Individualism and the American Church
How American Individualism Distorts Our Perception of the Church
by Pastor Douglas Shearer
When I wrote this paper back in 1993, I had no idea just how much my own ministry would some day reflect the insights highlighted in it and fall victim to them. I had thought that I could build a church that would be immune to the alienation that pervades American culture and which is the subject matter of this paper. As it turned out, I was mistaken. We made relationship the central focus of our ministry at New Hope - and tried to make everything else revolve around it. That was a big mistake. We grew to about six hundred and then, like so many other churches, antagonisms, misunderstandings, and mistakes split us apart. The rending was made all the more painful because the relationships that were severed had been encrusted with so much effort and expectation.
Thankfully, over the years, many of those relationships have been healed and restored. The lessons were difficult, harrowing, and sad. But the grace and mercy of God has been more than adequate to keep so many of us pointed toward the day when God will wipe away all our tears and cause us to rejoice in his presence forever. Perhaps the insights outlined here will help you in your own ministry and walk with the Lord.
I'm very much in tune with the anguish and stress pastors are exposed to these days - and my heart goes out to them. So few laymen understand what a pastor is up against. We put on a happy face, but underneath it all there's a knot in our gut that we can't get rid of. It seems always to be there, lurking just below the surface. Pastors are leaving the ministry today in droves - burned out and cynical. (Press this link for the statistics.) I remember vividly a few years before I turned 65 - and, as it turned out, only a few months before I underwent a major seven way heart by-pass operation - being warned by my doctor to get out of the ministry. Pastoring, she warned me, is just too stressful - and it was endangering my life. Her own husband had been a pastor - and he had died a few years earlier from a heart attack.
There's one section in this paper that speaks pointedly about this. It has to do with the challenge of leadership. At the time I wrote about it here in this paper, I was yet to feel its full weight; it was still pretty much an abstract notion that I thought, rather naively, I could avoid. You can press this link and get to it right away; but I suggest you read the whole paper to put it in context.
This is a paper I presented to a leadership meeting of the Conservative Baptist Convention held in Portland, Oregon, June 29, 1993. Among those attending the meeting were Dr. Earl Radmacher, Past President of Western Theological Seminary, Dr. Gerry Breshears, Past President of the Evangelical Theological Society and Professor of Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Dr. James Sweeney, Provost, Western Theological Seminary.
The Church and Culture
The church is not filled with men and women who have attained a state of “sinless perfection.” Certainly, our lives have been infused with a new power - and we bask in the light of a new hope; but in many respects our struggles are no different from the unsaved. And in this sense, the church reflects the culture which envelopes it. It is not, of course, a mirror image of that culture; but it is a genuine reflection nonetheless. It’s not rooted in that culture. It doesn’t belong to that culture. And, of course, its future is far different. But it does display the broad outlines and many of the defining features of that culture.
Inevitably, then, the church is dramatically influenced, though hopefully not dominated, by the same historical forces which shape and form secular society. It’s composed of men and women who are the products of that society - and who still bear the marks of that society - some more than others.
The Danger of a Debased Culture
It should not prove surprising, therefore, that an exceptionally debased culture poses a grave danger to the church - notwithstanding the spiritual maturity of its leaders. The debauchery which so characterizes that culture is bound to impinge upon the church. It’s all but inevitable. And though the leadership may struggle strenuously and courageously against its impact, it cannot be avoided altogether.
The Apostle Paul himself was acutely aware of the influence of culture upon the church. His epistles to the Corinthian church reflect that awareness. He censures the Corinthian believers for condoning many of the especially corrupt vices of Corinthian society.
But it’s not only vices that Paul warns against. Vices are usually flagrant and obvious - and are ordinarily quite easily discerned. His epistle to the Galatian churches goes further: there he warns believers against adopting the attitudes of the indigenous culture; and attitudes are far more subtle than vices. Attitudes lurk beneath the surface - and are not easily spotted; but they constitute the intellectual and emotional framework of our behavior. They are its hidden progenitors. Paul knew that the prevailing Jewish mind-set was inimical to faith - at least the mind-set that pervaded the synagogues of the First Century. And it is that mind-set - and the specific attitudes which comprised it - that Paul excoriates in his epistle to the Galatians; not conspicuous vices per se, but underlying attitudes.
Paul’s most telling indictment against the often insidious influence of culture is found in his second epistle to Timothy. There he warns against the threat of an especially perverted culture - a culture which will cast its pall over the “Last Days.”
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
2 Timothy 3:1-5
Cultural Change and the American Evangelical Church
What about the impact of culture upon the American church - most especially, the American evangelical church?
