Individualism is so strong in the United States, that if you suggest any sort of limitation of individual freedom you might be called a bigot (by the left) or, worse yet, a socialist (by the right).
I think this might be the reason I find myself feeling more at home in Canada where, it seems, individualism is softened a bit.
Individualism arises from a particular view of the self–the self is first an individual, and second, a member of a group.
Individualism is Both Liberal and Conservative
Individualism is not just liberal thing. Both Liberals and Conservatives enthusiastically support the tenets of the liberal democracies, of which personal freedom is one–they just tend to emphasize different ones.
The liberals tend to be more interested in political and social freedoms and the conservatives are more insistent on economic ones.
So, it seems, that everyone can agree that individual freedoms are the ultimate good. But then the Christians show up and suggest that there might be some merit to sacrificing some of those freedoms for the common good. Then everybody hates the Christians–they are called bigots by the left and Commies by the right.
I am not a liberal because I question the primacy of individual political and social freedoms.
Marriage and Individualism
Personal freedom and Individualism should take a back seat now and then. Marriage is a good place to test this idea–in marriage, individual freedom is less important than the common good.
If the self is ultimately an individual then the primary purpose of marriage is to serve the needs of the individual–marriage should contribute to happiness and aid in the flourishing of the individual. If the marriage is no longer achieving this end, then one might legitimately get a divorce and move on.
If the common good takes primacy over the individual, then communal flourishing is more important than that of the individual. Under these conditions, the purpose of marriage is to benefit the greater community in some way, say, by providing a secure environment for the nurturing of children.
It seems to me that in our culture we are unbalanced toward the side of individualism and showing no sign of moving toward equilibrium. Liberals are not responsible for this shift, but in the area of political and social freedoms, they tend to push that direction.
Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, free-speech are complicated issues and many Christians, and other groups who have a more collective mentality, are at odds with those who lean toward the individualist side of the continuum.
Importantly, it is sometimes one’s view of the self–whether it is primarily individual or communal–that determines one’s position on these issues and not, simply, one’s bigotry or communist leanings.
Paul Tillich wrote that there is a “polar tension” between individuals and community because you can’t have one, without the other. A community needs individuals to challenge the identity of the community in order to keep it alive, and the identity of the individual is derived from the greater community.
I am a little worried that we are in danger of losing the tension.