People of Praise and South Bend, Indiana

Over at Politico, Adam Wren writes about the relationship between People of Praise and the city of South Bend, Indiana. Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court has brought attention to this small Catholic community.

Here is a taste of Wren’s piece, “How Amy Coney Barrett’s Religious Group Held Shape a City“:

What’s difficult to understand outside South Bend, however, is just how deeply integrated this group is into the local community. Though the group has only a few thousand local members, and keeps a low profile as an organization, its influence and footprint in the city are significant. That influence, and its resistance to liberal changes in the wider culture, are likely to arise as issues in her Supreme Court nomination hearings, expected to begin Oct. 12.

People of Praise includes several prominent local families, including realtors and local financial advisers, who act as a sort of professional network for families in the group and provide considerable social capital to its members. In South Bend mayoral elections, campaigns have been known to strategize about winning over People of Praise as a constituency, given the fact that they live close together in several neighborhoods. The group runs Trinity School at Greenlawn, a private intermediate and high school that is considered by some to be the best—and most conservative—school in South Bend. Families from Notre Dame and elsewhere, even unaffiliated with the group, pay $14,000 to attend grades 9-12 and $13,000 for grades 6-8. Barrett served on its board between 2015 and 2017, and her husband Jesse, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now a partner in a law firm here, advised the school’s nationally recognized mock trial team.

As industry receded in South Bend with the closure of the automaker Studebaker in 1963, People of Praise has grown to occupy some of the city’s most storied institutions. The group’s original home was the nine-floor, 233-room Hotel LaSalle, a Georgian Revival structure from the 1920s, one of the most prominent buildings in downtown South Bend. When the group moved into the building in 1975, after it was bought by Charismatic Renewal Services, Inc.,a closely affiliated nonprofit, it cleared out one floor to serve as a communal daycare, and used a former ballroom for its meetings, where members spoke in tongues and practiced healing. Some members lived there.

Trinity School occupies a sprawling mansion situated on a sylvan property on the east side of town that was formerly owned by the Studebaker family, whose factory once employed 30,000 workers. The group’s main meeting hall, which isn’t listed on Google Maps, is a former bowling alley and indoor soccer complex 10 minutes from downtown, near the Trinity sports fields.

Read the entire piece here.

I blogged about People of Praise here.

As I read Wren’s piece, I thought about all the small evangelical experiments in communalism associated with the Jesus People and the evangelical Left. See Shawn Young, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock; Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People; and David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.

I know these communities well. In fact, I became an evangelical in a similar community in West Milford, New Jersey. This community was theologically and socially conservative, but active in helping the poor and serving its neighbors. And yes, it did have authoritarian tendencies. One day I will write more extensively about my seven or eight year experience in this community.

I am guessing that Barrett’s adoption of black children from Haiti has a lot more to do with her Christian faith as expressed through the People of Praise community than it does her efforts to cover up some inherent racism. Of course these two explanations can be connected, but it also worth noting that human beings often act in this world in ways that cannot always be reduced to race.

And as long as we are at it, let’s keep Barrett’s kids out of it.

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

The Origin of Christian Human Rights

MoynCheck out Lilian Calles Barger interview with Samuel Moyn, history professor at Harvard and author of Christian Human Rights.

Here is Barger’s summary of Moyn’s book:

Samuel Moyn is Professor of Law and History at Harvard University. InChristian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), Moyn provides a historical intervention in our understanding of how the idea of human rights in the mid-twentieth century came to be. He argues that contrary to current thought, that sees it as part of the long-legacy of Christianity, or the triumph of liberal democracy, it has a more complicated history. The notion of human rights was inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person. It first arose just prior to WW II as part of the reformulation of the liberal idea of human rights, deemed morally bankrupt, taken up by conservative religious thinkers. Moyn argues that the long-held Christian concept of moral equality of human beings did not translate into political rights. Rather the reformulation of human rights in the 1940s was a Catholic communitarian defense against totalitarian, capitalism and political secularism. The language of rights was extricated from the legacy of the French Revolution “rights of man” to become a religious value checking the political power of the state with religious freedom as a key concept. The philosophy of “personalism” articulated by Jacques Maritain recast democracy and human rights in a Catholic vein becoming enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the ascendancy of Christian democratic parties at mid-century. Secularized after the 1960s, human rights became an increasingly uninspiring concept unable to do the work it promised. Moyn suggests transcending this mid-twentieth Christian legacy and notes the need to find a new effective transformative creed.

