”Young Women Interns for Reagan’s Attorney General,” announces the front page of Alpena’s Saturday paper. As my friend heads off to Washington, practically the whole town saw her off as they watched “one of their own” travel to the D.C. metropolis. She got emails and calls and letters congratulating her on her accomplishments. Now that she’s in D.C., a part of her always remains tied to that little town in northern Michigan. The town where her family settled over six generations ago. The town where most of the churches gather together on Christmas and worship together. The town where they roll up their sleeves and build their own fences, raise their own cattle, and plow their own roads. Everything depends upon each member of the community—her mother is a county commissioner, her uncle is a policemen, her brother is a volunteer fire-fighter, and her grandpa is a pastor, each tirelessly working to keep the town running. Recently, a barn caught on fire in the middle of a snowy night. Her brother was on the way home from his night shift and called his friend to plow the roads as he got the fire truck and drove to the scene. The people’s sense of duty and self-sufficiency remains rooted in the hearts and deeds of all men and women—from the farmer to the electrician to the professor, each knows his role and works to fulfill it.
In a world that seems more global and interconnected yet paradoxically more superficial and isolating, pockets of communities remain scattered about the chaos and disillusionment of the modern world. As Robert Nisbet reflects, in Quest for Community, “Nearly gone is the sanguine confidence in the power of history itself to engender out of the soil of disorganization seeds of new and more successful forms of social and moral security” (6). Yet, he notes that people fear this disorder and they dread the chaos that often ensues from moral relativisms, autonomy and selfishness of the modern era.
At the time of the founding, the American colonists surmounted immeasurable odds because of their rootedness in the community. The men were not simply fighting for the rights of America—this notion hardly existed—nor were they fighting for individuals rights. They were fighting for the rights of their families, their neighbors, and their communities. They were colonists, so loyal to their little plots of the earth that it is quite miraculous that they were even able to “hang together” rather than “hang separately.”
At the epicenter of the community lies the church, and since the Pilgrims acknowledged their purpose in glorifying God, their dedication to “covenant and combine” with one another so they might worship God has remained central to the structure of American civil society. The covenant binds a husband to his bride at the alter, it binds a pastor to his congregation, a representative to his constituent, a president to his people. This idea of a covenant derives from the Judeo-Christian understanding of man’s relationship with the divine and his relationship with his fellow human beings. It represents his duty to glorify God and follow His commands while binding him to serve his countrymen. As Nisbet observes, “the role of the sacred in maintaining order” and the “primacy of the society to the individual” under-gird the structure of the community. The Covenant forms the community from the premise of divine order and sacrifice for the common good.
Though post-modern culture continues to reflect the disorder and brutality of the modern world, order and beauty remain flickering lights throughout the American landscape. As Russell Kirk reflects, “To most observers, it has seemed far more probable that we are stumbling into a new Dark Age, inhumane, merciless, a totalist political domination in which the life of spirit and the inquiring intellect will be denounced, harassed, and propagandized against,” yet he reminds us that “it remains possible, given right reason and moral imagination, to confront boldly the age’s disorders,” calling men to “the brightening of the corners where we find ourselves.”
This brightening often takes place in the most humble circumstances, yet in the darkness of poverty—physical and spiritual—Christ’s light shines through the men and women who sacrifice their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the remnant of the community’s ordinary greatness.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.