Rod Dreher has a remarkable way of both identifying the big issues of our time and then developing prescriptions that cannot hold, given his own stances. The one I wanted to focus on this line from a recent essay.
The Other America: The America of a society that has lost its bindings — to God, to each other, to a vision that offers hope, and a moral sense that enables people to sacrifice to realize that hope. The fragility of what we have achieved is what impresses people like me. From my point of view, our elites have for a long time — generations — been working to destroy the fundamentals that enabled peace and prosperity. And not just elites: as history testifies, wealth corrupts societies. There is no avoiding the cycle.
I believe that the loss of a society’s religion ultimately leads to its dissolution. Without a commonly held sense of transcendent meaning, a society loses its will to live, because it has no reason to live.
I’m not going to debate if the picture is as dark as Dreher portrays it. Others have offered that critique. But I’m going to accept that it captures something happening in our society. With an opioid crises hitting so many of the working class and poor. When 37% of the working age population is out of a job or no longer seeking work. Where low income workers have seen declines in wages, where the income gains have gone to the top 1% and rural and working class communities have been hallowed out, with little economic opportunity.
At the same time, the mediating institutions, which protected such communities, and could advocate on their behalf are shells of themselves. The church is facing an exodus from the white working class. Unions have been devastated with only 6% of private sector workers in a union. In the 50s it was 1/3. And you can map inequality and wage stagnation to the decline of unions. Civic groups such as the Masons are in decline. This is captured in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.
At the same time, our politics is starting to reflect this inequality. You can measure voting patters based on income. Voting laws add to the problem. There is little meaningful campaign finance laws so the amount of money a few corporate interests can spend on campaigns has skyrocketed. At the very moment that those groups who advocated for the bottom 90% have collapsed, those representing the 1% have filled in the gap. This is reflected in the legislative priorities of our congress and legislatures. It’s reflected in the disconnect so many have with our democracy.
The quote by Rod Dreher captures this. And yet in the last few years I have seen no articles arguing for laws to support union organizing. I’ve seen no articles that support efforts to combat inequality, that support a social safety net, that would tackle concentrated wealth. He had nothing to say about the health care fight in congress, which millions of working Americans depend on. I’ve never even seem him lament the loss of service groups and civic society in general.
The only thing I have seen, besides diagnosing the problems of society, is the solution he offers in the quote above. We need a common faith, we need the church to be such that we can overcome the disconnectedness of modern society and give us a grounding beyond ourselves to orientate our lives. And as compelling as the idea is, there are a number of reasons why that cannot be.
You have to have a middle class, for people to join civic groups. That means stable employment, hours that allow time off to volunteer but reliable hours such that you can volunteer. You need a stable housing situation where you can live in a place long enough to be attached to the community and begin to feel a responsibility towards it. Your kids have to be able to stay in the same school, over time.
When I was involved with ACORN, Fox news had portrayed it as a poor people’s group. But it never was. It was largely African American and middle class. Who else can go to meetings? Who else knows their neighborhood well enough such that they can become advocates for their neighborhood? It took homeowners, it took folks rooted in the community to dedicate their time this way.
You can track involvement in civic groups, including churches by both union density and income equality. Scandinavia approaches 80% unionization rates and they have the highest participation in civic groups compared to other countries. 40% of Swedes are in athletic associations as an example. From voter participation to levels of social trust to union rates connect up with each other. 32 hour work weeks help too. 6 weeks paid vacation does too. The range of public goods enjoyed by the wider populace, parks, music, etc. help too.
It’s a cycle of virtue as opposed to a cycle of isolation, the latter affecting so many people. Good jobs affect sense of self, give meaning, reduces some of the chaos of life, move one to move beyond one’s self. Simply saying church should provide this is like saying marriage should provide this. Church and marriage are now what happens when one enters the middle class, they don’t serve for most people as a means into it.
There has never been a society with a middle class that did not have it built up by the trade labor movement and without broad social goods that everyone can participate in. And I’ve never seen Dreher address this. But you could not have a Benedict Option without it I’d propose.
But let’s look at the church as a solution to the problem Dreher proposes. He wants a church that can anchor a society as a whole. Given our religious diversity that isn’t going to happen. But since some 70% of Americans identify as Christian, having a church connect to that much of the population must be significant, if it could be pulled off. I don’t think it can.
And if we followed Rod Dreher’s hopes for the church it certainly cannot. And that is because he is trying to build a church for the “orthodox.” He wants a church of true believers. This by definition is a church that has no space for religious liberals who re-imagine faith in the 21st century, those who question this or that doctrine, LGBT folks, women who would take up religious leadership, those who believe other religions are salvific, those who have multiple religious identities, those who are not sure what they believe.
I’d hazard a guess this means that about 2/3rds of the country could never belong to such a church as Dreher envisions. In fact there has been an active effort, some of this sponsored by Republican money and some of this sponsored by conservative religionists who have spent 40 years at least making sure that the church could never include liberals of any stripe, political or religious. This has happened in Catholicism, Methodism, the Southern Baptists, most denominations.
And they have largely succeeded. And then they wonder why America is “post Christian.”
If Rod Dreher hopes the church could become the lodestar for the bulk of Americans, then he’d have to hope that the liberal church could succeed. Succeed, not necessarily by numbers, but in creating a shared moral vocabulary, in being a public chaplain in their communities, hospitals, and civic occasions, in capturing the imagination of the country of a narrative that included more and more people, not less and less. If the liberal church fails at this, then you can have a Benedict Option but you will not have a common faith.
I’ve included Michael Harrington’s book, The Politics at God’s Funeral because in there, he proposes a common faith that could bring the country together across the divisions he saw in the 1970s. It’s worse now. And the title this blog post comes from John Dewey’s book A Common Faith, which sought the same end.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma