Book Review: ‘Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism’ by Luke C. Sheahan

Review by Lael Weinberger, who is the Berger-Howe Legal History Fellow at Harvard Law School.


The Christian tradition has a lot to say about community. People weren’t made to be solitary individualists. Aristotle may have been the first to describe man as a “social animal,” but he was not the first to recognize our inherent sociability.

The Scriptures describe God creating human beings to have fellowship with him. As God himself has eternal fellowship within the triune Godhead, human beings are also designed to have fellowship with each other. As God proclaimed in the Garden of Eden, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Over the course of biblical history, God ordains a series of social institutions: marriage, family, state, church. Of course there is an important place for the individual in Christian anthropology. But the point is that the individual exists—is created to exist—within a rich set of social interactions, institutions, and associations.

Mainstream contemporary political and legal theory, by contrast, tends to operate within a more constrained social landscape. The focus is on the relationship between the individual and the state. By comparison, non-state social groups get short shrift.

Several scholars have been working to change that, including Luke C. Sheahan, a political theorist at Duquesne University. Sheahan’s new book, Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism, makes the case for the importance of voluntary associations in our political landscape. Rather than the dichotomy of individual and state, Sheahan offers an account of society with three components: individual, state, and association. He argues that the American judiciary in particular has failed to recognize the importance of associations. Finally, he suggests ways to do better in the future. That’s where the First Amendment comes in, with its promises of protection for freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.

Associational Rights

The book’s first task is to develop what Sheahan calls a “political sociology” of associations. Sheahan, echoing the sociologist Robert Nisbet, argues that human beings are social creatures who crave community and connection with others. This is a point that will intuitively appeal to many readers, but Sheahan doesn’t elaborate on the foundations for the insight. One might wonder (as John Dewey did years before) whether this is grounded in psychology, biological instinct, or something else. To these, one could add Christian anthropology. In any case, Sheahan never invokes religious reasons, and it is enough for him that one accepts that humans are social.

Sheahan believes that associating with others has intrinsic value. “It is in various social groups,” he writes, “that one’s very personality is shaped and within which one finds identity and purpose.” What is an association? It’s not just a casual meeting of people. But neither does it have to be a formal organization with a constitution and bylaws.

Sheahan defines associations functionally (again drawing on sociological work by Nisbet), listing seven characteristics. Each association has (1) a function, (2) a sense of purpose (which will often coincide with the function), (3) an authority structure, (4) some amount of hierarchy, (5) solidarity among members, (6) a sense of the association’s importance, and (7) a belief that the association has a special status relative to the rest of the world. This is a rich description of an association, whether or not one agrees with every point. This kind of association is one with a strong conception of its own identity and purpose.

So how does all of this apply to our legal system and political culture? Sheahan’s critique of existing law focuses on the Supreme Court’s treatment of associations under the First Amendment. The First Amendment freedom of association protects freedom of speech and assembly (as well as religious freedom and press freedom). But the Supreme Court has done very little to recognize assembly as a right on its own. Instead, it has largely replaced references to freedom of assembly with references to freedom of association.

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Source: Christianity Today