What Is American Individualism?
I am one of those people that hates to talk about “community” the way most talk about it these days. Normally, it revolves around the debased ideas of Intersectionality and Critical Theory. There is an overwhelming drive in so many people to be identified by externals. Ironically, the very thing that people are trying to use to unite into communities is almost exclusively by individualism. While the western world as-a-whole seems to be adopting this philosophy I would suggest that it is driven almost exclusively by rugged American individualism.
So, just what is American Individualism? I dare say that most of us know this instinctually. For those of us in the Good Ol’ USA it is a part of our DNA. Well, it used to be at least. The roots of this nation are anchored in the “go it alone” mentality. This is the nation that coined the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. For decades there has been something admirable about the American work ethic. For countless generations we have done things on our own. Through hard work and American ingenuity, we have built a nation and massive businesses. We have prided ourselves on never needing others to do things for us. It is that mentality that has so often led the USA to come to the rescue of other nations embroiled in war. And in economic chaos.
Yes. I used the word community despite how much I hate it. And there is a reason. For years one of the great unifying factors for any civilization, since the death of Christ has been the spread of Christian thought and philosophy. Rome was a mighty power and united much of the western and eastern world under that power. But Rome never really saw unification of the nations and cities it conquered. The Pax Romana was real in that there was peace through fear. But Rome never really saw unity.
However, as Christianity spread, especially during the Diaspora, an odd thing took place. Christians, united in their love for one another and motivated by the commands of Christ, began to spread that unity into the wider Roman empire. Moreover, as this Christian unity spread in the Roman empire it eventually had a calming effect on the rest of the nation. (After the empire grew weary of persecuting Christianity and it still grew.)
The more Christianity grew, the more peaceful and civilized people groups became. The more this happened the more unity was brought to warring tribes. While the Romans and the Vikings were never able to fully conquer the British Isles, Christianity subdued the Anglos in ways that swords and spears couldn’t.
American Individualism and Pragmatism
As the first Christians arrived on the North American Continent and what would eventually become the USA, they brought their communities with them. Instead of having to move into an area and tame it they built their towns and cities first. Certainly, there was conflict with the native peoples of North America. However, for the most part, Christians aimed to live peacefully with the native peoples seeking to bring the Gospel to them. This is not to say that every European that arrived was pure in their actions or even genuinely Christian. But it is to say that the most devout, like the early Separatists from England, sought peace with the natives.
As the Europeans moved deeper into the North American continent, they developed the spirit of American Individualism. Men, and even at times women, would trek off into the wildlands to live alone and trap and hunt for their living. Many of them carrying nothing more than a knife, a gun and a bible. This became the norm for westward expansion until the great land rushes that took place a hundred plus years into the future.
Americans became pragmatic as part of their American Individualism. If something worked, you did it. The better it worked the more you did it. In most situations, with wisdom, that is the best route to go. Sadly, this began to bleed into all areas of American life. The consequences would prove to be dire.
American Individualism and Cafeteria Christianity
Along with the rise of pragmatism and American Individualism came one of the worst developments in history. Because Americans had developed such independent and individualistic character, they sought things their way. Precisely their way. This may have been part-and-parcel with the arrival of the Puritans on North American soil, but only latently. The Puritans were quite unified and adhered tenaciously to Confessional practice.
Instead, American Individualism began to see a fracturing of Christianity. Instead of being united in communities built on deeply rooted foundations of faith, the individualistic nature of the people led to arguments and schisms. Formerly tight knit communities of believers were torn apart. Not since the Reformation had Christendom seen such upheaval. Denominations sometimes sprang up seemingly overnight. If you did not like the doctrine or the teaching of one pastor or another, you fled to start your own church. This is seen in the rise of Mormonism (1830) and the Adventists (1863) and Jehovah Witnesses (1870). (note: for purposes of understanding the depth of this fracturing I am including Christian cults here.)
This rugged American Individualism was leading to the smorgasbord mentality that said you could have whatever you wanted of Christian thought and skip the rest.
Inertia Doesn’t Just Work with Positive Growth
The snowballing effect that this had on Christianity in the USA was tantamount to catastrophe. The faster history moved the more denominations sprang up and then splintered further. By the time Charles Finney burst on to the scene in 1825, the country was ripe for picking. Explosion after explosion of pragmatic practices roared across the country.
The hardworking rugged American ingenuity that built railroads and strung telegraph lines gave birth to proliferation and rapid expansion of heresy. Compromise wasn’t far behind. This has not slowed down in the least. Worse still, the rapid growth of Cafeteria Christianity has kept rolling along. It’s mass unstoppable.
Today, the inertia of Western Christian Culture seems to be a perpetual motion machine. And it is destroying formerly close churches and denominations. (In my mind some of this is acceptable.) We are in a day when specialty churches cater to the American Individualism. Places like the First Heavy Metal Church and Biker Church and Cowboy church and on and on.
Too many people are convinced that they have earned the right to make demands on the Church that Christ built. They expect to be catered too. Even in seemingly well-established churches. Instead of being knit together church elders cater to the desire for special interests. We have singles groups and newly married young adult groups. There are youth groups that cater to book worms and sports fans. Single Women’s bible study and groups for single dads. Are you following me here? I have even heard of churches started solely for men engaged in street preaching. Why? Because they are mad that their former churches didn’t support them.
The Deleterious Effect of American Individualism and Pragmatism on the Bride
The Church, even in her varied manifestations across the landscape of America, should be strongly knit together. Yet, now more than ever, this is not true. While we should have Christ in common it seems that even that powerful uniting force is not enough these days. Certainly, Christ died for His Bride. But gone are the days when the majority of people in local churches gather together to worship Christ. To say nothing of Christian community. A community bound in love to one another.
Instead, they share buildings and talk about personal tastes and desires and what the bible means to them. They insist on programs and functions that meet their felt needs. This has the adverse effect of dividing them even further according to special interest. Christian community in America is dying if it is not dead already. The sanctifying presence of the Bride of Christ in cities and towns and rural by-ways has lost its savor.
This should not be! As Christians we should be far less interested in our American Individualism but instead in being One in Christ. Certainly, the Church will stand the test of time and will eventually storm the gates of hell. Beating them down. But right now, in this moment, we should be united. We need to be done with all the special interest groups catering to our individualistic selfishness.
Soli Deo Gloria!