Volume > Issue > On the Menace of Individualism in the American Experience of Religious Life

On the Menace of Individualism in the American Experience of Religious Life


By Jonathan Foster | July-August 1990
The Rev. Jonathan Foster, O.F.M., is a member of the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart (St. Louis-Chicago). From 1975 to 1980 he was Co-director of the Franciscan Office of Justice and Peace, and from 1977 to 1981 he chaired the National Franciscan Justice and Peace Conference. Currently he is Director of St. Francis Retreat House at Mayslake in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Robert N. Bellah, in his widely acclaimed Habits of the Heart, has said that Americans have two languages. The first is that of indi­vidualism; the second is the biblical/republican language of the common good. They are the languages we use when we discuss moral, social, and political matters. The first reflects that instinct for the priority of the individual so deeply rooted in the American experience. It is the dominant of the two languages. The second language is that which derives from the Bible and the early republican ideals set forth by the framers of the Constitution. This language reflects the concerns of Americans for the commonweal, the common good, the nation as distinct from the individuals who make it up. It is today the weaker of the two languages.

The thesis of this article is that the lan­guage and reality of individualism is also mak­ing inroads into the life of American religious (i.e., male and female Catholics who live a vowed life in community, such as monks, fri­ars, nuns, and sisters). In other words, the problems we are experiencing in religious life today are in great part an expression of the same individualism. American religious life has been passing through a momentous trans­formation during the past 25 years. The out­lines of this transformation are known to all — the relaxation of monastic and institutional disciplines, withdrawal from authoritarian styles of government, realignment of ministe­rial priorities, adoption of secular lifestyles, a massive exodus, a dramatic drop in the num­bers of candidates, and, for some communi­ties, the very real threat of extinction or, at least, bankruptcy. Since these transformations began with Vatican II, the conventional wisdom is that the reforms of this Council set these processes in motion. I would accept the historic connection. But I would suggest that what is happening to religious in America today is not due to the inner dynamics of conciliar reform. Rather, when Vatican II and its attendant spirit removed the structure and controls of traditional religious life, they re­leased religious back into the mainstream of American cultural values. Because these values have always had religious overtones in our history (see Bellah’s theses on civil religion), they have been easily rationalized as theologi­cal values. In this perspective, the problems encountered in religious life today are not simply, or even primarily, due to the effects of Vatican II, but to the effects of the American experience.

When Alexis de Tocqueville spent his momentous nine months of observation in the U.S. he clearly recognized and affirmed the biblical/republican tradition. But he also noted the rise of a new spirit which he termed individualism (a relatively new term at that time). Tocqueville distinguished individualism from egoism. The individual had communities and loyalties, but they were small and narrow. Tocqueville described individualism as a ten­dency of the American citizen to “isolate him­self from the mass of his fellows and with­draw into the circle of family and friends.” It led him to leave “the greater society to look after itself.” The characteristics of this rising individualism were a desire “to forge one’s own destiny; to look out for one’s own needs; to expect little from others; to owe others nothing; to think of oneself and family as isolated units in the society.” Indeed, it even led one to forget one’s ancestors in any mean­ingful way because they did not share one’s unique individual experience. It was an indi­vidualism that, according to Bellah, would manifest itself in two ways: the can-do Yankee individualism of Ben Franklin, and the roman­tic, poetic individualism of Emerson and Whitman.

Tocqueville approved of this individualism and saw it as uniquely American. But, he also foresaw the dangers such isolation can pro­duce in a society. Hence, he also approved of religious community and the American institu­tion of civic participation. These he recognized as the necessary corrective to individualism.

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