In point of fact, American Evangelicalism is undergoing profound changes - changes which are altering its fundamental nature. And, not surprisingly, each of those changes is rooted in a specific on-going transformation of American culture. Old, familiar terms are still used - “salvation,” “sanctification,” “worship,” “prayer,” “authority,” “the gospel;” but the meaning attached to each of those terms is not at all what an older generation would admit to.
It’s possible to boil all the changes down into one succinct formula: salvation, in its broadest possible meaning, is no longer conceived as a holy and loving relationship with God and, correlatively, fellow believers; instead, it’s conceived as personal empowerment - leading to a state of self-sufficiency - the very antithesis of what the term “relationship” is meant to convey. A fundamental paradigm shift is occurring - and its implications for the church are staggering.
A New Personality Type
David Riesman’s seminal study, The Lonely Crowd, published in 1950, warned of a new “personality type” then emerging - a personality not driven by internalized convictions, but, instead, by the whims and the irresolute opinions of largely ephemeral peer groups. He coined a graphic term to depict it: “other directed.”
The “personality type” described by Riesman had been noticed by other scholars as well: Eric Fromm in his book Man for Himself; C. Wright Mills in his article “The Competitive Personality,” published in the Partisan Review in 1946; Arnold Green in a ground breaking essay he wrote for the American Sociological Review, also published in 1946. Moreover, each of them, like Riesman, had coined graphic terms to depict it:
Fromm - “the marketer;”
Mills - “the fixer;”
Green - “the middle class male child.”
Riesman was not inclined to engage in sensationalism; and he carefully noted that “other directed” personalities were not yet predominant in American culture; that they were largely restricted to the upper middle class - and then only within certain major metropolitan areas, most notably New York and Los Angeles.
The profile which Riesman delineated actually predates even Fromm, Mills, and Green. It’s antecedents extend back still further - most particularly to Alexis DeToqueville in his epoch study, Democracy in America, first published in 1840. Tocqueville’s description of “the American personality” is startling: "Americans are shallower, freer with their money, friendlier, more uncertain of themselves and their values, and, finally, more demanding of approval than most Europeans."
American culture, therefore, has apparently always nourished a personality structure somewhat vulnerable to insecurity and not given much to internalizing a well defined ethic; it’s highly susceptible to fads and craves the endorsement of others. And it’s a personality type which has always constituted the raw material of the American church - but far more now than before the Second World War - and infinitely more now than during the 19th Century.
Forty three years have elapsed since The Lonely Crowd was first published; and the personality type Riesman sketched out has stood the test of time; it has not only endured, but has become much more sharply defined and ever more pervasive - to the extent now that contemporary scholars trumpet its ascendancy.
Christopher Lasch, an eminent historian now on the faculty of the University of Rochester, was among the first to note its ascendancy - and he underscored it in 1979 with his compelling study, The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch confirmed Riesman’s findings, but added to them as well. He not only stressed the personality traits Riesman had noted, but, in addition, he went on to point out that Americans (1) loathe binding commitments, (2) fear dependency, and (3) often ascribe little significance to loyalty and gratitude.
Clearly, Lasch’s additional traits are not much more than extrapolations of the more basic traits Riesman had highlighted twenty nine years earlier - a point not lost on Lasch. Lasch concluded that the personality type Riesman had so ably portrayed back in 1950 was beginning to assume a pathological dimension; it was no longer benign and innocuous, but, instead, it was bordering on the neurotic.
Lasch’s study prompted a chorus of “amens” from the American psychiatric profession. And in 1988, James Masterson, an internationally renowned clinical psychiatrist, Director of the Masterson Institute, and adjunct professor at the Cornell University Medical Center, published his confirmation: The Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of Our Age.
Masterson ratified Lasch’s insights - to wit, that more and more Americans (1) are suffering from an inability to form intimate relationships; (2) are fearful of losing control; and (3) beg the approval of others - often to the point of craving adulation.
Here we have the cultural dynamic underlying the paradigm shift in the evangelical mind-set: a narcissistic personality, not just unable to establish binding commitments, but actually fearful of them, and, moreover, frightened of any kind of dependency, is surely geared toward redefining salvation in terms of personal empowerment.
The American Personality Structure and Mass Consumption
The “American personality structure” did not just drop out of the sky. It’s largely the result of a culture addicted to mass consumption - and most especially to the manipulative advertising techniques developed to keep consumption levels at a fever pitch. Those techniques feed upon a “personality” that can be manipulated - a personality into which artificially contrived anxieties can be injected - and then exploited to induce enhanced levels of consumption.
There it is. In each case, an anxiety is aroused and a more or less guaranteed solution is extolled. And the result is a purchase. Consumption is kept rolling along - and the economy moves ahead. Investment, which serves to enlarge an economy’s productive base, chases consumption. Consumption is the key - and the more the better.
