Once we understand the term “expressive individualism” we get from Bellah and his fellow sociologists as well as the “Age of Authenticity” as defined by Taylor, we begin to see the elements of this worldview and how it affects life in Western societies today. This is where Australian church leader Mark Sayers helpfully sums up several beliefs that swirl around in an expressive individualist society.
Earlier this year, I identified four of the big challenges facing the church in the West today. We’ve looked extensively at the problem of societal fragmentation and political polarization. Now we turn our attention to the reality of a culture awash in what is often called “expressive individualism.”
What Is Expressive Individualism?
This column will serve as the first in a series dealing with expressive individualism. Our only aim here is to briefly entertain the question, “What is expressive individualism?” Later on, we’ll look at how the church can live as salt and light in this kind of culture.
When defining expressive individualism, it might be best to start with the slogans behind the movement:
- You be you.
- Be true to yourself.
- Follow your heart.
- Find yourself.
Slogans orient us to the philosophy in popular culture. History points us back to where it comes from. Robert Bellah and the sociologists who wrote Habits of the Heart trace the origins of expressive individualism back into the 1800s. The authors point to the writer and poet Walt Whitman as one of the best representatives of the philosophy.
“Individualism” goes back further. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who traveled extensively in the United States and then wrote the classic Democracy in America noted certain traits of American individualism, in which the expressivist part grew later.
“Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of this fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
That’s an older description of individualism and the isolation that Tocqueville feared. But what about expressive individualism? What does that refer to?