To Empower People: From State to Civil Society

Twentieth Anniversary ­Edition

by Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger

American Enterprise Institute, 244 pages, $25


Because Richard John Neuhaus was so prolific, and his interests were so amazingly broad and diverse, even his most devoted readers were likely to have missed out on one or two of his most important works. The work most likely to have suffered such neglect among theological readers would be To Empower People: From State to Civil Society , the short book he coauthored in 1977 with his friend Peter Berger.

It was, after all, a work of social thought rather than theology, a tightly organized and closely argued brief that envisioned how a more perfect pluralism in America could be achieved through the reinvigoration and support of what were called “mediating institutions.” It was a work whose applications to the classic Neuhausian questions of the relation between religion and public life were enormous but indirect: more on the order of protecting necessary conditions than prescribing sufficient ones.

Yet nothing he published had more far-reaching political and social influence. It is impossible to say what part of it was Neuhaus’ and what part Berger’s, but this much can be said for certain: Its arguments played an integral supporting role for much of what was to come, laying a foundation that, in retrospect, would be at the core of Neuhaus’ later and better-known works, such as his influential analysis of religion’s rightful public role put forward in The Naked Public Square. Moreover, its general effect on social and policy reform in the past three decades has proven to be incalculable. Yes, To Empower People was surely, as Neuhaus once said, “a tract for the times.” But it has proven to be much more than that. Its ideas live on, with a countenance as fresh and promising as ever, and those ideas will continue to be an important inspiration to those in the present and the future who seek to reinvigorate America from the ground up.

Such would-be reformers will face an exceedingly difficult environment in the short term, given the current administration’s back-to-the-future romance with massive bureaucracy. Indeed, it seems likely that we are embarking on a period in which mediating institutions and civil society will once again find themselves submerged or on the defensive, just as they were in the 1970s. Yet when the time is ripe to reconsider this trend, as it surely will be eventually”and one hopes sooner rather than later”there is reason to suspect that To Empower People will enjoy new life and attract new attention as it is rediscovered by a new generation seeking to restore the nation’s political, social, and moral health.

That is quite a claim for a pamphlet originally of fewer than fifty pages. While it was far from being the only book to promote such developments, it may well be the single most compelling. And, as today’s reader will soon discover, it is worthy of repeated rereading.

Its enduring value notwithstanding, the book also vividly recalls the intellectual currents and challenges in play at the time that it was written. The 1970s were vexed and careworn years, when bad ideas were in the saddle of American life, and when many of the overblown expectations of the postwar era, and particularly of the 1960s, were in the process of crashing down, in the form of stagflation, swelling welfare rolls, urban crime, a general loss of national confidence in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, indeed a whole laundry list of national woes”economic, diplomatic, cultural, and spiritual.

But they were also a time in which the ideas that would counter and correct this collapse of national morale were taking shape. For one thing, it was a time that saw the emergence of sober second thoughts about the inherent limitations of the liberal-progressive project. Such reconsiderations gave rise to, among other things, the chastened liberalism that was then disparagingly labeled “neoconservatism,” and more generally to a keen awareness of the limits of national social policy, the failures of consolidated national-scale command economies, the hubris entailed in the progressive movement’s embrace of a rationally engineered national society governed by accredited experts, and the futility of social policies that consistently failed to take account of the needs and flaws of human nature, failed to acknowledge the wisdom of traditional institutions, failed to provide an adequate locus of community, and failed to set forth an adequate structure of punishments and incentives that addressed human nature as it really exists and thereby made ordered liberty possible.

To Empower People was a key expression of this chastened mood, with its skepticism about the efficacy of large public bureaucracies in improving the lot of the needy and impoverished. But it also sparkled with hope and proposed a better way. Their position was not antigovernment per se, nor was it opposed in any categorical way to the welfare state. On the contrary, the authors explicitly and repeatedly asserted that “the modern welfare state is here to stay,” and they did not propose to dismantle it. But what they believed needed to change were the mechanisms by which welfare services were provided, so that the average citizen would feel empowered rather than diminished by their ­presence.

Above all else, they argued, there needed to be far more attention given, and deference shown, to the crucial role of mediating institutions, those smaller forms of human association that stand “between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” For Neuhaus and Berger, the chief among these institutions were neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary associations; and it should be the goal of intelligent social policy to strengthen and aid these institutions, rather than seek to countermand or replace them.

The argument was, as they readily acknowledged, an adaptation of the standard critique of mass society, according to which the rise of modernity led to the breakdown of those local and particular institutions within which the individual had in former times found his or her identity. Modernity confronted such deracinated individuals with a terrifying condition in which nothing stood between their puny individuality and the all-powerful state.

The attraction of totalitarian societies was precisely in their promise of collapsing that tension between the public and the private through the creation of one universally applicable order of meaning. But healthy mediating institutions provided a better way, particularly when they were permitted to have a public function. This meant, for example, that an impulse of liberalism”to accept religious liberty on the condition that religion be relegated to an entirely private sphere”was misguided, contrary to the spirit of genuine pluralism, and antithetical to the genuinely free exercise of ­religion.

In fact, Neuhaus and Berger contended, mediating structures were essential to democratic society and should be actively fostered and drawn on whenever possible for public purposes, because they are “the value-generating and value-maintaining agencies in society,” with­out whose presence the formulation and transmission of values would become the default responsibility of the huge and impersonal state.

