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Religion, Inequality, and David Brooks' America

New York Times columnist David Brooks is taking a lot of heat for a recent column on race. And rightly so. Even worse, or at least equally bad, is a recent column he wrote on class. I don’t have the time or patience to unpack every single error in this piece, but I wanted to spend a few short minutes examining one major point.

In the world portrayed in Brooks' “Religion and Inequality,” an inversion in values has occurred. A century ago, the American ethos emphasized thrift, hard work, moderation. Religion played an important role in this constellation of values. Both Judaism and Christianity prioritized the humble and the marginal, so that “the moral status system was the inverse of the worldly status system.” The poor were virtuous whereas the wealthy were morally suspect. What has happened since that time? “Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture.” This process of waning influence has meant the rise of a new materialism, a matter-of-fact attitude about conspicuous consumption and luxury, a loss of what Brooks (following Charles Murray) calls “seemliness” among the rich. Among the poor it has meant the rise of an even more harmful and self-destructive set of habits.

What’s wrong with this narrative? Almost everything: Brooks’ dependence on Charles Murray means that all of the change takes place in culture, with little to no attention given to economics. And the role of religion here is disturbingly innocuous. Max Weber’s point about the “inner-worldly asceticism” of radical puritanism didn’t mean just a reluctance to display one’s wealth. It meant an obsessive and joyless concern over the fate of one’s soul accompanied by the constant distraction of hard work. Worldly success was not a bad thing, in fact it was the place where one could sometimes discern signs of being part of the “Elect.” Certain occupations and forms of extreme wealth were suspect, to be sure, but even worse were forms of life that were given over to lassitude and sloth. Wealth became a virtuous sign of what William James called the “vigorous life,” whereas poverty became both a symbol of laziness as well as a kind of sin, a stubborn refusal to be productive. The poor man or woman lost all significance and became a pariah in both social and theological terms.

Americans have never been as sanguine or charitable about the poor as we’d like to believe. Brooks’ story is just part of this self-deception and bad faith. The so-called decline in religious influence is a red herring. One witnesses not change but continuity. Scratch the surface almost anywhere in America, in any so-called secular discussion of work, wages, the fate of the working poor, etc. and the old puritanical values find expression. If anything, in certain conservative circles – among so-called traditionalist Catholics (Paul Ryan I'm talking to you) – the antipathy towards the poor has intensified.

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He also wrote a dopey column recently about Edward Snowden ... http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2013/06/david-brooks-and... ... why does anyone read him?  :)

I think we've always blamed the poor for their problems.  You saw it a hundred years ago when Christians were talking about everyone having diamonds in their own backyard, they just needed the initative to pick them up.  And today, in our last election, during the worst recession of my lifetime, nobody talked about the plight of the poor, it was all about helping the middle class.

I don't understand where our collective dislike of the poor comes from. Maybe we need to blame them, because otherwise we would be compelled to act to help them.  

Contempt for the poor is the last acceptable American prejudice.

One of the biggest problems I have with Brooks' description of religion is that it's always *one thing* -- religious people did this or that, a society guided by religious-minded individuals was this or that. 

American religious history is so much more complex than he ever lets on. He writes as if passionate renewal movements within churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries never existed or had no effects -- threads within American progressivism, the social gospel, Jane Addams and Hull House, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, etc. etc., don't matter, just "religion" in general. Or its as if the ideas about the poor that renewal movements espoused were accepted by all, and without a struggle. Religious affirmations of the value of the poor operated, in fact, very much in tension with dominant ideas and practice within religious communities of all sorts. It has never been this simple.

To take another example, the civil rights movement fought hard against the "normal" religious establishment, which included segregated churches and a long history of legitimating such practices. Looking back further, the abolishionist movement was born in the churches -- but not all church people were abolishionists! Far from it. 

Americans don't now and never really did care much about the poor.   Got it.

Once again, it's necessary to call people back:

http://www.amazon.com/Who-Really-Cares-Compassionate-Conservatism/dp/046...

 

We marveled at those howlers for which Brooks apolologizes now, in the digital edition, when the column on religion and inequality first appeared.  But the whole piece was so "off the cuff,'' really not thought through at all. Maybe the poor man needs a vacation as well as better editorial support.

Anyone who thinks that Evangelicals, including those on the Right politically, are indifferent to the poor is badly mistaken, and surely we do not believe that Max Weber’s opinions about what he took to be Puritanism in the American Protestant tradition is an accurate view today, or was even then? 

