What's Tony Thinking

A Good Word for Institutions


Last night our book group discussed Yuval Levin’s book, A Time To Build.” I’ve mentioned it in several recent blogs. We had, in book club parlance, “a lively evening,” as we wrestled with Levin’s thesis that what ails us today in America is a lack of strong and healthy institutions.

“Institution” is a negative word, even a trigger word, for many. I get that. Institutions can be, often are, disappointing. Sometimes they are crushing.

But not always. Institutions, and this is Levin’s argument, can be the communities within which people find guidance, direction, belonging and security. That’s part of the reason that I went into the ministry, and part of the reason I believe in the church, even as I have also been a frequent critic of our many failures.

But the answer isn’t to dispense with all institutions. It is to make them better. Or to build new institutions that are faithful to their purpose, and not chiefly about self-protection.

One of the things that intrigues me about Levin’s argument for institutions that steward our values, convey our memories and hopes, and provide people meaningful forms of association and common purpose, is that institutions — at their best — are formative. They form us as people.

Certainly, for me schools, scouts, church, college, seminary, were all formative institutions that tried, and sometimes succeeded, in making me a better person.

But Levin contends that these days institutions are less “formative,” and more “performative.” That is, people see them as a stage, a platform, for pursuing their own agenda. We’ve seen that in the way Trump treated the Presidency. Locally, Kshama Sawant has used the City Council this way. In the church, I have seen both clergy and laity who want the church to serve primarily as a platform for them and their interests.

To put this a little differently — a reason that building and sustaining strong and healthy, formative institutions is a big challenge these days is that we aren’t so sure we need forming — thanks just the same!

I remember, for example, reading the announcement of the church that was seeking a minister. It went something like this: “Ours is a unique congregation made up of amazing and highly gifted people. The job of the new minister we call will be to celebrate our goodness and gifts, and guide us in the realization of our full potential.” Sounds good! But it could be a rough pastoral call, to serve people that were so sure they had already arrived.

You run into something similar in schools. Parents approach a school with the idea that their child is very special, really quite a marvel, and all that’s needed from the school is to support/ free them to be who they are, and celebrate that. It comes as a shock to some parents to hear their very special child may have some, well, knowledge gaps or — heaven forbid! — character defects “How dare you!”

If this is where you’re coming from, you don’t really want a school, church or profession to do much formative work. You want them to provide a platform for display or promotion.

Writes Levin,

“To see institutions as platforms for performance is to deny them their role as molds of character, and by extension to deny our very need for such formation. Both the libertarian and progressive ideals of freedom assume a human person already fully formed, requiring only liberation from oppression of various sorts to be free.”

This is a strong tradition in the west, one that has only grown in our era of expressive individualism. It can be seen in the work of an influential philosopher like Rousseau. He thought that human beings in a pre-societal, state of nature were pure, “noble savages.” But they/ we are corrupted by institutions. Institutions like the family, the school, the church, the company, or a profession. In this view of human nature — this anthropology — you pretty much just want to leave the individual unencumbered, free to be themselves and exercise their capacities. On the libertarian side, this is pretty much the take of Ayn Rand.

More Levin: “This vision has [however] always been opposed in our traditions by a far more skeptical view, which assumes that a person begins imperfect and unformed — not to say fallen. This other ideal comes with low expectations of the individual, but it therefore demands a lot of institutions. It assumes that each of us is born deficient but capable of moral improvement, that such improvement happens soul by soul . . . and is the foremost work of society in every generation.”

If this is your take on human nature then you really need strong families, schools, religious and other value-driven organizations to be doing good formative work.

While I recognize the failure of many of our institutions and their need for challenge and reform, I — in the end — side with Levin and believe that we need strong formative institutions. A lot of what ails us today in America is we don’t have them. It’s part of the reason we so often feel fearful and isolated.

We have neglected our institutions and lost confidence in them. But this can change. Institutions can be called to account and renewed. And with stronger institutions, I think ordinary people (those who are not insulated by wealth, power and connections) experience a sense of belonging, meaning and guidance that equips people to resist both cults of personality (which always end badly) and the now ubiquitous and fear-laden world of conspiracy theories.

People need the support and guardrails of strong, and yes, loving institutions to thrive. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!





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