English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson once said, "To be happy
at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." In referring to
happiness at home, Johnson was identifying a goal that one does not
pursue privately, but rather together with members of an
intimate body. The wisdom of Johnson's claim lies in its
recognition of a fundamental human longing for a sense of
membership or belonging. People draw identity from their
participation in communities of purpose, whatever form they
What is the proper relationship between the national government
and this longing to be a part of a meaningful body? For the past
several generations, the United States government has become
increasingly involved in the everyday lives of citizens as it has
absorbed functions and authority that used to lie with smaller
social institutions. Consequently, the sense of belonging and
status once found in those smaller groups risks also being
transferred to the state.
Since the colonial period, multitudes have come to America
because of a hope that their families, churches, and other forms of
community could thrive within its borders. Americans have long
valued and given allegiance to this nation precisely because they
valued other institutions and forms of life that flourished
under freedom. Citizens therefore rightly unify in appreciation of
the U.S. government for protecting the local institutions and
communities with which they most identify.
However, looking too expectantly to the state as a source of
identity and social solidarity-that is, as a single national
community centered on the federal government-can erode the sense of
America as a nation of communities centered on family,
friendships, and faith.
Man's search for membership, belonging, and community identity
plays a major role in his relationship to the federal
government. Whether that government is expansive or limited will
depend on whether or not citizens' longing to belong is met through
The Search for a Sense of Belonging
The federal government provides and U.S. citizens have come
to rely on an increasing number of services, including education,
physical safety, roads, housing and food for the poor, and medical
care for the elderly. Less obvious a need, but just as important in
people's lives, is a sense of community membership or
belonging. Advocacy for expansive government taps into this basic
drive within human beings.
The desire to be a member of a purposive community, to be
on the inside of a meaningful group, to participate in something
larger than oneself is fundamental to human nature. Robert Nisbet
refers to this drive as "the quest for community." Community membership
is indispensable because it gives people a sense of identity
and status, a sense of connection with the larger social
realities of life. Without meaningful groups in which to
participate, individuals usually experience not just loneliness,
but a lack of fulfillment and a deep sense of alienation.
Community Function and Members' Devotion
According to Nisbet, the communities to which people direct
their loyalties are those that are perceived to be most
relevant in meeting the basic needs in life. Thus, from a
pragmatic perspective, those communities that are best able to
achieve meaningful goals are the most likely to receive
long-term allegiance from their members. As the early 20th century
philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote, "[P]eople do not
live together merely to be together. They live together to do
Before the rise of the modern state, informal networks and local
institutions played a large role in meeting people's basic needs.
Small, intimate, participatory groups like the family,
neighborhood, and local church exercised great authority over
their members and provided most of the functions of everyday life,
including education, child care, economic production, medical
attention, and even ecclesial (church) courts to settle
disputes. They therefore not only attracted and held the devotion
of their members, but also grounded their sense of identity. People
gained a sense of meaning and belonging in the world through their
membership in particular families, estates, churches, guilds, and
other voluntary associations. They usually related only indirectly
and distantly to the king or emperor in whose realm they happened
Expansion of the State
With the growth of the modern state, however, things changed.
"The whole tendency of modern political development," according to
Nisbet, "has been to enhance the role of the political State as a
direct relationship among individuals, and to bring both its powers
and its services ever more intimately into the lives of human
beings." Today, important roles in production,
education, welfare, and justice administration that were once
exercised primarily by families, churches, and other local
institutions are now deemed functions of the state.
America's Founding Fathers vested only a specified list of
limited powers in the federal government, preferring that most
authority reside-and that most needs be met-at the local level.
However, in the 20th century, political leaders began to
reverse the balance created by the Founders. Theodore Roosevelt's
New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, and Franklin D.
Roosevelt's New Deal transferred significant social and political
responsibilities from states and local communities to the federal
A Crisis of Community
With fewer and less significant tasks to perform, the social
role of local institutions such as families and religious
congregations has become weaker. People still expect these
institutions to provide personal intimacy, emotional refuge,
and spiritual health, but as Nisbet declared in the
[They] have manifestly become detached from positions of
functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions
of our society.… [T]he whole network of informal
interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role
in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education,
recreation, and economic production and distribution.
Smaller, traditional forms of association are therefore less
able to evoke the loyalty and allegiance that they once
The result is a modern-day "crisis of community" among lonely
Americans. Drawing on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews
over the past quarter-century, Professor Robert Putnam argues that
people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends,
and neighbors, impoverishing their lives and communities.
Today, especially among young adults, a widespread search
is taking place for a deeper sense of shared purpose, identity, and
connection with others. Many Americans desire to belong to a
community that they perceive as relevant and effective in
meeting the needs that they see around them, and they increasingly
turn to the federal government to meet those needs.
The Federal Government as National Family
Progressives have capitalized on this deep-seated desire for
membership in a participatory group and, as their language reveals,
have used it as a point of connection with the national government.
For example, Franklin Roosevelt couched the goal of his New Deal
programs in terms of extending "to our national life the old
principle of the local community." Such rhetoric, notes
William Schambra, was typical of early progressive liberals, such
as Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, and Theodore Roosevelt, who
advocated the growth of the federal government in the name of
That same vision would also inspire the expansion of the
centralized state in John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society. Johnson spoke of America as "a family," as
did Walter Mondale during his 1984 presidential campaign: "My
America is a community, a family, where we care for each other," he
exclaimed, and it is the President's most important task to "make
us a community and keep us a community."
National Community vs. Nation of
To be sure, Americans are united by particular bonds, and they
share an important identity as Americans. Some degree of unity-a
certain sense of membership and responsibility for fellow
citizens-is essential for the health of this country. A
concept of national ideals and purpose is particularly
important as America acts on the world stage.
