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.