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The horrors of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath have so occupied our minds for the past nine months that the serious social pathologies of our urban centers have receded from our attention. The actions of a few terrorists somehow make even mugging, robbery, drug peddling, and inadequate education seem like minor troubles. These problems are not going away, however, and they may not be ignored.

The difficulty, of course, in dealing with issues such as poverty, crime, race, unemployment, and poor education is that there is no consensus as to what should be done about them. Though the continuum on which these issues rest is stretched hard, there are fundamentally two postures that can be described in a number of different ways. The two positions can be illustrated by imagining the following cocktail conversation:

A: “The solution to our social pathologies—poverty, crime, racism—is finally personal; individuals must take responsibility for themselves by acting responsibly.”

B: “There you go again with your individualism, ignoring the unjust structures that privilege some at the expense of others. Racism and poverty are systemic, not personal, defects. Personal change is not enough; we need political solutions as well.”

This conversation is contrived, to be sure, though the conflicting viewpoints represented in it are recognizable. The first, emphasizing personal responsibility and initiative, is a version of what is conventionally called the conservative position. The second, emphasizing corporate or institutional responsibility, characteristically goes by the label of progressive or liberal. The difference between them boils down to this: Do we fix social pathologies by changing individual persons or by implementing massive institutional change?

Though this debate is most often carried on in political contexts and though it concerns political choices, far more than politics alone is at stake. Politics is but one of the critical arenas in which a contemporary culture war is being waged. How do the previous labels—conservative and liberal—fit the general cultural conflict? And, if they fit, do the labels portray a coherent cultural viewpoint?

One of the foremost observers of the contemporary culture wars, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, speaks of two dominant cultural impulses, one toward orthodoxy and another toward progressivism. He understands both impulses as formal properties of a worldview and describes them in his book, Culture Wars, as follows: The impulse toward orthodoxy is “the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority”; the impulse toward progressivism is “the tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

Hunter’s definitions point out an interesting problem with conventional labels. One would think that the orthodox impulse would align with the conservative political posture and the progressive impulse with the liberal. After all, liberalism or progressivism exalts the freedom of the individual and rejects external authority, does it not? Well, yes, in some instances but not in others. Notice how in our imaginary cocktail conversation above the conservative position champions individual, personal responsibility, while the liberal view sees individual persons limited by all sorts of external restraints.

Who Are We as Humans?

Labels are confusing, and all the more so today because a postmodern mindset is quite unconcerned about having a coherent and consistent worldview. But if the categories of liberal/progressive and orthodox/conservative are not entirely helpful, where do we go? What about this: Label both options as extreme and fix things by introducing a third way, usually a “moderate” approach that combines the best features of each extreme. The proponent of this third way can then arrogate to himself the moral high road by being a “moderate” situated between two extreme positions. What would the third voice in our imaginary conversation suggest? Perhaps add a little bit of government to a smidgen of personal responsibility so that one gets governmentally encouraged and funded programs to develop personal responsibility—a compassionate conservatism?

I am going to forego a third-way approach for several reasons. First, most third-way approaches are simply leftist answers masquerading as alternatives to themselves. But, more importantly, I am foregoing this approach because I am convinced that the question itself needs to be reframed. We need to start in a different place. Rather than placing state responsibility and personal initiative on a set of scales so as to arrive at an appropriately balanced equilibrium (How much personal? How much political?), we need to ask a prior anthropological question: Who are we as humans?

Why start with anthropology, with the nature of the human person? Because social problems are almost always linked to conflicts of values, and only human beings rise above purely instinctual behavior and are capable of making value judgments. Consider economic life and the social problem of poverty. Economics deals with exchanges between parties who assign value to that which they seek to exchange. Only human beings create wealth and can be said to be poor or rich, since poverty and wealth are values created by humans. While animals can share with humans the reality of deprivation and pangs of hunger, they cannot be said to be poor. Only humans can consider themselves poor; animals cannot. The theological reason for this, according to Jewish and Christian tradition alike, is that only human beings are made in the image of God, and only they have been given dominion—stewardship—over the rest of nature (Gen. 1:26–28).

Though our contemporary dominant cultural values—most notably, “environmental values”—are not friendly to notions of stewardship, we cannot deal with the social ills of our day without its exercise. The poor among us can be helped only if we use nature’s riches to generate wealth. Here an important corrective to the attitude of many in the environmental movement must be made. Very often, environmentalists give the impression that proper stewardship of the earth’s resources, such as the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, is to leave it alone in its pristine “natural” condition. Stewardship, however, implies use—responsible use, to be sure, but use nonetheless. Unless we desire to have human beings foraging for their own food and firewood, we must use the resources of nature. Oil left in the ground heats no homes; fields unplowed, unplanted, or unharvested provide no food. Recognizing that the poor cannot escape material want without using creation’s riches means that we should advocate policies that encourage such responsible use. Being an image bearer of God implies our active involvement in creative, stewardly use of the resources endowed by the Creator to his creation.

