The Emperor’s Chair: “Community Above Self”

By Graham Glover


Eureka, I have found it! I know now THE fundamental difference between Americans on all things political.

THE point on which Americans disagree most is this: Community or Self. In other words, which comes first: the needs of your community or the needs of yourself?

Obviously I didn’t discover this answer, nor am I the first to make such a statement. But the more I engage in political conversations and the more I observe the political process, the more I am convinced that this is the debate we Americans are most divided on and the question that appears most difficult to negotiate in our public discourse and policy.


My “ah-ha” moment came yesterday during a conversation with one of my officer peers. In the midst of a very lively discussion on the state of the American culture, my friend noted that the problem with society is that not enough people are self-reliant – that they depend too much on others (especially the government) and that society should no longer assist those who cannot assist themselves. His philosophy is very Darwinian – a survival of the fittest. Those who can’t make it on their own should be left to fend for themselves. We both agreed that with respect to our political philosophies, his primary concern is himself, whereas the argument I was trying to make placed community over self.

Take any political issue and apply what I am suggesting: economic policy, social issues, or foreign policy. The point at which people disagree on them is how a particular policy affects their person vs. how it affects others. Taxes and spending, abortion and sexuality, war or diplomatic negotiation – it is my contention that we come to our conclusions on politics based primarily on whether we believe our self-interests are more important than the interests of the communities we are part of (city, state, nation – neighborhood, church, school).

Community puzzle

(As an aside, I think you can also apply this reasoning to theological debates, especially those within Christendom. More often than not, the point at which clergy and parishioners disagree is how I/we interpret a particular topic vs. how the church catholic does. Here it is a question of self vs. church.)

I recently picked up a copy of Robert Nisbet’s classic 1953 text, The Quest for Community. Much of what I am trying to articulate, Nisbet does much more exhaustively and with much greater clarity. I commend it to all who are concerned with the question of community. What Nisbet does so well, along with this excellent article by John Medaille (click here), is explain that the debate of community vs. self is not a left vs. right or a Democrat vs. Republican one. Rather it is a debate over the lasting value of a Liberal society – a society that those on the left and right, Democrat and Republican parties, all embrace. For in our Liberal society, the most sacred rights of all are our individual rights (however they are interpreted and whenever they are emphasized).

The question I have is whether this mantra of self is one we should continue to champion. Or should we change our politics to one that places community above self? For aren’t our communities infinitely more important than our individual selves? Aren’t our neighbor’s needs more pressing than our own? Should we not give of ourselves before we seek what our impulses desire? Or as Medaille so eloquently notes: “The ultimate gift is the self, which we only own when we give it away. My life is not really my own until I am willing to give it to family, community, and vocation; to lay it down for a friend.”