Nation of Heretics

Michael Metzger

Sheila Larson made her own decisions about faith. Robert Bellah described her as a typical American Christian, holding to an individualistic faith. A prophet would suggest that Sheila’s faith is heresy. But in a nation of heretics, who’s asking for their opinion?

Robert N. Bellah was a distinguished sociologist of religion who passed away on July 30 at the age of 86. He had been on the University of California, Berkeley faculty since 1967. During his tenure, Bellah studied American culture, authoring or co-authoring several books, including Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life in 1985. Habits takes its title from a phrase in Alexis de Tocqueville’s influential mid-19th-century work Democracy in America, where he describes cultures as “habits of the heart.”

In Habits, Bellah and his research team discovered the heartiest habit is individualism. Americans are concerned increasingly with individual attainment and far less with forging the collective ties that have traditionally bound communities. Bellah wrote how “this individualism may have grown cancerous – that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.” It certainly threatens the faith community.

In one disheartening chapter, Bellah tells us of a woman named Sheila Larson. She’s typical of American Christians. Sheila holds to a faith that she defines as following her own “little voice” – a faith she trumpets as “Sheilaism.”1 Bellah saw this as a form of self-absorption rather than healthy religion. In the field of sociology, Sheilaism became shorthand for an individual’s system of religious belief that selects strands of faiths without much theological consideration. It’s a gullible faith because it looks to no guides. This insidious individualism is “at the very core of American culture,” Bellah writes. “Whatever the differences among the traditions,” it is “basic to American identity.”2

It’s basic, but it’s also heretical. The term heretic was originally applied to people who made their own decisions about faith. In the distant past, heretics were few and far between. “In a pre-Enlightenment society, there are only a few heretics in the original sense of the word,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “that is to say, only a few people who make their own decisions about what to believe.”3 Ancient societies tended to be communal. As individuals made decisions, or transitions, they looked to gatekeepers. As guides, gatekeepers were a check against self-reliance and self-absorption. Jesus said prophets were the original gatekeepers. Their dual vision – seeing past and present simultaneously – served those making decisions about where to work and worship.

That was long ago and far away. As Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he noted a troubling tendency – the rise of the “individualist,” a word he coined.4 Individualism would come to have great influence on American evangelicalism. That’s why evangelicals today pretty much decide for themselves where to work and worship. They don’t rely on gatekeepers. And that’s why Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and committed Christian, describes America as a “nation of heretics.”5

The eminent sociologist Peter L. Berger went further. He said Americans operate according to “the heretical imperative.”6 By imperative, Berger says most Americans feel that it is essential – non-negotiable – that they be free to choose for themselves what to believe and what religious institutions they will be committed to. Americans have enshrined the right to decide for themselves which church they will attend, how often they will attend, and to what degree they will be involved. As a nation of heretics, this individualistic orientation is simply not up for debate – period.

Fortunately, there are instances of institutions pushing against individualism. They welcome prophetic voices. During his tenure as President of the University of Southern California, Steven B. Sample oversaw a transition. USC jumped in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings from 51st in 1991 to 26th in 2008. The key was incorporating what Sample calls “contrarian leadership,” a prophetic voice challenging assumptions.7 Prophets question when institutions might be heading in the wrong direction.

“If you are on the wrong road,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “progress means doing an about-face and walking back to the right road.”8 Prophets help people do about-faces. There are times when passing through a gate that an about-face is a wise move. Prophets are situated to help make this call, but in a nation of heretics, who pays attention to them? That’s one reason why Richard Rohr warns of “the structural fate of a prophet.” Prophets are ignored because they intrude on Americans’ idolatrous individualism.

If you’re coming to see how a little intrusion might be instructional, consider reading Robert Bellah’s book. Even though he has passed away, his prophetic voice continues to caution us. So does C.S. Lewis. Or consider reading Ross Douthat, a younger prophet. These guides – gatekeepers – serve as a hedge against our ingrained heretical impulses.

1 Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California, 1996), 221.
2 Bellah, Habits, 142.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989), 39-40.
4 Bellah, Habits, 37.
5 Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012).
6 Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Doubleday, 1980)
7 Steven Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2001), 56.
8 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone Edition, 1980), 36.


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  1. Mike, I want to speak up for us heretics…America suffers from individualism? I’m not convinced. We hardly think for ourselves: we look for what’s trending and stick our finger in the wind to see which way it’s blowing. When we all do & think so similarly it’s creepy. Per your 6th paragraph – we should want someone to tell us where to work and worship?

    We are not a meditative society: we move fast, and we move in huge collective groups. We’re the land of small business, but we’re even more-so the land of the giant corporations. We have a two party political system – that’s not very creative. But it’s better than one party!

    Why make such a big deal out of thinking differently when we do? It’s amazingly refreshing to witness. Do you really think that, for example, that all Catholics think the same? Or all Baptists? Acting the same, thinking the same, that’s the stuff of totalitarianism, not being In Christ.

    Your message or my reading must be incomplete in some way because you can’t mean what you seem leaned into saying: what would you have your prophet do – tell the individual to get back in-line with the other sheep? “Sheeple” is the biggest insult anyone could ever suffer.

    The prophet is entitled to smoke out dissenters? Dissension is prophetic work too.

