Individualism in Religious Ideology


Only a very few of my informants oriented their lives specifically in terms of an explicit religious ideology. Many more rejected the idea that religion was the main driving force in their lives. Most of my informants, even among the churchgoers, when asked about the fundamental grounding of their morality would mention "democracy" rather than - Protestantism," political ideology rather than religion. 'They were in implicit. agreement with Paul Tillich, who argues that in Protestantism, "Just as there is no priest having a special religious function, for everybody is a layman and every layman is potentially a priest, so there is no religion as a special spiritual sphere. Everything is secular and every secular thing is potentially religious [author's italics]."' Conversely, it is a commonplace in American culture that religion holds an overwhelming place in political rhetoric, that the eventual validation for the existence of America as a political system is seen in its establishing a truly Christian society and offering it as a model to the rest of the world.

However, I do not want to get caught in a sterile discussion about the primacy of religion or politics as the explanation for American culture. There is no "core symbol" to the Culture, and I am not searching for it. Thus, this preliminary discussion of religious ideas is offered simply to present certain variations oil the theme of, Individualism when used in the context of religion.

In the second part of this book, I will deal at length with religious organization where the other basic category of American culture, community and its place in the conceptual structure is best revealed. A full treatise oil the religion of the people of Appleton would demand much more space than I can give to it. What I will do here and subsequently is, is to present a few aspects of, religious life that best reveal the principles I have already outlined, although in different contexts. I realize that this approach cannot end with a definitive view of the nature of American religion, even restricted to an ethnologic view. Nor should my remarks be construed as intended to prove the validity of the preceding analysis. What I want to establish is that what I have already said about American culture through a study of personal life histories, trade associations, education, or family structure remains valid in other contexts of human action or interaction in Appleton.

A Religious Text

At the most concrete level of reality, religion is so pervasive in Appleton that it is somewhat difficult. to know where to start. Thinking that the most arbitrary choice might be less biased than a pseudo-classification, I begin this discussion with a quotation from a monthly devotional magazine that enjoys some popularity in Appleton. Its general declaration of intent is printed above the table of contents:

"GUIDEPOSTS is written for and by people of all faiths. Its purpose: to show, by inspirational personal experiences, how men and women from all walks of life have found strength, courage and hope through their belief in God. Its goal: to point the way to deeper faith, more creative living."
This declaration obviously possesses a faint resemblance to the Farm Bureau Creed, which I analyzed earlier. It too is divided into three parts: (1) a definition of the audience, (2) a description of the means used by the organization or magazine, (3) a statement of the proposed ends. In this case an analysis of the differences will be more revealing than one of the formal similarities.

While in the Farm Bureau Creed action in society at large is intended to provide very practical results for the members of the organization, Guideposts' goals are much more abstract, spiritual, and moral. The former speaks of "comfortable living," the latter of 11 creative living." The dichotomy between the stated means is also very striking. The Farm Bureau goals will be reached through an 11 organized effort," which implies it union of the individuals involved and some activity on their part. On the other hand, Guideposts will use "inspirational personal experiences"--one individual talks to another individual--and it implies a certain passivity on the part of the audience. The editors of Guideposts certainly hope that their sermons will result in activity, but the process of listening to a sermon is totally passive compared to the process of organizing a marketing system (which will, however, eventually lead to a certain passivity toward the union when the economic goals have been reached). The most striking difference is certainly to be found in the definition of the audience. In the Farm Bureau it was defined in a very exclusive manner: "these friends and neighbors," not others. On the contrary, Guideposts is all-inclusive: "for ... people of all faiths.... men and women from all walks of life."

The consistency of these differences is all the more striking since I chose the Guideposts declaration of intent by chance and not because it offered a good counterpoint to the Farm Bureau Creed. I believe that I could have made the same analysis using other religious texts, though maybe not so concisely. I will show presently that these reversals inside similar structures can be recognized in a much wider perspective. The systematic character of the reversals can be summarized in the following way: (1) the Farm Bureau is a small group of people united together for practical goals, and (2) Guideposts is for and about all men as individuals for moral goals.

Lévi-Strauss has often said that the diagrams he uses to illustrate his analyses are no more than illustrative and that too much importance should not be given to them. With the same qualifications in mind, I offer the accompanying Table I as a visual summary.

