Has American Individualism Gone Too Far?

The squalid manner in which former president Bill Clinton left office earlier this year, leaving a trail of dubious pardons behind him, spoke volumes not only about an administration that some saw as deeply corrupt, but about the entire “American century” that just ended. Unfortunately, at the end of this 100 years of stupendous achievement, it is the failings of the American promise rather than the innumerable good things America has given the world that are most troubling. In a gross and exaggerated form, America’s failings came to be epitomized in the person and presidency of Clinton. They can be summarized in two words: rampant individualism.

All Americans enjoy the freedom that modern individualism allows, but it is always possible to have too much of a good thing. Like Clinton, many of us are individualism junkies: We just can’t say no. We know we should accept limits, but when it comes down to it, we refuse to impose them on ourselves. This seems to be the great American dilemma at the end of the 20th century.

The beginning of President George W. Bush’s administration this year also speaks volumes, but about different things. Many have remarked on attributes of the new president that might ordinarily be taken for granted in a high public official: Bush is punctual, he listens carefully to the people he meets, and he is courteous to everyone. This is actually considered newsworthy these days, as is the magnanimity with which he has treated his predecessor and his political opponents.

Of greater long-term significance, however, is Bush’s new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. For some, this move toward bringing religion back into public life is not much more than an extension of the so-called charitable choice provisions of Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, which allowed religious agencies to compete for government welfare funding. But to others, it is an attempt to welcome faith back into the public realm and to renew American commitment to building authentic communities and resisting the enormous power of radical individualism over American life.

The great American experiment in individualism will come to its end in the course of this century. Depending on how it turns out, either the culture symbolized by Clinton will prevail, or the limits on individualism in the form of community and religion that Bush is trying to harness to his cause will be revived. The right result will require hard work, because the power of individualism in America will not be easily overcome.

Supremacy of the Individual

In the world at large, America has come to stand for the supremacy, or at the very least the self-sufficiency, of the individual. This was the case from the beginning, despite the pilgrim fathers’ religiosity and the recognition of the Creator in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence.

The United States was made by the Reformation. From the 17th century, America came to be regarded as a Protestant Israel, the promised land for the elect and the righteous remnants of the rapidly multiplying reformed denominations. Whatever the differences between these groups, one conviction was common to all: Every individual was his own priest. Revelation, salvation, and truth were for the individual to find for himself directly, not through the Church.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century reinforced this conviction in a secular form. Any counterinfluence the Catholic Church might have exerted in America during this time would have been weakened by its poverty, its numerical inferiority, and the hostility of the Protestant majority that kept Catholics on the margins of public life, which had a profound influence on American culture well into the 20th century.

This heritage was not a problem as long as it was understood that, while the individual was free to find the truth for himself, the truth was supreme, and the individual had to subordinate himself to its demands. For this reason, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America (1835), saw religious belief as a safeguard that would keep American individualism from undermining the liberation it brought to the human spirit. But this safeguard was already being weakened by the growing tendency—evident in the work of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—to celebrate the individual as the only authentic source of truth, value, and meaning.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 encyclical Testem Benevolentiae (“Witness to Benevolence”) was a response to this development. Leo described what he called the error of “Americanism,” identifying its key elements as the “over-esteem of natural virtue” and the idea that the individual is best able to find the truth only when “all external guidance is set aside.” (Americanism received its most influential philosophical elaboration a few years later with the publication of William James’s Pragmatism in 1907.)

Leo understood, of course, that true individuality is produced and sustained by social relations. It would not have surprised him, therefore, that as the supremacy of truth came to be supplanted by the supremacy of the individual, communal solidarity—Tocqueville’s other great guiding constraint on American individualism—would also be weakened. When he visited America in the 1830s, Tocqueville was astonished at its citizens’ capacity to be actively involved in and deeply committed to their local communities. Despite his ambivalence about the democratic experiment in the United States, this phenomenon inclined him more to hope than to pessimism.

