Granted, the ideas expressed in Wesley J. Smith’s commentary below are preliminary, but the (still to be developed) core of the essay is this: a large part of the last election dealt with cultural shift particularly how we understand of the individual and community.
Yet, even formulating the problem in this way is incorrect because strictly speaking the individual does not exist. A person is born into a family, and the family into which he is born constitutes the first definition of who he is. Self-identity in other words is necessarily relational. Framing the shift as “individual and community” then doesn’t really work although it’s the language we use to describe politics and culture. Maybe the difficulty in grasping the shift has to do with the limitations of the language we employ. Or maybe as the mediating institutions lose their moral authority collectivism is the end of the march into decadence.
Smith also hits on something that bothers me as well (and has for years): much Democratic Party politics is enervated with the spirit of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the totalitarian impulse that it hides. The more that government stakes a claim on your life, the more of your life it will claim. The term of references the battle cry (self-evident to the true believers at the time) of the French Revolutionist who thought they were creating a more just society. It ended of course in the Reign of Terror and finally Napolean. Rousseau was the philosophical godfather of the Revolution and thus earned the title of the father of modern totalitarianism by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn warned that any moral system that does not reference God will referenced the state in the end and lead to a gulag.
On the other hand, as Smith alludes to below, the Protestantism of the Radical Reformers that has in large part shaped Western consciousness is incapable of resisting the seduction of secular collectivism. I think that is the result of Calvin’s de-sacramentalized universe. Rousseau is the political godfather of modern secularism, but Calvin is modern secularism’s progenitor who tilled (despoiled?) the theological soil that made secularism possible to prevail in our day. The first marshals the power of the state, the second is impotent to resist it.
This modern conflict between a sacred and de-sacralized universe was foreshadowed in the great debates between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli over the real presence in the Eucharist. Luther argued yes, Zwingli (Calvin’s theological heir) argued no. Luther won the debate, but Zwingli won the war. As the memory of medieval certainty faded the revolt against the Christian ordering of culture began. Nietzsche’s prophesy that “God was Dead” (by which he meant that the Christian ties holding culture together were unraveling) was correct as was Dostoevsky who warned of the resultant darkness that would ensue once the revolt was complete.
Here Orthodoxy and Catholicism have much to say and offer to a culture that has lost its spiritual moorings. Most of the Orthodox mother churches don’t really see this except for the Russian Orthodox Church who, chastened by her own weakness and in some cases apostasy during the Communist oppression, understands the materialist darkness for what it is. Those that don’t understand the historical dynamics of the Christian West locate it in other things: ethnic nostalgia, the idealizing of Orthodox forms, and so forth. None of these things are bad or undesirable in and of themselves. They are just insufficient to meet the challenge of collectivism that has faced Christendom since the French Revolution.
Source: First Things
My funk on election night was deepened by an email from a younger, liberal friend. Conservatives lost, she told me sternly, because they have become badly “tarnished” with “Latinos, young people, Asians, single women,” and “all key demos for the next twenty years.” Her blunt warning: “Fix that or keep losing.”
I was initially angry. It seemed to me that these are the very people most hurt by the president’s economic policies, supposedly the key issue in the election. But resisting the impulse to reply bitterly, I instead pondered her words. Then the proverbial light bulb: The real issue for these crucial voters, I realized, wasn’t economic at all. It was cultural, perhaps something even more existential.
One widely circulated Obama campaign music video illuminates the subject. It depicts throngs of diverse supporters—young with old, white with people of color, men with women—leaving their daily activities to joyously march together to an uplifting rock anthem—Forward—accompanied by excerpts from an Obama speech assuring that we “leave no one behind.” Here are a few of the lyrics:
You can’t give up on hope
Each other’s hand we hold
We’re on a long hard road
But we travel it together
We pull each other up
We fill each other’s cup
So we all have enough
We’re all in this together
When I first saw the video, I sniffed, “Catchy tune, but really, do they think people are leaving restaurants, stores, and jobs to march together for Obama?” But I’d missed the point. Obama’s campaign—and indeed, his presidency—promotes a powerful and primordial message, best embodied in the national motto of France; liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Collectivism is always a potent message for those who feel a sense of oppression and/or economic strain. Thus, it was the very economic difficulties experienced by my friend’s touted demographic cohorts that made Obama’s message of inclusion and “fairness” resonate more deeply than did Mitt Romney’s free market/equality of opportunity/importance-of-the-individual arguments.
Of course, the dynamic tension between the relative importance of the individual and the group isn’t anything new. Indeed, Christianity has long faced similar tensions. I am certainly no theologian—and please forgive me for stating it very roughly and too generally—but it seems to me that Protestantism emphasizes individualism, e.g., the direct relationship between God and each person, sola scriptura, the downplaying of tradition, the excising of intercessory prayers to saints. Some take this much further, even believing that dogma can be altered because “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing:” Me and my walk with Jesus, if you will, with prime worship focus placed on “the Word.”
Pre-Reformation churches, on the other hand—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic—embrace a far more collective approach. Yes, salvation is individual, but it is also mediated through the Church as the Body of Christ, albeit in the service of each person as well as for the whole. This means accepting Apostolic Tradition to interpret Scripture, a belief in the intersession of the saints (Hebrews’ “invisible cloud of witnesses”), and the emphasis on Sacraments: We and our walk together with the Trinity, with prime worship focus placed on Holy Communion.
Whether in the secular or religious sphere, these differing emphases really matter to people, cultures, and societies. Indeed and alas, many wars have been waged over the tension between them. Thus, they bear continual pondering and unending mutual efforts by differing factions to understand and bear with the other.
As for me, I am a very strong proponent of individualism in the secular sphere. I believe in the Declaration of Independence as the best promoter of liberty, and in the Constitutional structure of limited government as its guarantor. I embrace equality of opportunity, not result, as the optimal approach to maximizing human flourishing and prosperity. And I reject the collectivist approach as potentially oppressive to the individual and ever threatening to unleash a dangerous Utopianism, undeniably an historic problem with the French model.
But in my faith, ironically, I have taken the other road, converting some years ago to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Some might see this as a paradox. To the contrary, the two are complimentary since each operates best in the context of free will. I am liberated coming and going. Political individualism allows me (and others) to embrace or reject religion, while my faith’s ultimate meaning only arises when it is willingly accepted.
Thus, in American Orthodoxy, I am both free and secure. Not bearing the burden of interpreting Scripture (because the Church has) liberates me to explore its meaning more deeply. Choosing to be a literal member of the organized Body of Christ offers love, acceptance, belonging, protection, and salvation. Knowing that I receive His Body and Blood, I am continually renewed and strengthened for the race. For, as St. Paul wrote: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”
Or to put it another way: In my politics, I am free and I do not oppress. And in my faith, I am not left behind. Forward.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.