Such state control presented a prospect of utter powerlessness, in which individuals find themselves imprisoned in megastructures, their lives dictated by strangers. But mediating institutions embodied the confidence that, in general, “human beings, whoever they are, understand their own needs better than anyone else,” and that such institutions, by standing closer to the intimate particularities of real people in all their kinships and relationships, were far more likely to reflect such self-understandings in accurate and empowering ways.

Undergirding the book is an energetic sense of the promise of American pluralism”indeed, a belief that the American national project is unique in the extent to which it endorses pluralism as a central feature. What cannot be stressed enough is that Neuhaus and Berger did not see this as a mere pragmatic accommodation to demographic force majeure . “This nation,” the authors say, “is constituted as an exercise in pluralism, as the unum within which myriad plures are sustained.” Our pluralism is not a bug but a feature. Should it ever become the case that these plures are collapsed into unity, if it should ever become national policy “to make the public values of Kokomo or Salt Lake City indistinguishable from those of San Francisco or New Orleans,” then the national project symbolized by the motto E Pluribus Unum will have been abandoned. The persistence of regional, religious, and ethnic differences, so long as they are not invidious in character or dependent on unjust or illegal segregation or restriction, is something to be desired, because it means that the smaller contexts within which consciences are formed remain healthy. Hence, in America, the national purpose, rightly understood, ought to seek not to undermine particular affinities or purposes but to strengthen them.

One would almost have to rehearse the book in minute detail to render the full texture of its compressed and subtle arguments as it moves through a consideration of the four chief mediating institutions. One is impressed with how much Neuhaus and Berger have anticipated about the thirty years that were to come. A point of particular interest, in which the authors were far ahead of their time, is their recognition of the extent to which modern societies have “disenfranchised the family in the key area of education.” Of all the criticisms that can be leveled against the educational theories of John Dewey and his epigones, this is by far the most telling. And the authors were making the point at a time when the movement toward homeschooling was not even a blip on the horizon, and educational vouchers (a concept they endorse) were still a relatively novel theory. It took a certain boldness for Neuhaus and Berger to choose not to categorize schools as mediating institution, but their point in doing so is a sound one.

Of course there are particular schools that can function as mediating institutions; independent and religious schools most often do precisely that. But for the most part, parents who are compelled to submit their children to “the coercive monopoly of the current education system” find themselves in a classic position of powerlessness with respect to the thing in their life that means most to them. Nowhere have I read the case for breaking the coercive monopoly, not only as an educational issue but as an issue of personal empowerment, stated better.

It is also of interest to see how To Empower People anticipates the arguments Neuhaus would make later in The Naked Public Square . For Neuhaus in that latter book sought to decouple liberal democracy from the iron logic of secularization and to recover an insight that was apparent to most of the Founders of the American republic”that the health of democratic institutions depends as much on the free and vibrant public presence of the biblical religions, and their values-forming influence, as it does on the constraints placed on that religion’s ability to exercise direct political power. The naked public square, a public life in which religious expression has been completely proscribed, traduced the cause of energetic ­pluralism.

The better way, the achievement of a civil public square, strikes the right balance between a healthy national ethos and healthy values-forming mediating institutions. Neuhaus’ argument balanced both sides of this formulation. Our choices should not be restricted to either the complete privatization of religion or the complete integration of church and state. The separation of church and state is not, and cannot be, absolute, and it does not, and cannot, require the segregation of religion from public life. That, I believe, is the key insight of the book, and clearly it stands squarely on the argument made earlier in To Empower People .

This part of Richard John Neu­haus’ legacy, his effort to push back at a creeping secularist orthodoxy and assert the place of people of faith in public life, has been resoundingly successful and seems likely to endure. One can also see many signs that the general propositions of To Empower People have found points of resonance in the culture. The movement over the past ten years toward empowering “faith-based” institutions to compete to provide public services, for example. Or the growing popularity of the idea of subsidiarity, the belief that a public service is likely to be best performed by those closest to the people or place where the service is needed. Perhaps above all else, the welfare reforms enacted in the mid-1990s also reflected the belief, which neoconservative critics of the existing welfare state were among the first to articulate clearly, that the national welfare apparatus had fostered de­pendency, illegitimacy, family disintegration, and social pathology and had to be changed. The reforms have been successful beyond the wildest hopes of their proponents.

These accomplishments may be in danger, however, along with other results of the transformation in social thought that To Empower People helped bring about. It appears as of this writing that the massive stimulus package rushed through Congress by President Obama begins to restore the welfare system that the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s had sought to dismantle. It remains to be seen whether or not the activity of the new administration will be uniformly in the direction of statism and the centralization of power. But early indications are troubling in this regard.

In short, it appears that we are going to have to return, with a fresh eye, to a multitude of debates that raged during the 1970s and that many of us thought were settled. But so be it. Each generation has to reappropriate the truth for itself. We will have to rehearse the arguments and win the debates one more time.

But daunting as the task seems, it should not be as difficult this time around. For one thing, we will have To Empower People as an inestimable aid in that task.
Wilfred M. McClay , a member of the First Things editorial board, holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Articles by Wilfred M. McClay

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