Luther's Slippery Slope
I don’t dispute Martin Luther’s adherence to the Gospel Truths cited by the Rev. Edwin T. Heyne in his letter (May) responding to my review (March); nevertheless, Luther’s principle of private judgment legitimizes Jacques Ellul’s denial of those same Truths. Remember Luther’s cavalier dismissal of the Epistle of St. James, and his justifying whatever he chose to believe (orthodox or no) with his gruff “because I, Dr. Martin Luther, would have it so.” If this “standard” is good enough for Martin, it’s good enough for Jacques.
Dept. of Sociology, University of California
Lasch: Missing the Point
I read Christopher Lasch’s article “Communitarianism or Populism?” (May) with considerable bemusement. I have enormous admiration for Lasch’s work, especially The True and Only Heaven, and share his critique of the idolatry of progress. I think I understand what he means by populism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but am not sure what it means today. On the other hand, I do not accept his application of the rubric of communitarianism to The Good Society or his seeming application of that rubric to Habits of the Heart. I think he is right that Alan Wolfe belongs in that category but wrong to see my co-authors and me in the same light. I am surprised that Lasch does not remember his own review of Habits of the Heart in In These Times, where he pointed out that we did not belong in the usual American communitarian tradition, based on a preference for Gemeinschaft and nostalgia for close-knit cohesive communities based on shared values, but rather that we were championing the revival of a public moral discourse in America, in short, champions of American democracy. In view of his critique of both “community” and “nostalgia” in The True and Only Heaven, it is all more surprising that he would think of The Good Society as a communitarian book.
The Good Society focuses on institutions, something with which Lasch doesn’t seem comfortable, for he takes no notice of our argument. Institutions are the way in which society provides moral (and necessarily often legabpanchorage for its various activities, including the market and the state, but also the family, education, and religion. Far from believing that “deeply ingrained shared assumptions” are sufficient to ground our institutions, we hold in both books that institutions require public moral argument and a constant reassessment as to whether they are living up to their moral justifications. We have a high valuation of politics and public discourse but make no fetish of the state. We follow Catholic social teaching in emphasizing both subsidiarity (the responsibility of individuals and groups closest to problems to solve them) and a positive role for the state, not in replacing the functions of lower level structures, but in supporting and strengthening them when they need it. In these respects we differ significantly from both the communitarianism and the social democracy that Lasch criticizes, but probably also from whatever he means by populism today.
We draw our language of public concern from biblical and republican sources. Lasch criticizes us for using the language of “compassion,” actually a word we hardly ever use. But we do often speak of care, and view it both as an individual and a social matter. The problem with “compassion,” in my view, is that it is often used in the context of therapeutic discourse, refers primarily to the feelings of the giver of compassion, and is condescending toward those who need it. Here I am probably close to Lasch’s position. But care, derived from the central Christian virtue of caritas, is not a self-indulgent emotion of those who look down on others, but a moral intention to assist those in need insofar as one is able. It also includes the acceptance of the fact that the caregiver is imperfect and in need of care, of the love of God and neighbor, as much as anyone else.
As far as standards are concerned, most readers of The Good Society have found far more standards than they care for. Clearly we support the two-parent family as normative, criticize divorce, and advocate lasting and responsible family commitments. When we say we do not advocate only one “single form of family life” it is because we are realistic about the realities of today’s family. My father died when I was two years old and I was raised in a “single-parent family.” With the help of extended family, church, good schools, and the grace of God, I grew up able to make some social contribution and to sustain a long marriage, a “two-parent family,” and am now working on being a good grandparent. I am not about to deny the possibility that other than two-parent families may be good families, even though I think we need to support two-parent families much more than we presently do. Any reader of our book will know that we criticize shoddy behavior in every sector of American society and that we invoke clear moral and religious standards in so doing, certainly in what we say about the family. But we also say what Lasch does not say: that without the transformation of institutions, we are unlikely to get the self- and other-respecting individuals he admires.
Prof. Robert N. Bellah
Lasch: Wrong Questions
Christopher Lasch’s “Communitarianism or Populism?” (May) was terminally flawed, based as it was on extremely amorphous and even idiosyncratic use of terminology, particularly liberalism, which he simultaneously typifies as laissez-faire economics and intrusive social engineering. These two philosophies express such irreconcilable differences as to be impossible to subsume under one label. Some of his references to liberalism seem more appropriate to conservatism or libertarianism.
Lasch also made some other disturbing statements. The Founding Fathers’ checks and balances were not, as he stated, based on a belief in the unimportance of civic virtue, but on the quite realistic awareness that power corrupts and men are not angels; therefore it is sensible to build in safeguards against the abuse of power for those occasions when men are near their worst.
Lasch’s criticism of Enlightenment rationality fails to recognize that the real failure lies in those who fall short of attaining its standards. Rationality is the best we can do, and if Lasch or anyone thinks we can do better, then they must do better than to attempt to dismiss it with deficient reasoning.
Lasch is quite right in referring to the corrosive effects of the marketplace, yet he fails to suggest how to undertake the daunting task of countering it while avoiding excessive state domination. This task will take more than merely pointing out the power of the market, or proclaiming a nebulous term like “populism” that people will interpret in different ways. It will require a force powerful enough to counteract the market’s influence, institutionalized to act as a counterbalance.
There are no easy answers to our current social dilemmas. But in addition to not providing any answers, Lasch’s article failed even to ask the right questions.
Stephen Van Eck
Lasch: Nearly Perfect
“Communitarianism or Populism?” by Christopher Lasch (May) is a nearly perfect critique of Western society. I’ve rarely seen more comprehensive insight into the problems of our age. But toward the end of his article, where he defended the family, Lasch omitted mentioning an important issue, artificial birth control. In 1931, when the Lambeth Conference was considering abrogating the universal moral ban against it, one of the strongest objections raised against the proposal was that it would “destroy the family.” The ban was lifted, and that objection has certainly been verified by subsequent history.
Martinsburg, West Virginia
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