dRoad to the Middle Class: Chapter 2 Down In South Carolina - by Christopher Chantrill
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Chapter 2:
Down in South Carolina and Out in Brooklyn

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[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.   —Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM among western cultural elites is that God is dead and we are well rid of him.  Who, after all would want to relive all those religious wars and suffer again under the merciless rule of the Spanish Inquisition?  No, whatever superstitions may have warped men’s minds in the past, the world is clearly moving away from God and towards a secular future. In God is Dead: Secularization in the West, British sociology professor Steve Bruce interpreted the modern era as a normal process of secularization from the enthusiasm of the Protestant reformation, a society based on egalitarianism and individualism naturally evolved out of a society “much more preoccupied with supernatural beliefs and practices.” 

In the United States, things look a little different.  According to Robert William Fogel the United States of America is in the midst of a Fourth Great Awakening.  The revival in religious activity that began in the 1950s with preachers like Billy Graham has blossomed into a great movement of religious awakening, one that ranks with the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century.  But this Awakening has not merely been a purely religious phenomenon; it has spilled over into politics and into the so-called “culture war.”  The enthusiastic Christians enrolled into the religious awakening have spilled over into politics and become part of the “base” of the Republican Party.  According to the theories of Fogel and McLoughlin, this is not surprising, but part of a familiar political-religious cycle in American life.  Yet many people have been taken by surprise, for conventional wisdom maintains that the capitalist West is on a trend of irreversible secularization.  Why should the United States have experienced this upsurge in religious enthusiasm?  And why should it have been so clearly a Protestant phenomenon, of simple people attracted to a simple faith reduced to the essentials of Bible study and faith in Jesus Christ?

Many Americans are not just surprised by the rise in religious enthusiasm: they are dismayed.  Millions of Americans are deeply suspicious of the power of religion.  They echo the psychologist who wrote that Americans face “a continuing struggle to move from a Puritan, pioneer, outlaw heritage of fighting for basic survival needs... to a civilization that is nonviolent, fair, and respectful of others.”  For such people, the task before the United States is to cleanse society of “rigid views of gender, parenting and punishment” that prevent the resocialization of the nation to the more advanced ideas of community and caring.  They wonder how anyone can continue to believe in the antiquated Protestant ethic that might have had some relevance in the nineteenth century, but hardly in the global community at the turn of the twenty-first century.  We shall analyze this worldview in later chapters.

The idea that religious faith is outmoded is not, of course, a new idea.  If Time magazine stumbled onto the Death of God in the 1960s, keener minds had experienced it earlier.  Provoked by Hume and Kant and the investigations of German philologists into the authorship of the Bible, the generation of Carlyle and Emerson had already lost their faith in the 1840s.  After the hammer blows of Lyall’s Principles of Geology and Darwin’s Origin of Species, it was left to Nietzsche in the closing decades of the nineteenth century to inaugurate an era of atheist orthodoxy, even atheist respectability, and to try to imagine a creative life beyond the good and evil of Christianity.  At the end of the twentieth century, educated people understand that religion has been dying for 200 years.  Back in the old days of superstition the churches were full to bursting with people terrified of God’s wrath.  But now people take a more sanguine view of religion and are no longer frightened by fire and brimstone and the fake emotion of the sawdust trail.  They are no longer persuaded that the world is a battleground between God and Satan, between Good and Evil.  No longer paralyzed by the fear of God, society has relaxed its religious enthusiasm, and people have become more secular in their outlook.

The only trouble is that the educated people are wrong.  Religion is not dying out, at least, not in the United States.  It is growing, and has been for 200 years.  Back in 1776, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, only about 15 percent of Americans were religious adherents.  Two hundred years later, in 1980, 62 percent belonged to a church.  The present outburst of religious enthusiasm is not surprising or unusual.  It is merely a wave in a continually upward rising tide. 

But what about the well-known fact that churches are becoming more secular?  How does that square with evidence that more and more people identify with a church?  Stark explains this with a theory of secularization and renewal.  There is no doubt that churches do become more secular with time.  The fierce Puritan sects of the seventeenth century became in time rigid Calvinist churches—Presbyterian and Congregational—with well-paid, well-educated ministers.  And in the twentieth century, they became “mainline” churches: highly secularized, worldly organizations retaining barely a whisper of their former rantings.  The Methodist church that grew from nothing in 1750 to several millions at its peak in 1850 became in time the “mainline” United Methodist church, with declining membership and weakly propagated doctrine.  But swirling against this ebb tide of secularization is a flood of revival and renewal.  New sects are forever splitting off from mature churches in rebellion against the secularization of the mother church, and committing themselves to return to a pure religion uncontaminated by secularization.  Those churches that do not decline are those that implement a deliberate policy of revival and renewal.  And new cults are being formed all the time.  The evidence is all around for those with eyes to see.

