It comes as no surprise to see so many pastors and church leaders still quoting from the book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Author Robert N. Bellah and his four researchers say things that most evangelicals would agree with: Our society is committed to an individualistic ethic and is basically selfish in its lifestyle. This erodes our sense of community, weakens the structure of society, and will eventually destroy our social and political freedom. And the only remedy is a return to fundamental biblical values and the republican virtues that dominated America at its beginning.
The Demise Of Social Morality
Though some in the academic community have challenged both the research and conclusions reached by Bellah and his colleagues more than two years ago, the evidence presented in the book is convincing. Beyond that, even the most casual observer must admit that Americans are less committed to basic biblical values and standards of social morality than they have been in previous decades. Thoughtful citizens are concerned because convictions of social responsibility for the good of the community are essential to the preservation of a healthy society.
America once had such a consensus, but that sense of community responsibility has given way to a spirit of individualism. American citizens have become “private” citizens, and concern for others is limited to what value that has for each individual. Even religion is “privatized,” and its role is determined by what it contributes to the individual. According to Bellah, if American society is to regain its former health, the biblical and early republican virtues of community responsibility must be restored to the pristine vigor they possessed two centuries ago.
Where Bellah falters is in his failure to explain how a pluralistic, democratic society may regain its sense of community responsibility. He credits biblical religion for providing this motivation in the early history of our nation. But in the course of the nineteenth century, conservative Christianity lost its hold on the American people. Basic biblical and civic values were left without their nourishing roots and soon withered. Neither liberal Protestantism nor secular humanistic philosophies have proved capable of sustaining such a moral commitment to the community. Even as these movements generated a concern for others, it was always on individualistic terms: What does this mean for the good of the individual?
Bellah and his associates present a forthright exhortation to Americans to adopt a different—a new, yet old—set of values. They urge their fellow citizens to turn from their focus on self-seeking to a commitment—a religious commitment, if you will—of responsibility for the common good. But how do we accomplish this?
The Christian community is in a unique position to respond to this challenge. The highest calling of a Christian is the command to introduce others to the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ. Here man finds forgiveness and the resources to live the Christian life characterized by service to others.
We can also help others find the basis for a meaningful public philosophy—a rational basis for just those moral values that Bellah says are essential for the welfare of society. We can affirm the biblical message that all humans are created in the image of God and worthy of his personal sacrifice. He holds each of us personally accountable for our concern for others. Moreover, he has trusted us with the care of nonhuman life and with the responsible use of the Earth’s resources. One day we must stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for our actions. This is the church’s role in God’s redemptive purpose for mankind—countering the bleak individualistic attitude of secular society with the biblical admonition of accountability to God and one another.
Yet we live in a pluralistic society. What about the majority who will not turn to the Savior? Do we wash our hands of them?
No. As biblical Christians we are citizens of two kingdoms: first, the kingdom of God, and second, a kingdom of this world. Each lays its demands upon us, and God holds us responsible for both.
Moreover, as Christians, we are responsible for our brothers and sisters. We are our brother’s keeper, with a responsibility to seek his or her good and to strive for justice and a noble society. As Christians, therefore, we seek laws that are just and good for an ordered society. We begin with that most fundamental of all political values: religious freedom. We cannot, and we ought not, force on society what as a body politic it does not want. Many laws that would be good for a society if adopted willingly become bad for a society when forced upon them. That is why a nation’s laws can be no better than the people within that land. Nonetheless, we must actively seek a consensus for laws we know to be good and that ought to be legislated for the good of humankind.
The Limits Of Law
Some divine laws, however, are good but ought not to be legislated by human governments. For example, we should not try to force on society all Old Testament laws—not even its civil laws. God revealed them to Israel as his messianic community. No modern nation is a divinely covenanted society with a particular messianic role to perform in world history. Israel was such a community. It was also a nation embedded in a particular culture at a specific time and place in human history. We can learn from its revealed laws, but we cannot translate them automatically into just laws for our nation today. Not only do we live in a far different culture; we are not God’s covenanted people with their messianic role to play in human history.
It is even more important that we do not seek to enforce personal beliefs, especially with regard to the proper worship of God. The value of religious beliefs and worship is only present when they are voluntary. For example, we do not legislate the acknowledgment of God, belief in Christ, attendance at religious services, or participation in religious rites as a mandatory requirement for citizens. Similarly, we ought not to require the pledge of allegiance with its words “under God.” That does not necessarily mean we eliminate that phrase from our pledge of allegiance or that we remove “In God We Trust” from our coins. But we ought not to require the 4 percent of American citizens who are atheists to repeat the pledge under threat of losing their civil rights. Religious responses must be rendered to God. They must not be required by Caesar.
Bellah and his associates have done our nation and, especially, the evangelical community a great boon. They have sharpened our insights into the fundamental sickness that has gripped American society. They have suggested a valid, though partial, remedy. And they have forced us to think through what it means to be a Christian citizen in a pluralistic society.
If there is healing for the habit of individualism, it will come from Christians who truly care for the world in which they live.
By Kenneth S. Kantzer, a CT senior editor.
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