A growing movement of Christian evangelicals decries "expressive individualism," or in other words, the freedom to make your own choices and decide what to do with your own life.
If America had its own Ten Commandments, the first one would be “Be yourself.”
It’s written into our founding document: the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s woven into our mythology. Whatever our beliefs or politics, we’re drawn to stories about lone heroes rebelling against oppressive systems.
And, of course, it’s part and parcel of a capitalist society. Those who survive and prosper under capitalism treat self-interest as an overriding goal. Corporations won’t hesitate to fire employees if it means higher profits, and employees shouldn’t hesitate to change jobs if it means higher salary. Loyalty to those who’ve done right by us in the past is—at best—a distant secondary consideration. The number-one priority is to always look out for Number One.
For better or for worse, this may be part of white American DNA. The USA as it exists today was founded by people who broke away from the societies they were born in, took the risk of an ocean crossing, and came to the New World to seek their freedom and their fortune. After that, there was a second wave of expansion and colonization, as people moved out of the cities and into the Western frontier. The rebels, the adventurous, and the chronically restless: these personality types are overrepresented in America’s early generations. You can speculate on whether this created a founder effect in the nation’s gene pool.
Obviously, the individualist mindset is a blade that cuts both ways. It’s given rise to a culture of selfishness and cutthroat competition, with all the exploitation, poverty and unnecessary suffering those things entail. It teaches people to care only about their own comfort and pleasure, even if it’s achieved at the expense of other humans or the welfare of the planet as a whole.
But at the same time, individualism drives creativity, innovation, and questioning of the conventional wisdom. It powers courageous resistance to oppression, prejudice, and stultifying cultures of conformity. When we encounter an ideology which preaches that a person’s only purpose in life is to serve their family, or their nation, or their church, that’s the time to raise the banner of individualism high.
A core of individual freedom
When it comes to moral questions, we could use a stronger mindset of mutuality. America has done immense damage by throwing its weight around. We’d all be better off if we’d learn that we have a responsibility to others—including generations yet unborn—rather than greedily trying to grab all we can for ourselves.
However, we don’t have to give up the good parts of individualism. Within the framework of reciprocity, everyone should have the freedom to be themselves. We should all have the right to dress how we want, believe what we want, love who we want, do with our bodies what we want. There’s no one way to be human, and we should recognize and celebrate that exuberant diversity rather than trying to stamp it out.
Everyone’s vision of the good life is different, and no one knows what matters to you better than you do. That’s why it’s best for everyone when we can break free of others’ expectations and craft the lives we want for ourselves, not the lives others want for us.
Every movement for moral progress had a core of individual freedom. The freethought movement argued that coerced belief was no belief at all, and that we should all decide for ourselves what we believe or don’t believe about gods. The feminist movement, that women have the right to self-determination and shouldn’t be confined to marriage and motherhood. The civil-rights movement, that people shouldn’t be held down or judged by their race or the color of their skin. The LGBTQ movement, that everyone had the right to love and express themselves in accordance with their own heart’s desires.
There are Christians who recognize this, too. And they hate all of it.
Against expressive individualism
Among Christian apologists, the ideas I’ve just described go by the name “expressive individualism”. Here’s how the Baptist Paper defines it:
“For the most part, expressive individualism rejects anything external — values or duties defined by society, religion or previous generations,” said Magruder, strategic initiatives director for Lifeway Kids. “It encourages defining one’s ‘self’ internally and expressing that self-created identity to the world. The goal of this worldview is not to adhere or listen to outside standards but to be authentic to the standards you’ve identified for yourself.”“Next-gen resource aims to impact lives amid confused, secular worldview.” Aaron Wilson, The Baptist Paper, 19 May 2023.
Notably, the same author says that “these… beliefs contradict the gospel”.