  2. Dave, I think you miss the point. You are free to believe anything you want to believe and to follow any leader or no leader. The Bible does not call one to that kind of freedom, however. It calls us to follow the one God and, interesting, the metaphor often used n the scriptures to describe the relationship is that of the good shepherd caring for his sheet.

  3. John, well sure, I know the biblical metaphor, and sure, we’re called to follow The Lord, not each other, but that by very definition would make us all look like heretics because we would all seek very hard after clarity from The Lord, rather than knee-jerk reaction to “the next thing” in our email inbox from our church or political party or vocational supervisor. The great tension is to work in community with deference and honor toward one another even though we each hear different things from The Lord. Divorce is a great proof that we’re lousy, as a culture, at both teamwork and a good form of heresy. These days, a quality heretic stays married and defies the sheeple heading over the cliff!

  4. Mike
    Was Jesus a heretic or a prophet? To a conservative Jew he was a heretic. To other heretics he was a prophet.

    But possibly behind the logical construct you propose lies deeper questions: “How do we pursue our individual path and relationship with the Lord while being in community? And while in community, how do we stay like soft warm clay in the potter’s hands while in relationship with other’s who seek to mold us into their own worldview? When, why, and how does the Lord speak through others? Possibly when our own ears are closed… the prophets acted as God’s guiding and rebuking voice to His peoples before the Holy Spirit became that voice to us. Eyes open, ears to the ground, leading with the heart, ready to move and act… welcome to the new heretic, the new prophet, the new born.”

  5. Dave: I agree with John. You miss my point. In fact, you miss a great many of my points. For instance, you seem to confuse the distinction between being an individual – an inherently healthy thing since God made Adam and Eve as individuals – and individualism. Individualism is the idolatry of what it means to be an individual. It is heresy, just as communism is the idolatry of what it means to act in accordance with the community.

    Second misunderstanding: prophets don’t tell anyone to get back in line. They guide, urging total conformity to Christ, which is not the same as totalitarianism. Again, you’ve confused so many categories that it’s hard to know where to start in my reply. I’ll stop here.

    John & Ron: Good words. Yes, the tension is acting as a responsible individual while looking to guides and gatekeepers as we make transitions; not relying solely on our own take on things. I think it’s called “the wisdom of many counselors.”

  6. How does this apply beyond North America?
    How is the pain of the individual met with compassion before a prophetic word? Or should they be the same?
    Should any ‘gate-keeper’ examine the boundary lines and what exists on either side of the gate? Is this always a community choice? Are we experiencing a reality of the abuse of gifts, in particular prophecy? Is the voice of care-frontation heretical?

  7. I agree that individualism is the both the broadest and deepest gap in our culture today. I am starting a church in an affluent, largely post-Christian urban neighborhood. We (I am placing myself in with my neighbors) barely feel the need to depend on others. We certainly won’t submit to an authority or an institution unless it suits our individual goals or desires.

    We are attempting to fight “heresy” by restoring community, interdependence, and awe of God’s leadership. Orthopraxi (right practice/living) and orthodoxy (right belief/worship) are both necessary to supplant heresy.

    And as I think about it, this American heresy is completely immune to the “two chapter Gospel.” Without a robust discussion about creation, this discussion deteriorates into pragmatic wrangling. And without a vision for restoration and consummation of a new heaven and new earth, Christians won’t have the resources to do the hard work needed to build healthy individuals and communities.

  8. I agree, Trent – although I am pretty sure you meant to say the American heresy of individualism is the result of the “two chapter Gospel” (not “immune to”). All in all, glad to hear about what you are pursuing. Press on.

  9. Barnabas:

    Your thoughtful questions deserve thoughtful replies.

    As to how this heresy rears its ugly head beyond North America – I am not sure; except to say Protestant missionaries are carriers of this individualistic gospel in the developing world. Stay tuned.

    Pain is not an inherently bad thing (it’s likely Adam and Eve would have stubbed their toe or tripped on a vine long before the fall). Pain and compassion go hand-in-hand. Only a therapeutic society (say “USA”) feels otherwise.

    Gatekeepers are generally best able to note boundary lines and what exists on either side of the gate (by virtue of their gifting). But there is also wisdom in listening to many counselors.

    As to your last question, I think you are on to something. The prophetic gift seems to be abused lately by some wacky Christians. As for the word “care-frontation” – I’ve heard it and suspect its a bit too clever to be of much practical use. Works in sermons – much harder on the street.

  10. It wouldn’t be the first time I misread you Mike. I appreciate your instances of citing the use of prophets to challenge corporate-assimilation. But I’m sure Dr. Sample would fire his prophets if he didn’t like their results. Prophets for hire are not always true prophets, and the louder a person speaks or the position they hold or the money they have or who has whom in who’s pocket does not make a gate-keeper. The entire piece fails to distinguish the qualities of a gate-keeper, it only describes what they might do if they actually did do their job.

    Sheilaism is a case of light-thinking self-satisfying community ignorance, but a robust individual thinks long & hard and sacrifices personal gain & safety for the sake of strengthening a community that would rather not be strengthened but remain happy with the status quo. What would you label such an individual? You might not call her a gatekeeper if it’d be better to throw the gate wide-open.

  11. Thanks Mike for your considered responses.
    Many counsellors maintain the position of a gate-keeper. Care-fronting I take to be compassion and pain hand in hand. The boundary line rooted in love.

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