Blessed Be the Ties That Bind

Civil society was not yet current in the 1970s when Berger and Neuhaus invoked the term "mediating structures," but their widely read pamphlet To Empower People heralded what was to come. Observing with concern the pervasive power of bureaucratic megastructures... they urge a recovery of "people-sized" social structures which can shield individuals from their predatory power and supply a vital source of subjective meaning and social values.
October 1st, 2004

Civil society is currently a topic of vigorous intellectual disagreement. On the one hand, it is celebrated as the source of numerous social goods: a key to the sustenance of social capital; a necessary contributor to the renewal of liberal democracy; an indispensable conduit for the flourishing of personal responsibility; a vital check on the depredations of an intrusive state; and an essential theatre of democratic resistance to authoritarian and oppressive regimes.

On the other hand, diverse critics simultaneously warn of the social fragmentation that may follow from ceding greater autonomy to the unruly associations of civil society; of the illiberal tendencies of uncivil associations; or of the incapacity of such associations—civil or uncivil—to address continuing structural injustices through state action. Don Eberly observes in The Essential Civil Society Reader (2000) that, faced with so many contrasting views in these debates, the sceptic will wonder whether the concept has any substantive meaning at all or "merely serves as a useful rhetorical cover for essentially the same ideological debate that has been taking place for decades."

The concept of civil society has experienced a striking resurgence over the last 25 years. Discussions of the concept have been generated from sources situated across the ideological spectrum and in different regional contexts. The notion initially gained new momentum a generation ago in Eastern, and then Western, Europe and only later made its way into North American (and later South American) discourse. It succeeded in doing so because of its apparent capacity to pinpoint telling pressure points amid the baffling complexity of the shifting social and political landscapes of the last 25 years: in the West, the crisis of welfare states and the growing fragmentation of society and bureaucratization of the state; in East Europe and Latin America, the challenges thrown up by the painful transitions from totalitarianism and authoritarianism to liberal democracy.

The pressure points were, however, identified quite differently in these different contexts and by advocates with very different objectives, giving rise to a proliferation of contrasting definitions of civil society. The term is not a neutral descriptor but is deployed within particular and at times sharply contrasting theoretical paradigms, each with distinctive historical roots, and apart from which its usages cannot be fully understood. As Christopher Beem has rightly noted in The Necessity of Politics (1999), the meanings invested in the term depend crucially on what its protagonists want civil society to do.

I propose to distinguish three distinct perspectives on civil society marked by different answers to the question of its purpose—protective, integrative, and transformative—and to raise critical questions of each.

What I am calling the protective perspective is well represented in Eberly's Essential Civil Society Reader. It emerges from a distinctive neo-Tocquevillian strand of discourse favoured by American communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni, sociologists of culture such as Robert Putnam, and social conservatives such as Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus.

Civil society was not yet current in the 1970s when Berger and Neuhaus invoked the term "mediating structures," but their widely read pamphlet To Empower People (1977, revised edition 1996) heralded what was to come. Observing with concern the pervasive power of bureaucratic megastructures such as the state, large business enterprises, and professional corporations, they urge a recovery of "people-sized" social structures which can shield individuals from their predatory power and supply a vital source of subjective meaning and social values. (It should be conceded that this classic essay on mediating structures is not an especially socially conservative document. Neuhaus is content to be known as a social conservative, but Berger is less easy to categorize. Their respective reflections on the essay in the 20th anniversary volume reveal diverse political leanings.)

Similarly, communitarians such as Etzioni warn against the rapid depletion of community-sustaining values and counsel a range of policies aimed at empowering those neglected institutions and practices that alone can restore such values.