In the aftermath of the key South Carolina presidential primary of February 9, 2000 in which candidate George W. Bush salvaged his campaign for president with a decisive victory over John McCain, The New Republic published an article by Hanna Rosin, Religion Editor of the Washington Post.  Her piece, “Upwardly Mobile,” used an interview with church volunteer Mary Johnston to try to capture the essence of the religious right, the controversial group of evangelical conservative Christians that formed a key part of the Republican party base in 2000.  It was the overwhelming support from voters like Mary Johnston that had made Bush the winner.

Mary Johnson lived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a striver suburb just across the state line from Charlotte, North Carolina.  She had voted for George W. Bush out of “class envy,” wrote Rosin.  She wanted to give her children all the opportunities he had.  “‘We don’t have the money the Bushes had, but I’ll make sure they go to the best schools, first grade to college.’” 

Mary Johnston desperately wanted to acquire the education and respectability of Bush.  Born a redneck in the “wooly backcountry of the Appalachians,” Mary, along with “almost all the religious conservatives [Rosin] interviewed... used to have rednecks as neighbors or as relatives, or... they used to be rednecks but no longer are.”  Uneasily poised between their redneck heritage and their goal of Bush-like respectability, they were anxious to acquire the status symbols of upper-middle class success.  And they were ashamed of their redneck past.  When Rosin visited her, Johnston was quick to hide a photo in the Rock Hill Herald that featured a protest at Chester, back in the Appalachian hills.  The protesters had organized a committee to protect mobile homes, “protesting new limits on that ubiquitous and cherished Southern institution.”  “(‘Protect the mobile home!’ Johnston exclaimed. ‘Can you believe it?!’)”  Mary Johnston used to live in Chester, and it was “a stain on her past that never ceases to embarrass her.”

Rosin’s angle may have been the “envy” and “embarrassment” of the Christian right that had voted for George W. Bush, but the story turned out to be her own embarrassment and discomfort with the simple aspirations of the people she interviewed.  It seems to be impossible for a liberal writer to report on the Christian right without making herself the story.  After reporting that right-wing voter Mary Johnston “wanted to be more like [George W. Bush],” Rosin tells us that what “determined her vote [was] class envy.”  Really? Wanting to be like someone you admire is class envy?  Envy is usually used to denote a combination of covetousness and ill will.  Would it not be more appropriate to write simply that Mary Johnston admired Bush and that the Christian right seemed to experience the Bush family as a “role model” that represented the values and the status it wanted to achieve?  Then there was Jim Ardrey, an ex-redneck who had recently developed a parcel of land his family had owned for 100 years.  “‘[His family] didn’t know what to do with it, because they were all, you know, rednecks,’” according to Ardrey.  But he was better than that.  He’d “taken the land and built a housing development of massive brick houses in faux Southern Colonial style, hedges trimmed to resemble swans.”  Rosin knows—and so do her broadsheet newspaper readers—that wannabe McMansions are not quite out of the top drawer.  But what would you expect in superstitious bigoted culture of enthusiastic Christianity?

Enthusiastic Protestantism is flourishing in the white striver suburbs of South Carolina where it helped elect the heir to the Bush dynasty to the presidency.  But it is exploding elsewhere as well: in the minority communities of New York City.  Tony Carnes reported in The Wall Street Journal that Pentecostalism nearly died when, on May 3, 1973, newspapers reported that a Pentecostal church near Wall Street had collapsed. (Carnes 2001) Sociologists had reported in the 1960s that “religion was all but finished as an important presence in New York.”  Yet today “Hermes Caballero, assistant to Bronx borough president and a Pentecostal pastor himself, says that in the past five years more than 300 Pentecostal churches have been founded in the Bronx.”  Born a century ago in Kansas, Pentecostalism has “moved from the American West through New York to Latin America, Europe, Russia, China, and elsewhere.  Now the converts have come back.”  Says Marcos Rivera, active in the Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway: “There are Josephs arising in this city.”

