Alienated Middle Class Whites

I’ve been reading Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America that came out this past year (and already posted about it). Like so many others, it’s about what brought us to a Trump presidency. But this particular piece of journalism stands out from the crowd, albeit not a difficult achievement. I’m giving the author extra credit points because he is somewhat balanced. For a conservative (paleo-libertarian?) henchman of the American Enterprise Institute living in Washington, D.C., he surprisingly brings up a number of points a left-winger could at least partly agree with.

Looking through the book, I kept expecting to be more critical. The political right bias was there, but Carney also drew upon the views of the political left, if not to the degree and depth I’d have preferred. He discusses the history of racism, gender bias, privilege, etc. Then he puts this in context of the problems of conservative nostalgia and revanchism. He takes some pointed jabs at the right, although he plays to the frame of ‘moderation’ in believing the truth is somewhere to be found in a hypothetical ‘centrism’, such as his critique of both individualism and collectivism or his critique of both big gov and big biz.

In giving the political left credit, he admits the importance of economic factors, such as rising inequality and he also brings up the problems of segregation and mistrust. But he is completely unaware that diversity only leads to loss of trust when combined with segregation (Eric Uslaner, Segregation and Mistrust). Nor does he appreciate how far reaching are the effects of inequality (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder; Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Inner Level). His view is not superficial or lacking in nuance, even as he remains trapped in capitalist realism. But he is coming from a more or less conventional worldview, no matter how far he stretches the boundaries a bit, although admittedly he does bring some good points to the table (The Right’s Lena Dunham Fallacy).

Here is the basic limitation. He constantly associates one positive factor with another in the assumption that the link is causal and goes in the direction that fits his beliefs, but he rarely if ever goes beyond correlation and he doesn’t acknowledge all the immense data and examples that contradict his assumptions and conclusions. Consider Scandinavians who show better results on numerous measures: poverty, unemployment, inequality, small business ownership, patents per capita, education, health, etc. They do this with highly conformist and collectivist societies with centralized welfare states and without the kind of civic participation seen in the US; for example, schools are operated professionally by highly trained and heavily unionized teachers, and parents don’t belong to an equivalent of a PTA or typically volunteer at their children’s schools. Yet it can be argued they somehow have a stronger and healthier form of individualism (Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything). Such examples show that Edmund Burke’s “small platoons” can be as large and centralized as a highly advanced modern nation-state. It is true they are smaller nation-states, but large enough to have ambassadors, international policy, maintain militaries, and be allies with global superpowers.

Carney barely discusses anything outside of the United States. As I recall, he mentions Scandinavia once or twice and even then only in passing. Scandinavia undermines every aspect of his conclusions. That is the problem. He covers a lot of material and, for a mainstream writer, it is reasonably comprehensive as non-academic popular writing. But he never quite brings it together and he offers no meaningful solutions. What could have been a more worthy book stopped short of challenging the paradigm itself and pushing to an entirely different perspective and level of insight. Instead, he offers an obsession with social conservatism, if slightly more interesting than the standard approach. He makes a decent argument for what it is, maybe one of the better mainstream conservative arguments I’ve come across. He actually engages with diverse info. If nothing else, it will serve the purpose of introducing conservatives and right-wingers to a wealth of info and ideas they otherwise would never see.

I’m not sure I can hold the limitations against the author. Even if it fails in the end, it doesn’t fail to a greater degree than is expected. The analysis is adequate and, within the chosen framework, it was inevitable that it couldn’t really go anywhere beyond known territory. Even so, I really did appreciate how much space he gave to a topic like inequality. An example of where it comes short is not even touching on the saddest of inequalities, that of environment and health. It’s not merely that the poor don’t have access to green spaces and nice schools. The poor are literally being poisoned by lead in old pipes and toxic dumps located in poor communities. The oppressed poor aren’t accidental victims for their communities were intentionally destroyed by design, in the kind of capitalism we have that makes profit by devouring ‘social capital’. Still, it’s amazing how much he is willing to speak of, considering who employs him and who is his likely audience, but it ends up feeling like a wad of loose threads. The edges of his argument are as frayed as the social fabric he details. There is no larger context to hold it together, which is to be expected as the author is part of the very same problematic mainstream social order he is attempting to understand… and doing so on the same level the problem was created.

Though going far beyond where most on the political right dare to tread, he never fully takes seriously the ideals of basic human rights and moral righteousness nor the democratic values of fairness and justice as being of penultimate importance. The entire history of corporatocratic and plutocratic capitalism is that of violence, oppression, and theft. The kind of analysis in Alienated America, no matter how fair-minded and reasonable in intention (if we give the author the benefit of the doubt), doesn’t confront the bloody corpse of the elephant in the room, the reality that capitalism only applies to the poor while the rich get socialism (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars). Neither church attendance nor marriage rates could come close to undoing the moral harm. Forget the social fabric. We need to worry about the moral foundation of modern civilization.

As someone harshly put it, “Just a rehash of the same old “Trickle Down Economics” and “Thousand Points of Light” BS. Shrink government down till you can drown it in the bathtub destroying the social safety net while cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations and miraculously private local organizations will jump in to take care of everything. At least try and come up with a more plausible explanation for the disaster to divert us from the truth that the gangster capitalism the Republican Party has been pushing on America since Reagan” (comment to Andy Smarick’s Where civic life crumbled, Donald Trump arose). I might be slightly more forgiving as I came to it with low expectations, but basically this comment is correct.

Carney’s argument is intellectually reasonable as far as mainstream arguments go, but it lacks a gut-level punch. He remains within the range of respectability, not getting too close to anything that might be mistaken as radical. Envisioning a slightly more friendly capitalism is not exactly a new proposition or overly inspiring. Nonetheless, his refusal to scapegoat individuals and his refusal to think of communities in isolation is refreshing. His focus on alienation is key, even as I personally find Joahann Hari (Chasing the Scream & Lost Connections) to be much more probing in getting to the heart of the matter, but that ultimately is just to complain that Carney isn’t a left-winger, not that Hari is extremely radical either.

Where his take offered clarity of light to see by was his dissection of Trump supporters and voters. He does a wonderful takedown of the mainstream narrative that it was the highly religious who were behind Trump’s election. Opposite of this narrative, the facts show that, as church attendance went up in a community, Trump’s voter count went down in that location. His ‘religious’ followers were mostly the unchurched and, interestingly, those lacking in an ethnic identity, as contrasted with traditioanlly religious and community-minded populations such as Dutch-American Calvinists (Terry Mattingly, Journalists don’t understand religious fault lines in ‘alienated’ America). Yet those unchurched Trump supporters claimed that religion was important to them, apparently as a symbolic issue among those who have otherwise lost meaning in their lives, which seems to be Carney’s takeaway. It reminds me of how school shooters are also concentrated in similar communities and, even when non-religious, the assailants often express religious-like concern for meaning (12 Rules for Potential School Shooters).

He busted another myth in pointing out that core support for Trump, although coming from economically struggling populations, did not specifically come from the poor but rather the wealthier in those communities (yet strangely he kept reinvoking the very myth he disproved and dismantled, in returning his focus to poor whites). This economic class of the relatively comfortable apparently have a troubled relationship with their impoverished ‘neighbors’, either in a fear of them or in a fear of becoming like them, which is to say class anxiety in one way or another. It’s understandable as the middle class has been shrinking and surely the middle class is shrinking the most in those economically distressed communities. And that would be hitting white males most of all in how, as many other demographics (women, minorities, and immigrants) have had improving economic outcomes over the past half century, white males are now making less than in the past.

On the other hand, the wealthier in wealthier communities are more protected from these problems and so felt no attraction to Trump’s demagoguery; their local economies are less stressed and divided. It indicates that, though Carney didn’t explain it this way, the real problem is inequality, where it was immediately felt and not. The more well off communities could either ignore inequality altogether as if it didn’t exist or else treat it as a problem of other people elsewhere. To the economically-segregated elites, inequality is an abstraction that isn’t viscerally real in their immediate experience and so, in the mind of the privileged, it is not personally relevant or morally compelling. But such dissociation can only last for so long as society crumbles all around their walled enclaves — as Keith Payne makes clear, even the rich are stressed, suffer, and become sick under conditions of high inequality. Ultimately, there is no escape from a society gone mad, especially when that society is the leading global superpower.

Where Carney really gets things right is about isolation and alienation. And it doesn’t happen in the way most would expect. Why is this particular middle class white demographic so anxiety-ridden and not other populations? In dealing with everyday needs and problems, Carney writes that, “Trump voters—as compared with Ted Cruz voters, or Bernie or Hillary supporters—answered, “I just rely on myself” the most.” That is quite telling. Sanders won the largest proportion of the poor and working class, far more than Trump. So, similar to how the wealthy in wealthy communities feel greater trust and connection toward their neighbors, so do many of the poor.

Stephen Steinberg writes that, “In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”” (Poor Reason; see Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”).

So that is what Carney gets wrong. He goes from Trump’s core supporters from the middle class being isolated and alienated to shifting the frame back to the mainstream narrative of it somehow being about the declining white working class, in stating that, “In general, poorer people “tend to be socially isolated,” Putnam found, “even from their neighbors.” That probably is true to some extent, but the point is that it isn’t nearly true to the degree as found among the anxious middle class. The poorest of the poor, unlike the upwardly aspiring middle class, are those the least likely to move to seek a job and so are the most likely to remain living near lifelong connections of family, friends, and neighbors.