A principal concern of these American discussions is the need to shore up certain institutions thought to be rendered especially fragile by the strains typical of an advanced, capitalist, and individualist liberal democracy. Such institutions are, participants claim, dangerously vulnerable to the predatory attentions of bureaucratic states and (at least for some) the corrosive effects of markets. This model, then, looks to the institutions of civil society to perform essentially protective or remedial functions: the renewal of threatened social bonds, the generation of social capital, the nurturing of responsible citizens, and the promotion of social cohesion and civic harmony. This focus reflects a broader diagnosis, familiar in such circles, which tends to locate the principal source of social pathology not in the polity or the economy but in culture, understood as the primary realm in which values and virtues are reproduced. This explains their concentration on what Beem calls the familiar American triumvirate of value-producing institutions, family, church, and neighbourhood, and voluntary associations generally, and their comparative lack of interest in political institutions and markets. (There are significant exceptions to this. Amitai Etzioni has in fact authored a searching critique of neo-liberal economics, which stands in clear tension with the economic assumptions of neo-conservative civil society theorists.)

Accordingly, Eberly emphasizes the sub-political location of civil society, defining it as "that sector of society in which nonpolitical institutions operate—families, houses of worship, neighbourhoods, civic groups, and just about every form of voluntary association imaginable." He recognizes, nevertheless, that these institutions serve the wider purpose of compensating for or sustaining the economy and the polity: they "mediate between the individual and the large mega-structures of the market and the state, tempering the negative social tendencies associated with each; create important social capital; and impart democratic values and habits." (This is very close to Berger and Neuhaus's definition in To Empower People.)

Formulations of this protective perspective have evoked a number of critical rejoinders. Here I merely register the one most pertinent to my analysis: that this perspective takes insufficient account of what Beem calls the "necessity of politics." For example, one response to Berger and Neuhaus's case for the greater deployment of mediating structures in delivering desired public policy outcomes is that it fails to reckon sufficiently with the scale of the political interventions required and possible if such structures are to fulfil that role. Their salutary aim of reviving and empowering people-sized institutions seems to rest on an unwarranted assumption that bureaucratic and alienating megastructures such as the state and large corporations cannot be significantly refashioned in such a way as to actually relieve the burdens they impose on fragile civil society institutions. (The records of at least some versions of the continental European social market model, however, suggest that corporations can indeed be constrained and guided toward more economically just outcomes, without unduly penalizing profitability or excessively enlarging the state.)

It is true that some representatives of the protective model do acknowledge the need for active state support for civil society institutions, in order to assist the latter in providing the societal resources only they can provide. Yet the precise content of such mediation is not fully explained. At times it appears to amount to little more than either the shielding of individuals from megastructural intrusions—in which case it is simply another word for protection—or the socialization of individuals to adapt to megastructural constraints—in which case it is another word for legitimation. Thus, while the protective model rightly reminds us that humans can only flourish if their lives are solidly rooted in (what are sometimes deprecatingly called) traditional institutions, this line of criticism suggests the need for a wider view of the relationship between civil society and the state.

The integrative perspective proposes such a wider view, calling for a much closer, more positive and mutually supportive relationship between civil society institutions and the state. Charles Taylor and Christopher Beem, drawing on a Hegelian notion of political mediation, are representatives of this model. For them, civil society institutions both serve the purpose of political cohesion and also stand in need of integrative interventions by the state. Noting the limits of the eighteenth century idea of civil society as an extrapolitical realm of spontaneous order, Taylor in Philosophical Arguments (1995) suggests the need for a clearly political conception of civil society: a separate but not self-sufficient sphere, "incorporated into the higher unity of the state," in which independent economic and other associations are integrated more or less closely into government. At the level of public policy, such integration would involve for Taylor a corporatist "interweaving of society and government to the point where the distinction no longer expresses an important difference in the basis of power or the dynamics of policymaking." On this view, the primary purpose of civil society is the realization of a politically-mediated social unity.

The recognition that civil society institutions never stand alone but actually need the state—just as it needs them—is, I think, a necessary complement to the protective view. But while the integrative perspective cannot be charged with a naive view of the spontaneous capacities of civil society institutions to realize their own ends or to contribute to social justice, it in turn has been criticized for its tendency to assume a complacent view of the beneficent consequences of political or bureaucratic direction. The integration it seeks is sometimes ill-defined, and so open to undue inflation.

