A century ago, Princeton scholar J. Gresham Machen remarked that “historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. . . It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world.”
Doing that very thing, in California Grace Community Church successfully battled the county and state governments after resuming face-to-face worship services during a lockdown. Similarly, members of the orthodox Jewish community of New York City clashed with the authorities over a refusal to cancel gatherings. However, dissident religious people seem to be in the minority; most conformed to such draconian government decrees.
One significant gift of Judaism and Christianity is the concept that an individual is responsible and valuable apart from the group. As Larry Siedentop explains in his book Inventing the Individual, Western civilization’s moral and legal foundations owe a great deal to that legacy. Before that, the ancient Romans and Greeks considered loyalty to the family-clan to be an absolute religious duty.
The main responsibility of family members was to make offerings to their ancestors, who otherwise might be transformed into vengeful demons inflicting harm on their descendants. A similar but less demanding expectation continues to pervade a number of Asian societies today. Every August, the Obon festival in Japan ritually welcomes ancestral spirits to their homes.
The Greek city-state eventually evolved out of the family-clan. Then people had value only insofar as they were connected to the city and served its interests. The advent of Judeo- Christian religiosity into the Greco-Roman world undermined this concept and replaced it with the idea that each individual had distinct importance as well as personal responsibility before God.
As Salman Rushdie expressed it, such thinking helps to undergird “the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions.” In contrast, the modern collectivist mindset often excuses individual wrongdoing as long as it is carried out in the name of some greater social good.
Unfortunately, the religious individual has often not only had to contend against secular collectivism but also against a religious variety. Martin Luther famously came to oppose the Roman Catholic Church authorities of his time. Faced with the demand that he submit to the Church’s official teaching, he declared in his defense that he dared not set aside personal convictions, declaring that “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
The persistent, worldwide phenomenon of religious collectivism still retains a great deal of power and influence. In many places, religion has functioned as a powerful force to bind and control. The high priest/king of pagan societies was often considered an incarnate deity. As a typical example, the god-king Pharaoh had the power to kill, enslave, or free from bondage. During World War II, Zen Buddhism became ensnared in the militaristic, self-sacrificing national cult of Japan, leading one scholar to call it “The Zen Cult of Death.”
Likewise, in his book, Preachers Present Arms, Ray Abrams chronicles how many church leaders in the US promoted the idea that Americans had a religious duty to participate in the first world war, viewing it as a kind of “holy war.” Moreover, from its very beginnings collectivist allegiance has been an essential component of the thinking of Islam – often expressed in military endeavors.
Originally, the early Christians did not aim at controlling the unbelieving community around them. Jesus’s well-known distinction between one’s allegiances to God and Caesar (Mark 12:17) is one scriptural basis for that. However, the pagan tribal cults of Europe were eventually replaced by the powerful medieval Roman Catholic church organization. In that culture, the efficacy of the sacraments depended not on personal faith but rather on the church institution as God’s corporate conduit of blessing. An individual’s salvation depended on being under the umbrella of that sacral organization, and the church also had the power of the sword to enforce membership.
This religious and political power corrupted the Roman church. When Lord Acton stated his famous dictum “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he knew that it also had been true of Roman Catholicism. He authored a book about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August, 1572, in which tens of thousands of Protestant Huguenots in France met their deaths at the instigation of church and state authorities.
Even in the English-speaking world, it took a long time to return to the New Testament idea that Christianity is ultimately a matter of individual conscience and commitment. As one example, the Presbyterian Westminster Confession was originally created by the English Parliament as a creed to be forcibly imposed on everyone in England. Imprisonment, fines, or possibly death would have been the lot of resistant non-Presbyterians.
For the well-being of society, it was thought that everyone needed to conform to a single creed and church polity. Thanks to later political developments, that plan was never implemented. Among the thirteen original American colonies, the Baptist Roger Williams was the first to guarantee religious freedom for everyone in Rhode Island.
In those blessed places that managed to obtain the freedom of individuals from collectivist control, it has taken centuries of struggle. Those who now heedlessly throw that freedom away do not realize what they are doing. As Herbert Hoover once put it, “Salvation will not come to us out of the wreckage of individualism.”