Yes, poverty has a way of isolating people such as being constantly busy with working multiple jobs while unable to afford childcare. Nonetheless, even when they don’t have the time to spend with those important social ties, they know that their social network is always there to fall back on in times of dire need. Sure, the rural poor are increasingly isolated quite literally in a geographic sense, as the rural areas empty out with the young moving to the cities. But in spite of the media loving to obsess over these loneliest of the desperate and aging poor, the reality is the vast majority of the poor, specifically poor whites, have lived in urban areas for over a century now. That isn’t to say it isn’t also shitty to be among the urban poor. But the basic point comes down to something odd going on here. The poorest Americans, contrary to expectation, are not the most anxious and are not those turning most to reactionary politics of nostalgia and strong man leadership. Instead, those on the bottom of society tend to be apolitial and disenfranchised, that is to say they usually don’t vote.

How different that is from Trump’s America. Trump was not speaking to those facing the worst economic hardship but those a few rungs above them. Something happened to the middle class to cause them to feel precarious, as if they had been cheated out of a more comfortable and secure lifestyle that they deserved. Maybe they had sacrificed extended family and community in climbing the economic ladder and pursuing their careers, and it turned out the rewards did not match the costs. So, they were left hanging somewhere in between. “Trump voters were significantly less socially connected,” Carney writes. “There’s plenty more data like this, charting the loneliness and social disconnection in Trump’s early core support.” For certain, something is making middle class whites go crazy and not merely those gripping the lowest edge of it (Fractures of a Society Coming Apart). Look at the breakdown of Trump voters, from my post Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class, and notice it doesn’t fit the narrative spun in the corporate media:

“Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

“Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).”

Of course, Carney is making a more targeted point. He is speaking about Trump’s core support in specifying those who were supporting him from the very beginning of his campaign, prior to the GOP nomination. That core support wasn’t the comfortable upper middle class, but still they were solidly middle class above the common rabble. As he further emphasizes, “recall that Trump’s core supporters weren’t necessarily poorer than other voters. But they lived in places that were worse off, culturally and economically, than other places.” That cuts straight to one of Keith Payne’s main points, the way high inequality can feel like poverty even to those who aren’t poor. Economic stress comes in many forms, not limited to outright economic desperation. Inequality, when pushed to extremes, makes everyone feel shitty. And if the sense of conflict lasts long enough, people begin acting crazy, even crazy enough to vote for demagogues, social dominators, and authoritarians.

If we are to seek the cause of this problem, we should look elsewhere to those concentrations of segregated wealth. “Inequality in the United States is growing,” says Carney in pointing out the obvious. “Economic mobility is low. These facts alone suggest that our elites aren’t sharing the wealth.” That is an interesting conclusion coming from the political right, even to suggest they should share the wealth. Now if the right could only admit that most of that wealth was stolen and so needs to be returned, not merely shared, but such breathtaking honesty is far too much to ask for. We have to take what meager honesty we can get, even if it only gives us a glimpse: “This social inequality, as earlier chapters laid out, was far less in the 1960s (racial and gender inequality were far worse, of course). Between the upper class and the working class, there was a far smaller gap in marriage, in divorce, and in out-of-wedlock births. At the root of it all: In 1960, there was a narrower gap in social connectedness, including church attendance. Today, family life and strong community are increasingly a luxury good. And here we can blame the elites.”

If only social conservatives would take seriously what it means to have made the public good a luxury unaffordable to most of the public. But all we are left with is a diatribe of paternalistic moralizing. We don’t need to get rid of this modern aristocracy, so goes the lament, for the moral failure is that they’ve forgotten their noblesse oblige. They need to return to the founding ideal, as embodied by George Washington, of an enlightened aristocracy. Carney preaches that the economic elite need to once again embrace their role as ruling elite, to return plutocracy back to its aristocratic roots of theocratic patriarchy. The “more pernicious problem” is an “ideoogical commitment to egalitarianism among elites that prevents them from seeing themselves as elites.” Yeah, that is where we went wrong. The elites aren’t elitist enough and so they aren’t taking seriously their moral responsibility to compassionately rule over their local populations of neo-feudal serfs, instead locking themselves away in the modern equivalent of a castle keep. I’m glad we got that cleared up. That should set the world right again.

* * *

Alienated America
by Timothy P. Carney

A quick reminder, though, as we discuss election results and “Trump Country”: By the general election in 2016, a vast majority of Republicans had come around to Donald Trump. Many would choose anyone but Hillary. Others had grown fond of the man. By the end of Trump’s first couple of years in office, after two Supreme Court picks and a tax cut, many other right-leaning Americans embraced him.

This book isn’t about those later adopters, though. This book has mostly studied the results of the early primaries to sort out who was Trump’s early core support . When we have looked at general election results, we have been most interested in the voters or places that shifted from Democrat to Republican—the voters who would have stayed home or voted Democrat had Trump not been the nominee.

So on this question—who was Trump’s early core support ?—different studies found wildly differing results. You may recall those who said “economic anxiety” was the cause, and those who said they could prove that there was no economic anxiety, just racism at the heart of Trump’s earliest support.

What distinguished these two classes of studies? The studies that found no or little connection between economic woe and Trump support were polls of individuals. Those finding that economic woe predicted Trump support were studies of places.

As a Washington Post headline aptly put it: PLACES THAT BACKED TRUMP SKEWED POOR; VOTERS WHO BACKED TRUMP SKEWED WEALTHIER. 3

This is one reason we couldn’t tell the story of Trump without discussing community. The story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind our opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality.

The core Trump voters weren’t the people dying, obviously. They weren’t even necessarily the unhealthy ones. They weren’t necessarily the people drawing disability payments or dropping out of the workforce. Trump’s core voters were these people’s neighbors.

Trump’s win—specifically his wins in the early primaries and his outperformance of Mitt Romney—is best explained by his support in places where communities are in disarray. Many traits characterized Trump’s early core supporters. This chapter will explore them, and we will see how closely they are all tied to alienation.

How Trump Voters Are Giving the Right Qualms About Capitalism
by Park MacDougald

Yet if Carney offers a convincingly bleak view of social collapse in working-class America, his explanation for this collapse — and his suggestions for what to do about it — are somewhat less satisfying. Carney channels, to a limited degree, some of the new right-wing market skepticism: He offers a soft criticism of big business for stamping out local variation in the name of standardization and efficiency; he laments the rise of “Taylorism” and its dehumanization of work; he attacks the “gig economy” for not providing workers with stability; he disapproves of suburbanization and the isolation that stems from it; he even quotes Deneen to the effect that capitalism breeds an individualistic mind-set that makes relationships contingent and easily broken. But in explaining the troubles of working-class America, Carney tends to fall back on the collapse of church and community, which he largely attributes to traditional Republican bogeymen such as the welfare state, the sexual revolution, the rise of expressive individualism, and secularization. These explanations are not wrong per se, but they are so large and fuzzily cultural that they resist solutions beyond the local and individual. Carney offers a few policy fixes he thinks might help — reforming the mortgage interest deduction, decentralizing control over public schools — but he admits in his closing chapter that the “solution is mostly: You should go to church. Also, You should start a T-ball team.

Generally speaking, it probably is a good idea to start a T-ball team. And Carney’s willingness to critique aspects of American capitalism, mild as they may be, represents a marked shift from where the mainstream right was during the Obama years and where some of its leading lights still are. But at the same time, by delivering an account of a country facing full-blown social collapse and then retreating into calls for local, voluntary solutions, Carney ends up restating the basic premises of an old conservative consensus — it’s not the government’s job to fix your problems — that, as a political philosophy, has contributed to the alienation Carney so convincingly describes. It may be true, for instance, that the state is ill equipped to re-create devastated communities, but it is also true that state policy has enabled or even accelerated their devastation, and not merely in the sense that overregulation has hurt small businesses or that the welfare state has crowded out private charity.

Rising international economic competition, for instance, was always going to hurt the American working class. But as critics on both the left and the right have pointed out, globalization has been systematically tilted in favor of the mobile and highly educated. The critic Michael Lind, for instance, notes that the international harmonization of economic rules has focused on tariffs, financial liberalization, and intellectual property while avoiding areas that would benefit the Western working classes, such as wages, labor standards, and tax laws. Even some of the more diffuse cultural shifts lamented by conservatives have been midwifed by the state. As Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have argued in their study of the evolution of Title IX, civil-rights laws designed to protect women’s equal access to education have created, through bureaucratic drift and activist institutional capture, a vast federal regulatory apparatus that treats socialization into “traditional” gender roles as a public-health risk and attempts, under the guise of fighting sexual assault, to inculcate among college students a progressive view of gender and sexuality.

The point here is not to chastise Carney for not adopting a more dirigiste political philosophy than the one he presumably holds. It is to say that, even on the right, intellectuals are concluding that the problems Carney identifies are so alarming that localist, laissez-faire solutions simply aren’t going to cut it. In a recent essay in American Affairs, Gladden Pappin issued a broadside against fusionist conservatives who, in his view, waste their energies calling for the resurrection of vanished civil-society traditions “that worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries.” Instead, Pappin demands conservatives ask themselves, “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”

It remains to be seen whether anyone will take up Pappin’s call and, if they do, whether such a conservatism of the state would be effective or popular. But if Middle America’s condition really is as dire as people like Carney make it out to be, it’s hard to imagine that “go to church” will turn out to be a political winner. Carney ably describes the sort of malaise that led Republicans to flock to Trump, but if there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that desperate people want a leader who promises to try something different, however flawed his solutions might be.

