© 2017 Robert Osburn

In the Wilberforce Academy, we ask our international mentees to conduct analyses of their respective national cultures.  What are their ideals, symbols, and celebrations? What are the things that unify and divide?  What stories do the members of those societies tell and how do they make sense of those stories?

On this US Independence Day in 2017, I offer an analysis of my beloved country, the USA. Americans are, by self-affirmation, e pluribus unum, or one nation out of many.  We are a land of immigrants (except for American Indians) that has almost always welcomed those from around the world who want to become one of us. 

Until 1965, most Americans embraced a shared Christian cultural consensus. Our unified culture, however, betrayed a horrid racial division between blacks and whites that has been a painful, relentless sore on our national soul ever since.  We fought a great Civil War (1861-65) over racism’s ugliest form (slavery), and a century later Martin Luther King Jr. led a great Civil Rights movement that largely ended its secondary expression (Jim Crow). 

But, around the same time, in that fated decade of the 1960s that every older Baby Boomer remembers with chilled fondness, the national division over race began to be replaced by a new division, ideology.  Now, instead of black and white, progressives who rejected Christian moral authority contested with traditionalists who still treasured the older Christian consensus.  That struggle became known in the 1990s as the American culture war, a deep struggle over our deepest convictions, ideals, and morality.

Many social scientists insist that the older division over race and ethnicity is still very much with us.  President Trump has helped fuel this picture with his apparent anti-immigrant attitudes.  While race has recently reared its ugly head, largely because of activist groups and some very tragic police shootings, the truth is that, for most Americans, race and ethnicity are less of a source of division because of increasing rates of intermarriage.  For a data point, whereas in 1995 only 48% percent of Americans approved of marriage between whites and non-white, by 2013 that percentage had nearly doubled to 87%. In roughly fifty years or so, massive rates of intermarriage will render race and ethnicity rather moot as meaningful sources of division. 

Rather than race and ethnicity, since around 2000 a second source of division—class—has emerged to further rip the American social fabric.  In a society historically known for its massive middle class and a high degree of social equality, scholars have begun to identify a New Upper Class and a New Lower Class that are permanent (without social mobility between the classes).  The former hold four –year college degrees (or more), are reasonably wealthy and comfortable, and only rarely divorce.  That latter, by contrast, have at most some college experience, are rather poor, and, more often than not, either drift, divorce, or cohabit.

To summarize in the simplest terms possible: America has a dual (double) division in our national soul: an ideological division (progressives vs traditionalists) and a class division (upper vs. lower).   Mapping this dual division on two different axes reveals four distinct lifestyle enclaves in each of the four quadrants.  In these enclaves, or communities, Americans prefer to live with those who are like them, as Charles Murray and others have well-noted. We are more pluribus (divided) than we are unum (united).

Let me describe these four enclaves, but first, a caveat: Most people still live close to the middle of the two axes (ideology and class), and so the majority of Americans may reject all four of these labels, and simply declare themselves “ordinary Joes” just doing their best in life. But the important point is that, over time, fewer and fewer Americans, as a percentage of the total population, are living near the middle.  That means that a slowly increasing percentage of Americans are becoming either very progressive and liberal, or very conservative and traditional.  They are slowly migrating to either a stable upper middle-class existence, or are stuck in a dead-end lower-class lifestyle. And, worse, as we shall see as we explore the lifestyle enclaves represented by the four quadrants, they simply don’t want to mix with folks in the other enclaves.  As for immigrants, they are most often recruited by the two “upper quadrants,” who, as we shall see, are the two main enclaves engaged in America’s culture war.

In the upper left quadrant are those I label liberators.  Sometimes called elitists (or in Thomas Sowell’s memorable words, “the Anointed”), they see themselves as setting people free to be whom they want to be.  They advocate few moral ideals other than compassion and justice, and, for them, redistributing power and wealth is more important than finding truth.  Their natural homes are in academia, Hollywood, and large urban centers where “creatives” (as Richard Florida labeled them) cluster.  Even though they formally reject traditional moral strictures, their low divorce rate (except, of course, for Tinseltown) demonstrates they have rather strong, healthy families. Thus, as Charles Murray described them in Coming Apart (2013), they practice virtues that they don’t preach. Though they may represent only 15% of Americans, their cultural power vastly outweighs their relatively small numbers.

