Community in a Time of Radical Individualism

It is intriguing that the Republican Presidential candidate who is leading in most polls at the moment, and the Democratic candidate very close to tying the front-runner are both outliers. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a bestseller by that title and defines outlier as “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.” Donald Trump had to be virtually forced to declare loyalty to the Republican party and is just as dismissive of other Republican candidates as he is of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist, is more to the left than party-line Democrats. Both seem sometimes to be running against their own parties.

What is going on and is it related to a broader, culture-wide phenomenon? Could it even be reflecting what is happening in religion and the culture?

American individualism has been both our strength and also our vulnerability from the earliest days of the Republic and before. Joseph Ellis, in his fine new book, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, chronicles the way the new Americans, from the beginning, weren’t altogether sure they wanted to be part of a national entity, a nation. People identified with the colony, later the state, in which they lived. Ellis says that if you inquired about their nationality the overwhelming majority would respond “Pennsylvanian”, “Virginian”, “New Yorker”, “Georgian”. Almost no one would have responded with “American”. The loose confederation of colonies that together declared and won their independence from Great Britain did so as separate, sovereign states and constantly resisted anything that looked or felt like a unified national entity. State legislatures routinely refused to raise recruits for George Washington’s army or to pay for it. Washington repeatedly had to beg the states to pay their assessments to support the revolution. Colonists, after independence, saw themselves as something like the modern European Common Market rather than one nation. Patrick Henry, Ellis reports, did not believe there was such a thing as “the American people”, only Virginians, New Englanders, South Carolinians. Non-Virginians, in Patrick’s mind, were not fellow citizens but foreigners. Joseph Ellis superbly brings alive a great moment in early American history but also reminded me that the issue is still not entirely resolved and is very much with us. States Rights, the Confederate flag displayed all over the South, the Governor of Texas and a U.S. Senator from that state ominously suggesting that U.S. Army military exercises were merely a prelude to a full scale federal invasion of the sovereign state (Texas, in order to confiscate guns), are evidence that what Ellis calls the Second American Revolution which united separate states into one nation, is still very much underway.

It is, I believe, a product of the radical individualism deep in the nation’s soul. There are other suggestive anecdotes. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam reported that in our day Americans are abandoning community organizations of every kind in favor of amusing themselves in isolation from other people and the larger community. Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart, reported that radical individualism has returned and is taking a toll on institutional religion in the form of “Sheilaism”. Sheila told Bellah that she had her own little religion and didn’t need a community or church.

In the church pastors know that when it comes to weddings and funerals something has changed in the past several decades. The traditional rites of the church have been conscripted as couples insist on designing their own wedding ceremony and writing their own vows, and families of the deceased insist that the occasion we Presbyterians still call “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection” be a celebration of the deceased’s life during which the gathered assembly can chuckle at what a deadly putter old Joe was when he finally got to the green. Weddings are personal and it is certainly appropriate to remember with gratitude the life of the deceased in the context of a memorial service. But there has been a major shift away from the institution/community and its traditions and practices to an almost total emphasis on the individual. As I talked with a family about their father’s memorial service–what passages of scripture to read and which hymns to sing–a son said, memorably, “Could you keep the religious stuff to a minimum, Reverend?”

I’ve concluded that Frank Sinatra sang the national anthem of radical individualism:

And now, the end is near…
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I did it my way.
For what is man, what has he got?
To say the things he truly feels,
and not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.

Thanks be to God for the church, an occasional reminder that we are not only individuals created and loved by God, but that we become fully ourselves only in relationship, in community.

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