TABLE 1. Comparison of Farm Bureau Creed and Guideposts Declaration of Intent
Farm Bureau Guideposts
Audience inclusive - +
exclusive + -
Means individual experience - +
union + -
Goals moral - +
practical + -

The regularity of the structure may surprise some and make them doubt the ethnographic value of the exercise. That is why I must emphasize at once that there is nothing strikingly new in the substance of what I just said. It has always been known that religion in America is universalistic, individualistic, and moralistic, as distinct, for example, from religions with sociological and ritual overtones that are restricted to one race or that insist on the performance of certain specific acts to establish membership. The value of the preceding analysis lies mainly in its exemplary role: one self-contained text analyzed in detail can convey a more concise description of a structure than several pages of discussion of longer and more complex texts, interviews, sermons, and books that cannot be quoted at length. (I shall deal briefly with some of these data in chapter 10.)

As a last qualification, when I talk of American religion, I speak mainly of American Protestantism, either high-church, establishment, or moderate denominations, such as the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, or fundamentalist and Bible-oriented churches, of which many could be found in Appleton. The Catholic church in Appleton presents a more delicate problem because its authoritarian, Europe-centered nature has prevented it from evolving as fast as the Protestant denominations, although the shift away from European definitions was noticeable, particularly in the spontaneous reactions of the faithful.

However diverse Protestant denominations can be on points of doctrine, ritual, or in their approach to the moral life, there is an essential similarity among them that stands out when they are compared to other religions. For a nonspecialist and an outsider such as 1, it is often very difficult to differentiate a Methodist sermon from a book by Billy Graham or from what is said about Seventh-day Adventists. For all of them, man is not saved by, or because of, his works, but because of his faith. In other words, man behaves according to the will of God not when he enters into certain relations with other persons in a prescribed way but when he as all individual, alone and free, decides to enter into a direct relationship with God.

This is expressed In different ritual ways by the various denominations fundamentalist churches interpret the moment nom nations. of, decision In a literal manner as the most important instant In the life of a man or woman, and they surround that time with it solemnity that stresses In action the individual character of the process of salvation. In certain churches the emotional aspect is stressed, and one is expected to present the same outward signs of "having received the spirit" as the apostles on Pentecost--"People thought they had become crazy," as one minister of a Pentecostal church told me-and those who are saved must show it in the same way.

In other churches it is necessary simply to come forward at the end of a service during the invitation and to declare publicly one's intention to join the Church. In still other churches, it is not considered necessary to make a public profession of faith to be accepted as a Christian. It is enough to be baptized or confirmed, a more formal occasion when it is still assumed that the person has entered into a new relationship with God.

Let us examine a specific example of the way in which this theological interpretation is translated into ritual action. At the end of every service of the Protestant churches in Appleton, before the last hymns, the preacher says something like: "if there is anyone here this morning who has been moved by the spirit and desires to enter this com In unity of Christians let him come forward and confess his faith." To come forward means to get tip from one's seat in the congregation, go down the aisle, and stand by the pulpit in front of the altar. There, a few questions may be asked by the minister, and then the last hymn is Sung. Then one call mix again with the crowd going out of church and probably be greeted by many people introducing themselves and thus extending a welcome to the new church member. Any person who wants rejoin the church, even to transfer his membership from a church of the same denomination in another town, must go through this ritual.

This ceremony clearly demonstrates its quality as an initiation ritual, since it possesses the three phases of separation, liminality, and reincorporation that all such rituals possess, as Arnold Van Gennep and then Victor Turner have shown. But it would be a mistake to interpret it in a purely formal way, as a transformation of a universal structure. It is also structured by specifically American principles. It is the passage of an individual into a community, the stress being put on the act of volition that ;in individual, alone in relation to God and indeed to any community, performs to join the group and give his life to God. AS I will emphasize later, one of the most striking features of a Protestant congregation during a Sunday service is the essentially successful attempt at full unanimity of, movement and appearance in a quasi-military manner. And yet all the members have once Stood by themselves ]it front of, the congregation. God addresses himself to the Individual rather than to society as a whole through a consecrated channel. An congregation or even the total community of Christians is an amorphous crowd during the service, and it is necessary to extricate oneself from this crowd to demonstrate salvation.

