I recently read Robert Nisbet’s classic work The Quest for Community (1953), a challenging and far-sighted book that attributes much of modernity’s unease to the collapse of the mediating institutions – village, church, and family – that traditionally stood between the individual and the state. It is a work that has inspired generations of reflection on the ongoing importance of local associations and “social capital” for the well-being of people and communities. Although Nisbet’s wide-ranging and philosophically ambitious book will be demanding for many readers, it is well worth the effort, if only to get a sense for his overarching argument. It seems as relevant as ever.
I was particularly struck by Nisbet’s comments on Protestantism and its tendency to weaken institutional religion. I might not go as far as Nisbet, for it seems to me that strong Protestant churches have had, if anything, a stronger sense of belonging and familial support than many Catholic and Orthodox congregations. Highly liturgical churches can have their own tendencies toward a superficial fellowship based on familiar rituals, but not vital relationships. Nevertheless, Nisbet’s cautions about the weaknesses of modern religion warrant attention:
The desire for religious freedom can be no greater than the desire for religious order. Lacking a clear sense of religion as a way of life, as an area of articulate membership, of status and collective meaning, man is not likely to to care for long whether he is free or not free in religious pursuits. In any event, despots have never worried about religion that is confined mutely to individual minds. It is religion as community, or rather as a plurality of communities, that has always bestirred the reprisals of rulers engaged in the work of political tyranny.
These comments cast light on the ongoing persecution of Christian churches in the Middle East, China, and elsewhere – churches with a compelling sense of collective identity, entirely separate from the state, are invariably perceived as threats by Communist and dictatorial governments of various kinds.
In America, we still enjoy substantial religious freedom, regardless of the worrying trends reflected in recent government intrusions on the sphere of religious liberty. But Nisbet is right that religious freedom cannot be an end unto itself – robust Christian community, worshiping God in spirit and truth, is the end of religious freedom. Individualized, privatized religion is unlikely to maintain orthodoxy or orthopraxy in the long haul. When the individual conscience rules, you get Henry David Thoreau, Rob Bell, and empty pews.
Individual choice and autonomy can entail an even more pernicious threat than simple liberalism, however. Indeed, it is one of the most besetting problems of all American denominations – the problem of the uncommitted, occasional attendee. These are the folks for whom life in the body of Christ is anything but “a way of life.” Their religion is a matter of supplementation and personal convenience. These are the folks who might come every few Sundays or so, but they don’t commit, don’t join, don’t invest, don’t give, and don’t serve. I don’t know that this is a uniquely Protestant problem, but it is a problem of individualized, private, voluntary religion – a hallmark of American faith since the Revolution.
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