On Faith: Individualism is America’s religion | Perspective – Rutland Herald

Posted: August 22, 2020 at 2:55 am


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Recently, The New York Times published a long exchange between two of the papers well-known and excellent opinion writers, Ross Douthat and Frank Bruni, Is Individualism Americas Religion? Im not sure their exchange answered the question, but Im willing to answer it here: Yes, individualism is Americas religion, and its killing us.

Individualism, as a Western European and American idea and term, is of quite recent origin. It was first used in a pejorative way in the 1830s. It did not become used in a positive sense until the 1850s and its positive sense was linked directly with the value of accumulating personal wealth. James Elishama Smith (1801-57), a former socialist, argued that individualism was essential in order to foster the increase of personal property and happiness.

Individualism as an English language term from its beginning has been associated with what has come to be known, in American Protestantism, as the Prosperity Gospel or the Health and Wealth Gospel. This approach to Christianity teaches financial blessing and physical health are the will of God for those individuals who have the right faith, strong enough faith and a personal relationship with Jesus. This type of religion became a major force in America during the so-called Healing Revivals of the 1950s, and it has remained a prominent characteristic evangelical and Pentecostal American religion ever since.

Donald Trumps only religion growing up was his familys regular attendance at Norman Vincent Peales Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which was headed by Peale from 1932 till 1984. Peale took the individualism of the Healing Revivals to wild extremes. His most famous book was The Power of Positive Thinking, in which he taught, as he did almost every Sunday, that ones individual habits of positive thinking and having faith in God will always be rewarded by God.

It is worth remembering that the mental health community of the U.S. criticized Peale severely. His own earlier collaborator, the New York psychiatrist, Smiley Blanton, pulled away from Peale and refused to endorse the famous book. It is my own opinion, along with many others, that Norman Vincent Peale was one of the worst things ever to happen to religion in America. He was largely just a plain old con man and was the perfect preacher with the perfect message for future con men and one in particular.

The hero myth America has created for itself is all bound up with extreme individualism and positive thinking on many levels. With the advent of the ever-popular genre of the Western novel and films, we have perhaps the most vivid symbol of American individualism: the rugged, stand-on-his-own cowboy who overcomes everything think Clint Eastwood. Another symbol is the insanely rich tycoon who made his millions by hook or by crook and by a will-to-power drive straight out of the pages of Nietzsche think Donald Trump.

American evangelical and Pentecostal religious movements present a version of Christianity that is, at its foundation, based on the individuals will power and highly personal relationship with Jesus. In this approach to the Christian religion, the spiritual journey of all true Christians is a reenactment (unknowingly) of the archetypal personal journey of the Individual Hero. This archetype has been examined at great length by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and mythographer Joseph Campbell, who focus on what they called the process of individuation.

This sounds rather wonderful and heroic, perhaps, until one goes back and re-reads the Old and, especially, the New Testament. A huge focus in Hebrew scripture, again and again and again, was the establishment of the collective tribal identity and collective functionality of the Hebrew people as a group. Likewise, in the Christian New Testament, the focus is on the forging of a new group of people, the group of the apostles, the larger group of the disciples, the creation of a church, the sacred obligation to foster love and peace and brotherhood not only for your own group but even for your enemies. It is not easy to read Judeo-Christian Scripture and come out thinking it is a handbook for fostering individualism.

Its not easy, but it has been done.

This willful misreading of Scripture was one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. The consequence is that we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century with two mighty forces of extreme individualism tearing apart the fabric of society: 1) the force of post-modern relativism, whereby everything seems to boil down to not much more than everybody has their own individual opinion and thats fine and 2) the force of the Prosperity Gospel, which accentuates ones personal, individual relationship with Jesus above all else and promises it will make you individually more healthy and wealthy.

It is never pleasant to point out Christianitys internecine conflicts, but here is a big one: the evangelical/Pentecostal tradition has built itself on the Prosperity Gospel model of Christianity, whereas the Catholic tradition has built itself on the Passion of the Cross model of Christianity. The former preaches about a path to individual success and salvation via a personal relationship with Jesus and being born again; the latter preaches about a path that is filled with much suffering where we must take up our cross and be willing to give our very lives (even unto death) for the greater good of our brothers and sisters, as Jesus gave his life for us on the cross.

These are two very different forms of Christianity. It is no accident that Donald Trump claims to be a Christian of the evangelical stripe. He may (or may not) succeed at it, but thats the stripe he comes from. Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic. He may (or may not) succeed at it, but thats the stripe he comes from.

One of these versions of Christianity fosters individualism in a society that, for my money, already suffers from too much individualism. The other version fosters denial (or at least reining in) of individual self will for the benefit of others and the community.

Religion is on the November ticket, whether one likes it or not. In Trump vs. Biden, we couldnt ask for a starker contrast. There it is, boiled down to its very essence. Do we want to vote for the primacy of the individual and individual rights above all else, or do we want to vote for the primacy of the collective good and civil rights above all else?

I hope I dont presume too much, but I think I know what Jesus Sermon on the Mount teaches us to do.

John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia Universitys Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.

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On Faith: Individualism is America's religion | Perspective - Rutland Herald

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