By way of contrast, the Catholic church, even after Vatican II, insists that it is in direct relationship with God as a whole, that although each individual Catholic may be estranged from God at any moment in his life, the whole cannot err, is directly inspired by Christ, in fact is "married" to him, as the "body" of which He is the "head," depending on the metaphor.

The inherent contradiction of the Protestant definition may have become perceptible by now. If religion is simply a matter of faith, something that concerns only God and the person as an individual, why should there be any organized churches at all? The case is similar to Mr. Howard's and his apparent refusal to recognize In certain contexts the hell) that, lie received From his family and friends. In other contexts he did recognize it. But he did not contradict himself, for individualism is not an absolute more or less actualized in concrete situations but rather a moment in a greater dialogue.

This dialogue remained fully Implicit in everyday life, In religious thought, a necessarily more reflective medium, consideration was given to reconciling individual agency in relation to God with organized religion. Ministers railed against "those who call themselves Christian and would rather play golf on a Sunday morning than attend church." The arguments in favor of regular church membership and attendance are many, the two main ones being that (1) it is necessary to join others to worship God in a manner that will please Him, and (2) one has the duty, when one has been saved, to help others be saved. Depending on the church or minister, this latter reason for church membership means public witnessing and example for the most evangelical churches, or financial contributions. In the second argument can be recognized the purpose of Guideposts. Though this argument is somewhat stronger than the first one, it is not completely convincing for someone who advocates a totally Individualistic religion. Nor does it explain what is indeed a structural necessity for organized churches.

The religious principles I outlined earlier demand only a personal declaration of salvation and salvation, it is agreed, may occur in a private setting. Indeed, most stories of miraculous salvations stress the unlikely character of both timing and place--the more unlikely the better--and the duties of a Christian are simply personally to witness, but not necessarily in a public, structured manner. It is argued that the best witnessing is that made by friend or neighbor in a private setting not necessarily stamped as a religious occasion. It will be said, even by ministers, that attending church is at best merely a symbol of Christianity. From the point of view of the ministers, this is a counterproductive argument, since all the people I met in Appleton agreed that the), did not like to do something that was not an actual means to an end-which does not necessarily mean that they never acted symbolically, but that they stopped performing an action once it had been labeled "symbolic."

Another argument and a more valid one in this context of efficacy is that it is good for one's own faith to meet regularly with people who share it; it is necessary to defend oneself against the evil influence of the pagan world "outside"- that part of the world that does not refer its actions to Christianity. One of my most sociologically conscious informants, a minister, argued mice in my presence against a group of young people who were criticizing the need for organized religion. The minister maintained that it was a "normal" and "natural" process for a church to be founded. "Let Lis say that you have finally decided that Christianity is the only real answer to your personal and the world's problems and that you have discovered in yourself a strong faith in God. You cannot just sit there and keep it to yourself. You will go out and look for people who share your faith, you will meet regularly to speak of your faith, to pray or to plan, you will soon find out that one of you has more aptitude to lead the praying than the others, and you will essentially have started a new church. Later on, you will find out that it is convenient for practical purposes to be affiliated to a national organization, and you will have completed the whole circle. This is Just how the so-called established churches in this town were started."

This statement is central to the development of my argument. It is clearly generated by the same mythical structure as generated what I was told about the organization of the Farm Bureau, its creation, and development. Conversely, it should be evident that however representative this statement is of the actual organization of churches and other voluntary associations in Appleton. it does not fit the definition of the relationship between man and God with which I started or, rather, because there is no insurmountable contradiction between these two aspects of American religion it call be said that the creation of churches does not depend in a direct manner on a theological definition but that it depends ml a different type of principle, which I sketched earlier: the overpowering need that is felt both consciously and unconsciously by people for the creation of smaller or larger groups in which they can relate on a personal basis, what I will refer to as "community." Thus, even though there is nothing in the basic tenets of the accepted theology that demands the creation of a church, most believers, particularly the more sincere, belong to a church and are active participants in its activities, with the paradoxical result that a religion that emphasizes faith over works produces much more actual work than a religion that is supposed to reverse the emphasis, such as European Catholicism.

This may seem to be a paradox. But one must remember that cultural logic is not syllogistic--rational" in the narrow sense. It is poetic-sauvage, as Lévi- Strauss would say.