In the upper right quadrant are moral and cultural traditionalists with whom liberators have long been engaged in a simmering culture war.  I label this large group rejuvenators. They are often labeled social conservatives, but, in terms of their self-perception, they are a lifestyle enclave that believes everyone in America can succeed if they embrace traditional discipline and moral attitudes embodied in a Christian, or at least theistic, moral vision.  Rather than finding freedom through removal of moral boundaries, most traditionalists believe that freedom comes from conforming ourselves to God’s will for our lives. Compassion and justice are important to them, but not at the expense of universal moral standards. They want to make America great again, but think that sacrifice and hard work are the keys. Even though Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option (2017) declares them the losers in the culture war, most of them do not consider the progressive, upper middle-class liberators the winners.  Especially well represented amongst conservative Christians, they may constitute about 30% of the American population.

In the lower right quadrant is a group about which the chattering classes (journalists, etc.) have been writing furiously for the past year (see, for example, the acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy), owing to Donald Trump’s success in winning the American presidency.  There will be no debate over the label I give to this enclave: populists. They lean toward traditional morality, at least in theory, but their practice often fails to match their aspirations.  Their education achievements (most have not graduated from college) and wealth are low, precisely because their real wages have not increased and many of their jobs have fled abroad.  Many are unemployed or underemployed.  Representing perhaps 30% of the American population, they want leaders that care about the interests of the common man, a theme that has long resonated in Middle America. 

Finally, the fourth enclave, in the lower left quadrant where low achievement and wealth mix with reduced moral strictures: I label them free rangers, a conjured (and, to them, positive) term meant to describe those who often disdain social obligations while pursuing their personal freedom, either out of desperation, hopelessness, or selfishness. Often alienated from society, they are especially noted for very high levels of family fragmentation (unmarried couples, single mothers, absent fathers, high rates of divorce, and family dysfunction of all kinds) while never claiming to practice what they don’t preach. This group may well constitute at many as 25% of America’s population.  Unlike rural populists, they are more often clustered in urban settings.

How should American Christians in 2017 respond to this dually divided America with four distinct lifestyle enclaves?  First, we should lament, as did the elders in Ezra 3:12 when they saw Judaism’s inferior second temple erected to replace the far superior first temple that had been destroyed.  We can look back 52 years to 1965 as a high-water mark when cultural revolutionaries from the Left rejected the Christian moral (traditional) consensus.  Even while the country was divided racially (though that division was rapidly beginning to dissolve), virtually everyone agreed that Americans should live according to a biblical moral code.  Today, that strong moral consensus has dissolved, with distinct moralities and modes of being in each enclave.  The resulting moral and economic confusion suggests a deep weakness within the national soul.

Secondly, we must, like Jesus, feel compassion for those who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).   In terms of the four enclaves, the populists and free rangers share a weak social position akin to that of the Jewish masses who knew only Roman oppression, political powerlessness, and varying degrees of poverty.  Literally, the first century Jews had no champions (advocates) or counselors (shepherds), because champions and counselors come at a price.  Likewise, today, our free rangers and some of our populists are addicted to drugs, feel largely alienated from politics, often lead chaotic lives (especially amongst free rangers), and have only a few advocates other than small church pastors and social workers. In an earlier blogpost, I suggested that shepherds should beat a path, if not take a pilgrimage, to a church in St Johns, Michigan that is offering hope, personal structure, and the Gospel to rural populists.

Thirdly, Christians can advocate bridge-building activities with those from other enclaves. All indicators demonstrate that Americans are drawing more tightly into their enclaves and bitterly flinging invective and hostility toward those outside their enclaves. Over time, this enclave hostility will generate acids that destroy whatever is left of American unity.  If we want to be rejuvenators, as people of peace who follow the Prince of Peace who came to reconcile us with God and with each other (Ephesians 2:11-19), we ought to be on the front lines doing what we can do best, reconciling disparate factions.  The most fertile ground for such an effort involves churches and universities, who regard the other as the enemy.  Why shouldn’t evangelical churches (rejuvenators) invite suspicious academics (liberators) to bridge-building dialogue?  In such cases, I would be highly surprised if academicians don’t begin to temper their opposition to this group that they more intensely dislike than any other in American society.  And perhaps a few professors will actually let Christ draw them into His Body.

And so, this July 4, let those of us in the American church of Jesus Christ pick up our crosses (Matthew 16:24) and, while carrying them courageously and often sacrificially, let us lament a society in shambles, shepherd its victims, and build bridges between those who have walled themselves into tight little enclaves. 

In doing so, we “seek the welfare of the city” (nation) in which we live (Jeremiah 29:7).  What could be more fitting on this Independence Day than to help restore a semblance of the unity that is a national, and biblical, ideal.