Hypermodern America has become a collectivity of "spiritualities" even as the contours of American culture become increasingly secularized. How is this possible? The emergence of spirituality as an alternative to historic Christianity is itself a product of secularism--offering universal "meaning" without doctrine, truth, or specific content.

For the last 20 years or more, observers of American religion have noted the proliferation of diverse models of spirituality, ranging from New Age innovations to the reemergence of ancient paganisms. The mainstream sociological explanation for this phenomenon is rooted in the assumption that the modern age marginalizes the exclusivistic and truth-oriented doctrines of Christianity and leaves the public square open for the emergence of less demanding belief systems and worldviews.

Of course, most of these are tailor-made for the American mindset. The idea of individualism is as old as America itself, and the dominance of autonomous individualism in modern American culture is, at least in part, the inevitable outgrowth of at least one dimension of America's founding experience.

The sociologists are concerned about the rise of spirituality precisely because more communitarian thinkers doubt that these modern forms of individualist religion can sustain social cohesiveness and the American project.

Not So Fast

Not so fast, argues Leigh E. Schmidt. In "Spirit Wars," Schmidt's article in the latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly, he argues that American social critics have prematurely dismissed spirituality as a cultural force.

Schmidt, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, acknowledges that "social critics have achieved a rare unanimity: lambasting American 'spirituality' in all its new age quirkiness and anarchic individualism."

Indeed, a considerable body of literature now exists in order to document the emergence of spirituality and to consider the danger it poses to the republic. An alarm was first sounded by sociologist Robert Bellah and his team of writers in Habits of the Heart, published in 1985. Bellah and his team argued that the breakdown of traditional religion was leading to a deterioration in the American social fabric and its essential institutions. They lamented the emergence of "liberalized versions" of morality that were and are almost exclusively individualistic in focus. As Schmidt summarizes, "The social costs of such disjointed spiritual quests were evident not only in the fraying of church life but in eroding commitments to public citizenship, marriage, and family."

But if Bellah and company--joined by observers such as David Brooks and Martin E. Marty--think that the rise of spirituality at the expense of traditional faiths is problematic, Schmidt argues that American liberals should embrace spirituality as a means of gaining political momentum and rebuilding social capital.

Historical Vision

Schmidt argues for a longer historical vision. Modern versions of American individualism, he argues, are simply the expansion and continuation of a line of individualistic thinking that runs back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and a host of others. Martin E. Marty may argue that the conflict between "spirituality" and "religion" is "a defining conflict of our time," but Schmidt suggests a cease-fire.

As Schmidt reviews the history of American spirituality, he sees in Emerson, Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau a combination of "spiritual journeying" and "political progressivism." As he explains, "Emerson's 'endless seeker' was, as often as not, an abolitionist; Whitman's 'traveling soul,' a champion of women's rights; Henry David Thoreau's 'hermit,' a challenger of unjust war."