God’s Bailout: A Review of Timothy P. Carney’s “Alienated America”
by Tyler Austin Harper

It is here that Alienated America is very insightful: Carney has a genuine knack for parsing the data, drawing out counterintuitive but rigorously defended observations, and resisting simple narratives about complex states of affairs. His central claim that the 2016 election was a referendum on whether the American dream is alive or dead is not novel, but it is both convincing and better supported than similar efforts. Additionally, although his defense of the salutary nature of cultural practices like religious observance, child-rearing, and marriage are unapologetically conservative in nature, his message remains comparatively broad in scope: unlike other conservative Catholic critics of Trump (most notably, Patrick Deneen), Carney predicates his argument on the form, rather than the content, of these practices. In the pages of Alienated America, you will find no diatribe on the superiority of heterosexual marriage or the Catholic faith — he notes repeatedly, for example, that observant Muslim Americans are among the groups most likely to report optimism about America and faith in the American dream, even after Donald Trump’s election and attempted Muslim ban. Rather, Carney’s message is practical and universalist in nature: people are better off among other people, when they have something, anything whatsoever, that they belong to and that unites them in a network of mutual responsibility.

It is this aspect of Carney’s argument that I find most appealing, and most useful for progressives like myself. Namely, the author eschews the common tendency — on the right and the left — to posit a linear relationship between wealth and well-being. More specifically, his work persuasively suggests that financial security and emotional security go hand in hand not because some kind of mechanical relationship exists between the two, but because, in contrast to the working class, the wealthy tend to have the resources to live in and contribute to places that provide opportunities for meaningful lives lived in common. As he succinctly puts it: “The erosion of community […] is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map.”

While those of us on the left are generally quick (and correct!) to highlight the importance of addressing widening income inequality and an increasingly precarious labor market, for example, it often seems that we are comparatively less likely to talk about questions of community, as though we assume that fixing the former will necessarily achieve the latter. Furthermore, when we do talk about community, we often use the term to refer to people who share common interests and experiences (for example, “communities of color”) but not necessarily geographical proximity or concrete spaces of interaction. If we are willing to take Carney’s assessment seriously, then, two questions seem obvious: What are the barriers to community, understood in the sense of mutual, meaningful networks of local support? And how might these barriers be removed?

Not surprisingly, it is here that Carney’s analysis breaks down, where his professed desire for strong communities is predictably thwarted by his inability to recognize unfettered capitalism, rather than government centralization and regulation, as the primary threat to the robust civic life he vaunts. Although Carney approvingly cites Orwell’s maxim “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle,” he consistently fails to see that at the heart of every flyover town, closed plant, and shuttered church whose death he laments, there is a place where unregulated capital — not some big government boogeyman — has reared its ugly head.

Unlike his meticulously researched and tightly argued defense of the prosocial virtues of marriage and religious observance, for example, Carney’s tepid but persistent support of free-market capitalism and his assaults on liberal governance are fast and loose, often relying on anecdotal evidence, sparse data, and obscure cases of bureaucratic malfeasance to make his points. Oftentimes, his arguments are absurd — such as his claim that massive companies like Walmart, Amazon, or Starbucks crowd out small businesses because of too much, rather than too little, regulation. Other times, they’re comical — once in the 1980s, Mayor Bernie Sanders apparently professed not to believe in charities. This decades-old remark is spun by Carney into a sweeping indictment of the contemporary left’s widespread desire to have neighborly goodwill replaced by the Nanny State.

In fairness, Carney isn’t entirely oblivious to the problems caused by our neoliberal economic order — he frequently cites cases of Chinese manufacturing undermining manufacturing-centric US communities, for example. However, like many modern conservatives, he assuages his doubts by acknowledging that free-market capitalism has a few minor kinks, before swiftly pivoting to the supposedly graver dangers posed by governmental overreach, centralization, and regulation. As a direct consequence of this reaffirmation of the legitimacy of unfettered capital, Carney is thus forced to retreat into the untenable position that religion is the best and most readily available means to redress our present crisis of community. We can’t all be affluent, his argument goes, and thus we can’t all have access to the kind of secular communal life enjoyed by the wealthy. Yet, even the dirt poor can enjoy the social bonds provided by religious life.

To reiterate, I have no problem with Carney’s high estimation of organized religion. As with marriage, I know plenty of people for whom religion has been nightmarish, a source of trauma, insecurity, and even violence. I also know plenty of people, like Jim the bookish engineer, for whom religious affiliation has been a bulwark against the loneliness endemic to modern life. The problem is not religion itself, as one means among many for achieving the communal ties that foster well-being. The problem is Carney’s reliance on God to bail out capitalism. Unlike Robert Nisbet, the conservative sociologist whose classic work — The Quest for Community (1953) — he returns to frequently, Carney’s own work persistently downplays the connection between social alienation and the flow of unregulated capital that is the principal engine of that same alienation.

Although he signals kinship with an earlier tradition of postwar conservatives who were also preoccupied with the question of community — people like Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Peter Viereck, who highlighted the corrosive and antisocial effects of the cult of free enterprise — Carney cannot ultimately bring himself to shed the laissez-faire, libertarian economics that dominate the Republican Party. The result is a book that puts its finger on the right problem, but whose author is too besotted by economic fatalism to imagine a variety of contentment that would be otherwise than religious, positioning secular forms of community as the unique provenance of the elite. While Carney’s insistence that we must reintegrate the classes, combating the geographical isolation of wealth and its resources, is laudable, his calls to privatize the safety net are as predictable as they are puerile.

Rather than buy into a zero-sum game that forces a choice between government as a tentacular monster and government as a minimalist “reinsurance” program (“a safety net for safety nets,” to use Carney’s term) is it not possible to imagine a government that supports community institutions by — and hear me out on this — actually funding and defending them? If you want a thriving book club scene, for example, why not fix the public schools? Try pumping money into education and paying teachers a salary that will make such work a feasible option for the best and the brightest. After all, lifelong learners, the kind who read for pleasure, do not grow on trees. Likewise, if you want heightened church attendance, mightn’t an increased minimum wage — allowing prospective attendees to forsake that second job, spending Sundays in the pews rather than driving for Uber — be a good start? If college graduates are far more likely to build robust communities, as Carney repeatedly claims, shouldn’t we work toward making a college education more affordable for the alienated, working poor whose cause he champions? These are the kind of questions that Carney dismisses out of hand as “centralizing” and “utopian,” preferring instead his own brand of theocratic utopianism in which a minimalist state would be kept afloat by little platoons of the charitable religious.

“What would Mister Rogers do?”

“He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater.”
~Tom Junod, My Friend Mister Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inspiring and, in the end, a challenging portrayal of Fred Rogers, AKA ‘Mister Rogers’. It took some suspension of disbelief, though. Tom Hanks does as good of a job as is possible, but no one can replace the real thing. Mr. Rogers was distinctive in appearance and behavior. The production team could have used expensive CGI to make Hanks look more like the real man, but that was not necessary. It wasn’t a face that made the children’s tv show host so well respected and widely influential. A few minutes in, I was able to forget I was watching an actor playing a role and became immersed in the personality and the moral character that was cast upon the screen of imagination, the movie presented as if a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had just been released.

The way the movie was done was highly effective. It was based on an Esquire article, Can You Say … Hero? by Tom Junod. It was jarring at first in taking a roundabout approach, but it might have been the only way to go about it for the intended purpose. Fred Rogers appears to have been a person who was genuinely and fully focused on other people, not on himself. So a biopic that captures his essence requires demonstrating this concern for others, which makes him a secondary character in the very movie that is supposedly about him. We explore his world by experiencing the profound impact he had on specific people, in this case not only Junod but also his family, while there are other scenes showing the personable moments of Mr. Rogers meeting with children. The story arc is about Junod’s change of heart, whereas Mr. Rogers remains who he was from the start.

This leaves Mr. Rogers himself as an unknown to viewers not already familiar with the biographical details. We are shown little about his personal life and nothing about his past, but the narrow focus helps to get at something essential. We already were given a good documentary about him from last year. This movie was serving a different purpose. It offers a window to peer through, to see how he related and what it meant for those who experienced it. Part of the hidden background was his Christianity, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yet even as Christianity inspired him, he never put his faith out in the public view. As Jesus taught to pray in secret, Fred Rogers took it one step further by keeping his faith almost entirely hidden. He didn’t want to force his beliefs onto others. The purpose of religion is not dogma or outward forms. If religion matters at all, it’s about how it transforms people. That is what Mr. Rogers, as a man and a media personality, was all about.

Some people don’t understand this and so don’t grasp what made him so special. Armond White at National Review wrote that, “Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’ remedies—and not enough interest in their religious origins. In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization” (Christian Faith Is the Missing Ingredient in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). That misses the entire message being conveyed, not only the message of the movie but, more importantly, the message of Mr. Rogers himself. As Greg Forster subtly puts it, “that is of course the whole goddamned point here” (Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable).

To have put Mr. Roger’s Christianity front and center would be to do what Mr. Rogers himself intentionally avoided. He met people where they were at, rather than trying to force or coerce others into his belief system, not that he would have thought of his moral concern as a belief system. He was not an evangelical missionary seeking to preach and proselytize, much less attempting to save the lost souls of heathenish children or make Christian America great again. In his way of being present to others, he was being more Christ-like than most Christians, as Jesus never went around trying to convert people. Jesus wasn’t a ‘good Christian’ and, by being vulnerable in his humanity, neither was Fred Rogers. Rather, his sole purpose was just to be kind to others. Religion, in its highest form, is about how one relates to others and to the world. Thomas Paine voiced his own radical faith with the words, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” I suspect Mr. Rogers would have agreed. It really is that simple or it should be.

