My funk on election night was deepened by an email from a younger, liberal friend. Conservatives lost, she told me sternly, because they have become badly “tarnished” with “Latinos, young people, Asians, single women,” and “all key demos for the next twenty years.” Her blunt warning: “Fix that or keep losing.”
I was initially angry. It seemed to me that these are the very people most hurt by the president’s economic policies, supposedly the key issue in the election. But resisting the impulse to reply bitterly, I instead pondered her words. Then the proverbial light bulb: The real issue for these crucial voters, I realized, wasn’t economic at all. It was cultural, perhaps something even more existential.
One widely circulated Obama campaign music video illuminates the subject. It depicts throngs of diverse supporters—young with old, white with people of color, men with women—leaving their daily activities to joyously march together to an uplifting rock anthem—Forward—accompanied by excerpts from an Obama speech assuring that we “leave no one behind.” Here are a few of the lyrics:
You can’t give up on hope
Each other’s hand we hold
We’re on a long hard road
But we travel it together
We pull each other up
We fill each other’s cup
So we all have enough
We’re all in this together
When I first saw the video, I sniffed, “Catchy tune, but really, do they think people are leaving restaurants, stores, and jobs to march together for Obama?” But I’d missed the point. Obama’s campaign—and indeed, his presidency—promotes a powerful and primordial message, best embodied in the national motto of France; liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Collectivism is always a potent message for those who feel a sense of oppression and/or economic strain. Thus, it was the very economic difficulties experienced by my friend’s touted demographic cohorts that made Obama’s message of inclusion and “fairness” resonate more deeply than did Mitt Romney’s free market/equality of opportunity/importance-of-the-individual arguments.
Of course, the dynamic tension between the relative importance of the individual and the group isn’t anything new. Indeed, Christianity has long faced similar tensions. I am certainly no theologian—and please forgive me for stating it very roughly and too generally—but it seems to me that Protestantism emphasizes individualism, e.g., the direct relationship between God and each person, sola scriptura, the downplaying of tradition, the excising of intercessory prayers to saints. Some take this much further, even believing that dogma can be altered because “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing:” Me and my walk with Jesus, if you will, with prime worship focus placed on “the Word.”
Pre-Reformation churches, on the other hand—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic—embrace a far more collective approach. Yes, salvation is individual, but it is also mediated through the Church as the Body of Christ, albeit in the service of each person as well as for the whole. This means accepting Apostolic Tradition to interpret Scripture, a belief in the intersession of the saints (Hebrews’ “invisible cloud of witnesses”), and the emphasis on Sacraments: We and our walk together with the Trinity, with prime worship focus placed on Holy Communion.
Whether in the secular or religious sphere, these differing emphases really matter to people, cultures, and societies. Indeed and alas, many wars have been waged over the tension between them. Thus, they bear continual pondering and unending mutual efforts by differing factions to understand and bear with the other.
As for me, I am a very strong proponent of individualism in the secular sphere. I believe in the Declaration of Independence as the best promoter of liberty, and in the Constitutional structure of limited government as its guarantor. I embrace equality of opportunity, not result, as the optimal approach to maximizing human flourishing and prosperity. And I reject the collectivist approach as potentially oppressive to the individual and ever threatening to unleash a dangerous Utopianism, undeniably an historic problem with the French model.
But in my faith, ironically, I have taken the other road, converting some years ago to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Some might see this as a paradox. To the contrary, the two are complimentary since each operates best in the context of free will. I am liberated coming and going. Political individualism allows me (and others) to embrace or reject religion, while my faith’s ultimate meaning only arises when it is willingly accepted.
Thus, in American Orthodoxy, I am both free and secure. Not bearing the burden of interpreting Scripture (because the Church has) liberates me to explore its meaning more deeply. Choosing to be a literal member of the organized Body of Christ offers love, acceptance, belonging, protection, and salvation. Knowing that I receive His Body and Blood, I am continually renewed and strengthened for the race. For, as St. Paul wrote: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”
Or to put it another way: In my politics, I am free and I do not oppress. And in my faith, I am not left behind. Forward.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Forward, the song
Lyrics to Forward
Orthodox Study Bible (New King James) 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
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