In Habits of the Heart (2008 ed.) the authors brilliantly illustrate American individualism by examining American stories – specifically stories of the cowboy and the detective. Even more interesting is what John Locke has to do with cowboys and detectives.
“Individualism lies at the very core of American culture. …John Locke is the key figure and one enormously influential in America. The essence of the Lockean position is an almost ontological individualism. The individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self-interest. It is from this position that we have derived the tradition of utilitarian individualism. But because one can only know what is useful to one by consulting one’s desires and sentiments, this is also ultimately the source of the expressive individualist tradition as well.”
“…A deep and continuing theme in American literature is the hero who must leave society, alone or with one or a few others, in order to realize the moral good in the wilderness, at sea, or on the margins of settled society.”
“American is also the inventor of that most mythical individual hero, the cowboy, who again and again saves a society he can never completely fit into. The cowboy has a special talent – he can shoot straighter and faster than other men – and a special sense of justice. But these characteristics make him so unique that he can never fully belong to society. His destiny is to defend society without ever really joining it. He rides off alone into the sunset….”
“The connection of moral courage and lonely individualism is even tighter for that other, more modern American hero, the hard-boiled detective. …The detective is a loner. He is often unsuccessful in conventional terms, working out of a shabby office where the phone never rings. Wily, tough, smart, he is nonetheless unappreciated. But his marginality is also his strength. …To seek justice in a corrupt society, the American detective must be tough, and above all, he must be a loner. …The hard-boiled detective, who may long for love and success, for a place in society, is finally driven to stand alone, resisting the blandishments of society, to pursue a lonely crusade for justice.”
In this chapter (6), the authors also wonder out loud if radically individualistic people are “capable of sustaining either a public or a private life.” This discussion is also a good one for Christians to think about. Such radical individualism is antithetical to the biblical concepts of covenant and communion (fellowship of the saints). I would even say that this individualism is one thing that has weakened and is still weakening the Christian church in the United States. Many Christians regularly avoid the assembly of the saints and view church membership as an imposition upon their individual rights and preferences.
God, however, didn’t create people to be loners (Gen. 2:18), and when he redeems sinners, he calls them into regular and personal fellowship and worship with other Christians (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:24-25). Christians living alone are going against the grain of the biblical faith and no doubt suffer for it. We all need to pray against our own individualism and for those wandering alone from the flock of Christ.
The above quotes were taken from Robert Bellah, et. al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press ,2008).
rev shane lems