James Kerian: Memorial Day Shows Limits Of Individualism


There’s an old saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  There is something about the gripping terror of modern warfare that tends (though I’m sure there are exceptions) to make certain fundamental aspects of our relationship to our Creator abundantly clear.  We can get ourselves all tied up in knots and doubts when things are calm and easy but a sharp reminder of how fragile our lives are can fill the heart with both gratitude and awe towards He who created life.

Memorial Day, if properly observed, can have a similar impact on our political thought.  It can help illuminate things that are hidden by cheap and easy political rhetoric and to remind us of fundamental aspects of our relationship to each other.

Conservatives strive daily to prevent the government from seizing more power.  Whether the government is attempting to take over the energy industry, health insurance, or soda pop consumption it is the constant task of conservatives to remind their fellow Americans of the dignity and rights of the individual. If we want to be as charitable as possible about it (which I do today) then we could say that Liberals (or progressives, or whatever they are calling themselves these days) strive daily to advance society as a whole even at the expense of individual rights.

Conservatives stand for the primacy of the individual.  Progressives want to “spread the wealth around.”  I stand firmly on one side of this divide.  I am not one to set myself up as somehow above the fray or too lofty to take stand.  If you cannot tell where I stand there is plenty of evidence here.

The sacrifices we honor on Memorial Day, however, can illustrate the limits of Lockean individualism just as clearly as they repudiate the class warfare rhetoric of the modern left.  Standing in a cemetery and and watching the flags fly above the tombstones one is struck with the reality of selflessness.  One is struck with the honor, beauty, greatness and necessity of selflessness.

Yes we are individual free persons with inalienable rights and we cannot be reduced to a mere cog in society or the collective.  We are also, however, relational persons with duties and loyalties to our parents, children, friends, neighbors and, yes, to our fellow citizens.

Standing in the cemetery yesterday I did not become any less of a political conservative.  At the present time our gargantuan government is the most direct threat both to our individual liberties and to our societal obligations.  I did, however, become less of a philosophical individualist.  In fact, I would venture to say that just  as there are no atheists in foxholes so there are no Lockean individualists in military cemeteries.