The Shift to a Consumption Based Economy
Until shortly after the First World War, the American economy was largely investment driven. Consumption was geared to essential needs. And investment could be sustained by simply serving those minimum, essential needs. Investment was primary, and consumption was largely a secondary concern.
However, from about 1920 until the Second World War, the economy underwent a fundamental change. Investment, the key to economic expansion, could no longer be propelled forward by consumption levels linked only to essential needs. Consequently, the American economy began to shift from an investment driven base to a consumption driven base.
Consumption began fueling the engine of the American economy. The Great Depression served only to underscore the importance of the new consumption factor.
A nascent advertising industry developed between the two world wars to pump up consumption levels. But the new industry remained largely primitive and unsophisticated until after World War II. The Second World War, though, lifted the productive capacity of the American economy to unheard of levels; and the end of the war threatened major economic dislocations: peace time consumption levels were hopelessly “out of sync” with the new production levels. Now, more than ever, advertising was critical. Consumption had to be enormously expanded. The “action” shifted from Wall Street to Madison Avenue.
The advertising industry boomed - and its research arm began exploring new “Sell! Sell!” techniques; but always built around the principle of arousing anxiety based upon peer group opinion.
In a very real sense, the advertising industry began not only to probe the dark recesses of the American psyche for “anxiety triggers,” but to go further - to mold and shape an altogether new American personality - one even more susceptible to the manipulative techniques of mass advertising. Here we have David Riesman’s “other directed” personality type. Riesman was merely taking note in 1950 of what Madison Avenue’s “busy little beavers” had been fabricating since at least 1945; and it’s what the American evangelical church has been contending with for the past forty eight years - though much more so during the last fifteen to twenty years.
Empowerment. That’s the touted panacea of Madison Avenue. Induce anxiety; then promise empowerment. “Our product will empower you.” “Our service will empower you.” “Our seminar will empower you.” It’s everywhere. On television; on billboards; in newspapers; in magazines. Everywhere. It’s become the American “zeitgeist.”
And it’s not just empowerment per se; but self-empowerment. Madison Avenue advertising techniques always stress the “individual,” never the institutional framework which envelopes the individual. And why? Because anxiety is most effectively aroused within men and women who are alienated. Never promise to empower the family, the neighborhood, the club, the school, the town hall. Only the individual. Isolate him; alienate him; cut him off. Then arouse anxiety. And, finally, promise self-empowerment. And it works. That’s the whole point: it’s so marvelously effective.
And the evangelical church has fallen right into step. It’s not that pastors buy into the entire Madison Avenue formula. Thse best and most mature of them certainly spurn the temptation to actually induce anxiety; but self-empowerment techniques are more and more preached from the pulpit and taught in Bible studies - that’s incontrovertible. And perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, the bedrock foundation of American Evangelicalism is the Protestant Reformation. And it’s the Protestant Reformation that launched the intellectual revolution which ultimately produced Madison Avenue. Evangelicalism and Madison Avenue are “kissing cousins.”
Most evangelical Christians are not accustomed to thinking of the Reformation as an intellectual revolution; for them, it’s strictly a spiritual revolution. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli: these are the fathers of a heroic faith - our faith; and their efforts culminated in the rebirth of scriptural truth - so long buried under the weight of a stifling Roman Catholic tradition. It’s not easy for Evangelicals to catch sight of what else the Reformation actually ignited - that, in addition to “sola scriptura” and the new hermeneutic it entailed, what it basically led to was the birth of “individualism.”
“Sola scriptura” never extended much beyond the confines of the reformed churches; but “individualism” has crept into every crevice of Western culture - every nook and cranny. It’s everywhere. It’s the organizing principle of Western Civilization - and most especially American society.
Until the Reformation, the intellectual prisms of the West precluded any kind of meaningful focus upon the “individual.” Men and women were part of a larger social and cultural framework; and in a sense they were never really perceived apart from that framework. The “individual” did not stand out on his own, but only as part of a larger social order – a complex network of interlocking institutions - including family, class, guild, manorial estate, government, and, most importantly, church. It was that larger social order - and his place in it - that lent substance to his being.
There were no inalienable rights that pertained to individuals. Whatever rights and prerogatives men and women possessed were derivatives of the social institutions to which they belonged.
It’s hard to grasp the medieval mind-set; to dust it off and actually put it on; to see through its intellectual and emotional prisms; to “feel” it. It’s so alien to our Twentieth Century temperament. For us, social institutions - church, class, school, business, government - all are artificially contrived. They’re not invested with a life of their own. They don’t breathe; they aren’t genuinely organic; they aren’t really alive.
