American rationalism and individualism

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the early days of the republic, was one of the most perceptive and prophetic observers of American culture.  He’s often misinterpreted, though, which Daniel Schwindt tries to address in a fascinating essay about what the French nobleman was really saying about religion in America.  (Thanks to Daniel Broaddus for putting me on to this.)

After the jump, an excerpt about how American’s rationalism leads to an unhealthy individualism and to a distorted version of Christianity.

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Unorganized religion

Michael Gerson discusses the 20% of Americans who describe their religion as “none.”  It isn’t that the “Nones” (not to be confused with “nuns”) don’t believe in God, necessarily.  64% of them do.  They just don’t want to affiliate with any “organized religion.”

The statistics about “Nones” probably don’t include the number of self-described Christians who feel the same way.  I know of some who haven’t found a church they can agree with or that is up to their high standards.  So they don’t go to church at all.  After all, with their “me-and-Jesus” theology, why do they need a church?  But they do.

The good news is that 40% of those raised as “Nones” drop out of their non-religion to join an actual religious institution.  Hey, isn’t that about the same drop out rate, according to one measure, for young people raised in churches? [Read more...]

The "nones" as hyper-Protestants?

More from that Pew study of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion.  It turns out that the 20% of Americans who check “none” when asked their religion are not necessarily complete secularist materialists.  Only 6% of Americans are atheists. Most of the “nones” seem to be simply people who have religious beliefs that are highly privatized.

The beliefs of the unaffiliated aren’t easy to characterize, as the Pew poll shows. The nones are far less likely to attend worship services or to say religion is important in their lives. But 68 percent say they believe in God or a universal spirit, one-fifth say they pray every day and 5 percent report attending weekly services of some kind.

via One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation, study says – The Washington Post.

Many American Christians have little use for church authority and focus instead on “me and Jesus.”  Many American churches do little with collective doctrines or corporate identity, emphasizing their member’s individual religious experience.  Aren’t these “nones” just the next step, going from the individual’s right to interpret the Bible for himself to the individual’s right to believe anything he wants, leaving the Bible out of it?  Though the Pew study says that Protestantism has declined to a mere 48% of the American public, aren’t the “nones” really just hyper-Protestants?

Do conservatives still care about community?

E. J. Dionne is a liberal whose beliefs are somewhat chastened by his Catholicism.  He argues in a recent column that conservatives used to be the champions of “community,” but that today’s conservatism has completely thrown off its own traditions in championing unbridled individualism.

I have long admired the conservative tradition and for years have written about it with great respect. But the new conservatism, for all its claims of representing the values that inspired our founders, breaks with the country’s deepest traditions. The United States rose to power and wealth on the basis of a balance between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community.

Conservatism today places individualism on a pedestal, but it originally arose in revolt against that idea. As the conservative thinker Robert A. Nisbet noted in 1968, conservatism represented a “reaction to the individualistic Enlightenment.” It “stressed the small social groups of society” and regarded such clusters of humanity — not individuals — as society’s “irreducible unit.”

True, conservatives continue to preach the importance of the family as a communal unit. But for Nisbet and many other conservatives of his era, the movement was about something larger. It “insisted upon the primacy of society to the individual — historically, logically and ethically.”

via Conservatives used to care about community. What happened? – The Washington Post.

Dionne goes on to show how conservatives of the past, from Alexander Hamilton through George W. Bush, had some sense of the social good, which he says is lacking among today’s Republican candidates.

First of all, social conservatism is not the same as libertarianism, though both have a home in today’s Republican party, largely because neither are welcome among Democrats.  Dionne’s complaint may be that “conservatives” are conflating those two different ideologies, but so is he.

Second, I would argue that conservatives (including some in the libertarian wing) are still interested in community.  Dionne’s mistake is in conflating community with government.  Classic Burkean conservatism emphasizes the importance of institutions such as the family, the church, local governments, small businesses, and other organizations, all of which help to preserve liberty and strong social values.   Burke championed these mediating institutions over and against the super-strong centralized Napoleonic state, which tends to demand all social authority, to the point of undermining these competitors.

Today’s conservatives see the authoritative state asserting its power over the family (e.g., gay marriage), the church (e.g., mandatory abortion coverage for church organizations), local government (e.g., unfunded mandates), small businesses (e.g., with intrusive regulations) and every other sphere of life.  Conservatives are plenty patriotic when it comes to the nation-state, but they do not want its government to be the sole source and repository of society and culture.  Thus, in opposing growing state power, conservatives (and many libertarians) are championing actual community.

Individualism vs. collectivism

Here is how George Will answers Elizabeth Warren’s statement that we posted yesterday:

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.

Warren’s statement is a footnote to modern liberalism’s more comprehensive disparagement of individualism and the reality of individual autonomy. A particular liberalism, partly incubated at Harvard, intimates the impossibility, for most people, of self-government — of the ability to govern one’s self. This liberalism postulates that, in the modern social context, only a special few people can literally make up their own minds. . . .

Many members of the liberal intelligentsia, that herd of independent minds, agree that other Americans comprise a malleable, hence vulnerable, herd whose “false consciousness” is imposed by corporate America. Therefore the herd needs kindly, paternal supervision by a cohort of protective herders. This means subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government staffed by people drawn from the clever minority not manipulated into false consciousness.

Because such tutelary government must presume the public’s incompetence, it owes minimal deference to people’s preferences. These preferences are not really “theirs,” because the preferences derive from false, meaning imposed, consciousness. This convenient theory licenses the enlightened vanguard, the political class, to exercise maximum discretion in wielding the powers of the regulatory state.

Warren’s emphatic assertion of the unremarkable — that the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others — misses this point: It is conservatism, not liberalism, that takes society seriously. Liberalism preaches confident social engineering by the regulatory state. Conservatism urges government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.

Society — hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily — is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation. Government facilitates this cooperation with roads, schools, police, etc. — and by getting out of its way. This is a sensible, dynamic, prosperous society’s “underlying social contract.”

via Elizabeth Warren and liberalism, twisting the ‘social contract’ – The Washington Post.

The choices are individualism or collectivism.  Or is there something in between?


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