That childlike directness of his message, the simplicity of being fully present and relating well, that was the magical quality of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. It was a fixture of my childhood, a show I watched and that was all. But looking back on it, I can sense what made it unique. Like the man himself, the show was extremely simple, one might call it basic, demonstrated by the same ragged puppets he used his entire career. This was no fancy Jim Henson muppet production. What made it real and compelling to a child was what the people involved put into it, not only Fred Rogers but so many others who were dedicated to the show. Along with the simplicity, there was a heartfelt sincerity to it all. The scenes with the puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger most of all, were often more emotionally raw and real than what is typically done by professional actors in Hollywood movies.

That is what stands out about Tom Hank’s performance in bringing this to life. He is one of the few actors who could come close to pulling it off and even his attempt was imperfect. But I have to give Hanks credit for getting the essence right. The emotional truth came through. Sincerity is no small thing, in this age of superficiality and cynicism. To call it a breath of fresh air is a criminal understatement. Mr. Rogers was entirely committed to being human and acknowledging the humanity in others. That is such a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people understood that about him, what exactly made him so fascinating to children and what created a cult-like following among the generations who grew up watching his show. As a character says about the drug D in A Scanner Darkly, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”

Some people claim that “sincerity is bullshit” (Harry Frankfurt), a sentiment I understand in feeling jaded about the world. But I must admit that Fred Rogers’ sincerity most definitely and deeply resonates for me, based on my own experience in the New Thought worldview I was raised in, a touchy-feel form of Christianity where emotional authenticity trumps outward form, basically Protestantism pushed to its most extreme endpoint. Seeing the emotional rawness in Mr. Rogers’ life, although coming from a different religious background than my own, reminded me of the sincerity that I’ve struggled with in myself. I’ve always been an overly sincere person and often overly serious, that is how I think of myself… but can anyone really ever be too sincere? The message of Mr. Rogers is that we all once were emotionally honest when children and only later forgot this birthright. It remains in all of us and that core of our humanity is what he sought to touch upon, and indeed many people responded to this and felt genuinely touched. The many testimonies of ordinary people to Mr. Rogers’ legacy are inspiring.

This worldview of authenticity was made clear in one particular scene in the movie. “Vogel says he believes his dining companion likes “people like me … broken people.” Rogers is having none of it. “I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers begins, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I know you are a man of conviction, a person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are”” (Cathleen Falsani, Meditating On Love and Connection with Mr. Rogers and C.S. Lewis). That dialogue was not pulled from real life, according to Tom Junod in his latest piece My Friend Mister Rogers, but even Junod found himself emotionally moved when watching the scene. The point is that what mattered to Fred Rogers was conviction and he lived his life through his own conviction, maybe a moral obligation even. The man was exacting in his discipline and extremely intentional in everything he did, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, as seen in how he maintained his weight at exactly 143 lbs throughout his adult life and in how he kept FBI-style files on all of his friends and correspondents. He had so little interest in himself that even his wife of 50 years knew little about his personal experience and memories that he rarely talked about. His entire life, his entire being apparently was focused laser-like on other people.

He was not a normal human. How does someone become like that? One gets the sense that Mr. Rogers in the flesh would have, with humility, downplayed such an inquiry. He let on that he too was merely human, that he worried and struggled like anyone else. The point, as he saw it, was that he was not a saint or a hero. He was just a man who felt deeply and passionately moved to take action. But where did that powerful current of empathy and compassion come from? He probably would have given all credit to God, as his softspoken and often unspoken faith appears to have been unwavering. Like the Blues Brothers, he was a man on a mission from God. He was not lacking in earnestness. And for those of us not so fully earnest, it can seem incomprehensible that such a mortal human could exist: “He was a genius,” Junod wrote, “he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved” (My Friend Mister Rogers). Yet for all the easy ways it would be to idolize him or dismiss him, he continues to speak to the child in all of us. Maybe ‘Mister Rogers’ was not a mystery, but instead maybe we are making it too complicated. We need to step back and, as he so often advised, remember what it was like to be a child.

Fred Rogers was a simple man who spoke simply and that is what made him so radically challenging. “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear.” Junod goes on to say, “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed; so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.” He might as well have been talking about Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh. But if there was spiritual truth in Fred Rogers, he taught that it was a spiritual truth in all of us, that we are children of God. Rather than what would Mister Rogers do, what will we do in remembering him?

Enchantment of Capitalist Religion

We Have Never Been Disenchanted
by Eugene McCarraher, excerpt

“The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.  Attending primarily to the history of the United States, I hope to demonstrate that capitalism has been, as Benjamin perceived, a religion of modernity, one that addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion.  But this does not mean only that capitalism has been and continues to be “beguiling” or “fetishized,” and that rigorous analysis will expose the phantoms as the projections they really are.  These enchantments draw their power, not simply from our capacity for delusion., but from our deepest and truest desires — desires that are consonant and tragically out of touch with the dearest freshness of the universe.  The world can never be disenchanted, not because our emotional or political or cultural needs compel us to find enchantments — though they do — but because the world itself, as Hopkins realized, is charged with the grandeur of God…

“However significant theology is for this book, I have relied on a sizable body of historical literature on the symbolic universe of capitalism.  Much of this work suggests that capitalist cultural authority cannot be fully understood without regard to the psychic, moral, and spiritual longings inscribed in the imagery of business culture.”

Has Capitalism Become Our Religion?

“As a Christian, I reject the two assumptions found in conventional economics: scarcity (to the contrary, God has created a world of abundance) and rational, self-seeking, utility-maximizing humanism (a competitive conception of human nature that I believe traduces our creation in the image and likeness of God). I think that one of the most important intellectual missions of our time is the construction of an economics with very different assumptions about the nature of humanity and the world.”

 

 

To Be Fat And Have Bread

The obsession with body fat is an interesting story. It didn’t begin a few generations ago but goes back centuries. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising.

That was the colonial era when the diet was transformed by imperial trade of foreign foods. I might note that this included previously rare or never before seen varieties of fattening carbohydrates: sugar, potatoes, corn, rice, etc. The old feudal system was ending and entirely different forms of food production and diets were developing, especially for the then landless peasants. Hunting, gathering and grazing for the commoners definitely would have been on the decline for a while at that point, as the last of the commons had been privatized. The loss of access to wild game would take longer in the colonies, but eventually it happened everywhere.

The last stage of that shift overlapped with the beginnings of industrialization and agricultural improvements. In the 19th century, change in wheat surpluses and hence costs and prices. Agriculture boomed as fewer people were employed in it. There was also a sudden obsession with gender roles and social roles in general, such as the post-revolutionary expectation of the mother to make citizens out of her children. Bread-making, a once uncommon activity for Americans, became increasingly important to the normative identity of family life and the symbolic maintenance of the social order.

Regular consumption of wheat bread was once limited to the wealthy and that is how refined bread gained its moral association with the refined class. Only the wealthy could afford wheat prior to the 19th century, as prior to that the poor were forced to rely upon cheaper grains and grain substitutes at a time when bread was regularly adulterated with bark, sawdust, chalk, etc. Poverty breads, in the previous centuries, often were made with no grain at all.* For wheat and especially heavily refined white bread to become available to all walks of life meant an upsurge of the civilizing process. The obsession with middle class life took hold and so cookbooks were produced in large numbers.

In a growing reactionary impulse, there was a nostalgic tendency toward invented traditions. Bread took on new meanings that then were projected onto the past. It wasn’t acknowledged how radical was the industrial agriculture and industrial milling that made all of this possible. And the disconnection is demonstrated by the simultaneous promotion of the grain production of this industrial age and the complaint about how industrialized life was destroying all that was good. Bread, as a symbol, transcended these mere details.

With the aristocracy having been challenged during the Revolutionary Era the refinement of the refined class that once was admired had then become suspect. The ideology of whole foods began to emerge and had some strong proponents. But by the end of the 1800s, the ideal of refinement gained prominence again and prepared the way for the following century of ever greater industrialization of processed foods. Refinement represented progress. Only after more extensive refinement led to mass malnourishment, near the end of that century and heading into the next, did whole foods once again capture the public imagination.

Then we enter the true era of fat obsession, fat blaming, and dieting, endless dieting. Eat your whole grains, get your fiber, make sure you get enough servings of fruits, and veggies, and don’t forget to exercise. Calories in, calories out. Count your calories, count your carbs, count your steps. Count every last one of them. Still, the basic sides of the debate remain the same: fewer carbohydrates vs less meat, whole foods vs refined foods, barbaric lifestyle vs civilizing process, individual moral failure vs societal changes, etc. One theme that runs through dietary advice from the ancient world to the present is that there is a close link between physical health, mental health, and moral health — the latter erupting as moral panic and moral hygiene. But what stands about the modern era, beginning in the 1600s, is that it was observed that psychological problems were mostly seen among the well-to-do.