Evangelicals are, as a class, extremely generous to charities, and specifically to charities that benefit the poor.  [A review of the charitable giving of Mr. and Mrs. Romney will do as an example.]   Where their actions fall outside our Liberal biases is that Evangelicals believe that love of one’s neighbor is an individual responsibility, not a governmental responsibility.  This is entirely consistent logically with their overall version of the proper relationship of men and women to God and to each other as made in the image and likeness of God.  The Right-leaning Evangelical takes as his model for charity – for responsibility to the less fortunate generally -, the Good Samaritan.

When those of us on the Left politically (including Left-leaning Evangelicals) speak of indifference to the poor, we almost always mean that social action (backed by economic policy) provides inadequate support for the poor.   This is an attitude the places solidarity as a primary virtue, certainly politically and often enough also theologically.   Solidarity fits very well with Catholic theology, and so one is not surprised to see the long history of communal action or the celebration of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement.   And many of the (not often discussed in our polarized American world) Left-leaning Protestant churches and their organizations act in the communal manner, also.

If we wish to argue that individual charity is necessary but not sufficient in the circumstances of today’s world, then by all means let us do so.  In detailing the hypothesis and adducing evidence in its favor, let us try to do so in ways that invite others to look again at models of solidarity, while recognizing the good work that they already are doing.   Caricatures of Protestant beliefs a la Weber cannot help us in this matter at all.

Mark

Krugman weighs in on the "War on  the Unemployed" with some facts and figures and economic principles.  

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/opinion/krugman-the-war-on-the-unemplo...

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.... It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaugherhouse Five

Americans have never been as sanguine or charitable about the poor as we’d like to believe. Brooks’ story is just part of this self-deception and bad faith. The so-called decline in religious influence is a red herring. One witnesses not change but continuity. Scratch the surface almost anywhere in America, in any so-called secular discussion of work, wages, the fate of the working poor, etc. and the old puritanical values find expression. If anything, in certain conservative circles – among so-called traditionalist Catholics (Paul Ryan I'm talking to you) – the antipathy towards the poor has intensified.

I have to say that my own schooling experience does not align with this view.  The high school I attended (Boylan Central Catholic High School, Rockford, IL, class of 1979) was, in my day, attended by Catholic students who, in large part, perhaps the majority, were from working-class homes in which neither parent had completed a four year college degree.  And yet this school's college placement rate for graduating seniors was quite high - I don't remember the precise number, but I think it was 90%+, and quite a few of my friends from those days really have risen up the ladder - have gone on to complete a four year degree, in many cases along with postgraduate accomplishments, and have entered the middle class or the upper middle class.

My undergraduate work was at Loyola University Chicago.  If anything, Loyola in those days was as I've described my high school, but to an even more pronounced degree - there were many children of immigrants whose parents had never gone to college.  And many of my fellow students from Loyola have gone on to have successful careers - really have fulfilled the American dream.  The number of doctors, lawyers, teachers, business executives and (to a diminishing degree) dentists in the Chicago area who came through Loyola, as an undergraduate student, a graduate student, or both, is pretty substantial.

I bring this up because my own life's witness is that the American Dream is not just smoke and mirrors, is not just some wispy ideology without any real grounding to it.  I've seen the American Dream happen, time and time and time again.  My experience, mediated through Catholic education, is that the American Dream is not a lie.

I can't be the only person who hangs out here from an American Catholic culture who has witnessed first-hand what I have witnessed.  This is the great glory and pride of the parallel Catholic education system: that it raised up poor immigrants, paradoxically by encasing them in a Catholic bubble, and then inserting them into American economic and public life in such a way that they can succeed.

 

Jim P. --

You've told us about the children of high school graduates "making it".  But there are many, many children whose parents did not finish high school.  And, further, there are many children of parents who did not even finish *grammar* school, for Heaven's sake, and they are functional illiterates.  These are the people who work two and three jobs, if they can find them. They are oranges to your apples -- they can't really be compared.

Ann -- I didn't write anything about the children of high school graduates.  I do think that, among the families where I grew up, most of the parents did finish high school, but it was, by and large, a working class community, and some of those families were poor.   The high school I attended was the only Catholic one in that city, so it drew students from the full economic spectrum available in that region - from the very poor to what today would probably be viewed as upper middle class.

But the point is that, in large numbers, these students from working-class and poor backgrounds were able to elevate themselves into a higher economic class via Catholic education.  That's a good-news story, so I am not sure why you would want to be argumentative about it.  Do you not believe that large numbers of  working-class and poor kids who went through Catholic schools have done well later in life?

