in the Tea Party’s focus on liberty, self-reliance, and the unencumbered individual, and Occupy Wall Street’s emphasis on equality, interconnection, and social obligation” (p. 246).

Dionne is clear on where he thinks the imbalance between these two indispensable dimensions currently lies: “Radical individualism is as close to triumph as it has been at any point since the Gilded Age,” adding that “whether it will succeed or fails is now the central question in American politics” (p. 242). And he suggests that a failure to balance these two indispensable dimensions will destroy both dimensions, for “A purely individualistic society cannot maintain the solidarity and social cohesion that are a prerequisite for preserving freedom” (p. 97).

I believe Dionne has captured the root cause of our current political malaise, a false choice between individuality and community. It is not either/or, it is both/and.

The indispensability of both of these dimensions, in proper balance, is clear in the teachings of Christianity. Each human being, created in the Image of God, is uniquely gifted, and must have the freedom to express those gifts in a manner that expresses his/her individuality.

But the Christian concept of freedom is not to be able to do as you please, but is freedom intended to enable you to serve others in response to the commandment of Jesus that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Galatians 5: 13-14).

Of course, the political challenge, then, is to forge the most appropriate balance between the two legitimate dimensions of individuality and community. But that calls for “middle-ground politics.” There is certainly much room for disagreement about the most appropriate terms of this balance. But in our current political climate it is virtually impossible to even begin talking about the contours of such a balance, since far too many politicians and citizens, on both sides of the aisle, will only acknowledge the legitimacy of one of these two dimensions.

I have no easy solution to this quandary. As one citizen who is committed, on religious grounds, to the legitimacy of these two dimensions of what it means to be human, I aspire to model this dual commitment in all that I say, write, and do. I can only invite others who, for whatever reasons, share this dual commitment to do likewise. This includes rejecting the posturing of politicians who are one-dimensional, and advocating for and casting votes for politicians who share a commitment to fostering both individuality and community and indicate a willingness to engage those with whom they disagree in respectful conversation toward the end of forging a proper balance between these two indispensable dimensions of our shared humanity.