One last thought about meritocracy…
May 6, 2009
The more I think about it, the more inclined I am to say that the brain draining of Middle America’s small towns is at least partially tied to the decline of the mainline churches. If we accept, as I argued here, that cultural and educational decline goes hand in hand with economic outflow, then part of the picture must include how religious traditions interface with the local cultures, for better or worse.
When I think back to the experiences of my paternal grandparents’ generation, its striking how large of a role their denominations played in shaping their decisions to stay in the rural Midwest, and to creating the culture they valued. Partly this was because they were first-generation Scandinavian-Americans and denominational commitments were just a cultural given. But it was also that the church provided an intellectual and communal home for them: the clergy formed a large part of the educated backbone for their communities, and they passed on the theological vibrancy to even seemingly provincial places. I remember how stunned I was to find that my great-uncle Cliff not only owned a good chunk of Tillich’s collected works, but also had most of the major German theologians in one form or another, all of which were transferred to my grandparent’s house after Cliff passed away. Now granted, Cliff was himself highly educated, but he lived in smaller towns for most of his adult life, and remained within the fold of the local culture. Ditto my grandparents. And having a church community where the life of the mind was cultivated was a big part of that.
I wish I could say the same of my experiences with small town fundamentalism. Obviously I don’t want to make across the board statements here, since evangelical practice is a hugely diverse thing, but because its spiritual focus is entirely on scripture, and its interest in science is, uh, well, different, and that its ideological commitments are sustained by culture war, I don’t think they’re capable of playing that role. Trying to escape that sector of the church was one of the great struggles on the other side of the family: my maternal grandfather’s early life was spent in a fringe holy-roller congregation, and it was precisely because of that that he moved, first across the street and later to the Philippines to fight in WWII. The fact that his experience is slowly replacing my paternal grandparents’ is extremely disconcerting, and like I said, bodes poorly for Middle America more broadly.