FWIW - I searched a very little bit, but wasn't able to find any statistics on elementary school drop-out rates.  I believe that, for elementary students in the US, it's a very small number.  According to this table from the Census Bureau, the overall high school dropout rate in the US was about 7% last year - a lower number than I had expected, but the table illustrates that the rate has been in steady decline since 1990 - more good news.  (My impression that it would be higher than 7% may be colored by the fact that I live in the Chicago area, and the Chicago Public School dropout rate is considerably higher than the national average, but even that is improving - this recent news story reports that it is about 27%.)

 

Jim,

Thanks for the comment. I have to say that my experience with Jesuit education was somewhat similar. This is a bright spot, and it gives me a little cause for optimism. All the same, I think a significant (radical?) change has taken place in the past twenty years or so. Schools whose mission was once the education of working-class immigrants and their sons and daughters have either been shut down (because of budget constraints) or hijacked by political debates over "Catholic identity."

Jim P. =-=

I know from my own experience in teaching kids from poor to extremely poor backgrounds that the American dream is possible --  for some.  The school where I taught still sends more kids to medical school than any other college in the country -- even more than Harvard.  But there are many, many very poor and extremely poor people in the USA who never had a chance to go to a decent high school because  there wasn't any around, and there were no Jesuits around to help.  Furtherm the non-bright kids don't get into the Loyolas.  Yes, a few very bright kids get into Jesuit high schools,  I know that here the Jesuits even used to pay for some kids's shoes, and I imagine they still do.  But there aren't enough Jesuits fo solve the problem.

In the poorest states the drop-out rate is still unacceptable, and because the schools are so bad in the poorest states the least able students have no saleable skills except muscle power.  Years ago farm-work and manufacturing used to be available for some of such kids but those jobs are many, many fewer these days.  In other words, for the very poor things are worse than they used to be in the poorest states.  

And this doesn't touch on the kids of illegal immigrants.

All the same, I think a significant (radical?) change has taken place in the past twenty years or so. Schools whose mission was once the education of working-class immigrants and their sons and daughters have either been shut down (because of budget constraints) or hijacked by political debates over "Catholic identity."

True.  Or, if they haven't been shut down for financial reasons, are perpetually financially wobbly to one extent or another.

Some of my children attended Catholic schools.  We started with one, then sent another, then another.  By the time our fourth was ready to attend, we couldn't afford to pay a fourth tuition.  We're not working class, but it was just plain beyond our reach.

I  now have one child attending a Catholic university.  It costs a lot, but public universities do, too - there really isn't much of a difference in cost, once scholarships, financial aid, loans and so on are factored in.  In my day at Loyola, many of the undergraduate students had attended Catholic primary schooling. I speculate that it's not so much the case anymore at Catholic universities.

 

Having nearly gone broke providing my children a Catholic education, I'm here to tell you such schools can no longer serve as vehicles for attaining anybody's American Dream.  Far more likely, forking over many years' worth of tuitions will merely work to lower a parent's status from middle to working class.  And, irony of ironies, when it comes to the kid's future, studies have shown the less wealthy their parents, the less likely a student will be admitted to the higher-ranked colleges and universities, since even -- or especially -- today, as far as admissions officers are concerned,  a mom and dad's ability to pay trumps mere athletic prowess or academic potential any day.  

While apologists like Brooks blame all negative fallout on "the culture," their friends, free market capitalism's ideologues, push  policies rigged to reward the rich with more riches and the poor and middle-class with more opportunities to "build character" by working harder and harder for less pay.  Try as Brooks and others will, blaming the victim for the victimizers' sin can't go on indefinitely.  Or at least you'd think.

You want some good homegrown Catholic idiocy?

http://www.thetablet.co.uk/latest-news/5465

Latest News

Kenyan cardinal hits out at Obama

3 July 2013

Kenyan Cardinal John Njue has issued a strongly worded riposte to US President Barack Obama's call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Africa.

At the start of his three-nation African tour in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on 28 June, Mr Obama said gays deserved equal rights. Homosexual acts are illegal in 38 African nations.

Speaking in Nairobi the next day, Njue, president of the Kenyan bishops' conference, said Obama, whose father was Kenyan, should forget the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

"Let him forget and forget and forget ... I think we need to act according to our own traditions and our faiths," said Njue. "Those people who have already ruined their society ... let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go."