Institutions: Around Them, or Through Them?

Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.

Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.

But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.

But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.

These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.

I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.

Discern, then Respond

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.