Individualism, America, and the Church

Culture VulturesHere 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.

Robert Bellah, et. al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press ,2008)

shane lems

3 Replies to “Individualism, America, and the Church”

  1. I am intrigued by the thesis. I can agree that to claim your own interests as primary or to act as though you have no dependence upon others and refuse to recognize their claim on you can be productive of much pain and damage. In the christian life, malignant individualism can perhaps find its slogan in the country western song, “Me And Jesus, We Got A Good Thing Goin’…We Don’t Need Anybody To Tell Us What It’s All About”.
    The problematic part of the claim that this plagues American society is our tendency to act in groups. We are, by many accounts, one of the most individualistic societies in the world (or, “in history”, etc.), yet year by year we are prolific of thousands of groups that work together to get things done–formally incorporated like Boy Scouts, or informally, like a book discussion group; large groups and small groups, groups that are government sponsored and groups that operate independently; and, in addition, many of these groups gladly work with other groups with entirely different raisonnes d’etre for the community good: the local bowling league may join up with the county correctional work crew and the Mormon youth group to clean up a junkyard, etc. My uncle was struck by this in his trip to Poland, where his son (my cousin, of course) has lived for almost 30 years. According to their account, in Poland there are two levels of life: the public life regulated by government, and family life. You are loyal to your family, you try to obey (or not too obviously offend against) the government, but outside of that, your obligations are minimal. If the condition of the public streets is disastrous, that is not your business; in our time in Poland we noted that many public buildings were covered with graffiti up to extended arm height, and few private homes. Here, on the other hand, if the street is a mess, the local scouts, or the youth group, or the high school cheer leader squad, or the local beautify America committee will make a few phone calls and assemble some groups for a work day. It does not work perfectly, but our individualism seems compatible with a considerable degree of “You must pay back to your community” idealism and also a true network of interwoven private and public “mediating institutions” (mediating, that is, between government and the individual). My uncle’s second son has lived in Chile, and he noted a similar lack of such mediating institutions; my uncle ascribes all this to Protestant culture.
    One way to rescue this thesis is to point out that all this functions fairly well when no one is compelled to join any given group–that is, the individualism is manifested in the initial choice, and where such choice is available, people do voluntarily take on responsibility and accountability to whichever group they join. (I.e., if you HAD to be a member of the local beautify America club, you might not really cooperate in their goals).
    I may be somewhat spoiled in this regard, living as I do in Mormon country, where New England-type community spirit is constantly drilled into people.


    1. Thanks, Tricia; I actually read that and commented on it here – do a search for “Twenge” in the search box. What do you think of it so far? Good that you’re going through it!


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