Religion’s Influence Today

The individual’s commitment to community continues to be a powerful factor in contemporary American life, but it has been compromised by the cult of the individual. Consider the aspect of American communal life that most conspicuously distinguishes it from other nations of the West: religion. The high rates of religious practice and belief in the United States are frequently noted by commentators, as are the growth and appeal of evangelical Christian denominations in this country. American politicians place great importance on being seen attending religious services, and they invoke God in their public speeches with an ease that elicits skepticism from Europeans. But how deep is the religiosity of Americans?

One way to assess the depth of religious conviction in the United States is to examine its effect on public life and public culture. Since the late 1970s, Christian believers have enjoyed a growing influence in both major political parties, but especially in the Republican Party. Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority played a significant role in President Reagan’s electoral successes of the 1980s, and lately, such groups as the Christian Coalition have become prominent.

Twenty years on, it is important to ask what difference this increased influence of religion in politics has made to restraining individualism and redirecting people’s attention to building up the common good. One area where religion’s influence has clearly been felt is abortion. The most recent figures—for 1997—from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show abortions at their lowest level since 1978. Close to 1.2 million abortions were conducted in 1997, a fall of 3 percent from 1996. Abortion continues to be freely available, to horrifying effect, but as the authors of the CDC report acknowledge, attitudes toward abortion seem to be changing. The work of religious believers and other people of good will in the pro-life cause has obviously been a major force in this change of attitude.

So far, it has been impossible to impose a federal ban on partial-birth abortions. State bans on that brutal procedure have been struck down by the Supreme Court. Whether the influence of religion will prevail here remains to be seen.

In other areas of public life, religious influence has been weaker. There has certainly been more talk about how to solve the ongoing crisis of the family, but nonetheless, in 1997, one out of every three children in America was born to an unmarried mother. For some ethnic minorities, the situation is far worse. Among African-Americans, the illegitimacy rate—the number of illegitimate births per 1,000 women of childbearing age—fell 18 percent from 1990 to 1996. But the black illegitimacy ratio—the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers—has risen, standing at an all-time high of 69 percent in 1997.

The divorce rate for Americans generally remains around 50 percent, and over the last 30 years the ratio of divorced to married people in the United States has increased fourfold. The national marriage rate has fallen to 43 percent, the lowest level ever. Other than the recent introduction in some states of so-called covenant marriage (in which the couple agree to make it harder for them to divorce)—the results of which are yet to be seen—most pro- marriage initiatives suggested by both religious and secular policymakers have failed to make much difference.

There are two other indicators of religious influence in the United States. First, although public prayer in public schools continues to be ruthlessly prohibited, there is now a grudging acknowledgment that students cannot be stopped from praying privately on school grounds. Second, government funding of church-run schools, which once seemed unlikely in light of court decisions either prohibiting state voucher systems or excluding religious schools from them, looks as though it might become legally feasible. The Supreme Court last June held that governments can lend instructional materials and equipment to parochial schools without violating the separation of church and state. On the negative side, however, the country remains awash in pornography, and it seems impossible to restrict even its most extreme forms. The increasing explicitness and incivility in television programs, popular music, and movies reflects the worrying influence of pornography on mainstream media.

Of course we must take into account the complexities of the American political system, the peculiarities of American jurisprudence (especially as administered by the Supreme Court), the hostility of the secular media and entertainment industries to religious and traditional values, and, more generally, the vast differences in values, aspirations, wealth, and privilege that separate America’s ruling elites from ordinary American people. But as important as these factors are, they do not account for the general lack of religious influence over American culture.

Religion has been unable to overcome the individualism that is the final authority in American life by invoking either moral truth or the claims of community and solidarity. Despite much grand talk, both of the safeguards against rampant individualism that Tocqueville cited have been subordinated—in politics, the media, the courts, and the population at large—to the cause of self-realization. This will continue to be the dynamic of American culture, at least for the foreseable future.