Another article from the Gospel Coalition adds:
In recent weeks, we’ve looked at various challenges facing the Christian church in the West, one of the biggest being expressive individualism—the be true to yourself mindset that finds self-fulfillment and expression as the highest goal of life. …When the purpose of life is reconceived around finding one’s deepest self and expressing it to the world (as opposed to whatever constraints your family, church, society, or politics may put on you), then all of our most significant relationships become recast in light of personal self-development.“What Expressive Individualism Does to Sin.” Trevin Wax, The Gospel Coalition, 13 November 2018.
Again, this author identifies expressive individualism as “one of the biggest [challenges]” facing the church.
Last but not least is this article from a Baptist pastor: If You Want to Address LGBTQ Issues, Then Address Expressive Individualism:
So it is with the LGBTQ+ movement. The constantly growing letters are actually united by something deeper, something underground. They are united by expressive individualism. What’s more, the claims of the LGBTQ+ movement and the claims of Jesus are diametrically opposed. They are set for a head-on collision.
(Although it’s getting off topic, this article also argues that anal intercourse is unnatural because it tears and damages the body, whereas vaginal sex is “safe, naturally lubricated, and life creating.” It’s no surprise these words were written by a man. Should we tell him what birth entails?)
These Christians reject the idea of expressive individualism, because Christian ideology teaches that people shouldn’t be allowed to choose what to make of their lives. It teaches that there’s one set of gender roles, one kind of sexuality, and one model of relationships that everyone is supposed to follow. It seeks to hammer everyone into these constricting boxes, regardless of whether or not they fit, regardless of whether or not it makes them miserable. Any deviation from this rigid framework, any desire to think or choose for yourself, they condemn as sin.
Christian apologists say this because they’re blinded by the delusion that Christianity owns morality. They don’t think of their religious beliefs as one worldview among many, but the only way to live a good, moral, and happy life. In their arrogance, they dismiss every alternative, all the infinite variety of culture thought up by humans past and present. They would outlaw it all if they could.
What’s the alternative?
Still, there’s one big omission common to all these articles. Namely: what’s the alternative? If expressive individualism is bad, what should we do instead?
Christian apologists who argue against expressive individualism are coy about what, specifically, that would mean in practice. They talk vaguely about self-sacrifice, humility, and obeying God’s will. But they refrain from painting a detailed picture of what a society designed along their lines would look like. If people shouldn’t choose for themselves, who should make the choices for them?
There’s only one thing that this could mean. They’re calling for an oppressively conformist society where a church or some other authority decides by fiat how people should live.
That’s not speculation, because we know what it looks like when societies try to submerge the individuality of their people into some all-encompassing order. It’s the theocracies American colonists fled from, with kings and popes deciding by edict what all their subjects must believe and sending inquisitors to root out the heretics. It’s Saudi Arabia and Iran with their morality police, it’s the Soviet Union with its purges and North Korea with its cult of the leader, it’s Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s every piece of dystopian fiction about a boot stamping on a human face forever.
We know it has to be this way, because the Bible doesn’t prescribe a single unambiguous way to live. On the contrary, the Bible contains a multiplicity of viewpoints. It’s sprawling, vague, often self-contradictory. A thousand different sects, each one reading this same book, have come up with a thousand different ideas about how to live. The only way to remove individual choice from this chaos is a theocratic state ruled over by human authorities who decree what’s acceptable.
In less guarded moments, some of them let slip that this is exactly their goal. Like Republican Senator Josh Hawley:
In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at the King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives…
The most eloquent summary of the Pelagian vision, Mr. Hawley went on to say, can be found in the Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Mr. Hawley cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words reprovingly. “At the heart of liberty,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The fifth-century church fathers were right to condemn this terrifying variety of heresy, Mr. Hawley argued: “Replacing it and repairing the harm it has caused is one of the challenges of our day.”
In other words, Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.“The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage.” Katherine Stewart, The New York Times, 11 January 2021.
It’s ironic that atheists are so often accused of supporting communism, when it’s right-wing Christians pining for a more conformist, collectivist, top-down state. Obviously, no one is going to run for office on a platform of eliminating freedom, so they usually disguise their aims in coded language. But make no mistake—when they decry “expressive individualism” or self-fulfillment or self-expression, you can know that that’s what they really want.