F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
May 30, 1999
Real Community or Potemkin Village?

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Efforts to rebuild American communities may be putting the cart before the horse.

Political scientist Bruce Frohnen notes that nowadays "virtually everyone is lamenting the decline of strong communities and the values they teach. From left to right on the political spectrum," he observes, "politicians, pundits, and people on the street agree that Americans have lost touch with their neighbors, that towns and cities lack public spirit, and that American life and character have been impoverished by an increasing lack of common action and feeling."

Writing in the current issue of Family Policy, a bimonthly publication of the Family Research Council, Frohnen confronts the question of "why is so little being done to rebuild communities or even to stop them from being destroyed?" He suggests that, "while Americans agree about the need for community, they disagree about the nature of community and how they should rebuild it."

Frohnen cites three schools of "community boosters," whose visions "vary widely in their understanding of what makes a community good or desirable. The self-described communitarians," he observes, "do not even seek to rebuild concrete communities at all. Instead, they merely uphold the language of community to cloak their attempts to politicize American life."

Then there are "the civic renewers," who, according to Frohnen, "seek to rebuild communities, but only as a necessary means to reinvigorate the public and political life they believe once flourished in the United States. Civic renewers," he explains, "wish to reinvigorate the institutions that can transform children and adults into good citizens," their goal being "a nation better able to maintain and increase its power and vitality rather than strong and virtuous local communities." The third group is a subset of civic renewers who "add a plea for moral regeneration as the root of free and vital public life" and, toward that end, "include religious institutions among the civic associations they seek to reinvigorate."

Frohnen considers all three approaches flawed, arguing that their "preoccupation with politics is a self-defeating attempt to recreate the shared rituals, practices, and comradeship once produced spontaneously by local communities. None recognizes the primary role of religion and tradition as shapers of public life," he criticizes. "Nor does any value religion, tradition, or community for its own sake."

Frohnen argues that a true and properly functioning community "must seek to teach its people how to lead good -- that is, godly -- lives. When this is not seen as the primary purpose of community," he warns, "people will embrace political action as a valid means by which to shape individual and community character to fit some un- or even anti-religious mold. In order to combat the tendency to make politics supreme," Frohnen advises, "Americans must reestablish their status as creatures created in the image of God and destined for a future life in which conduct in this life matters. Then," he adds, "they must look to the traditions of their families and churches -- and their nation -- to find the most fitting means by which to re-create community."

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