This was often blamed on luxury and sometimes on meat (a complaint often about animals raised unnaturally in confinement and probably fed grain, the early equivalent of concerns about factory farming; but also a complaint about the introduction of foreign spices and use of fancy sauces to make meat more appetizing), although there was beginning to be an awareness that a high-carb diet might be playing a role in that it was often noted that the morbidly obese ate lots of pastries, fruit pies, and such. The poor didn’t have much access to wheat and sugar before the 1800s, but the wealthy had plenty of such foods centuries earlier. Meat consumption didn’t change much during that era of colonial trade. What did change the most was availability of starchy and sugary foods, and the wealthy consumed them in great proportions. Meat had always been a desirable food going back to earliest hominid evolution. Modern agriculture and global trade, however, entirely transformed the human diet with the introduction of massive amounts of carbohydrates.

It’s strange that right from the beginning of the modern era there were those pushing for a vegetarian diet, not many but their voices were being heard for the first time. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange. Prior to the modern era, a vegetarian diet so far north in Europe would have been impossible. It was only the elite promoting vegetarianism as only they could afford a vegetarian diet year round, in buying expensive plant-based foods that were often shipped in from far away. Although plant foods were expensive at the time, they were available to those who had plenty of money. But during the Middle Ages and earlier, vegetarianism for the most part was not an option for anyone since the food items required of such a diet simply weren’t available enough to sustain life, certainly not in places like England or Germany.

There is another side to this bring us back to the obsession with fat. It was only with the gradual increase of grain production that cattle could be fed grain, not only as additional feed in the winter but year round. This is also what allowed the possibility of confining animals, rather than grazing them on fields. Grain surpluses weren’t consistent until the 19th century, but even before that grain production had been increasing. There were slow improvements in agriculture over the centuries. The rich could afford meat from grain-fed animals much earlier than the rest of the population and it was highly sought after. That is because such meat is extremely fatty creating those beautiful marbled steaks, pork chops, etc (such fattiness, by the way, is a sign of metabolic syndrome in both animals and humans). Fat couldn’t have been a focus of debate prior to grain-fattened animals became common.

So, there is a reason that both wheat bread and fatty meat gained immense symbolic potency at the same time. Similarly, it was during this same era that vegetables became more common and gardens likewise became symbols of wealth, abundance, and the good life. Only the rich could afford to maintain large gardens because of the difficulty involved and immense time-consuming work required (see The Jane Austen Diet by Bryan Kozlowski**; also about the American diet before the 20th century, see The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz that I quote in Malnourished Americans). They represented the changed diet of modern civilization. They were either indicators of progress or decline, depending on one’s perspective. Prior to modernity, a diet had consisted to a much greater degree of foods that were gathered, hunted, trapped, and fished.

The shift from one source of food to another changed the diet and so changed the debate about diet. There suddenly were more options of foods available as choices to argue about. Diet as a concept was being more fully formulated. Rather than being something inherited according to the traditional constraints of local food systems and food customs, assuming one had the wealth, one could pick from a variety of possible diets. Even to this day, the obsession about dieting carries a taint of class privilege. It is, as they say, a first world problem. But what is fascinating is how this way of thinking took hold in the 1600s and 1700s. There was a modern revolution in dietary thought in the generations before modern political revolution. The old order was falling apart and sometimes actively being dismantled. This created much anxiety and it forced the individual into a state of uncertainty. Old wisdom no longer could be relied upon.

* * *

*Rather than bread, the food that was most associated with the laboring class was fish, a food the wealthy avoided. Think about how lobster and clams used to be poverty foods. In Galenic theory of humoral physiology, fish is considered cold and wet, hard to digest and weakening. This same humoral category of food also included fruits and vegetables. This might be why, even to this day, many vegetarians and vegans will make an exception for fish, in seeing it as different than ‘meat’. This is an old ideological bias because ‘meat’ was believed to have the complete opposite effect of being hot and dry, easy to digest and invigorating. This is the reason for why meat but not fish was often banned during religious fasts and festivals.

As an interesting side note, the supposed cooling effect of fish was a reason for not eating it during the cold times of the year. Fish is one of the highest sources of vitamin A. Another source is by way of the precursor of beta-carotene found in vegetables. That these two types of food are considered of the same variety according to Galenic thought is interesting. Cold weather is one of the factors that can disrupt the body’s ability to convert beta-carotene into usable vitamin A. The idea of humors mixes this up slightly, but it maybe points to understanding there was something important to be understood. Eating more meat, rather than vegetables, in winter is a wise practice in a traditional society that can’t supplement such nutrients. Vitamin A is key for maintaining a strong immune system and handling stress (True Vitamin A For Health And Happiness).

By the way, it was during the 19th century that a discussion finally arose about vegetarianism. The question was about whether life and health could be sustained with vegetables. Then again, those involved were probably still being influenced by Galenic thought. By vegetarianism, they likely meant a more general plant-based diet that excluded ‘meat’ but not necessarily fish. The context of the debate was the religious abstinence of Lent, during which fish was allowed. So, maybe the fundamental argument was more about the possibility of long-term survival solely on moist, cooling foods. Whatever the exact point of contention, it was the first time in the modern Western world where a plant-based diet (be it vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian-style Mediterranean diet) was considered seriously.

These ideas have been inherited by us, even though the philosophical justifications no longer make sense to us. This is seen in the debate that continues over red meat in particular and meat in general, specifically in terms of the originally Galenic assertion of its heat and dryness building up the ‘blood’ (High vs Low Protein). It’s funny that dietary debates remain obsessed over red meat (along with the related issue of cows and their farts), even though actual consumption of red meat has declined over the past century. As with bread, the symbolic value of red meat has maybe even gained greater importance. Similarly, as I mentioned above, the uncertain categorization of fish remains hazy. I know a vegan who doesn’t eat ‘meat’ but does eat fish. When I noted how odd that was, a vegetarian I was talking to thought it made perfect sense. This is Galenic thought without the Galenic theory that at least made it a rational position, but the ideological bias remains in spite of those adhering to it being unable to explain why they hold that bias. It amuses me.

Ideologies are powerful systems. They are mind viruses that can survive and mutate across centuries and sometimes millennia. Most of the time, their origins are lost to history. But sometimes we are able to trace them and it makes for strange material to study.

See: “Fish in Renaissance Dietary Theory” by Ken Albala from Fish: Food from the Waters ed. by Harlan Walker, and Food and Faith in Christian Culture ed. by Ken Albala and Trudy Eden. Also, read text below, such as the discussion of vegetarianism.

* * *

(Both texts below are from collections that are freely available on Google Books and possibly elsewhere.)

The Fat of the Land: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking 2002
ed. by Harlan Walker
“The Apparition of Fat in Western Nutritional Theory”
by Ken Albala

Naturally dietary systems of the past had different goals in mind when framing their recommendations. They had different conceptions of the good, and at some point in history that came to include not being fat. Body size then became an official concern for dietary writers. Whether the original impetus for this change was a matter of fashion, spirituality or has its roots in a different approach to science is impossible to say with any degree of precision. But this paper will argue that nutritional science itself as reformulated in the 17th century was largely to blame for the introduction of fat into the discourse about how health should be defined. […] Obesity is a pathological state according to modern nutritional science. But it was not always so.

When and why fat became a medical issue has been a topic of concern among contemporary scholars. Some studies, such as Peter N. Sterns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, place the origin of our modern obsession in the late 19th century when the rise of nutritional science and health movements lead by figures like John Harvey Kellogg, hand in hand with modern advertising and Gibson Girls, swept away the Victorian preference for fulsome figures. As a form of social protest, those who could afford to, much as in the 60s, idealized the slim androgynous figure we associate with flappers. Others push the origin further back into the early 19th century, in the age of Muscular Christianity and Sylvester Graham. But clearly the obsession is earlier than this. In the 18th century the 448 pound physician George Cheyne and his miracle dieting had people flocking to try out the latest ‘cures.’ It was at the same time that dissertations on the topic of obesity became popular, and clearly the medical profession had classified this as a treatable condition. And readers had already been trained to monitor and police their own bodies for signs of impending corpulence. The roots of this fear and guilt must lie somewhere in the previous century as nutritional science was still groping its way through a myriad of chemical and mechanical theories attempting to quantify health and nutrition with empirical research.

The 17th century is also the ideal place to look if only because the earlier system of humoral physiology is almost totally devoid of a concept of fat as a sickness. […]

For all authors in the Galenic tradition it appears that fat was seen as a natural consequence of a complexion tending to the cold and moist, something which could be corrected, but not considered an illness that demanded serious attention. And socially there does not seem to have been any specific stigma attached to fat if Rubens’ taste in flesh is any measure.

