[*This is the first in a series of posts on radical individualism. In it, I hope to touch on questions of the common good, human responsibility, racial justice, and how Jesus saves.]
Tim Keller makes a point about the way we Americans sing our national anthem.
At sporting events or graduations, the cheering begins during the next to last line: “O’er the land of free…”—at which point, the singer invariably elongates the final word:
The song finishes with a nod to “the brave,” but both the vocals and the cheering highlight individual freedom as what Keller calls “the main theme and value of our society.”
So, in the diagnosis of Jake Meador, “the solution to every problem is simple: more freedom.”
I’ve been thinking of this lately. Because whether it’s the debate over systemic vs. individual racism (future post), or a stubborn refusal to wear face masks, it’s clear that America is unique in its attachment to individualism.
You might say, we’re “exceptional.”
In extreme cases, even the smallest impositions for the common good are taken as tyrannical calls for freedom’s martyrs to live out the final scene in Braveheart.
Case in point: This was the result in a Florida City Council when elected officials voted unanymously to require face masks in certain public spaces. (Whatever your thoughts on masking, you have to admit this is, uh, a bit extreme.)
And you thought you’d have to wait till July 3rd to stream Hamilton.
So much exceptionalism.
THE UPSIDE OF INDIVIDUALISM
Of course, individualism has upsides.
It can be a safeguard against actual tyranny, an endorsement of universal human rights, and a means of encouraging democracy and meritocracy. All good. (It is also vastly preferable to a Communist Collectivism, that dumpster fire of 20th c. ideology.)
But for Christians, there is a reason why “individualism” has never been a heralded as a virtue. In many forms, it clashes sharply with the Kingdom of God: that undemocratic realm led by the “one” in whom we live and move and have our being.
DEFINING RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM
But first things first: What is radical (American) individualism?
In his famous work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following in 1835:
“[American] Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
De Tocqueville’s point is that one distinctly American form of individualism “leaves the greater society to look after itself” while I focus on “me” and “my circle.”
But of course, things have changed since 1835. More recently, Mark Sayers offers some hallmarks of what is called “expressive individualism.”
1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.
2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.
3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows.
4. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.
THE COMMON GOOD
In the end, the most obvious problem with radical individualism is how a stress on “my rights” and “my preferences” overshadows my responsibility for the common good.
This “freedom” is entirely negative.
Hence the Christian pastor and actual (non-Floridian) martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has this to say:
In the Bible, freedom is not something [one] has for [the self], but something [one] has for others … It is not a possession … but a relationship … Only in relationship with the other am I free.
For this reason, the apostle Paul writes that “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
In future posts, I’d like to ask how a biblical view of love and personhood may challenge certain individualist assumptions–even while it steers far clear of a collectivist homogeneity.
For now, however, my conclusion is this: Radical individualism runs contrary not only to the common good (and common sense), but also to the commonly held teachings of the Christian faith.
Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.
Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”