We don’t think in terms of belonging to any social institution, of being owned by it - in the sense that we’re organically a part of it - much as an arm or a leg is an organic part of the human body and is meaningful only in terms of the body. For us, it’s not the whole that’s imbued with meaning, it’s the discrete parts which comprise the whole. But for the men and women of the 16th Century - at the tail end of the Medieval Era - it was the whole that was imbued with meaning, not the individual parts.
Individualism, then, is less of an ideology than it is a mind-set. Which is primary? The whole or the parts? The intellectual elites of contemporary American culture respond emphatically: “The parts!” And then they focus our gaze on the parts almost to the exclusion of the whole. It becomes more and more difficult to even catch sight of the whole anymore. It fades so much into the background that it becomes almost invisible.
The only remaining social institution that retains a bit of the old medieval “feeling” is the nuclear family. A family is seldom thought of as an “artificial entity” - put together by its constituent parts - and meaningful only in terms of its “constituent parts.” It’s a living organism; and its members aren’t attached to it, much as a wristwatch is attached to an arm; but, instead, “grow out” of it, much as an arm “grows out” of a body.
We don’t walk away from our families; we don’t bind ourselves together on a contractual basis: “If you do your part, then I’ll do my part. But if you don’t do your part, I’m under no obligation to do my part; and the contract is dissolved; and our family relationships are terminated.” No, we’re stuck with one another - for better or for worse. Families are based upon a commitment that begins with birth - and doesn’t end until death. And it’s in that sense that they’re living and organic. Individual choice plays no part. It’s all a matter of birth - which, of course, lies beyond personal choice.
It’s hard for us to imagine that every social and cultural institution was at one time suffused with the same organic sense that today permeates only the “family.” It may be hard to imagine, but it’s true nonetheless - not just family, but class, guild, business, government, and, of course, the church. Men and women did not join institutions. That implies “personal choice.” And choice was not the basis for belonging; only birth constituted a sufficient basis for belonging.
But in one fell swoop, Luther changed all that. What he did was very simple - and to us so obvious; but its implications were revolutionary in every sense of that hackneyed word. Luther insisted that salvation was the product of a wholly personal transaction between God and individual men and women.
Imagine! Salvation not the product of birth - not guaranteed by the church! Imagine! It’s the product of individual choice - a conscious personal decision!
Here at last - the individual - out on his own - alone before God - with his very soul at stake. Church, class, guild, family - it all meant nothing. No one could stand in for him; no one could assume the burden of his choice. The decision was his - in stark solitude.
And if personal choice underlay the most important transaction of life, salvation, who could deny that ultimately it underlay all other transactions as well - including class and profession - even the nature and organization of government - even the church itself?
Loss of the Sense of the Sacred
The medieval mind-set did not collapse overnight; but the process had begun - and Luther had provided the intellectual rationale justifying that process. The bonds of tradition began to weaken. The links of medieval society began to snap.
The collapse was hurried along by another factor that historians largely overlooked - until Emile Durkheim, a brilliant French sociologist, brought it to light in 1912 with the publication of his masterful study, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Reformation, he pointed out, kindled not only individualism, but, ironically, secularism as well. Martin Luther the father of modern secularism? It’s true. Again, the key here is personal choice - and the shift in focus it effects from the whole to the parts. It’s not the whole that’s impregnated with meaning; it’s the parts. The whole is artificially contrived. It didn’t put itself together; nor did the “hand of God” fashion it - and then drop it down from out of heaven; men fashioned it - here on earth - with little or no help from God.
Class structure, for example, is not God ordained; it’s man-made. And if men made it, it possesses only the sanction that men ascribe to it. There’s no divine sanction underlying it at all. It can be undone, discarded, or modified - with little or no worry about divine retribution. And the same holds true for guilds, government, the manorial estate, and even the church.
Individualism, then, stripped away the holy reverence that had always enveloped social institutions. There it is: secularism.
What a mind-wrencher. Secularism did not spring from the womb of Voltaire, Helvetius, Condorcet, Holbach, or any of the other French philosophes of the 18th Century Enlightenment. It lies much closer to home: Martin Luther gave birth to secularism. He never intended it. But it happened nonetheless. In a very real sense, Luther is to blame for the corrosive spirit that’s desecrated every social institution of the Twentieth Century - and is now eating away at the foundation of the nuclear family itself. Certainly, he would never have carried it to the extremes reflected in the Enlightenment. But, in any case, the Enlightenment is not the “bête noire” that evangelical Christians have made it out to be. It was merely the broom that swept away the debris left behind by Luther’s Reformation. It merely spun out, over two and a half centuries later, the corollaries implicit in Luther’s fundamental axiom: personal choice.
