Individualism and the Death of Freedom

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Individualism and the Death of Freedom

It seems an odd paradox, but the more emphasis we put on individuals and individual choice, the more we are subject to increasingly oppressive government control.

Case in point: in 2010, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decided that the right of free speech — including free political speech — applies not only to individuals, but to corporations and unions as well. As far as endorsing candidates and policy positions is concerned, “corporations are people too.”

In response, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) has proposed an amendment to the Constitution designed to override the Court and strip constitutional rights from corporations and unions, applying them only to “natural persons,” that is, individuals.

You might be tempted to cheer such an amendment. After all, Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government have been not-so-strange bedfellows for years engineering benefits for favored members, employees, constituents, and municipalities at taxpayer expense. Add the impact of lobbying firms, lawyers, and “special interest groups,” you might think that putting the kibosh on the whole mess would solve some serious problems.

But you’d be wrong.

Commenting about the proposed amendment in the May 6 Washington Post, George Will writes:

…Congress — and state legislatures and local governments — could regulate to the point of proscription political speech, or any other speech, by the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, NARAL Pro-Choice America or any of the other tens of thousands of nonprofit corporate advocacy groups, including political parties and campaign committees.

Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights.

Put simply, our ability as individuals to organize ourselves into groups to accomplish political objectives would end. You (singular) would still have freedom of speech. I would still have freedom of speech. But we (you and I together) could be told to sit down and shut up — or else.

Each individual would stand utterly alone before the vastness of the government with no “intermediary associations” — corporations, unions, churches, nonprofits — to serve as buffer, guardian, and advocate. Rep. McGovern’s proposed amendment is nothing less than an attempt to impose nearly absolute new controls over us all. And it does this by exploiting our idolatry of the individual.

The solution? Well to begin with, let’s do all that is needed to oppose the amendment. Beyond that, however, we need to see that asserting individualism and personal freedom is a trap. As Ross Douthat comments in his introduction to Robert Nesbit’s Quest for Community, the goal must be “the defense of the individual and his group — his family, his church, his neighborhood, his civic organization, and his trade union. If the Quest for Community teaches any lesson it is this: You cannot oppose the inexorable growth of state power by championing individualism alone. You can only oppose it by championing community.”

And the church in our day has a near monopoly on the language and paradigms required for authentic community. Not that we practice it particularly well. We are, after all, products of our culture. Individualism has had an enormous negative influence on American Christianity. But we have the necessary resources in Christian history, theology and spirituality.

Opposing raw individualism and government overreach Christians need to reassert the importance of community, not seeing the church as one “intermediary association” among many, but understanding the church as the City of God, the true and eternal alternative to the voracious but temporary City of Man.

Publication date: May 16, 2012