Rugged individualism is a term that indicates that an individual is self-reliant and independent from outside assistance. The term was coined by United States president Herbert Hoover in his 1928 campaign speech.
In late 1921, then secretary of commerce Hoover decided to distill from his experiences a coherent understanding of the American experiment he cherished. The result was the 1922 book, American Individualism. In it, Hoover expounded what has come to be called American exceptionalism: the set of beliefs and values that still makes America unique. He argued that America can make steady, sure progress if we preserve our individualism, preserve and stimulate the initiative of our people, insist on and maintain the safeguards to equality of opportunity, and honor service as a part of our national character. American Individualism asserts that the practical, intellectual, and spiritual talent of each individual could spur progress in society.
While I respect President Hoover and agree with the tenets of American exceptionalism, I’d like to expound a new term, rugged neighborhoodism. It hones in on the part of American exceptionalism that encompasses honoring service as part of our national character.
Rugged individualism has its origins in the American frontier experience. Throughout its evolution, the American frontier was generally sparsely populated and had little infrastructure in place. Under such conditions, individuals had to provide for themselves to survive. This kind of environment forced people to work in isolation from a larger community and may have altered attitudes at the frontier in favor of individualistic thought over community. It seems like key elements of this individualistic attitude, such as self-interest, sense of duty, material success, and moral responsibility, have permeated the American economy ever since. Along the way, it has overshadowed the importance of service to others and our need for community.
Independence may be a prized attribute in American culture, but not in the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture will you find the erroneous quote, “God helps those who help themselves.” He did not create humans for self-sufficiency or isolation. We are meant to exist in community with other people. We need relationships with others. We need to rely on a close friend or confidante for support. It’s healthy to be vulnerable and admit you’re dependent upon loving companions and partnerships with people you trust. This is what rugged neighborhoodism means.
We are to love one another, have mercy on one another, bear each other’s burdens, and provide mutual encouragement to each other. This means we are to give ourselves away to others and receive from them in return. This is what it means to do to others as you would have them do to you. This is the Golden Rule.
Rugged individualism can coexist with rugged neighborhoodism. We actually need a healthy balance of both in America. For every new frontier, we need rugged individualists to pioneer the way. However, we also need those who see someone else’s need, someone else’s pain, and someone else’s struggle to stop and care for them.
That’s what it means to be a neighbor. Stop and bandage their wounds. Stop and give them shelter. Stop and give them something to eat. Stop and give them a shoulder to cry on. Stop and simply be present with them. Stop and have mercy on them.
That’s what a rugged neighborhoodism is, and America needs it more than ever. Neighbor, would you mind joining me?