Luther’s Two Children
Like Abraham, Luther fathered two children: his Isaac is “justification by faith” and the evangelicalism it led to almost four hundred years later; his Ishmael is the “profaning spirit of secularism.” And like Isaac and Ishmael, the two have never ceased to wage war against one another. Every evening, the major news networks broadcast the latest episode of the on-going struggle - from Operation Rescue to school prayer to gay rights. Isaac pitted against Ishmael - both the product of individualism.
Secularism within Evangelicalism
But has secularism somehow worked itself into the body of Evangelicalism itself? Is it possible that Evangelicalism itself is infected? The answer is, “Yes.” But how? Where? The answer is so obvious that we’re forever missing it: It’s found in our perception of the church.
Evangelicals have never developed an overarching theology which provides for a biblically accurate ecclesiology. Our ecclesiology has always been deficient. Why? Because our Reformation perspective has so effectively locked our focus onto the parts rather than the whole.
The church is not believed to be truly essential. It possesses no life of its own. Evangelicals “church hop” incessantly. There’s little sense of family. Little sense of being bound organically to other believers; of being genuinely knit together with others to form a corporate whole. That’s an almost alien notion.
Evangelicals believe that sanctification is largely a solitary quest for personal holiness. And the church merely helps out along the way. It facilitates. It’s a convenience. It’s an expedient. That’s all. Nothing more. It’s not an important end-in-itself.
The church is nothing more than simply the sum of its parts. Evangelicals attend a church; they don’t belong to a church. How different is Roman Catholicism - drawing upon its medieval heritage; but how seldom Evangelicals take note of that difference.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s no sense of the sacred either. And how can there be? If the church is merely an expedient, how can it be imbued with a sense of the sacred? There’s no wellspring of respect and reverence that church officers can draw upon. The church’s vaults are empty of that kind of almost mystical homage. The Reformers never made that kind of deposit - nor was it even possible to do so. And if church officers command any respect at all, it’s only the respect they can muster drawing upon their own personal charisma. It’s fertile ground for leadership based upon manipulation. Again, how different is Roman Catholicism - drawing upon its medieval heritage; and, again, how seldom Evangelicals take note of that difference.
Luther’s stress upon the individual is scripturally appropriate for conversion - for the deeply personal choice that leads to justification. But is it an appropriate paradigm for sanctification - for the continued walk of the believer following justification? Of course it isn’t. Paul’s description of the church is wholly organic. The church is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s far more than merely a useful expedient.
But Evangelicals can’t see it. It’s virtually invisible. Roman Catholicism is far closer to the truth.
The Evangelical Church and “Other Directed” Personalities
The evangelical church, therefore, cannot very effectively minister to the alienation that afflicts “other directed” personalities. It furnishes no genuine counterweight. It’s easy - far too easy - for evangelical pastors to buy into self-empowerment techniques - gimmicks which promise a cure, but which almost invariably serve only to accentuate the underlying anxiety. Look closely at Evangelicalism - and, all too often, what you’ll catch sight of is Madison Avenue. “Elmer Gantry” is not that far off the mark. And neither is its more recent counterpart “Leap of Faith” starring Steve Martin. To be sure, both are caricatures; but there’s a whole lot truth behind those caricatures.
The Final Assault of Alienation
There’s more here, though, than just Madison Avenue techniques and Luther’s Reformation. There’s another dynamic at work as well. It’s a dynamic that touches men and women “up close” and in the “gut.” It’s the continuing disintegration of the family. And for the last thirty years or so it’s been at this level that alienation has been most forcefully injected into the American psyche.
Almost 80 years ago, Robert Frost intoned, “The family’s where you go when no one else wants you.” Family was a sanctuary; a haven; a refuge. All other social institutions were fast becoming impersonal bureaucracies staffed by "experts" - and pointed toward well defined, rationally calculated goals. Management technique was based upon “cost effectiveness.” Organizational linkages were intentionally stripped of affection and reduced instead to a mere “cash nexus.” Neither management nor labor stressed personal loyalty based upon a sense of mutual respect and organic attachment. The bottom line for both was the “almighty dollar.” Employees were mere ciphers, moveable parts, modular units - to be shifted around or discarded at will. There was no thought of a predefined organic wholeness.
Modular Units - A New Way of Thinking
Modular units, moved about at will - perhaps the best single concrete reflection of alienation. It has been carried over onto every level of human consciousness - even onto the level of artistic consciousness. Picasso’s art reflects it. His human figures are composed of “modular units” moved about at random - not bound by any thought of the whole. A nose is haphazardly attached here, an ear there, etc. The parts are all present, but not fit together according to any holistic principle. The integrating significance of the whole has been intentionally discarded – leaving many of his paintings looking like shards of broken glass.
