According to the Bible, the ancient Israelites strayed from worship of God into idolatry. Today, America has done the same- except rather than placing a golden calf upon an altar, we have erected a mirror.
And in that mirror, we give glory to our own reflections. At its core, this Cult of the Self is an act of rebellion against all external authority over the individual- including, ultimately, God’s.
Before we make a desert of our life, or of our world, we must first have a desert inside us. The Cult of the Self is the force driving the process of desertification in modernity- it creates internal, and then external, barren spaces.
The Cult of the Self is based on a mistaken anthropology, a false understanding of the nature of the human person. As a result, it advances a disordered form of extreme individualism that views liberty as being synonymous with personal license.
As author Chris Hedges has noted, “[w]e have a right, in the cult of self, to get whatever we desire” or, to use the words of a recent Sprint television commercial, each individual has “a right to be unlimited.” Indeed, in an article considering the philosophical implications of that same Sprint advertisement, Mark Mitchell suggests that in our cultural moment, the very idea of limits on the individual is an offense: “Limits suggest that my desires can be thwarted or perhaps even that my desires should be thwarted.”
The Cult of the Self is not a phenomenon of the political Left or the Right, but rather a cultural virus that has infected our entire civilization. And we all carry the disease. It finds expression equally in the infatuation with the cold social Darwinism of Ayn Rand and in the embrace of the libertine hedonism of the so-called sexual revolution; in the business owner slashing worker wages and benefits or skirting environmental protections to increase his own profits, and in the mother aborting her child because it is inconvenient or unwelcome.
It is at the center of the various economic, social, and environmental problems our society faces- from abortion and the decline of the family to growing economic inequality and even global warming. Not surprisingly, the Cult of the Self is inextricably intertwined with our current form of late-modern extractive, exploitative, socially irresponsible capitalism. Indeed, our reckless banks and corporations are in some ways merely reflections of us- as Daniel Bell has observed, they are idealized versions of our modern autonomous selves “writ large- self-interested and profit maximizing.” Corporations and multinational banks, it turns out, believe they should be “unlimited” too.
Like a massive object in space, the Cult of the Self exerts a gravitational pull that distorts Christian belief and practice in America. And so Jesus becomes a tame bourgeois moralizer who demands nothing difficult of us; God, a life coach, or an investment adviser who can help us, in Bell’s words, fulfill “our wildest consumer dreams.” Traditional Christian beliefs and teachings- particularly regarding human sexuality and marriage- are stripped away as we increasingly adopt a “cafeteria” style approach to religious belief, picking and choosing among doctrines and practices like customers sampling a buffet. Through these processes, Christianity is rendered mute and unable to critique either consumerism, capitalism, or our libertine social mores.
Through the Cult of the Self, we’ve clothed ourselves in purple, but rather than an emperor’s robe, our garments turn out to be a beggar’s cloak. The elusive happiness we are pursuing retreats before us like a mirage; the reality is growing anomie and alienation as society disintegrates around us.
In the end, the Cult of the Self misdirects desire in ways that can never be satisfied. Humanity is meant to live in community- not as lonely, isolated, autonomous selves. We are meant to live in communion and fellowship, not seeking to maximize our own self-interests while locked in remorseless competition with others. Far from empowering us, the Cult of the Self renders us helpless. It births a terrible emptiness- one we try to avoid facing by distracting ourselves through entertainment, or by escaping from reality through drug or alcohol abuse, or any one of the innumerable other forms of addiction that plague our society.
As Hedges has argued, the toxic Cult of the Self “is killing the United States.” It is transforming us into a nation of narcissists and sociopaths either incapable of feeling love, empathy, and remorse or far too self-absorbed to care.
Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party officer and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at email@example.com