Whereas the state can and must take responsibility for ensuring the minimum requirements of social justice in the public realm, the limits of its own competence and capacities need to be clearly circumscribed. Much of what goes under the name of social cohesion or moral community or civic virtue or social capital simply cannot be brought about by the state. Primary responsibility for realizing these very real and important social goals falls to the institutions of civil society. Such goals are rather like economic growth: government can stimulate, facilitate, enable, and support other institutions in producing them, but it is badly placed, and ill-equipped, to deliver them itself. Government can steer but it cannot row. So when Taylor endorses a form of corporatism characterized by an "interweaving of society and government to the point where the distinction no longer expresses an important difference in the basis of power or the dynamics of policymaking" (my emphasis), we rightly suspect that vitally important institutional boundaries may be being neglected.

When representatives of what I am calling the transformative perspective speak of civil society, they have in mind more ambitious interventions than those of the integrativists. For a few, transformative projects could imply a radical reconstruction of a whole political society. Most, however, harbor more modest aspirations, confining themselves to social and political projects of a more incremental or local kind. I noted that the earliest wave of recent civil society theorizing emerged in East Europe a generation ago in the context of resistance of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Their goal was a revival of a sphere of social initiative apart from the state, with a view to an eventual undermining of their fossilized political systems. Like their counterparts in Latin America shortly afterwards, East Europeans invoked the notion of civil society to refer to a sphere of autonomous and "self-limiting" (i.e., non-revolutionary) popular deliberation and organization capable of operating beyond the reach of the state, defending human rights, and eventually mounting democratic resistance to their oppressive regimes.

A different strand of transformative civil society theorizing is represented by radical (or agonistic) democrats. Such writers have powerfully voiced concerns for the political articulation of distinctive social and cultural identities experienced as marginalized or suppressed by liberal democracy, and proposed various political strategies to reverse this marginalization. In this category, I should also mention theorists of the radical anti-globalization movement, whose advocates are working for the creation of a global civil society, populated by, for example, community-sustaining social movements, to counter the supposedly pernicious effects of deregulated globalized markets.

Such thinking has been taken up and elaborated by critical theorists drawing especially on the work of Jurgen Habermas. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato are leading representatives of this transformative orientation. They propose to conceive civil society "around a notion of self-limiting democratizing movements seeking to expand and protect spaces for both negative liberty and positive freedom and to recreate egalitarian forms of solidarity without impairing economic self-regulation." Although they do not envisage any wholesale system-wide transformation, they hold that a chief purpose of civil society is to empower resistance to political and economic subordination and injustice, and, even more importantly, to facilitate the creation of a transformative space for self-governance in which autonomy and equality can be recreated. Civil society is transformative in the sense that it functions as a site of self-constituting democratic and egalitarian initiatives occurring relatively independently of the state and the economy and operating beyond their necessities, and also in the sense that such initiatives might serve to "limit the depredations of political power" and perhaps eventually bring about significant political change.

This is certainly a necessary emphasis for an adequate account of civil society. Civil society should not be allowed to be invoked in order to block steps to the removal of structural injustice, if necessary by the state. Yet one significant problem with this perspective is its apparent privileging of those institutions or movements which qualify as democratically self-constituting. While these are indeed vitally important sites of needed social transformation, some of the most valuable social institutions—of which for many commentators are central to civil society—are not adequately characterized in this way, such as families, neighbourhoods, ethnic cultures or religious communities. There is, perhaps, the risk that transformative democratic projects might squeeze out or even unduly politicize such entities by rendering them subservient to state objectives. Arguably, the protective perspective does a better job of honouring the uniqueness of these institutions.

Notwithstanding the limitations of these three perspectives, important emphases of each can be both endorsed by and be instructive for the project of developing an authentically Christian conception of civil society. I now attempt to identify some promising sources for such a project.

Most contemporary accounts of the history of the concept of civil society ignore the role of Christianity, both as practice and theory, in this history.

It is worth noting that many of the originating theorists of civil society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were attentive to various Christian assumptions (both pre-modern and early modern), which had prepared the ground for the appearance of modern civil society. Of course, not all viewed those Christian assumptions as salutary: for Marx, the role of religion in sustaining bourgeois civil society was a sign of its co-option in capitalist exploitation, while for Ferguson and de Tocqueville religion furnished indispensable moral resources necessary to contain and channel the fragmenting forces unleashed by civil society.