Picasso perfectly reflected the alienation that was tightening its grip on western culture at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. That was his genius. Picasso, though, never quite captured the horror of that alienation. That was left to Edward Munch. His painting “The Scream” sends shudders through the soul of every man, woman, and child born since 1900. Each of us resonates to the dread it portrays. And what it so dramatically portrays is the insanity that alienation leads to - the horrifying solipsism it produces. Likewise, the absurdity produced by alienation is the subject of the surrealists - who transformed even space and time into “modular units.” The whole flow of “modern” art is easily discerned when set against the backdrop of the individualism Luther unleashed.
The Last Bastion: The Family
Luther’s revolution had indeed taken hold. But family was different. There you were not a “moveable part” or a “modular unit.” You were a son or a daughter; a brother or a sister; a dad or a mom. There was kinship. There was affection. There was warmth. There was camaraderie.
There was no calculation of “cost effectiveness.” You simply belonged. You owned and you were owned. You couldn’t be “kicked out.” Family was blood. The bank might measure personal worth in terms of a credit rating; but a brother? Never! His was a different standard: blood and birth.
The family held alienation at bay. It held in check the forces (1) Luther had released, (2) the Enlightenment had amplified, and (3) industrialization had institutionalized. Family was a fortress; it was a bastion.
The Demise of the Extended Family
The family’s collapse began almost imperceptibly - not at the center, but way out along its margins. Until the end of the 19th Century, family consisted of far more than merely the nuclear family - with moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; it was the extended family - including grandparents, uncles, aunts, and, of course, cousins. Cousins were everywhere: first cousins, second cousins, some once removed, some twice removed - but often, too many to count.
The nuclear family, then, didn’t truly stand on its own. The extended family guarded its periphery and watched its flanks. But it did more: it helped to ease the impact of alienation on other social institutions as well. Large, extended families penetrated neighborhoods, schools, clubs, businesses, churches, and governmental agencies. A brother might be chairman of the local chamber of commerce; an aunt on the school board; a cousin, the chief of police; an uncle, the bank president; another uncle, the church deacon. And that penetration prevented those institutions from becoming totally impersonal - wholly devoid of affection - impervious to the claims of loyalty. Businesses, neighborhoods, churches, schools, labor unions, clubs, governmental agencies - they were often little more than institutional conduits and appendages of the extended family. Nepotism was a way of life - and not altogether the unmitigated evil reformist politicians claimed.
But the extended family could not withstand the relentless march of urbanization. Extended families thrive best in rural and semi-rural settings; but by 1920, 67% of American families had been wrenched from farms and small towns and resettled in larger metropolitan areas. And fifty years later, in 1970, only about 4.5% of American families survived within a rural setting. But it wasn’t just urbanization that destroyed the extended family. Upward social mobility, engendered by better education and job training, dissolved family ties as well. By the end of World War II, only the last vestiges of the extended family remained. Norman Rockwell continued to celebrate its simple virtues, but, in truth, it was less of a celebration than it was a funeral dirge. The nuclear family was out on its own.
The Strain Is Too Much
And right away the strain began to show. Abuse and neglect had been almost unheard of within the extended family. It had been too easily spotted. Prying eyes! Everywhere, the prying eyes of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In addition, though, support had been readily available. Child rearing had been shared; financial hardships had been ameliorated; and emotional sustenance had been always close at hand.
But that was all gone. Mom and dad were alone - isolated; and they were stretched far too thin. Divorce rates begin to climb precipitously. The upward spiral began during the 1950s.
The 1950s were never the “Golden Years” of the American Family. That’s a myth. The “Ozzie and Harriet” generation was jerked around cruelly; it was torn by stress. A war was underway in the suburbs - but no one would admit it. The charade continued until the mid 1960s; but then the pretense was scrapped. From 1967 through 1980, the divorce rate shot upwards. William Hodges, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Colorado, reported in 1991 that almost 40% of American children are victims of divorce or abandonment - and the bitter by-product of its ravages.
The family, then, is no longer an effective barrier against the ever encroaching floodtide of alienation. It’s far too atrophied to hold it in check anymore.
Family - A Vehicle of Alienation
But that’s not the whole story: within the last twenty years, more and more family units have actually served to enhance alienation. Myriads of families have been transformed into actual vehicles of alienation. Why? Because children from broken or abusive homes find it difficult to trust - and trust lies at the heart of every enduring relationship. Without it, relationships are very “iffy” propositions.
Dad walks out on mom - and the child’s whole microcosm is torn asunder. He can’t possibly be expected to understand the dynamics underlying the rupture. All he knows - and all that really matters to him - is that dad’s missing from the equation. The trauma that induces is unimaginable. And it’s a trauma that child psychologists are only now beginning to acknowledge. It’s been far too politicized to permit an objective study.
