It's been seven years since my conversation with a sociology professor in Havana-a thoughtful man who said that sociologically and economically he was a communist, but that theologically he was a Christian. I will always remember the nub of our friendly argument.
"You folks in America," the professor said, "tend to see everything from an individualistic point of view. Our goal here in Cuba has been to emphasize a communitarian perspective. You stress individual freedom. We stress the common good."
Before getting into such heavy issues, my new friend and I had just been talking about the differences between soccer and American football. So now, even as we talked political theory, he sketched a football field on the paper tablecloth in the little restaurant where we were eating. He scrawled a big "I" at one end of the rectangle for "individualism" and a bold "C" at the other end for "communitarian."
"Whichever end of the field you choose to play in," the professor stressed as he drew, "you'll naturally give up some of the benefits of the other end."
"But do you folks here in Cuba really get to choose which end you play in?" I asked him-and couldn't help wondering, even as I asked, about the extent to which we Americans get to make that choice ourselves. That brought up my second comment: "You should know," I said, "that in America we really don't play in the far end of the field from where you play here in Cuba. Every year, something like 45 percent of my household income is claimed in taxes-for supposedly communitarian goals. Doesn't that mean that even in America, we're playing somewhere near the 45-yard line? I may pretend to be individualistic in my political philosophy-but almost half of all my economic choices are made by the government!"
I have been thinking about my professor friend again over the last few weeks while listening to the launch of the fall presidential campaign. Even within the context of this great debate, we sometimes seem unsure whether we're most committed to the ideals of individualism or the values of community good.
Such indecision is ultimately rooted in the fact that God has created all of us with a deep hunger not just for one, but for both benefits. Sometimes we treasure our individual freedoms; sometimes community values seem paramount. From beginning to end, life consists of trading them off against each other.
At first blush, folks tend to see political conservatives as those who stress individual freedoms (sometimes they're even called libertarians) while liberals are perceived as those who stress community values (which is why, at their worst, they're called communists). Conservatives reject the idea that societal power should be concentrated in centralized government structures. Liberals resist the idea that individual freedom should be honored above the needs of the weak and hurting members of society.
That's why conservatives don't like government, at any level, to make too many decisions about whether you may or may not build a home too close to a wetlands area. It's why liberals, even at the admitted cost of individual liberty, argue for more controls on handguns.
But there are some notable exceptions to the pattern. In the abortion debate, for example, conservatives don't mind imposing state restraints on individual behavior; liberals, meanwhile, ignore the weakest and neediest members of the community while pleading for the supremacy of individual rights. Similarly, conservatives argue that pornography, because it tears at the fabric of society, needs to be proscribed by law; but again, liberals put individual rights ahead of the supposed common good.
Confused? Can't figure out your own place on the football field? Then consider the fact that throughout the Bible, God himself sometimes seems to put an emphasis on individual rights and other times on the good of the community. He expects us to do the same.
But that doesn't mean He thinks it's good for a totalitarian state like Cuba to twist its people's thinking so that they suppose they're getting some sort of special deal-even while their pompous two-bit dictator is regularly murdering and imprisoning thousands of their countrymen. It's one thing to talk about both ends of the individual/ community scale within the American context. In places like Cuba, the individual's end of the scale too often doesn't even exist.
And did it make me angry to be lectured by someone who was so far off base as my professor friend was that day in Havana? Maybe, a little. But mostly, it made me sad that an evil society could so mislead so smart a man.