Here in Washington State, I live relatively close to the trail that Lewis and Clark forged to make it to the West Coast in 1805. Having studied their journey in some detail, I think it is a microcosm of the rugged American individualism that is so rampant today. It shows up in all sorts of places, including reality TV shows, politics, marriages, the military, and sadly, even the church (from praise songs to lack of church discipline to disregard for church membership). I suppose it goes back to Thomas Paine’s quip, “My mind is my church” which was echoed in Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself.”
On this topic, the book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life is an absolute must read. I’m only half-finished with it, so I won’t write a review (yet), but I do want to point it out. It was written by a group of cultural scholars back in the 80′s, but revised a few times, most recently in 2008. Here’s a small glimpse where the authors use Tocqueville (a Frenchman who came to the U.S. early in the 19th century and wrote reflections on his observations) to make their point.
“He (Tocqueville) also saw very vividly the way in which Americans operated in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, and to describe this, he helped to give currency to a new word. ‘Individualism,’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,’ he wrote. ‘Our fathers only knew about egoism.’ Individualism is more moderate and orderly than egoism, but in the end its results are much the same: ‘Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.’”
“As democratic individualism grows, he wrote, ‘there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’ Finally, such people come to ‘forget their ancestors, but also their descendants, as well as isolating themselves from their contemporaries. ‘Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.’ Tocqueville mainly observed the utilitarian individualism we have associated with Franklin. He only in a few instances discerns something of the expressive individualism that [Walt] Whitman would come to represent” (p. 37).
If you have thought about individualism, self-love, isolation, and self-reliance and how these things are detrimental to Christianity and the church, you really need to study this book for more background. It is quite profound. Stay tuned for more info on it in the nearer future.