“Family” is a child’s first encounter with “relationship” - and it colors all his subsequent encounters. It teaches him what to expect and how to “play the game.” And if a child’s family is abusive, neglectful, or ruptured - and more are than ever before - that’s internalized. How can he trust any relationship if his primordial relationships were so terribly disappointing, so inexcusably damaging, so bereft of support? Intimacy becomes virtually impossible. But it’s not just that intimacy is impossible; it’s that it’s not even genuinely attempted; nor is it really comprehended; it’s simply avoided - almost at any cost. Intimacy is feared.
“Control” is the byword and hallmark of persons who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected in their childhood. They tend to resist ever again becoming dependent. Often it’s not just frightening, it’s psychologically intolerable. And if thrown into a relationship which entails dependency, they will try to extricate themselves quickly - or manipulate the relationship to lessen their sense of dependency - to mitigate their fear of having “lost control.” The key to every relationship is not intimacy; it’s control. Intimacy and control become hopelessly confused.
Marriage is likely to be perceived in terms of a contract, not a commitment; and even if a prenuptial agreement is not actually drawn up, it’s presumed. Marriage is not the “end of the line.” All the “no exit” signs have been torn down and carted off. There’s always a “way out.” There’s no sense of “being stuck.” Marriage, like all other social institutions, is meant to empower individuals - or, put somewhat more euphemistically, to enrich them; and if it fails to do so, it loses its moral sanction - and can be justifiably abandoned.
Authority is misperceived as well. After all, “authority” is merely a subcategory of “relationship.” It’s a species of relationship. And if “relationship” is misperceived, certainly authority is likewise misperceived. But even more so. Because authority - more than any other species of relationship - entails loss of control. All relationships - especially intimate relationships - impose some dependency and loss of control; but authority carries that loss to an extreme.
Authority is the bugbear of the late Twentieth Century. During the 1960s, back bumper stickers read “Question authority.” During the 1990s, they’ve been modified to read “Ignore authority.” And it’s not just meant to be humorous or cute. It’s more of a “declaration of war.” It’s a challenge - tainted not just with cynicism, but moral outrage. “You’re not going to get me to bend to your will. I will not cede control of my life or my body to anyone.” There it is - the battle cry of the abused. It’s a slogan emblazoned across the placards of abortion rights activists, feminists, and gay rights advocates. It’s everywhere. But it’s not only the battle cry of feminists and abortionists; look more closely: all too often it’s the battle cry of Evangelicals as well. Again, “kissing cousins.”
Leadership, therefore, is no longer based upon authority. It can’t be. Authority engenders too much deep seated anxiety. It’s not equated with loving protection and guidance; instead, authority calls to mind exploitation, humiliation, and brutalization.
Leadership and Manipulation
What then is the foundation of leadership today? Increasingly, it’s based upon manipulation. There’s been no other option. An effective leader knows what “buttons” to push and what “levers” to pull; he never speaks in terms of a faith-based obedience - which authority necessarily calls for; instead, he stresses motivation. He’s a clever student of the human psyche - and unabashedly so. He’s a disciple of Napoleon Hill. Basically, he’s a good salesman. That’s all there is to it.
And, once again, the evangelical church has slipped right into line. Pastors are, first and foremost, motivators - not because motivation is a grace which embellishes their authority, but because there’s nothing more. There’s no authority to embellish. Their leadership is based exclusively upon motivation. If their motivational techniques fail, their leadership fails - and they’re driven from the pulpit.
A pastor is a salesman - and his leadership skills often amount to little more than the simple techniques taught to stock brokers and used car hucksters. He can pick them up at any cheap weekend seminar. And often he knows intuitively that it’s wrong. But, frankly, he can’t “lead” the congregation using any other technique. The congregation has ditched authority - and refuses to respond to it.
There’s hardly been a single book or article published during the last twenty five years that helps pastors to base their leadership upon authority. There’s no dearth of books which press the issue of motivation; but there’s virtually none that shamelessly speaks to the issue of obedience and submission.
The congregation is massaged; every move is painstakingly calculated. The right words are selected; and the wrong words eschewed. Ambiance, style, form - those are the keys. “Packaging” is as important in the average pastoral staff meeting as it is in the boardroom of General Motors. Appearance is far more stressed than substance. If a choice must be made between the two, almost invariably it’s made in favor of appearance.
The congregation is “cajoled;” it’s “brought on board;” it’s “convinced.” The point here is not that “winning over” a congregation is wrong; what’s wrong is that there’s nothing more; that if a congregation is not “won over to the truth” that’s as far as the truth goes. If the congregation must always be won over and convinced, then the sheep have become the shepherds and the shepherds the sheep. The distinction between the two is lost entirely. And there is a distinction - notwithstanding the possibility of harnessing that distinction for exploitative purposes. Reverential subjection is unheard of. Homage is derided - and not just as a worn out anachronism, but in far more sinister terms - shades of Jim Jones and David Koresh.
