Monday, December 06, 2010

Douthat Almost Gets It

Classic Times op-ed moment: Ross Douthat has finally caught an episode of Jerry Springer, and now he is telling the rest of us that the world will never again be the same. Across the page, Friedman is no doubt talking to a cab driver in Jakarta.

We don't mean to sound harsh. Douthat's piece today is really very interesting on its merits. He looked at some genuinely fascinating stuff from the U.Va.'s National Marriage Project, showing that people with college educations tend to be married longer, more happily and in higher proportions than people with high school diplomas but no college. From this, he concludes that there is a new and ironic twist in the so-called "culture wars" beloved of American conservatism.

Our concern is that, to make this case, Douthat actually has to pooh-pooh evidence that the battle lines had never been drawn correctly.

For example, it has long been true that divorce rates, and out-of-wedlock birthrates, are much higher in the Bible Belt than in the supposedly Godless (and certainly less vocally religious) Northeast. Massachusetts wasn't just the first state to permit same-sex marriage; it also has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country. The very lowest? The District of Columbia, ranked here as America's fourth-most-liberal city. The demographics alone are enough to demonstrate, far more convincingly than anecdotal stories of wayward televangelists, that the people who talk about family values often lack them.

In Douthat's narrative, this "marriage gap" is a "paradox," in which people with conservative values failed to live out those values. But now -- presto! -- the same exact action reflects an abandonment of those values. Obviously, this is illogical. People's actions do reflect their values, always -- often more accurately than their public statements. An honest description of American values has to acknowledge that marriage and family are not somehow the exclusive concern of either the uneducated or the explicitly religious. Secularized people don't live lives of hedonistic abandon. They get married and have children, too.

Moreover, Douthat says that part of the social change is the fact that church attendance now correlates positively with higher education. He suggests that this has to do with a change in the culture of conservative Christianity. This explanation strikes us as mistaken. We have no numbers ready to hand, but we believe that the conservative branches of American Protestantism have always put a premium upon higher education. Consider Princeton Seminary, founded in 1812 as a rejection of the secularized ministerial training available at the other Presbyterian school down the street, or Baylor University, founded before any of the Seven Sisters except Holyoke. On the contrary, the stereotype of culturally and theologically conservative Christianity as a movement of big-haired revivalists, Appalachian snake-handlers and quondam rustics is the sort of cheap and inaccurate stereotype one associates with ... well, frankly, the Times.

As a result, we are unimpressed by Douthat's claim that "as religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder, American churches seem to be having trouble reaching the people left behind." In fact, and despite occasional landmark successes, American Protestantism has always had trouble shaping the values and lives of the poor and marginalized. Roman Catholicism has done better, both because of its deep roots in immigrant communities and because of its actual social teaching, which since the 19th century has placed great emphasis upon social concern for the very poor.

Douthat is not crazy, mind you. He has grasped and publicized a significant truth. Within a generation, there has been a shift in the marital experience of the "moderately educated," as the NMP calls them. The question is "why?," and the answer is not -- as Douthat more than implies -- that the moderately educated middle classes are straying from their former Reaganite conservatism. We believe it is rather that they are giving up their aspiration to the manners of the highly educated, and accepting that a changing economy has thrown them together with the least educated.

Consider a second point, soft-pedaled by the NMP report and then missed entirely by Douthat: high school dropouts are even less likely to be married when they reproduce, or when married to remain so, than those who graduate. And they always have been. These are the people for whom, in the misty dawn of legal history, the notion of "common-law marriage" was invented, because they are so likely to form families the supposedly "traditional" way.

Any pastor who has served among the truly poor has seen this a thousand times; their lives and expectations are often so far from those even the potentially middle-class as to bear no meaningful relation. The bed-hopping of Duke girls holds no candle to that of the young, poor and hopeless. After his first visitation of parishes, Luther said "the people live like animals," and while he wasn't polite, he was not wrong, either.

The real change in the lives of high school graduates over the past thirty years is only secondarily about values. It is, primarily, about money. In 1980, their diplomas might still have helped them get jobs on the GM assembly line, that paid well, and offered both insurance and pensions. If there is still a GM assembly lie in ten years, the ten people who work on it will all hold MS degrees in Computer Science, which help them tend the mechanized laborers. The NMP's executive summary speaks romantically of the "moderately-educated middle class," but this is sheer romanticism.

What's really happening is that the "moderate-middles" are an endangered species. Their access to the middle class is disappearing, and with it their interest in middle-class behavior. This is a remarkable fact, but if one absolutely needs a ready-made political construct to describe it, the Reaganite "culture war" will serve less well than the Marxist "class war."


Anonymous said...

Which means that Mainline Protestantism, including Lutheranism, is clearly going to become more isolated; barely 4% of those under 30 years old belong to ANY Mainline Protestant church. The median age for these churches? 56 and rising.
Where do you see your church in twenty years?

Anonymous said...

You're an irrelevant institution; you're not a church OF the poor, you just claim to be a church FOR them while remaining overwhelmingly white middle/middle class.
In 20 years, you'll be about as important as the Shakers.

Father Anonymous said...

Cheerful as ever, I see. Still, your thoughts, while by no means original, are worth considering.

Liberals have spent decades whining that the ELCA (like most of mainline Protestantism) is resolutely white and middle class, and urging it to become a church of (depending upon what decade we're talking about) the poor/the non-white/the non-English-speaking/the non-straight.

On the other hand, if the numbers in this post, and my interpretation of them, can be trusted, it seems that this is a tactical error. What we should be doing -- if survival alone is the goal -- is becoming a church of the rich. They're the ones who go to church, after all.

If, of course, survival alone is the goal. if we have some other goal, like answering the call of the Gospel, then we may want to consider other strategies.