The logics of institutions are closed systems in which all your life questions are answered. The more you subscribe to one particular identity, the less tension, in theory, there is over these questions. If for example, you could and did subscribe fully to the system of consumerism that supports capitalism, your purpose would be to earn wealth in order to accumulate goods that would bring pleasure and define you. For the American identity (excerpting for a moment the capitalism bound up in it), your purpose would be to achieve the American dream, being an entrepreneurial spirit, owning your own business and house and two cars and a picket fence and 1.9 children. Few, I imagine, explicitly subscribe to these ideals, both because we like to think of our relative independence from the dictates of various institutions, but also because we increasingly live in a world of institutions fiercely competing for our loyalty, and try to manage multiple associations at the same time.
This idea goes some way to explaining why, when individuals are involved with a social group that dominates as much of the individual identity as possible, those outside that group take offense at the seemingly simplistic (and dangerous) logic within. When we label cult groups, we are indicating the internal coherence of a system that seems, to the outside, contradictory or nonsensical. Yet for many of those inside, the sense of belonging, identity, and purpose that comes with group participation compensates for what we outsiders would perceive as loss of freedom.
In theory, the various institutions we participate in have the power to do the same thing. Yet, once these reach a certain size or become a majority, benefits accrue to the participants with a minimal amount of effort, and the perceived alliance to the group can decrease with little cost. For example, I really don’t have to be that American in order to receive the benefits of being (middle-class) American: a comparatively robust infrastructure, a broad range of freedoms of speech and pursuits, etc. These benefits certainly do not accrue to all Americans, but having been born here allowed for the possibility of these benefits. Yet I’m not required to participate in many activities, as long as I pay my taxes, and I could even get away with not doing that for several years.
The downside of the relative freedoms and benefits of dominant institutions (aside from the very important fact that institutions are created and thrive with great cost to those who are not their members) is that with the decreased “cost” of membership, there is a decreased value in the ready-made answers to important life questions. Having the freedom to purchase my own home and live a peaceful life, or even the ability to make that a goal, certainly meant something different to a generation returning from World War Two than it does to me. The proliferation of “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper stickers isn’t quite enough to fill the gap of insufficiency I feel when trying to relate to what I perceive are the identity markers of being an American. (The correlation between freedom and conflict is one established to benefit the institution, and only secondarily myself, if at all. I provide that example simply because it is a popular one).
The identity that came with being a Christian was never completely satisfying to me, but I perceived the fault to be with myself and not with Christianity. The costs and benefits of participation in the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing were relatively simple in theory. The initial costs were recognizing ones own insufficiency, sinful nature, and absolute reliance on God for salvation from that nature that would otherwise damn me to eternity in hell (which was not red devils and flames but eternal separation from God, in my understanding). The explicit benefits were eternal life with God and the comfort of knowing your sins were forgiven. The implied (and sometimes explicit) benefits were that you would be much happier and fulfilled than those non-Christians. You, unlike they, would have a sense of purpose. There were ongoing costs as well. Membership dues, you could say, and not just financial. These costs, in my experience, were that you should participate fully in the perpetuation of the Christian narrative, and most importantly, that you bring others into the fold. After all, if you were happy and unfulfilled, and your friends and acquaintances are not, wouldn’t you want to share your happiness with them?
My particular problem is that, having grown up in a Christian environment, nearly all my friends and family were already at least nominally Christian (or didn’t want to rock the boat by telling people they weren’t). Thus, for me to pay my dues, I had to go beyond my own social circles to bring in more members. In doing so, I was not only contributing to my local membership in a Christian community, I was participating in the fulfillment of history, for only when the entire world had heard the Gospel would the end of history come, after which the saved would spend eternity with God. I didn’t usually think about it on such a historical scope. All I thought about was how I was supposed to go make more Christians and the guilt I would often feel for not doing a good job. I was concerned that my membership card would be revoked, not that someone in the church would call me out, but that God might. In short, the first understanding I had about my relationship to the Christian institution was not one in which I thought it was insufficient for me, but that I was insufficient for it. From the institution’s perspective, that was a perfect place for me to be.