Yet humanism, it is pure form, is incompatible with Christianity. Humanism has a very high moral view of humanity, in contrast to Total Depravity. The American church, both Right and Left tends to feel icky about the notion that humans, though made in God's image, have somehow brutally effaced that image to the point where we cannot repair it on our own, but must rely on God's unmerited grace to be saved. We like being self-reliant, not other-reliant, and our popular heroes reflect this tendency.
I reflexively rejected this as a new Christian, but through formal instruction (Asbury made me Totally Depraved) and God's convicting grace in prayer, I came to understand that I was hopelessly lost, not simply from the tribulations of this earthly life, but from the spiritual forces in my corrupted soul.
But before I became a Christian, I was a libertarian, and I still am now. And libertarianism, or any political philosophy which supports limited and representative government, is predicated upon the belief that humans are basically decent creatures who deserve to rule their own lives. The notion of human rights presupposes that people deserve certain things simply by being born human.
From the beginning, this humanistic concept was written into the fabric of America's self-definition. For example:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
My studies of libertarian political philosophers, such as the Founding Fathers, Friedrich Hayek, and Ayn Rand led me to place high value to the word "individualism". The concept of the individual is the essential foundation of all limited-government political philosophies. Ayn Rand wrote:
The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
These rights are, when summarised in Lockean fashion, life, liberty, and property. Limited-government political philosophies hold that there are certain things that the government may not do. The founders of the American republic strongly believed this premise, and hence provided for a Bill of Rights.
But if individualism is wrong and misguided, then the ideas built upon that foundation stone must collapse. If individualism is in total error, then there should not be limited government.
As I said, I traditionally attached positive, not negative value, to individualism. My first encounter with widespread rejection of this notion was in the Methodist Blogger Profile Series. One of the questions that I ask is "What philosophical thesis do you think is most important to combat?" Many, many people responded that it was individualism. A simple word search for 'individualism' in my blog's archives show how prevalent this view is. I was initially shocked by this response, especially since my response for my Methodist Blogger Profile was 'collectivism' -- the exact opposite of individualism.
But I was thinking of these terms politically, whereas my colleagues were thinking theologically. Many of them hold that American Christianity has a privatized faith, where there is a separation between public and private lives, as well as a rejection of the need for a rigorous community life. Postmodernism, which holds that truth is not objective, but subjective to the individual, is contributing to the development of this individualized Christianity.
All well and good. I happen to agree that people can excessively privatize their faith and create a false dichotomy between how they live and private and how they worship in public. But theological premises have political consequences, which is why my libertarian spidey-senses get inflamed when I hear Christians attack individualism.
No society predicated on individualism has ever built a death camp. But other societies, such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, have determined, as an official concept of national self-definition, that the collective is more important than the individual. A death camp is a political statement to the effect "For the good of the collective, this individual must die."
Now this is not to say that those who raise concerns about individualism in American Christianity would to build death camps or destroy democracy. They are thinking of these terms as theological, not political assertions. But as I said, theological premises have political applications. The road that begins with "The individual is less important than the collective" ends at the gates of Auschwitz.
So having been attentive to politics since the age of twelve, I tend to reflexively contemplate how different ideas, theological and philosophical, could be used or abused in a political dimension. In this manner, arguments that the individual is unimportant or that human beings are helpless and incapable of directing their own lives set off all sorts of political alarms in my head.
Limited and representative government cannot exist without the acceptance of certain humanistic beliefs. Yet humanism is contrary to the Gospel. Humanism is responsible for distorting true Christian belief and the full confrontation of our sinful nature. Nevertheless, humanism is useful. In fact, it's essential if we wish to live in anything remotely resembling a free society. And I think that the proper measure of an idea is how it effects people's lives when it is carried out.
American democracy, although imperfect, has proven that humanism has some real advantages. Americans may prefer to think of their political philosophy as somehow Christian, but even cursory study overthrows this notion. Again, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Here, the Founding Fathers make a traditional nod to Christianity as the essential presupposition of their new society. But Biblically speaking, their claim is nonsensical (hence why they do not quote any passage of Scripture). Although one may proof-text Biblical passages to support democracy, historically, democracy came from humanism, not Christianity.
So what is the impact of humanism? It has simultaneously undermined the Gospel and made human existence far more livable. So I cannot proclaim "Three cheers for humanism!" But I can manage two.*