Yet when addressing the needs of individual Americans, rhetoric
of a "national family" or "national community" can place unhealthy
expectations on government to fulfill longings for status and
belonging that are best met by other forms of association. A better
conception of the state's relationship to citizens is conveyed
in George H. W. Bush's memorable phrase "a nation of
communities," of "tens of thousands of ethnic, religious,
social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other
organizations…a brilliant diversity spread like stars,
like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."
There is a significant difference between conceiving of
America as a national community and conceiving of America as a
nation of communities. In a single national community,
citizens look principally to government to provide basic needs,
including a sense of belonging and moral purpose. In a nation
of communities, people value their political status and
membership as American citizens, but their obligations and
identities are grounded most deeply in traditional associations
founded upon kinship, faith, or locality. As President George H. W.
Bush acknowledged, "Government is part of the nation of
communities-not the whole, just a part."
Why Conceptions of Community Matter
The trend toward enhancing the significance of people's
relationship to the national government along with weakening other
forms of personal connection is corroding social well-being
and freedom. Personal bonds and fellowship fostered within
participatory groups provide more than just warm
feelings; they foster trust and social connections that have
been linked with improved child welfare, higher educational
performance, lower crime rates, and better physical and mental
health. Moreover, the existence of a diversity of
authoritative local institutions is an indispensable safeguard
against government tyranny.
Political rhetoric can play an influential role today, as it did
among early progressives, in shaping public attitudes toward the
role of the federal government in daily life. Language about
the government as the centerpiece of a national family runs
the risk of projecting unhealthy expectations and hopes onto the
The slogan of choice among some 2008 presidential campaigns
seems to be "We're all in this together." For instance, on May 29,
2007, Hillary Clinton declared that "[it's] time to reject the idea
of an 'on your own' society.… I prefer a 'we're all in it
together' society." Six days later, Barack Obama used a
virtually identical phrase, explaining that his "starting point as
president is to restore that sense that we are in this together."
Such phrases are not inaccurate, but they can represent
different conceptions of the relationship between government and
citizens. Which vision of society is this slogan promoting? Who is
the "we" in "We are all in this together": a number of local,
participatory communities in which members exercise mutual
responsibility for each other or a crowd of individuals looking to
the national government for personal meaning, a sense of belonging,
and effective moral action? If used to justify policies that
increasingly transfer authority and functions from local
institutions to the federal government, an otherwise innocuous
slogan can become the water that helps Americans swallow an
The story of the growth of the modern state is also a story of
the quest for community. Progressive liberal leaders have tapped
into man's desire for a sense of membership and belonging and have
capitalized on it to promote an expansive role for the federal
Citizens who give loyalty to and gain identity from a variety of
associations are likely to depend less on the state. Healthy
political relationships go hand in hand with healthy relationships
based on kinship, faith, and locality.
The case for limited government can be strengthened by
acknowledging the fundamental human longing for a sense of
belonging and recognizing that local participatory communities are
best equipped to meet this need. The national government has
an important role in protecting such communities, which
includes preserving rather than absorbing their rightful authority
Ryan Messmore is William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a
Free Society in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and
Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of
Order and Freedom (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1990), p. 29.
Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged
(New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977), chapters 2, 4, 6, and
The Quest for Community, p. 48.
example, Putnam found that, on average, Americans attend club
meetings and entertain friends at home only about half as often as
they did a generation ago and that virtually all leisure activities
that involve doing something with someone else, from playing
volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining. See Saguaro
Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, description of Robert D.
Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American
Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), at http://bowlingalone.com (August 14, 2007).The
Saguaro Seminar describes itself on its Web site as "an ongoing
initiative of Professor Robert D. Putnam at the John F. Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard University" that "focuses on
expanding what we know about our levels of trust and community
engagement and on developing strategies and efforts to increase
a discussion about how young adults are leaving traditional
churches because of boredom, lack of opportunity to serve in ways
that make use of their skills and knowledge, and the desire to make
a greater impact on the surrounding community, see George Barna,
Revolution (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers,2005).
William A. Schambra, foreword to Nisbet, The Quest for Community,
pp. xi and xiv.
See Putnam, Bowling Alone.
Nisbet has demonstrated the importance of man's deep-seated desire
for community membership in making sense of the most pernicious
totalitarian movements of the 20th century. For example, he notes
that the Communist Party in Europe became more than a political
party. It became "a moral community of almost religious intensity,
a deeply evocative symbol of collective, redemptive purpose."
Hitler also recognized the powerful desire in people for moral
community. As Nisbet argues, this desire among many disenchanted
and alienated Germans helps to explain why millions eagerly
accepted Nazi doctrine. The same is true of Marxism, which offered
"status, belonging, membership and a coherent moral perspective" to
so many people. "For the first time they 'belong to' something, to
a 'cause'-good or bad as it may be, but something at any rate which
transcends their narrow personal interests and opens up a world in
which each has his part to play and all can 'pull together.'" "The
Hungry Sheep," Times Literary Supplement, March 30, 1951, quoted in
Nisbet, The Quest for Community, p. 32.
Barack Obama, in "Special Edition: Sojourners Presidential Forum,"
The Situation Room, CNN,June 4, 2007, at http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0706/04/sitroom.03.html
(August 14, 2007). The same is often heard from John Edwards.
"There is a hunger in America-a hunger to be inspired again," he
argues. "People want to believe we are a national community." John
Edwards, in Ken Black, "Edwards Touts Poverty Eradication During
Visit," Times-Republican (Marshalltown, Iowa), April 10, 2006, at
(August 14, 2007).