Not Only Individual But Also Social

This also means that we must regard the poor as image bearers of God and advocate policies and strategies that enable them to join other image bearers in being responsive and responsible members of society. The poor need property of their own for which they can be responsible and productive stewards. Strategies that merely redistribute the wealth produced by others and create levels of dependence violate the image of God in people. The poor need to be encouraged and, if need be, assisted to become active image bearers.

Thus far, it sounds as though my argument has simply provided a more elaborate justification for one of the poles in the debate to which I alluded at the beginning of this paper—namely, the conservative individualist position. To see why it is not, we must take our reflection on what it means to be human—to be an image bearer of God—one step further.

The Genesis account of Creation depicts humans as social, communal creatures—male and female. In addition, the entire human race is portrayed as descending from one original parent pair—Adam and Eve. Taken together, these two elements in the Genesis Creation account make a powerful argument for universal human solidarity. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers! The whole of scriptural teaching repeatedly reminds us that the rich have obligations of charity toward the poor (Lev. 19:10, 23:22; Deut. 15:11; Luke 4:18, 14:13; Acts 9:36; Gal. 2:10; James 2).

It is crucial that we see charity in a broad sociological perspective, not merely as a matter of individual generosity. Because charity is voluntary and potentially more personal than governmental welfare, the giving and receiving of charity builds bonds of community that cannot be created by nor incorporated into the state. Such voluntary association leads to the creation of networks of protective structures and institutions (what is now usually called civil society) that shield individuals from state encroachment on human liberty and the bonds of community.

Contrary to the conventional view that holds that charity is the strategy of a selfish and individualistic culture unwilling to pay its “fair share” of taxes to the federal government, totalitarian regimes are, in fact, the ones that cannot abide voluntary associations and active charity. According to that prescient nineteenth-century French observer of American mores, Alexis de Tocqueville, the American experiment is misrepresented when it is described as individualistic; it is, in fact, properly characterized as a form of associationalism. “Despotism, which in its nature is fearful, sees the most certain guarantee of its own duration in the isolation of men, and it ordinarily puts all its care into isolating them,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “There is no vice of the human heart that agrees with it as much as selfishness: a despot readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided that they do not love each other.”

What is at stake here is the matter of liberty itself. In general, many people today arrogate unto themselves the moral high road by selling centralized governmental policies as compassionate, communitarian alternatives to what they call radical and selfish individualism. Hence “it takes a village” to raise a child, not a family, with the “village” often a nonthreatening rhetorical sleight-of-hand to refer to the federal government. Here, too, the communitarian character of Scripture’s social concern in Israel and the early church is occasionally appealed to as a ground for the “village” argument.

Image Bearers in a Broken World

In response, it must be stressed that the communal character of both Israel’s and the church’s responsibility for the poor is rooted in a religiously framed covenant, not in a secular civil society. Secularization in the face of equality does not create voluntary associations and a strong civil society. Tocqueville saw that threat to liberty in the very democratizing process underway in America itself already in the 1830s. Conditions of equality tend to foster individualism, with the result that despotic centralizing state power begins to threaten local liberty. The founding of America, so Tocqueville believed, was rooted in a vision that exalted decentralizing governmental power: “Local liberties, then, which induce a great number of citizens to value the affection of their kindred and their neighbors, bring men constantly into contact, despite the instincts which separate them, and force them to help one another.” The “good word” I have put in for charity is thus inseparably linked with a commitment to the responsible use of human liberty. Giving and receiving charity creates bonds of community. This the coercive arm of the state cannot do.

It is here in Tocqueville’s observations about associational life that we see a social vision transcending both individualism and statism. Each of these visions is rooted in a distinct anthropology. An individualism that forces people to fend for themselves fits hand in glove with a Social Darwinian anthropology where only the fittest survive. Collectivist visions parallel the Marxist notion that we must be liberated from alienating institutions and absorbed into the universal “new humanity.” The vision of humanity for which I am arguing sees human beings as image bearers of God in a sinful, broken world. Here all humans are called to be creative, responsible, and productive stewards of nature’s resources. The reality of brokenness means that some of our fellow human beings will, for a variety of reasons, be unable to join that human project. Our solidarity as fellow image bearers of the one Creator God must impel us to care compassionately for those who stumble along life’s pathway and to do so in ways that respect their dignity as image bearers.

A favorite slogan of the progressive Left in its various forms is “the personal is political.” This means that every personal and intimate aspect of social intercourse must be seen as a political act. Concretely, it means that all human actions must be placed in the service of the collective. All of life must be politicized. The anthropology I have sketched implies a much different vision. It suggests a depoliticizing of our civil society, a recovery of liberty, and a return to voluntary expressions of solidarity, to a rich associational world that does not measure every human act in terms of the gray, dreary uniformity of collectivism. The political is thus personal; our vision of politics is determined by our anthropology, by our view of the human person.

Dr. John Bolt is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.