Kill the Pastor
Every pastor knows what it’s like to be adulated one moment and despised the next. That’s part and parcel of leadership in the 1990s. And it’s because persons raised in abusive homes are forever looking for the father they were deprived of. On the one hand, “father” is maligned; but, on the other hand, he’s desperately sought. The pitiful, heartbreaking search for missing fathers - it never ceases - it’s restlessly pursued.
Where’s the dad I never had?
Pastors are obvious “substitute fathers.” They seem so ready-made to fill the bill. But the standards imposed by persons marred by abuse or abandonment are simply too lofty. The least flaw is likely to trigger a hostile response: “There it is again - betrayal. I’m being double crossed. I’m being set up. He’s out to get me.” The king is crowned one moment; and the very next he’s led off to the gallows. “Crown the King; kill the king.” It’s a scenario that’s played out more and more in congregations throughout America.
What pastor is there who hasn’t been dressed in the garb of a father who walked out on mom; or an uncle who sexually abused his niece; or a husband who beat up his wife? But it’s all so unconsciously perpetrated - and always rationalized in the best of terms. There’s a whole reservoir of smoldering anger ready to break loose on pastors today. And the least of infractions can trigger its release. Furthermore, there’s just enough well publicized failures to lend credibility to what otherwise might be labeled mere paranoia.
More David Koreshes
And the same psychological dynamic that produces disquieting irreverence, on-going agitation, and smoldering rebellion can also, given the right setting, produce the very opposite - blind obedience to a Jim Jones or a David Koresh. It’s the very same dynamic; however, it’s embedded in a radically different setting - and that setting generates an extraordinary variation. What is that setting? It’s acute anxiety - a pervasive, on-going sense of terrifying dread.
Victims of childhood abuse quite frequently suffer from an arrested emotional development which traps their perceptions at a very primitive level. They find it all but impossible to emotionally and intellectually coalesce in a single individual both favorable and unfavorable impressions - especially authority figures. Authority figures are either all good or all bad, not a mixture of the two. Under normal conditions, authority figures are held at arms length - clothed with sinister intentions and immersed in mistrust and hypocrisy. Persons who have been abused are primed to beat down authority figures and strip them of esteem and deference.
However, if anxiety reaches intolerable levels, the dynamic is reversed - and instead of stripping authority figures of reverence and judging them by impossible standards, they’re clothed in unassailable majesty. The congregation, instead of squeezing out all the good, squeezes out all the bad. The authority figure becomes himself the very embodiment of good and evil. If he does it, it’s good - axiomatically.
He took my wife; that’s good - because he did it.
He beat my child; that’s good - because he did it.
He took all my money; that’s good - because he did it.
My parents are evil - because he tells me they’re evil.
My education is worthless - because he tells me it’s worthless.
Society is corrupt - because he tells me it’s corrupt.
No other justification is needed. The leader’s behavior and attitudes are self-justifying. The unconscious rationale is simple: “If I can’t empower myself, I’ll empower a Protector - and at the same time deny the very possibility of being exploited by him.”
Redefinition of Fundamental Christian Terms
Alienation, which is merely the pathological end point of individualism, is the defining feature of the culture which envelopes the evangelical church here in America. It produces the raw material for the church - what every pastor, every Bible teacher, every counselor faces coming through his doors - the door to his sanctuary, the door to his Bible studies, the door to his office. Almost every marriage is touched by it; almost every relationship. The challenge is truly overwhelming - and more and more pastors are succumbing to despair or giving in to sordid gimmickry. “Keep ‘em entertained. Don’t raise any troubling issues. Keep ‘em occupied and distracted.”
What’s particularly worth noting is the disturbing resemblance between the generation now flooding into the evangelical church and Paul’s description in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Paul’s description looks a lot like Riesman’s “lonely crowd” - and even more like Lasch’s “narcissists.”
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God...
Not only that, but church leaders are themselves the products of that culture - and can lay no claim to immutability. They too have been touched by the alienation which has oozed its way into the corpus of American society. And what that alienation has produced is a redefinition of Christian paradigms - a reinterpretation of fundamental Biblical terms - and it’s wreaking havoc within the church. We're losing much more than any of us realize or care to admit: salvation cast in terms of self-empowerment, not the restoration of an intimate relationship with God; the church cast in terms of an expedient, not an organic community of loving believers - an important end-in-itself; marriages cast in terms of contractual ventures, not commitment and responsibility. We're not being empowered; we're being impoverished.