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.