He refers, of course, to people who have descended from normal lives to utter degradation, and then arisen from the dead to lead their broken communities from ruin to redemption, like Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, falsely accused of rape and cast into prison.  But Joseph was plucked from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cattle and the seven lean cattle that foretold seven fat years followed by seven lean years.  He came to rule the land of Egypt and came to have mercy on his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy grain during the famine.  The Triumphs of Joseph is Robert L. Woodson’s witness to the religious activists working to save America’s most blighted neighborhoods from drugs and despair.  They are fallen people: former drug addicts, convicts, and prostitutes.  They came from utter selfishness, impulse, and exploitation and transformed their lives towards love, direction, and purpose.  They transformed their lives through Christianity.  Woodson argues that the vice of drug addiction and selfish impulse cannot be solved by education or by frightening people straight with pictures of frying eggs.  “When a doctor... decides to take drugs, his or her problem cannot be solved by education.” People that self-destruct on drugs are beyond rational argument.  What they need is not rational rehabilitation but spiritual transformation.  Their problem is not a problem of behavior, but a problem of values.  The solution is not a change in behavior but a transformation of their values.  Part of that process is taking responsibility for another person.  Woodson writes of recovered addict Juan Rivera:

[The recovering addicts] kept a vigil of prayer and caregiving over the cots on newcomers who are breaking hard-core addictions.  In that process... a part of their heart opens and they have, for the first time in years, a sensitivity to the condition of another person.  I have seen men who had been hardened by life, men who have stolen and even killed, come to me sobbing if the person they were trying to save didn’t make it and went back to the streets. (Woodson 1998 p87)

These modern Josephs are raising up their communities with simple enthusiastic Christianity, unheralded and uncelebrated.  Our political and educational elites prefer methods of uplift that they control, through government programs, left-wing activism, and top-down consciousness-raising.  Yet the spontaneous movements of uplift that spawn in the cities are built on faith and self-help.

Spiritual uplift is not confined to the slums.  The Alpha Course, the once-a-week seminar in Christianity, was started by Rev. Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton in London’s tony Knightsbridge.  It consists of 15 talks, and a “Holy Spirit Weekend” in the middle.  Over a million people have taken the course in Britain and two million elsewhere in the world since 1990. (Combe 2001)

Why should the rednecks of South Carolina choose enthusiastic Protestantism, as they emerge from the hills into the striver suburbs of the new economy?  And why should the blacks and Puerto Ricans of New York City choose the ecstatic rhythms of Pentecostalism as they struggle to survive in the vice and social decay in the teeming boroughs of Gotham?  Why should the recovering drug addicts thrill to the love of Jesus Christ?  And why should the young professionals of London be turning to Christianity?  Don’t they know that God died almost two hundred years ago?

And why should the upscale commentators who comment on them exhibit such naked contempt for their honest toil and simple faith?  Don’t they know these ordinary people are doing the best they can?

To many progressives, the rise of the religious right is an insult, a threat to return America to a barbarous past, a cancer that must be stamped out before it metastasizes and kills the body politic.  To Fogel in the Fourth Great Awakening, the sudden upsurge in religious enthusiasm is not a cancer but a negative drug reaction, a wakeup call for progressives.  They need to change the prescription before the patient loses faith in the progressive doctor and leaves to find another one. 

We shall return to analyze the curious phenomenon of the intolerance for religion among elite classes that so boldly advertise their tolerance.  But first we shall examine the present upsurge in religious enthusiasm.  Is it mere coincidence that the unlooked for upsurge in religious enthusiasm has occurred on the progressive watch when progressives and secularists have dominated the culture, or is it a direct response to the progressive hegemony?  Perhaps this spiritual Awakening is a rejection by the ordinary people of the very basis of the progressive vision, the idea of leading the lower classes to leap in one bound from pre-bourgeois victimization and rural idiocy to cosmopolitan creativity and community.  Maybe the Mary Johnstons and the Juan Riveras have a better idea.  Maybe they just want to seek out and plod along the road to the middle class, not saunter along an I-beam like Mohawk ironworkers.  Unlike the educated elite, they live close to their redneck or inner-city roots, and they know the danger.  They know how drugs and drink and cheating hearts can destroy a life and damage all the lives nearby.  Having found the road to the middle class, they want to stay on it, and are content to drive a car built for safety, not for speed.

Of course, this spiritual Awakening among the ordinary people of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century is not unique.  It is not even particularly special.  Similar outbursts have occurred again and again down through recorded history.  But to understand the outburst of our own time, it is well to understand the Awakenings that have come before.  One such was the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century.  It led to the American Revolution of 1776.


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 TAGS


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


 

©2007 Christopher Chantrill