The issue of fat really only emerges among authors who have abandoned, in part or totally, the system of humoral physiology. This seems to have something to do with both the new attempts to quantify nutrition, first and most famously by Santorio Santorio9 and also among those who began to see digestion and nutrition as chemical reactions which when gone awry cast fatty deposits throughout the body. It was only then that fat came to be considered a kind of sickness to be treated with therapy.10

The earliest indications that fat was beginning to be seen as a medical problem are found in the work of the first dietary writer who systematically weighed himself. Although Santorio does not seem to have been anxious about being overweight himself, he did consistently define health as the maintenance of body weight. Expanding on the rather vague concept of insensible perspiration used by Galenic authors, Santorio sought to precisely measure the amount of food he consumed each day compared to the amount excreted in ‘sensible’ evacuations. […] Still, fat was not a matter of eating too much. ‘He who eats more than he can digest, is nourished less than he ought to be, and [becomes] consequently emaciated.’12 More importantly, fat was a sign of a system in disarray. […]

Food was not in fact the only factor Santorio or his followers took into account though. As before, the amount of exercise one gets, baths, air quality, even emotions could alter the metabolic rate. But now, the effect of all these could be precisely calculated. […]

At the same time that these mechanistic conceptions of nutrition became mainstream, a chemical understanding of how food is broken down by means of acids and alkalis also came to be accepted by the medical profession. These ideas ultimately harked back to Paracelsus writing in the 16th century but were elaborated upon by 17th century writers […] It is clear that by the early 18th century fat could be seen as a physiological defect that could be corrected by heating the body to facilitate digestive fermentation and the passage of insensible perspiration. […] Although the theories themselves are obviously nothing like our own, we are much closer to the idea of fat as a medical condition. […]

Where Cheyne departs from conventional medical opinion, is in his recommendation of a cooked vegetable diet to counter the affects of a disordered system, which he admits is rooted in his own ‘experience and observation on my own crazy carcase and the infirmities of others I have treated’ rather than on any theoretical foundation.

The controversy over whether vegetables could be considered a proper diet, not only for the sick or overgrown but for healthy individuals, was of great concern in the 18th century. Nicholas Andry in his Traité des alimens de caresme offered an extended diatribe against the very notion that vegetables could sustain life, a question of particular importance in Catholic France where Lenten restriction were still in force, at least officially. […] According to current medical theory, vegetables could not be suitable for weight loss, despite the successful results of the empirics. […]

It is clear that authors had a number of potentially conflicting theoretical models to draw from and both mechanical and chemical explanations could be used to explain why fat accumulates in the body. Yet with entirely different conceptual tools, these authors arrived at dietary goals surprisingly like our own, and equally as contentious. The ultimate goals now became avoiding disease and fat, and living a long life. While it would be difficult to prove that these dietary authors had any major impact beyond the wealthy elites and professionals who read their works, it is clear that a concern over fat was firmly in place by the mid 18th century, and appears to have its roots in a new conception of physiology which not only paid close attention to body weight as an index of health, but increasingly saw fat as a medical condition.

Food and Morality: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2007
ed. by Susan R. Friedland
“Moral Fiber: Bread in Nineteenth-Century America”

by Mark McWilliams

From Sarah Josepha Hale, who claimed, ‘the more perfect the bread, the more perfect the lady’ to Sylvester Graham, who insisted, ‘the wife, the mother only’ has the ‘moral sensibility’ required to bake good bread for her family, bread often became a gendered moral marker in nineteenth-century American culture.1 Of course, what Hale and Graham considered ‘good’ bread differed dramatically, and exactly what constituted ‘good’ bread was much contested. Amidst technological change that made white flour more widely available and home cooking more predictable, bread, described in increasingly explicit moral terms, became the leading symbol of a housewife’s care for her family.

Americans were hardly the first to ascribe moral meaning to their daily bread. As Bernard Dupaigne writes, ‘since time immemorial [bread] has attended the great events of various human communities: monsoon or grape harvest bread, the blessed bread of Catholics or the unleavened bread of Passover, or the fasting-break bread of Ramadan. There is no bread that does not, somewhere in the world, celebrate an agricultural or religious holiday, enrich a family event, or commemorate the dead.’2 With such varied symbolic resonance, bread seems easily filled with new meanings.

In America (as later in France),3 bread became a revolutionary symbol. To the early English colonists’ dismay, European wheat did not adapt well to the North American climate; the shift to corn as the primary grain was perhaps the most important dietary adaptation made by the colonists. Wheat remained too expensive for common consumption well into the nineteenth century. […]

By the end of the Revolution, then, bread was already charged with moral meaning in the young United States. In the nineteenth century, this meaning shifted in response to agricultural improvements that made wheat more widely available, technological change that made bread easier to make consistently, and, perhaps most important, social change that made good bread the primary symbol of a housewife’s care for her family. In effect, bread suffered a kind of identity crisis that paralleled the national identity crisis of Jacksonian America. As Americans thought seriously about who they were in this new nation, about how they should act and even how they should eat, bread’s symbolic meaning – and bread itself– changed.

American agricultural production exploded, although the proportion of the population working on farms declined. James Trager notes that even before the McCormick reaper first sold in large numbers as farmers struggled to replace workers leaving for the 1849 Gold Rush, the average time required to produce a bushel of wheat declined 22 per cent from 1831 to 1840.7 Dramatic improvements in efficiency led to larger yields; for example, wheat production more than doubled between 1840 and 1860. Such increases in wheat production, combined with better milling procedures, made white flour finally available in quantities sufficient for white bread to become more than a luxury good.8

Even as wheat became easier to find for many Americans, bread remained notoriously difficult to make, or at least to make well. Lydia Maria Child, a baker’s daughter who became one of America’s leading writers, emphasizes what must have been the intensely frustrating difficulty of learning to cook in the era before predictable heat sources, standardized measurements, and consistent ingredients.9 […]

Unlike Hale, who implies that learning to bake better can be a kind of self improvement, this passage works more as dire warning to those not yet making the proper daily bread. Though bread becomes the main distinction between the civilized and the savage, Beecher turns quickly, and reassuringly, to the science of her day: ‘By lightness is meant simply that in order to facilitate digestion the particles are to be separated from each other by little holes or air-cells; and all the different methods of making light bread are neither more nor less than the formation of bread with these air cells’ (170). She then carefully describes how to produce the desired lightness in bread, instructions which must have been welcome to the young housewife now fully convinced of her bread’s moral importance.

The path for Beecher, Hale, and others had been prepared by Sylvester Graham, although he is little mentioned in their work.14 In his campaign to improve bread, Graham’s rhetoric ‘romanticized the life of the traditional household’ in ways that ‘unknowingly helped prepare women to find a new role as guardians of domestic virtue,’ as Stephen Nissenbaum notes.15 Bread was only one aspect of Graham’s program to educate Americans on what he called ‘the Science of Human Life.’ Believing on the one hand, unlike many at the time, that overstimulation caused debility and, on the other, that industrialization and commercialization were debasing modern life, Graham proposed a lifestyle based around a strict controls on diet and sexuality.16 While Graham promoted a range of activities from vegetarianism to temperance, his emphasis on good bread was most influential. […]

And yet modern conditions make such bread difficult to produce. Each stage of the process is corrupted, according to Graham. Rather than grow wheat in ‘a pure virgin soil’ required for the best grain, farmers employ fields ‘exhausted by tillage, and debauched by the means which man uses to enrich and stimulate it.’ As Nissenbaum notes, the ‘conscious sexual connotations’ of Graham’s language here is typical of his larger system, but the language also begins to point to the moral dimensions of good bread (6).

Similarly loaded language marks Graham’s condemnation of bakery bread. Graham echoed the common complaints about adulteration by commercial bakers. But he added a unique twist: even the best bakery bread was doubly flawed. The flour itself was inferior because it was over-processed, according to Graham: the ‘superfine flour’ required for white bread ‘is always far less wholesome, in any and every situation of life, than that which is made of wheaten meal which contains all the natural properties of the grain.’ […]

As Nissenbaum argues, pointing to this passage, Graham’s claims invoke ‘the vision of a domestic idyll, of a mother nursing her family with bread and affection’ (8). Such a vision clearly anticipates the emphasis on cookery as measure of a woman’s social worth in the domestic rhetoric that came so to characterize the mid-nineteenth century.

Such language increasingly linking cookery with morality emphasized the virtue not of the food itself but rather of the cooks preparing it. This linkage reached read ers not only through the explosion of cookbooks and domestic manuals but also through the growing numbers of sentimental novels. Indeed, this linkage provided a tremendously useful trope for authors seeking a shorthand to define their fictional characters. And that trope, in turn, helped expand the popularity of interpreting cookery in moral terms. […]

After the Civil War, domestic rhetoric evolved away from its roots in the wholesome foods of the nation’s past toward the ever-more refined cuisine of the Gilded Age. Graham’s refusal to evolve in this direction – his system was based entirely in a nostalgic struggle against modernity, against refinement – may well be a large part of why his work was quickly left behind even by those for whom it had paved the way.

* * *

Here is another text I came across. It’s not free, but it seems like a good survey worth buying.

 

 

“A Bitch For God”

“I challenge the idea that the people who got us in this ditch are the only ones who can get us out of it.”

Marianne Williamson has called herself “a bitch for God.” As presidential candidate, she is getting plenty of attention right now. She is well known among a certain crowd, as she has written numerous books that sold widely, including best-sellers, such as Healing the Soul of America that topped The New York Times nonfiction list for 39 weeks: “Seven reached the New York Times best-seller list, and four hit No. 1” (Cameron Joseph, Marianne Williamson Knows You Think She’s a Joke. But Her Campaign Isn’t.). I’ve known about her since the 1990s during my young adulthood. But for most Americans, she hasn’t been a household name. Yet many people are more familiar with her words, such as a quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Besides being on Oprah’s show in the past, she is well connected and, for those who know her, strongly supported. She has inspired many people, from famous stars to ordinary Americans, including in politics: “She has some surprising adherents in the Granite State, including former Rep. Paul Hodes who served as a co-chairman on President Obama’s 2008 campaign and is still a power broker in the state. He’s been a Williamson fan since her heyday in the ’90s — her quote “Who are we to stay small?” inspired him to run for Congress a decade-plus ago and hangs in his home to this day,” as reported by Cameron Joseph. That has been her career, inspiring people and she has a talent for it. It is the kind of mixing of religion, politics, and progressive vision we haven’t seen in a while, maybe not since Martin Luther King Jr.

