Community is the seat of civilization. It is in our local communities that we engage with one another face-to-face and work shoulder-to-shoulder. And, it is in responding to crises and meeting shared needs that we earn respect, learn patience and build trust.
With our neighbors we can overcome disorder in our own little corner of the world. Trust and responsibility don’t just appear by good fortune. They are formed in the trials of necessity and hardship.
Like a marriage, a genuine commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Perhaps this is why so many avoid full participation.
However, there are other reasons to live responsibly. Just beyond the boundaries of family, community is that place where the reality of immediate needs must be addressed and resolved.
Americans have avoided personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time. We will continue to do so at our peril.
It was not always thus. Prior to the American Revolution and for close to 100 years afterward Americans gravitated easily, even impulsively, toward decentralized local governance and an independent frame of mind. We managed our own affairs in cooperation with our neighbors and expected regional autonomy as a natural condition.
Civil society flourished during America’s first century, a vibrant force that was documented admiringly by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two volume commentary, Democracy in America. Americans created an immense variety of civic organizations to address every conceivable interest and social need. Citizens did this on their own initiative, inspired by their sense of belonging and the spirit of the times. There were few restrictions or constraints.
The need for community in America, both in spirit and as a practical matter, is as important today as it has ever been. It is only in direct engagement with our neighbors, and in all spheres of problem-solving, that we will learn the skills of living and working productively with one another.
As Americans, we have been here before and we can do it again.
Some argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal to which we should aspire. And this is, indeed, an attractive vision. However, I think it should be apparent for all to see that there must be a balance struck between a nation of fully engaged local communities and a competent and trustworthy central government that respects and protects the primacy of local responsibility.
At the present time it is difficult to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are prepared to protect both our freedoms and our security. But, that is what we need.
Without law there can be no freedom. And, there can be no freedom without a mature understanding of responsibility. I believe that a valid vision of limited government for the American future can only come from a view firmly anchored in local communities.
Those who understand trust, moral responsibility, and constructive action – and who recognize the very high stakes involved – will build the foundations for the American renewal at home, with their neighbors.
Building unity within communities is a gradual process. It depends on each of us to reach out across our differences, to form friendships that develop trust, to be supportive in times of trouble, and to influence the hearts and minds of all who care.
It will take time and patience, creative thinking and new skills, and we will do it because America is too important to lose. The future of humankind depends on it.
Dear readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 28. Please note that a project description and several sample chapters from the forthcoming book are linked on this page.