The Morality of Protestantism

The Farm Bureau Creed defines the goals of the association in very practical and limited ways: "a comfortable living. education independence for old age." I emphasized how all these things were framed in an individualistic framework. This individualism is to be preserved through practical means: a precise set of actions specifically designed to deal with an external contingency in a rational way; that is, in a way that follows the natural logic of the situation rather than one created by the actor. The rationality referred to here is that of machines, rational answers to natural problems. In fact, the machines themselves, notwithstanding their obvious reality as cultural objects created by man, are prototypically natural in relation to the people who operate them, since relating to them is always fully determined by their structure. They are closed systems, just as the world is thought to be--only more obviously so. If one cannot loosen a screw by turning it counterclockwise, and if this is different from the usual structure of screws, it is probably because of certain aspects of the whole machine that make it necessary that it should be unscrewed clockwise. There are no other Solutions.

I became well grounded in this type of logic during the period I spent working on Mr. Howard's farm, when repairs to the machinery were a constant necessity. On every occasion, I was struck by the fact that machines are utterly determined, that their code of conduct, or at least the code of conduct that one has to adopt in relation to them, leaves nothing to vagueness or personal whim. In the social world, associations such as the Farm Bureau and indeed, even society itself, are considered such rational answers to natural problems- machines for the preservation of individuals. The main consequence of this is that no inherent value is attached to the specific rules, solutions, or whatever that are found necessary for the association to function. They may be necessary, they may be the symbols of human values, but they are not values in themselves.

This leaves religion with little, if any, relevance to the natural world. God laid down the rules of the game, man is learning them; God does not act directly on nature, man does. This is not so total a rejection of the presence of God in the world as it might seem, for God is given a place--and not only as creator of the rules of nature. He is also relevant to the behavior of the individual being, for it is through Him that one will reach a better life--more creative living," as Guideposts put it; "authenticity," as others would put it. God thus changes the quality of an individual's life. He does not change its quantity, its specific character. In other words, since a person's specific acts are supposed to be directed by mechanical rationality, to believe in God, or have faith, does not necessitate a shift in these acts. Nature and its rationality remain the same whether one believes or not. What is demanded of the Christian is a shift in the meaning of these acts.

It might appear surprising to see Protestantism characterized here as being totally divorced from practical action in the world. There is a popular idea that religion is concerned with precise directives as to action in the world. It may have been more so in the past, and specific demands are still made on the congregations of certain denominations. The Seventh-day Adventist church still actively forbids alcohol, tobacco, and military service to its members To these traditional taboos it has added keeping the Sabbath--Saturday--and a branch of the denomination holds to vegetarianism. This represents the most extreme development of taboos I could observe in Appleton. Most other churches, and all the larger ones, had done with any sort of interdiction

Yet even the specific taboos of the Seventh-day Adventists do not imply all action of God on the natural world: religion, here as elsewhere, is only relevant to moral action. Drinking alcohol displeases God; He has forbidden it. But this is not because of a property of alcohol. Alcohol is forbidden not because It Is somewhat polluting or sacred but because it is considered to be a threat to the quality of the person who takes some. It is a natural, rational threat. Even the vegetarianism of certain branches of the Seventh-day Adventists is justified by the "fact" that meat is neither necessary nor particularly "good" for one's body, that it might even be positively harmful and thus nonrational. Many denominations do phrase their rules in terms of the Bible. ("It is written in the Bible! How can you doubt that this is so?") It would be a great oversimplification, though, to suppose that the believers in the literal interpretation of the Bible use this as the basic justification for their faith. Most of reason them are convinced that the Bible is history, fact, and that God is simply the guarantor of its truth. They support archaeological excavations in the Holy land, the search for the remnant of Noah's Ark, and are avid readers of popularized descriptions of the socio-historical environment of Palestine. They consider learned a preacher who can paint realistic pictures of Christ's life, and their taste in religious iconography goes to posters purporting to describe incidents from the Gospel in authentic detail. They particularly resent the argument that the Bible is symbolic, for if it is merely symbolic, how can it also be true? The insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible is thus more an attempt to escape from the idea that the world may possibly not be rational than the escape into irrationality that it is often made to be by outsiders to the faith.