I must admit it feels validating to hear her in the mainstream media, particularly in the early Democratic debates. She comes out of the same background as I do, something I explained in another post (Heretic For President!). She is part of a heretical tradition of thought that goes back to the earliest Christians. Today, we think of it as “New Age” or what in the liberal wing of Christianity is called New Thought. Basically, she believes God is Love — no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s the radical message of Jesus himself, too often diluted or rationalized away and yet still carrying a powerful punch when released from centuries of stale dogma.

Williamson was the minister of the second largest Unity church in the country, the denomination of Christianity I was raised in. She still does guest speaking at that church and other churches. Her primary career has been as a Christian minister, but the mainstream, both left and right, caricatures her as a New Ager, spiritual guru, or whatever; although I’ll give Slate some credit for sort of complimenting her, if backhanded (Shannon Palus, The Bizarre Charm of Marianne Williamson). “I do not understand why everyone is so dismissive of her,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick. “Are we really so out of touch with emotions, spirituality, etc that she seems insane?” If corporate media were to be fair, they’d have to admit she is a Christian minister who comes out of the American Evangelical tradition (Unity Church) and who upholds a theology that has its roots in the earliest Christianity by way of Valentinianism (A Course In Miracles). That is maybe too much historical knowledge for a society that suffers from permanent historical amnesia. She may be a heretic, but she is a heretic with credentials. I’ll call it the return of the repressed. It’s amusing.

Despite it all, Unity is slowly creeping into the mainstream. This has been going on for a long time. I remember when visiting non-Unity churches in decades past and I would sometimes come across the Unity publication The Daily Word even in mainstream churches. So, many people were reading New Thought theology without knowing it. More recently, the Unity Church showed up in a major subplot of the tv show The Path (Meyerism and Unity Church). Then there is the story of Carlton Pearson, as told in a segment on This American Life and in the Netflix movie Come Sunday. He attended Oral Roberts University and was mentored by Oral Roberts himself. As a popular fourth generation Pentecostal preacher, he came to a point of crisis in his faith. He no longer could believe God was a horrific and monstrous demiurge threatening people with eternal damnation. After much inner struggle, he converted to the view that there is no hell, was officially condemned as a heretic, lost his congregation, and then found his faith again in New Thought theology. He has since become the senior minister of a New Thought church and an affiliate minister of a Unity church. His story has inspired many.

Now here we are. We have a Unity minister as a presidential candidate. To me, it is mind-blowing. Unity Church powerfully shaped who I am. I can’t shake the blinding idealism of New Thought theology, in the way an ex-Catholic never quite gets over original sin or an ex-Baptist never loses that sense of fire-and-brimstone breathing down their neck. It is hard to explain being raised in that kind of light-and-love sincerity. I remember going to what was the Unity equivalent of a Bible camp, called Youth of Unity. I had never experienced so much positivity and goodwill in my life. Then I returned back to ‘normal’ life of high school and it shook me to the core. As wonderful as Unity was, it wasn’t the way life operated or so I was told. I was supposed to get real and accept the world the way it was. Like most others growing up in this society, cynicism fell upon me like a sledgehammer.

But Marianne Williamson embodies and exemplifies another way of being. She suggests there is another way and she walks her talk. She doesn’t care who attacks her. She won’t attack back. Instead, when she feels she is wrong, she admits and apologizes. Holy fuck! Someone aspiring to be president who isn’t afraid to apologize! Trump came to power on the arrogant, egomaniac and psychopathic claim that morality, compassion, and common human decency no longer matters. Williamson disagrees down to her soul that it does matter. How we act determines the kind of country we live in. And she is driven to make the world a better place or go down trying. When arguing her position, she doesn’t fall back on talking points. In response to a question about her strategy, she used air quotes as she spoke of her “strategy” — she said that her only strategy was to speak the truth she knows and to continue campaigning as long as people supported her vision of America (Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). Her non-aggressive approach doesn’t come across as weakness for, when a principle is at stake, she doesn’t back down. And she isn’t afraid to call someone out on their bullshit, including the MSNBC interviewer Jo Ling Kent, but even then she does so with perfect politeness.

Her personality comes across as strong and confident, and not as a pretense and pose. I loved watching her in that interview. Before answering, she would often get this serious look on her face as if she were scrutinizing the true intentions behind the question and contemplating it as a philosophical issue. Such sincerity is potent, an antidote to cynicism. Trump would have a hard time combating her because she would never give him the kind of response he feeds on. No one is likely to throw Williamson off message because she lives her message. Walk and talk are perfectly aligned. I’m not sure how many people listening to her get where she is coming from. It’s something I’m extremely familiar with from years in the Unity Church. But most people rarely come across authenticity at this level. It’s not something we’ve come to expect in politics. The last time I heard a candidate this straight-shooting was when I went to a speech given by Ralph Nader when he was running for president in 2000, but even he didn’t come across with the same confidence in vision. Even Bernie Sanders, in his down-to-earth style, doesn’t come across as powerfully as this.

Marianne Williamson, in the Democratic debate said, “So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please — you have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out … I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.” Who says something like that in a national political debate, especially in a political party that has become infamous for its political insincerity from Clinton domination, and even more especially while facing president Donald Trump who came to power through hate, anger, and outrage. Such audacity to proclaim love in this era of cynicism. Listen to what she said in that debate (Tim Hains, Marianne Williamson: If You Think We’re Going To Beat Donald Trump By Having A Lot Of Plans, You’ve Got Another Thing Coming). She kicks ass! And it has won her a following, something the corporate media is trying to dismiss — oddly, one hit piece calls her positivity-spouting and humorous followers on Reddit “trolls” (Ben Collins, 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson’s reddit following).

Those in the mainstream are looking for reasons to attack her. For example, some misrepresent her as an anti-vaxxer (Jo Ling Kent, Marianne Williamson says she supports mandatory vaccines – but ‘when they are called for’). In explaining her actual position, she states in no uncertain terms that, “I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma.” There is no way to fairly call her an anti-vaxxer. What she is mainly questioning is the anti-democratic role big biz plays in public policy and wants to ensure the best scientific evidence possible is available to promote the public good. She is a principled anti-corporatist and pro-democrat. As she put it in her own words, “I want you to rail against the chemical companies and their GMO’s — not support them. I want you to decry the military industrial complex — not assure them you’re their girl. I want you to support reinstating Glass-Steagall — not just wink at Wall Street while sipping its champagne” (An Open Letter To Hillary Clinton).

She supports mandatory vaccinations when they meet the criteria of the highest standards of the scientific method, if and only if the best evidence strongly supports a public health concern that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be remedied only through this drastic course of action. Otherwise, if the evidence is weak or still under debate, if big pharma is unduly influencing government decisions, then we are morally forced to defend democratic process and individual liberty, personal conscience, and bodily autonomy. It is the forever difficult but not impossible democratic balance between public good and private good. A mandatory vaccination is justified in many cases and maybe not in others. She is not promoting denialism. After all, she has vaccinated her own daughter. Science isn’t a dogmatic belief system that is forever settled. Instead, science is an ongoing process. To act like it is otherwise is anti-scientific.

The same problem comes up with attacks on her credibility because she is skeptical about GMOs. Do these people even bother to look into the science? I could write a long post about all the contrary evidence, especially the relationship between GMOs and increased pesticide use (as opposed to organic farming), but this isn’t the place to flesh out that debate. Let’s just honestly acknowledge it exists as a contested issue, a state of affairs that, of course, is reported on in the alternative media but also found in mainstream sources (a few examples: The UK’s Royal Society: a Case Study in How the Health Risks of GMOs Have Been Systematically Misrepresented by Steven Druker from Independent Science News, How GMOs Cut The Use Of Pesticides — And Perhaps Boosted It Again by Dan Charles from NPR, Largest-Ever Study Reveals Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Crops by Caroline Newman from University of Virginia, Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles by Robin Mesnage et al from BioMed Research International, etc).

If only from a viewpoint of the precautionary principle, whether about the GMOs themselves or the pesticides heavily used with GMOs, it’s perfectly rational that the vast majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) are concerned about GMOs and strongly support having GMO foods labeled — 71-95%, depending on the question and the group asked (Chris Mooney, Stop Pretending That Liberals Are Just As Anti-Science As Conservatives). Not that American politics was ever constrained by nuance. That is precisely the problem. Williamson is arguing that we must understand diverse problems as being systemically related, such as health and the food system or such as the inseparable relationship between GMOs and pesticides. Yet nuance is deemed ‘loony’ because it challenges the dominant paradigm that is dominated by corporate agendas.

As a loony left-winger myself, here is how I put it: “Yeah, monocultural GMO crops immersed in deadly chemicals that destroy soil and deplete nutrients are going to save us, not traditional grazing land that existed for hundreds of millions of years. So, sure, we could go on producing massive yields of grains in a utopian fantasy beloved by technocrats and plutocrats that further disconnects us from the natural world and our evolutionary origins, an industrial food system dependent on turning the whole world into endless monocrops denatured of all other life, making entire regions into ecological deserts that push us further into mass extinction. Or we could return to traditional ways of farming and living with a more traditional diet largely of animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, etc) balanced with an equal amount of vegetables, the original hunter-gatherer diet” (Carcinogenic Grains). Tell me. Is my skepticism irrational? If so, how has the highly destructive ‘rationality’ of mass industrialization been working out for life on this planet, as we head toward the cliff of mass extinction and climate change?