It is encouraging, however, to see some recent treatments attempting to remedy this deficiency. John Ehrenberg's wide-ranging historical study, Civil Society (1999), includes a chapter devoted entirely to "Civil Society and the Christian Commonwealth." This is a valuable survey, although it turns out that he can ultimately find in Christendom little more than a sacralized version of the classical vision of the all-inclusiveness of the polity. The subordination of the secular by the ecclesial realm within a unified Christian social order meant that, in spite of pervasive tendencies toward particularism, "independent institutions or ideals that could claim loyalty apart from or in opposition to the Church did not exist in sufficient strength to generate viable centers of autonomous theory or practice." Consequently, "it was impossible to generate a theory of civil society that could stand outside the strictures of the Church."

Taylor is more discerning, suggesting that the medieval Christian sources of freedom enjoyed in the West "can be articulated with something like the conception of civil society." The medieval insight that "society is not identical with its political organization," sharpened further by the assertion of the organizational independence of the church, indicated the depth of Christendom's break with the classical heritage and gave rise to a "crucial differentiation, one of the origins of the later notion of civil society, and one of the roots of western liberalism." The significance of Taylor's point can hardly be exaggerated. As classical civilization unravelled, the appearance of a historically unprecedented institution asserting a transpolitical, transcendent, origin and authorization—the church—changed the nature of Western political thought, and its view of civil society, forever. Now Western society was forced to deal with the problem of the relationship between two independently constituted and mutually limiting communities.

Oliver O'Donovan, in The Desire of the Nations (1996), limpidly styles this revolutionary innovation "the doctrine of the two." The ramifications of this radical relativizing of the domain of the political over against the realm of the spiritual—what Eric Voegelin called the "de-divinization of politics"—were felt throughout Western society and politics not only during the Christendom era but also well beyond it.

Michael Banner, writing in Simone Chambers and Will Kymlicka's Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society (2002), reminds us of two further characteristically Christian notions which turned out to be equally important: the universal affirmation of the natural sociability of human beings and the emerging principle of subsidiarity, calling for a vertical distribution of multiple social authorities. The consistent assertion of a natural (created) human sociability, manifested in a plurality of social spheres, pitted Christian social thought, with few exceptions, against all versions of atomistic individualism. These same commitments have strongly inclined most modern Christian social thought toward an affinity with what I will later call the associationist rather than the individualist strand of modern civil society theorizing.

The notions of sociability and subsidiarity are also central to John Coleman's account in "A Limited State and a Vibrant Society: Christianity and Civil Society," published in Nancy Rosenblum and Robert Post's Civil Society and Government (2002).

Coleman's focus is the wide-ranging Catholic theory of civil society and the state, emerging from a family of interlocking notions with medieval origins. Such notions, including natural law and natural rights, organic harmony, the priority of the common good, and the autonomy of intermediate associations, were substantially refashioned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and received official endorsement in the social teaching of Vatican II and in several papal social encyclicals since the conclusion of the Council in 1965. They offer rich, substantive, and authentically Christian resources for an engagement with recent civil society discourse.

It bears mention that this Catholic theory of civil society has been the principal inspiration for what has been the most electorally successful (if academically neglected) post-war European political movement, namely Christian democracy. In its early years, this movement typically presented itself as a genuine third way between capitalism and socialism, and the distinctive place it accorded to civil society was central to this strategic political objective.

Among the minority of those who are familiar with this tradition, several regard it with suspicion: religiously-inclined American neo-conservatives tend to view it as naively statist, while Christian socialists and liberationists dismiss it as irredeemably deferential to (American) liberal capitalism. Evidence supporting both of these judgments is not difficult to garner from the governing record of Christian democratic parties in Europe and Latin America. I am appealing, not to that record, but to the vision which, at its best, inspired it.

The founders of these movements were inspired by Jacques Maritain's vision of a "pluralistically organized body politic" in which the state would be "a topmost agency concerned only with the final supervision of the achievements of institutions born out of freedom." Maritain called for recognition of "an organic heterogeneity in the very structure of civil society," which is composed "not only of individuals, but of particular societies formed by them." Thus "a pluralist body politic would allow to these societies the greatest autonomy possible and would diversify its own internal structure in keeping with what is typically required by their nature."