Moral Confusion

With its promise of liberation and opportunity, individualism is one of the powerful appeals of American culture. But as liberation has come to mean freedom from both truth and solidarity, and opportunity has come to mean not just self-fulfillment but self-creation, a deep emptiness has gradually become apparent at the center of American life. This has gravely compromised American culture’s potential as a force for human happiness.

Understood as supreme autonomy and endless possibility for self-realization, individualism is not only inimical to the common good but incoherent. Take, for example, Americans’ increasing reliance on therapy. Therapy sustains one’s sense of supremacy and self-sufficiency by managing the guilt, anxiety, restlessness, and self-hatred that the refusal to submit to something higher than oneself creates. New Age religion is another version of this, providing some of the emotional and spiritual consolations of true religion, without interfering with individual autonomy over moral decisions.

People become involved in therapy or New Age religions because they seek something more than individualism’s spiritual thinness. But because of their fear of genuine transcendence—of losing life to find it—they reaccept individualism in a different form. This self-contradictory behavior is evident more generally in people who are concerned about divorce rates or the number of abortions but oppose any legislative restraints on these phenomena. Most people are beginning to recognize the negative consequences of individualism and unlimited possibility, but they still believe that individuals must have the right to unrestricted freedom, even if it is harmful to the common good, lest anyone be trapped in a situation of unfreedom.

Individualism, and the moral confusion underlying it, is a problem in the West generally. But it is the United States that exemplifies individualism’s appeal to the modern world and therefore its power over other cultures. In one sense, the word “globalization” means increasing American hegemony, both economic and cultural: in short, the Americanization of the world.

One obstacle to seeing our way out of this situation is our inability to imagine a way of arranging politics, economics, culture, and society other than that of democracy in the American mode. At the high point of absolute monarchy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, political thinkers mined the Greek and Roman classical past for constitutional alternatives to despotism, giving rise to the new form of government that emerged in the former English colonies of North America in the 1770s. We do not seem to be able to do anything like this today.

But the more important question is whether the American achievement, its culture of plenty, is sustainable over the long run, given the contradictions of individualism and the social problems it has created. The collapse of the communist Soviet Union has shown that a culture’s anthropology determines its survival: A false or mistaken understanding of human nature can be fatal. The anthropology underlying American individualism is deeply questionable, as its consequences show. For the moment, family disorganization and poverty—even when they lead to the collapse of entire communities, as in the inner cities—do not really threaten America’s economic performance or social stability. Nor does the prevailing anomie evidenced by school shootings, violent crime, and drug abuse. Whether American democracy can tolerate these problems if they reach higher levels, and, if so, for how long, is one of the questions we can expect to be answered during the 21st century.

A Need for Transcendence

The unfettered individualism of today’s America constitutes an experiment with human nature. Can we obliterate the need for transcendence, for a truth outside ourselves? If not, can we live as if we do not need transcendence, as though the individual really is supreme, the master of limitless possibility? So far, as the emptiness of our culture indicates, the answer seems to be no. It is increasingly obvious, as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver recently remarked, that “people are hungry for the truth and they will choose the truth, if it is presented clearly and with conviction.” But one of the great impediments to choosing the truth is the fragmented way we tend to live. As Archbishop Chaput went on to say, “Too often we treat our faith like a ‘compartment’ of our life, rather than its organizing and animating passion.” In this way, even a believer can claim supremacy for himself over truth.

We know that attempts to live as if there were no transcendent truth ultimately fail. Modernity’s attempts to disprove this have taken many different forms, some costing a great deal in terms of human life and suffering. American individualism is undoubtedly the most benign and compelling form of avoiding transcendent truth. It is also the form most likely to succeed. The attempts of the new Bush administration to revive community are taking place in this context. As it is played out in the 21st century, the great American experiment in individualism will end either in failure and social crisis, or in the glorious and terrible triumph of a world with no need for transcendent truth. Believers are looking to America for the outcome of this struggle, with confidence certainly, but also, in moments of weakness, with deep trepidation.


  • M.A. Casey

    At the time this article was published, M.A. Casey was a sociologist on the staff of Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia.

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