Bipolar disorder is an alleged mental malady in which one’s behavior is stamped by alternations of a period of euphoria, energy, and ecstasy, with a period of moroseness, withdrawal, and languidness. It is often treated by medications. Whether an actual clinical condition or not, all of us have known individuals suffering from what is termed bipolar disorder.
A. J. Conyers’ The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit makes the intriguing suggestion that John Locke’s view of political and religious toleration that made such an impact on the modern West (not least on the United States) created a bipolar society that has led, despite his best intentions, to our present social disorder: a cultural bipolar disorder.
Two Poles: The State and the Individual
The two poles of society are the individual and the state. This bipolar society was unprecedented before modernity. In most of the ancient and medieval worlds, society was comprised of individuals all committed to several interlocking and interdependent institutions, what we today term “civil society.” The most important were the family and church. Others included the guild and the local community. Individuals were also political citizens, of course, but the state was merely one institution among several, and in some ways the least important (though most coercive), since it was the only one that was artificially constructed.
The family, for example, was a given, a natural institution without which life was impossible. The church was a supernatural institution, created by the triune God as the indispensable public assembly of his blood-washed people. This means that individuals participated in numerous institutions concurrently, each of which fulfilled its own distinctive role and demanded its own loyalty of its members. Society was multi-polar, not bipolar.
Locke and others (including especially the French Romantic thinker Rousseau) believed that these pre-political institutions constituted a threat to social tolerance and stability since they demanded a devotion that conflicted with the devotion to other people’s families and churches. After all, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), fought largely between Roman Catholics and Protestants and in Great Britain also between High Churchmen and Puritans, had left its bloody carnage all over Europe.
Locke and other thinkers wanted to propose a society in which intensity of religious belief in particular was mitigated and the state was empowered to forbid religious persecution by remaining neutral in religion (an impossibility, since some religion, even if it be secularism, will prevail). This could happen only if the chief loyalty of individuals was reserved to the state. Individualism and politics would thereafter govern life. The state didn’t mind individual freedom as long it was expressed individualistically and did not vest too much devotion to the family and church.
Our Disordered Bipolar Culture
With hindsight we know how socially pernicious this proposal has turned out to be. Almost every social factor of modern life conspires to dilute civil society and embolden the state, always under the guise of liberating the individual from the oppression of the family and church and other “private” institutions.
Children are encouraged to circumvent parental love and authority and create a separate relation with the state, allowing girls to get abortion and both sexes to get vicious, violent “gender reassignment surgery” without parental approval.
Spouses can get a quick and easy “no-fault” divorce. Radical autonomy negates the marital covenant — what’s important is not “signatures on an old piece of paper” but my current desires and aspirations, which might not include my spouse. The state intervenes to collude in the elimination of the marital covenant. The state and the individual alone are the poles.
The church, in addition, is considered “non-essential” during draconian Covid lockdowns because the state insists on an unmediated relation to the health (or supposed health) of individuals. The church as an institution of safety and healing (including in some cases physical healing) simply doesn’t enter the bipolar cultural calculation.
At the heart of the bipolar society is “expressive individualism,” the widespread idea that The Good Life is about “following your heart,” getting plenty of “me time,” and “being authentic.” Before modernity, the good life was defined as knowing your place in God’s order and living there for his glory. Only those who did this could expect to be fulfilled, since the Creator alone knows how best to fulfill his image-bearing creatures.
We have lived to see, in Conyers’ words, “the long-term consequences of a society in which individuals come to think of themselves as free of every bond and every obligation except that of the state.” A society plagued by divorce’s broken families, porn’s objectification of women, abortion’s slaughter of preborn children, homosexuality’s and transgenderism’s inversion of the sexual order, feminism’s purging the woman’s and man’s dignity, and Critical Race Theory’s inciting racism and racial strife exhibit the socially chaotic consequences of bipolar cultural disorder.
Rebuilding Christian culture demands restoring the multi-polar society. We must overturn statism, the notion that there is no social problem for which increased political control isn’t the best solution, that every social problem (poverty, drug addiction, uneducated youth, wealth disparities — or a viral epidemic) is really a political problem that just doesn’t know it yet. Christians in particular must implement and restore the pre-political society. The family and church must again meet most of the needs presently met (inadequately and oppressively) by the state.
For example, healthcare should be de-nationalized. Education should be returned to the family and church and “private” schools. There should be plenty of “social safety nets” — the net of the family and church and friends and neighbors, not the state. The reason those “private”-sector nets are so hole-filled today is that the bipolar cultural disorder resists all competitors; the state must marginalize any institution that competes for its loyalty. This hatred for civil society that so stamped Marxist regimes like the old Soviet Union is equally fierce in the benevolent social dictatorships like the United States.
But just as God exists in community (Trinity) so he created man to exist in community.
And that community dare not be limited to two poles: the state, and the individual.
 (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2001), 137–141. I’m grateful to my friend Dr. Roger Wagner for recommending this book several years ago.
 I place “private” in apologetic quotes to highlight the widespread semantic strategy of referring to politics as a “public” good and free markets as a “private” good, as though politics benefits everybody while the free market benefits only a few greedy people caring only for themselves. The opposite is more nearly true: free markets benefit everybody, while politics these days benefits the politically connected.
 A. J. Conyers, The Long Truce, 146.
2 thoughts on “Cultural Bipolar Disorder”
I agree with all your suggestions in the conclusion. All these things are needed to heal our culture. But this is not enough. We also need a spiritual dimension to bring this healing. Why? Many of those caught up in the bi-polar society are “Nones.” Of equal concern, are those who continue to identify with apostate main-line churches and heretical feel-good, prosperity-gospel churches. These people are comfortable in the bi-polar society and need a change of heart, as well as a change of mind.
Thank you so much Andrew, you are doing a great service to Christians thinking through these issues.