The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

What are the shared beliefs or “values” that hold our society together?

I’ve just finished reading a sociological work titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collaborative effort by five sociologists led by Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley).

They highlight the central role of individualism in American life going all the way back to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). Tocqueville wrote about the mores (cultural values) of colonial America, which he called “habits of the heart.” And it was Tocqueville that helped to give currency to a new word. “‘Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he said. Tocqueville went on,

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his 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.

As the authors note, Tocqueville saw the isolation to which Americans are prone as ominous for the future of our freedom. They point out that individualism has a fragmenting and separating effect on society. As everyone pursues his own interest, society tears at the seams.

As they put it, the main question is “whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.” Is such a society sustainable? Their conclusion is that individualism develops into an incoherent society, “separation and individuation” become pervasive.

So they ask, “how is it that our culture holds together at all?” In the midst of incoherence, what common values hold us together?

  1. First, the dream of personal success, usually defined in material or economic terms. Whatever economic rung a person is on, they want to climb higher. This economic ambition is fed by television and media, which present a “consumption-centered version of the good life.” This is utilitarian individualism.
  2. Second, the portrayal of vivid personal feelings. This is expressive individualism, where the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s feelings. To accurately understand the self and effectively pursue the interests of the self in each situation or relationship.

But these two integrating themes of society are really “pseudo-integration,” not really binding us together but isolating us further as each pursues his own good but neglects societal good. As Matthew Arnold said in 1852, “in the sea of life ensiled… / We mortal millions live alone.”

Thus, the only two unifying narratives of American society turn out not to be unifying at all, but rather isolating. The values we have chosen to bring coherence actually bring further incoherence.

The sociologists not only critique, they also offer hope. Many of those whom they interviewed were hopeful, that “though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction or turn into their opposites. Such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.”

They envision a society that holds in balance the dignity and freedom of each individual, but also obligation to and participation in the wider community.

It struck me that the church should be a model of this kind of society. The church is a community bound together by an integrating narrative, the gospel. And around this narrative we affirm the role and dignity of the individual, as well as the necessity of the whole community and vital participation in it.

 

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One thought on “The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

  1. David Lingle

    The American ideal of “rugged individualism” is good only insofar as it emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility. It is contrary on the other hand to the need for us as individuals to experience healthy “community” in the form of family and church (see the NT epistles!) and I think even citizenship in our communities. Interesting article review. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply

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