Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Cult of Individualism

Mainline churches have struggled with the slow downturn of membership for many years, and it was often believed that they had somehow lost out to the more conservative Evangelical denominations. So it is not surprising that there have been subtle tones of gloating from them over recent news that Evangelical churches are also in decline and none more so than the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that gloating gets too out of hand, I want to suggest that there is something else at work here. For lack of a better word I’ll call it the cult of individualism.

Oddly enough, the cult of individualism is a shared value between the most conservative and most liberal of the population. We see it very clearly here in the Inland Northwest where our politics and the popular mythology of our style of life are loudly, proudly and frequently proclaimed to be the result of our treasured individualism. Conservatives desiring the most limited government possible and the absolute rights of individuals also favor the strict interpretation of laws, hardheaded enforcement, and every conceivable government program that is touted to be helpful to agriculture and business. Liberals favoring expansive governmental action to provide for the needs of the poor, better healthcare and the environment declare their resentment of governmental interference with their individual rights to live in any way they like and claim they have no need for anything other than whatever temporary association of persons might be of interest at the moment.

The political danger, it seems to me, of the cult of individualism is that it exposes the individual to coercive manipulation by well organized elites who know how to exploit it. I think we have seen that in action throughout the Reagan-Bush era where right wing elites have highjacked traditional conservative ideology under the noses of conservative individualist who cheered them on not suspecting that the result would be the antithesis of everything they believed in. The same autocratic, authoritarian tactics would work just as well from the liberal side of things.

It is also the mythology that is used to explain the decline in all denominations of the Christian Church. The Church as the body of Christ is, by definition, an organism in which each part lends itself to the making of the whole and no individual part can exist by itself and remain a part of the body. Moreover, it is a body under the authority of God through Jesus Christ. That is not acceptable in the cult of individualism. In that cult each person has the right to be his or her own “church” with his or her own “religion,” and the truth of each individual church with its individual religion is claimed to be at least as true and valid as any other. It is precisely that characteristic that makes its adherents susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous others.

While I believe that this explains something of our current condition, I’m also not sure what to do about it. On the political side I might suggest reenergizing education, in its broadest sense, about the value and importance of community, society and politics. On the religious side I might suggest a reorientation of evangelism toward congregational community as the most sure and certain means to achieving satisfaction for the God driven hunger that exists in each one of us. Within the Church I might suggest a much more assertive effort to form disciples who are not only taught what it means to be a Christian but also how to think critically as Christians. But I also suspect that we have to find a way to replace the fear of authority over us with an ability to discern and trust in the legitimacy of appropriate authority – on the one hand, a governmental authority that can be trusted to work for the good of society; on the other hand the authority of God who so loved us that he has redeemed the entire world through his Son Jesus Christ. I suppose another possibility could be that the American Age is ending, and so, picking up the pen of Jeremiah, we must simply get on with the business of being faithful Christians while “Jerusalem” crumbles about us and wait patiently to see what happens next.

In any case, this is a line of thought that I’m only just starting on and it might be a dead end.

10 comments:

Catherine said...

A most thought-provoking post. I don't think it will lead to a dead end.
In the church, think we need to make disciples, as Jesus told us to do, and emphasize the significance of community, as has not been sufficiently done in the recent past of American churches.

Country Parson (Steven Woolley) said...

Thank you Catherine. Let's see where it goes.

bls said...

I don't think it's a dead end, either.

But I have to disagree about one point: it seems to me that people should always have a healthy skepticism about governmental authority. That's something that's really built right into the American system anyway.

But I can certainly agree about the authority of God.

Country Parson (Steven Woolley) said...

bls
People should have a healthy skepticism about what government can and can't do, but government is not the enemy, it is needed to keep rapacious private interests in check, and there are services more effectively and efficiently provided by government than by any other means. Maybe that's what makes me a "conservative liberal."
CP

SUNRISE SISTER said...

Dead end, I doubt it - sounds like you're just getting rev'd (small pun intended:)

bls said...

Well, something does need to keep private interests in check, too - you're right about that.

But isn't the American government (for example) way out of control in terms of its cost and size and (quite often) its over-reach? How did Washington become so huge, anyway? Wasn't it supposed to be more along the lines of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" than a huge Superpower power-base and cottage industry employing hundreds of thousands? It seems to grow every year, no matter how much anybody says they're going to shrink it.

So I'm in agreement with you that government can be a force for good - but honestly, it seems broken today. It's much, much bigger than it needs to be and there seems to be no end in sight. And it's inefficient because of this, too.

The founders of the American project deliberately put the three branches in competition with one another, believing that human beings in all their imperfections were likely to fall prey to overmuch greed and/or ambition. But there is a fourth branch, really - us - and it seems we are being overwhelmed by the size and power of the government today.

bls said...

(And we get years-long Presidential campaigns, too, with almost no let-up - and candidates depend more and more upon "spin" as a method of discourse.

I've totally tuned out the whole "process" at this point, because I can barely believe anything anybody says anymore; it's all pandering. It's obvious now that Obama, whom I once admired for his candor, is going to be engaged full-tilt in pandering, too.

And as somebody put it recently, the whole thing induces "the American people to enclose themselves once again in their solipsistic cocoon, and to resume their idiotic obsession with the drama of their national life." I can't stand listening anymore.

The government really seems broken, to me.)

Country Parson (Steven Woolley) said...

bls
Be cautious. Words like broken, the wrong direction, and so forth are bromides that have little content. What precisely is broken? How big is too big? In thinking that out consider that some elements of the private sector are really nothing more than privately held governmental agencies. Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex is a case in point. Conservatives who once defended local control of schools have created a federally mandated education program under No Child Left Behind. Is that broken or too big? The Farm Bill entices small farmers with pitiful handouts while underwriting a handful of agri-corporations who gain billions from the tax payer. Is that broken? Is every earmark Pork? What about the desperately needed highway improvement project in your district that, when completed, will save lives and fuel? The best way to wade into these things is to get involved in politics at some level. Politics is, after all, the art of deciding how it is that we are going to live together in society. As for the current presidential campaign, no president, not even a would be autocrat like GWB, can "rule" the nation, and so every campaign promise must be premised on the will and action of Congress. Who the Congressional candidates are is a very important question. Maybe that would be good place to start.

bls said...

Yes, it is broken. Teachers find "No Child Left Behind" hopelessly legalistic and often unworkable. What's wrong with local control of schools? And how can a Farm Bill be just when it punishes ordinary people and favors gigantic corporations? That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. And nobody can untangle the web of influence-peddling anymore, or seems to want to.

And I think my point didn't quite get across. Americans are lost in self-regard these days - most Americans know, almost literally, nothing about the rest of the world - and our politics is a broken record of self-congratulatory rhetoric. The patriotic drum is endlessly banged during Presidential campaigns - and it's mostly fluff. The story being told is about 100 years old, in fact, and way out of date; America isn't the world's "last, best hope" (Obama has now gotten into the act on reciting this tired formula) anymore. Dozens of nations are melting-pots these days; we're not unique in this, either. American exceptionalism is sold at every turn - but we just ain't that exceptional anymore. Why can't we just join the community of nations like everybody else and stop patting ourselves on the back all the time?

I think the above features of the endless electoral process in this country encourages individualism, in fact.

bls said...

(I mean, the media is now fixating on which candidates do and do not wear American flag pins on their lapels, and how that will influence the election.

How did our politics come to be so shallow and self-obsessed, anyway? We used to discuss things of real substance.)