Are We a Nation of Individuals or a Community?

Duke University history professor William H. Chafe asks the age-old question in an op-ed in the Seattle Times.  He reminds us that the tensions between individualism and community have been around for a long time.  Here is a taste:

THE partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person’s ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 in search of religious freedom, their leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said their mission was to create a “city upon a hill,” a society that embodied values so noble that the entire world would emulate them.

Winthrop wrote, we would need to strengthen, defend, preserve, comfort and love each other, and bear one another’s burdens. “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the community as members of the same body.”

Massachusetts was governed in its early decades by a sense the communal good must prevail. “Just prices” were prescribed for goods, and punishment was imposed on businesses that sought excess profits.

Soon enough, a surge of individualism challenged such regulations. Entrepreneurs viewed communal rules as shackles to be broken so they could pursue individual aspirations — and profits. The “just price” was discarded.

While religion remained a powerful presence, secularism ruled everyday business life, and Christianity was restricted to a once-a-week ritual. Class distinctions proliferated, economic inequality increased, and the values of laissez-faire individualism displaced the once enshrined “common wealth.”