It was the concern to sustain associational vitality as a counterweight to both individualism and statism that lay behind the 1931 papal social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, in which Pius XI warned of a decomposition of plural social structures under the influence of individualism and issued the first official formulation of the principle of subsidiarity—or, more strictly, the subsidiary function of the state—which charges that it is a grave injustice for higher social bodies to usurp the proper functions of lower bodies wherever the latter can adequately fulfil them.

Max Stackhouse, writing in Rosenblum and Post's Civil Society and Government, introduces a parallel theory with Protestant roots. In contrast to the Catholic hierarchical-subsidiarity view, Stackhouse presents a Reformed federal-covenantal view, first stated by the seventeenth-century jurist Johannes Althusius and represented in the modern period by, inter alia, Abraham Kuyper. Whereas the Catholic view is organic, the federal-covenantal view is a pluralist model in which many kinds of institutions are "conceived as a matrix of potentially networked associations." Both are equally intent on avoiding the dangers of libertarian individualism and political totalitarianism and affirming the indispensable, non-instrumental value of institutions intermediate between state and individual. Stackhouse characterizes them thus:

One view sees these [institutions] as comprehended by a natural moral solidarity made effective by compassionate but magisterial leadership that seeks to guide the whole of life to fulfill innate good ends. The other view sees various spheres of life, each populated by associative "artifacts," each constructed on the basis of a common discernment of need and a calling to fulfill that need, a recognition of a pluralism of institutions with possibly conflicting ends, and an ongoing critical analysis of our interpretations of transcendent principles of right that may be used to assess the presumption of innate tendencies to virtue, magisterial leadership, and any singular view of the common good.

This somewhat overstates the difference between the federal-covenantal view and at least some twentieth-century versions of the Catholic alternative. Yet even thus contrasted, it is clear that there is here a striking ecumenical convergence of concerns on the nature and value of civil society. In my view, this convergence is one of the most promising sites from which creative Christian contributions to civil society theorizing might be mounted.

From these and other sources can be derived a set of core principles which might make up at least some of the elements of a broader Christian theory of civil society:

  • the created sociability of human nature, and the natural human propensity toward and need for rich contexts of community and association;
  • the plurality of distinct institutional arenas in which this sociability comes to concrete expression, the independence of which must be honoured by the state;
  • the need for a realm of individual and institutional freedom, going beyond any particular institutional affiliation, in which people can responsibly and creatively explore and pursue their legitimate human callings and collective goals;
  • a positive role for the state in securing the conditions necessary to advance justice and the common good, including, crucially, a leading role in the supporting, coordinating, and regulating of the institutions of civil society and the curtailing of their damaging effects;
  • the need for democratic space to engage in collective political action, both within and against the state, to urge the state and other institutions toward their responsibilities for justice and the common good.

This compressed summary echoes central insights in each of the three contemporary perspectives sketched earlier: the protective concern with the integrity of certain specific forms of people-sized institution; the integrative concern with the coordinating role of the state toward civil society institutions, especially larger economic ones, and toward markets; the transforma aspiration to challenge entrenched structures of injustice either at the sub-political level of civil society (the patriarchal family or the authoritarian religious group) or at the national or global levels (coercive corporations or markets). A contemporary Christian theory of civil society must learn from and integrate such insights.

There are, then, significant theoretical sources available for elaboration into an authentically Christian conception of civil society. Yet at this point I want to suggest that it may not be enough simply to identify relevant streams of Christian social thought and then put them to work in contemporary dialogue. An important preliminary step in assessing and deploying such sources is examining the very special historical circumstances out of which the social reality we now call civil society first emerged in the modern period. We need, I think, to ask a very fundamental question about the very origins of the institutions of civil society at the dawn of modernity: from a Christian perspective, was civil society a good idea in the first place? If there is doubt about this, then attempts to bring Christian social thought to bear upon it might fall victim to an illicit modernism.

Continued in part 2...


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.


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