The fundamentalist churches cater to a small part of the population of Appleton (see Chapter 5 for a table of church membership in the town). Most of the churchgoing population belongs to what I will call "moderate Protestant" churches, and most non church-goers are close to the position of these churches in terms of moral ideology. In these churches most specific taboos have disappeared, and the divorce between religious and practical action is complete. It is a very rare sermon that demands a definite action on the part of the listeners, and this would normally consist of an appeal for money or for participation in a charitable or church- related project. There is even a tendency not to make demands for practical help during the actual sermon, but rather at the end of the service during the announcements. Sermons should be reserved, it is thought, for calls to lead a "better life."

In contradistinction to all t his stands the Catholic Church. Even in the post- Vatican II version of it that I observed in Appleton, it was still insisted that the faithful perform acts not directly related to a practical means. The sign of the cross, confession, all the other sacraments, the formal Structure and meaning of the Mass--all are interpreted as Sacred acts that a Christian must perform to please God, even though they are not "practical" in relation to anything but salvation. These acts are, furthermore, the very core of religion. As I was told by a priest: "If one performs these acts, however much he may doubt their value or however much he may be sinful in his private behavior, there must be a spark of faith in him or he would not be performing them, and thus God will receive him." Of course, the reverse of this also holds true: "However good one's private life may be, if one does not perform any ritual act, one probably will not be saved because one does not have faith." Faith is not considered possible outside of some sort of ritual activity. The ritualism is thus rational in relation to God and salvation, while it is irrational in relation to the natural world.

My reference to the Catholic Church is not arbitrary. Historically, Protestantism started as a reaction against Catholicism, and today many of its choices are still explained and defined in relation to the theological choices of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, definitions of the "world" and "rationality" are very similar in the cultural backgrounds of both versions of Christianity.

The significant difference, in a quasi-phonemic way, exists at the level of the definition of the relationship of God to the world. The Catholic Church still expects God to act directly in the world He has created and to override when necessary the rules of a game He still controls. At a trivial level, the belief in the possibility of miracles expresses this idea; at a loftier one, the theory of transubstantiation, the doctrine of the actual presence of Christ in the consecrated Host, implies the same escape of God from the constraints of the rules of the natural order. How does He do it? It is a mystery, as one is taught in the catechism and in Catholic sermons.

The Protestant God does not have this power, or at least He does not use it. The bread and grape juice distributed during communion services are considered to be a symbol of the fact that the congregation is, or should be, a community; that is, a union of individuals coming together to help each other express salvation, wait for it, or nurture it. The bread and the juice are food for the body; this is why real wine cannot be served in churches that are still very close to their Puritan background. To serve wine would be a breach of the prohibition against alcohol 'rile food taken during a communion service is symbolic ill the native sense insofar as too little is taken to actually feed one, but the difference between it and full meal is quantitative rather than qualitative. Nobody sees these bread crumbs and grape juice as, sacred.

The role of religion--what distinguishes religious acts from nonreligious acts in the native mind--is thus very different from that of the trade associations, however much both domains may be organized in the same fashion from the point of view of social structure and however they may be used by particular people. While the Farm Bureau was a rational answer to it natural problem, religion is a moral answer to a cultural problem. Religion is not rational, because it is not given in the logic of the world-the existence of God cannot be proved. The problem is cultural because it has to do with the humanity of a person, with the transformation of an individual unit with its postulated rationality into a higher being who will transcend the natural self he or she was born into.

Religion remains about individuals rather than about then' union. It is churches that are about the union of individuals in religion. Religion and churches are two different things, just as the belief in individualism that Mr, Howard demonstrated was a different thing from his involvement in the Farm Bureau. Individualism is natural; institutions like the Farm Bureau and society itself, its perceived by the sociology teacher and students, are the result of individual actions. As many of my informants implied, it newborn baby is already an individual, though not yet a member of society. Society is problematic. Churches are not fundamentally necessary to religious life. They may necessarily develop because of their pragmatic usefulness, but they remain artificial and open to question. And so does a trade union like the Farm Bureau.

But the fact that informants saw the Farm Bureau, the family, and indeed society itself as derivatives dependent on individual action does not mean that they did not live in a society in constant interaction with other individuals. The existence of churches may be fortuitous. They may not be necessary, theologically speaking, but when I was there, there were still more than it dozen of them in Appleton, and they were very much alive. Indeed, two new ones were created during my stay. Individualism, in the context of American culture, is not an overarching solution to a problem. It is, on the contrary, the setting up of a question, a dilemma that can often take tragic overtones. The question is: How do we go from individualism to community?