Robert Nisbet’s classic work, “The Quest for Community,” which I read recently, is a challenging and far-sighted book that attributes much of modernity’s unease to the collapse of the mediating institutions – village, church and family – that traditionally stood between the individual and the state.
It is a work that has inspired generations of reflection on the ongoing importance of local associations and “social capital” for the well-being of people and communities. His book seems as relevant as ever.
I was particularly struck by Nisbet’s comments on Protestantism and its tendency to weaken institutional religion.
I might not go as far as Nisbet, for it seems to me that strong Protestant churches have a strong sense of belonging and familial support.
Highly liturgical churches sometimes can have their own tendencies toward a superficial fellowship based on familiar rituals, but not vital relationships.
Nevertheless, Nisbet’s cautions about the weaknesses of modern religion warrant attention.
“The desire for religious freedom can be no greater than the desire for religious order. Lacking a clear sense of religion as a way of life, as an area of articulate membership, of status and collective meaning, man is not likely to care for long whether he is free or not free in religious pursuits,” Nisbet said.
He continued. “In any event, despots have never worried about religion that is confined mutely to individual minds. It is religion as community, or rather as a plurality of communities, that has always bestirred the reprisals of rulers engaged in the work of political tyranny.”
These comments cast light on the ongoing persecution of Christian churches in the Middle East, China and elsewhere.
Churches with a compelling sense of collective identity, entirely separate from the state, are invariably perceived as threats by Communist and dictatorial governments of various kinds.
In America, we still enjoy substantial religious freedom, but Nisbet is right that religious freedom cannot be an end unto itself.
Robust Christian community, worshiping God in spirit and truth, is the end of religious freedom.
Individualized, privatized religion is unlikely to maintain orthodoxy or orthopraxy in the long haul.
When the individual conscience rules, you get Henry David Thoreau, Rob Bell and empty pews.
Individual choice and autonomy can entail an even more pernicious threat than simple liberalism, however.
Indeed, it is one of the most besetting problems of all American denominations – the problem of the uncommitted, occasional attendee.
These are the folks for whom life in the body of Christ is anything but “a way of life.” Their religion is a matter of supplementation and personal convenience.
These are the folks who might come every few Sundays or so, but they don’t commit, don’t join, don’t invest, don’t give and don’t serve.
I don’t know that this is a uniquely Protestant problem, but it is a problem of individualized, private, voluntary religion – a hallmark of American faith.
Not that we would want to return to an established church or legally mandated church attendance as a solution.
But church leaders can set expectations that the Christianity practiced in their congregation – for those “working the program” – is not just a matter of entertaining programming or even of reliable teaching.
It is an all-encompassing way of life, where “normal Christianity” means joining the church, committing to a fellowship group, bringing your family into the rhythms of church life (rather than, say, bowing to the rhythms of sports-team schedules), giving financially and serving in at least one ministry area.
Such mobilized congregations will have the kind of fully orbed, loving social dynamic that the Bible anticipates and the early church certainly practiced.
They might also serve as the kind of mediating institution which Nisbet and others have realized that contemporary Americans so desperately need.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.” A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow him via his newsletter or on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.