Altruism, Civic Virtue, and Religion

Browning, Don S. “Altruism, Civic Virtue, and Religion.” In Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society. May Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn, eds. Pp. 105-129. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1995.

Taking Alan Wolfe’s book Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation as his point of departure, Don Browning offers four criticisms of Wolfe’s work on civil society in order to elaborate a more systematic position relevant to the “rejuvenation of civic virtue.” These four criticisms deal with: (1) the slight stress Wolfe places on the role of “historical inheritance” in the shaping of culture; (2) his neglect of the biological grounds of altruism as demonstrated by kin altruism; (3) his too complete rejection of the liberal, abstract models of justice associated with the thought of Kant, John Rawls and Lawrence Kohlberg; and (4) his belief that religion and tradition no longer play a significant role in the renewal of civil society. Rather than follow Wolfe’s constructivist model, Browning favors “a hermeneutic model of historical reconstruction.” Browning closes his essay using as a case study the life and mission of the Apostolic Church of God, a large Black Pentecostal congregation located in Chicago’s liberal Hyde Park, to illustrate his claim that local religious expressions and communities, drawing on a unifying religious narrative inherited within culture and history, can revitalize civil society.