In many different ways, Marianne Williamson is a potential threat to the Clinton Democrats. Republicans have sensed this and, as a way of fucking with Democrats, some of them have donated to her campaign (Cnaan Liphshiz, Republicans donate to Marianne Williamson’s campaign to keep her in the Democratic debates). It reminds me of how Democrats promoted Trump in the hope that would ensure a Democratic victory. It’s funny that Republicans are falling into the same trap of naivete. Williamson isn’t a mere unknown outlier. After the debate she participated in, her name was the most Googled and, even while the debate was happening, Google searches for her name spiked every time she spoke (Malachi Barrett, Marianne Williamson searches in Michigan explode after Democratic debate). Also, “Williamson has performed better in national polls than more established candidates like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; and Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii” writes Merle Ginsberg (Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson Is Running on Empathy); and she concludes that, “If anybody could play Jesus to Trump’s Antichrist, Williamson is, as our wayward president would put it, straight out of central casting.”

Williamson is no lightweight. In the debates, she is the only candidate that brought up the harmful US policy in Latin America — interestingly, the only article I came across mentioning this came from a conservative source (Christian Watson, Democratic debate showed conservatives could learn something from Marianne Williamson). And she is bold in her vision that comes across as quite left-wing (e.g., since 1997, she has supported reparations for African American slave descendants) while simultaneously invoking the American founding generation of revolutionaries. Here is how she puts it: “Franklin Roosevelt said that the primary role of the presidency is moral leadership. Americans are a decent people, but over the last 50 years, the concept of what it takes to live a good life—an ethical life—has been overtaken by corporatocracy. When I was a child, corporations were expected to have responsibility to the community, not just focus on fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders. Soulless economics has not brought us economic vibrancy. It’s destroyed our middle class and replaced a model of democracy with a model of aristocracy. We repudiated that in 1776—and need to repudiate it again.”

We used to call that a jeremiad, an American tradition if there ever was one (Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad). If that is ‘woo’, then give me more of it. This is ‘woo’ that could seriously shake up public and political debate and hopefully a whole lot more. Give me some of that old time religion.

American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

Moralizing Gods as Effect, Not Cause

There is a new study on moralizing gods and social complexity, specifically as populations grow large. The authors are critical of the Axial Age theory: “Although our results do not support the view that moralizing gods were necessary for the rise of complex societies, they also do not support a leading alternative hypothesis that moralizing gods only emerged as a byproduct of a sudden increase in affluence during a first millennium ‘Axial Age’. Instead, in three of our regions (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia), moralizing gods appeared before 1500.”

I don’t take this criticism as too significant, since it is mostly an issue of dating. Objectively, there are no such things as distinct historical periods. Sure, you’ll find precursors of the Axial Age in the late Bronze Age. Then again, you’ll find precursors of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in the Axial Age. And you’ll find the precursors of the Enlightenment in the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. It turns out all of history is continuous. No big shocker there. Changes build up slowly, until they hit a breaking point. It’s that breaking point, often when it becomes widespread, that gets designated as the new historical period. But the dividing line from one era to the next is always somewhat arbitrary.

This is important to keep in mind. And it does have more than slight relevance. This reframing of what has been called the Axial Age accords perfectly with Julian Jaynes’ theories on the ending of the bicameral mind and the rise of egoic consciousness, along with the rise of the egoic gods with their jealousies, vengeance, and so forth. A half century ago, Jaynes was noting that aspects of moralizing social orders were appearing in the late Bronze Age and he speculated that it had to do with increasing complexity that set those societies up for collapse.

Religion itself, as a formal distinct institution with standardized practices, didn’t exist until well into the Axial Age. Before that, rituals and spiritual/supernatural experience were apparently inseparable from everyday life, as the archaic self was inseparable from the communal sense of the world. Religion as we now know it is what replaced that prior way of being in relationship to ‘gods’, but it wasn’t only a different sense of the divine for the texts refer to early people hearing the voices of spirits, godmen, dead kings, and ancestors. Religion was only necessary, according to Jaynes, when the voices went silent (i.e., when they were no longer heard externally because a singular voice had become internalized). The pre-religious mentality is what Jaynes called the bicameral mind and it represents the earliest and largest portion of civilization, maybe lasting for millennia upon millennia going back to the first city-states.

The pressures on the bicameral mind began to stress the social order beyond what could be managed. Those late Bronze Age civilizations had barely begun to adapt to that complexity and weren’t successful. Only Egypt was left standing and, in its sudden isolation amidst a world of wreckage and refugees, it too was transformed. We speak of the Axial Age in the context of a later date because it took many centuries for empires to be rebuilt around moralizing religions (and other totalizing systems and often totalitarian institutions; e.g., large centralized governments with rigid hierarchies). The archaic civilizations had to be mostly razed to the ground before something else could more fully take their place.

There is something else to understand. To have moralizing big gods to maintain social order, what is required is introspectable subjectivity (i.e., an individual to be controlled by morality). That is to say you need a narratizing inner space where a conscience can operate in the voicing of morality tales and the imagining of narratized scenarios such as considering alternate possible future actions, paths, and consequences. This is what Jaynes was arguing and it wasn’t vague speculation, as he was working with the best evidence he could accrue. Building on Jaynes work with language, Brian J. McVeigh has analyzed early texts to determine how often mind-words were found. Going by language use during the late Bronze Age, there was an increased focus on psychological ways of speaking. Prior to that, morality as such wasn’t necessary, no more than were written laws, court systems, police forces, and standing armies — all of which appeared rather late in civilization.

What creates the introspectable subjectivity of the egoic self, i.e., Jaynesian ‘consciousness’? Jaynes suggests that writing was a prerequisite and it needed to be advanced beyond the stage of simple record-keeping. A literary canon likely developed first to prime the mind for a particular form of narratizing. The authors of the paper do note that written language generally came first:

“This megasociety threshold does not seem to correspond to the point at which societies develop writing, which might have suggested that moralizing gods were present earlier but were not preserved archaeologically. Although we cannot rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in 9 out of the 12 regions analysed (by an average period of 400 years; Supplementary Table 2)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies — suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing. The few small-scale societies that did display precolonial evidence of moralizing gods came from regions that had previously been used to support the claim that moralizing gods contributed to the rise of social complexity (Austronesia and Iceland), which suggests that such regions are the exception rather than the rule.”

As for the exceptions, it’s possible they were influenced by the moralizing religions of societies they came in contact with. Scandinavians, long before they developed complex societies with large concentrated populations, they were traveling and trading all over Eurasia, the Levant, and into North Africa. This was happening in the Bronze Age, during the period of rising big gods and moralizing religion: “The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the [Nordic] women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.” (Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker). It would be best to not fall prey to notions of untouched primitives.

We can’t assume that these exceptions were actually exceptional, in supposedly being isolated examples contrary to the larger pattern. Even hunter-gatherers have been heavily shaped by the millennia of civilizations that surrounded them. Occasionally finding moralizing religions among simpler and smaller societies is no more remarkable than finding metal axes and t-shirts among tribal people today. All societies respond to changing conditions and adapt as necessary to survive. The appearance of moralizing religions and the empires that went with them transformed the world far beyond the borders of any given society, not that borders were all that defined back then anyway. The large-scale consequences spread across the earth these past three millennia, a tidal wave hitting some places sooner than others but in the end none remain untouched. We are all now under the watchful eye of big gods or else their secularized equivalent, big brother of the surveillance state.

* * *

Moralizing gods appear after, not before, the rise of social complexity, new research suggests
by Redazione Redazione

Professor Whitehouse said: ‘The original function of moralizing gods in world history may have been to hold together large but rather fragile, ethnically diverse societies. It raises the question as to how some of those functions could still be performed in today’s increasingly secular societies – and what the costs might be if they can’t. Even if world history cannot tell us how to live our lives, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures.’

When Ancient Societies Hit a Million People, Vengeful Gods Appeared
by Charles Q. Choi

“For we know Him who said, ‘And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.'” Ezekiel 25:17.

The God depicted in the Old Testament may sometimes seem wrathful. And in that, he’s not alone; supernatural forces that punish evil play a central role in many modern religions.

But which came first: complex societies or the belief in a punishing god? […]

The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increases in social complexity, generally appearing after the emergence of civilizations with populations of more than about 1 million people.

“It was particularly striking how consistent it was [that] this phenomenon emerged at the million-person level,” Savage said. “First, you get big societies, and these beliefs then come.”

All in all, “our research suggests that religion is playing a functional role throughout world history, helping stabilize societies and people cooperate overall,” Savage said. “In really small societies, like very small groups of hunter-gatherers, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone’s keeping an eye on everyone else to make sure they’re behaving well. Bigger societies are more anonymous, so you might not know who to trust.”

At those sizes, you see the rise of beliefs in an all-powerful, supernatural person watching and keeping things under control, Savage added.

Complex societies gave birth to big gods, not the other way around: study
from Complexity Science Hub Vienna

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Even more so, standardized rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people to behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.

Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society
by  Razib Khan

What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history
by Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, and Peter Turchin

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles1–8. The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies9–13. Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity3,6,7,9–18, the relationship between the two is disputed9–13,19–24, and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414societies that span the past 10,000years from 30regions around the world, using 51measures of social complexity and 4measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions9,12,16,18, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

 

 

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.