Listen to the interview here.

 

"Gilded Age Capitalism with a Communitarian Heart"

This is how Mark Silk recently described New York Times columnist David Brooks.  Here is a taste:

On September 17, the left side wrote a column berating GOP presidential candidate “Thurston Howell Romney” for having “lost any sense of the social compact” and signing on to the Republican Party’s current “hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view.”

On September 20, the right side celebrated SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk for his “grand lifestyle, grand riches, grand vision and grand verbiage,” pronouncing that “if growth is ever going to rebound, the U.S. will need a grandiosity rebound and the policies that encourage rich people with brass.”

Then today it was back to the left side for a lament over the GOP’s loss of its traditional commitment to social cohesion in favor of pure free market economics. The party, says leftside, “appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.”

Silk thinks Brooks’s brain is about to explode.

The Left and the Right Love Wendell Berry

There are certain artists and public intellectuals whose art appeals to both liberals and conservatives.

Historian Gordon Wood once said that his book The Creation of the American Republic appealed to conservatives who liked the idea that the founding fathers believed that public virtue was important, but it also appealed to socialists and communitarians who liked the idea of sacrificing personal interest for the greater good of the nation.

Bruce Springsteen’s musical message is avowedly liberal, but conservatives like his appeals to community, localism, and the tragic dimensions of life.

And, as John Miller writes in the July 30 issue of The National Review, the fiction and non-fiction of Wendell Berry has the same bipartisan attraction.  A taste:

On July 20, Berry will receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, named for the author of The Conservative Mind and awarded by the CiRCE Institute, which promotes Christian classical education, for “cultivating virtue and wisdom.” Last year, ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays that seek to illuminate, according to the dust jacket, the “profoundly conservative” ideas of its subject. And although the 2012 Jefferson Lecture was a product of the Obama administration, Berry was regularly a candidate for the same honor during the Bush years.

What’s going on here? Why has this market-bashing prophet of ecological doom won so many fans on the right? On June 17, I drove to Berry’s home in Port Royal, Ky., to find out. He welcomes visitors on Sundays. “There ought to be a day when you don’t work,” he says. He’s well known for these engagements, and for years admirers have made pilgrimages, seeking conversation or advice. On my visit, we sit on his front porch, discussing his life, his books, and his views on everything from farm policy to gay marriage.

Coclanis: Bowlers Started Bowling Better When They Started Bowling Alone

Here is an interesting twist on the whole Robert Putnam “Bowling Alone” argument.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Robert Putnam, he is the Harvard sociologist who argued in 2000 that declining participation in bowling leagues was a sign of a larger decline in American’s commitment to community and social relations.

Now Peter Colcanis, a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a scholar known for his work on economic life in the South Carolina low country, suggests that the decline of bowling leagues in America  have made Americans better bowlers.  Here is a taste:

Whatever one thinks of communitarianism (I, for one, am reflexively anti-communitarian), Putnam might have—indeed, should have—chosen a metaphor other than bowling. Why? Because during the same period that participation in bowling leagues was said to be declining—the 1980s and 1990s—amateur bowling scores in the United States were soaring. 

Improvements in bowling techniques and technology explain part of the scoring surge. Regarding the latter: The shift from rubber to polyester (plastic) to urethane balls facilitated greater surface traction and friction; increasingly sophisticated lane-oiling patterns helped to enhance ball control and the angle of entry of balls into the pocket; and coated pins increased their “action” once struck. And, as in other sports, participants in bowling have been getting bigger, stronger, and more athletic, and, all things being equal, such attributes likely have had some effect on rising scores as well.

But another factor may have played a role as well, one with implications for Putnam’s thesis. It just may be that with the decline in bowling-league participation (presuming such a decline occurred), bowlers who were serious about bowling qua bowling rather than about bowling as a casual adjunct to drinking, cutting up, and deepening their “webs of relationships” every Tuesday or Wednesday night may have spent more of their time at the lanes actually practicing—with improved average scores the result.

Coclanis offers an intriguing argument about how being anti-communitarian may make us better at what we do.

Douthat on the Role of Government

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes sense here.

A taste: 

…In this (liberal) worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.

But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres….

Front Porchers Gather at Mount Saint Mary’s College

A couple of weekends ago, a group of place-oriented conservatives, many of whom blog at The Front Porch Republic or read the website, traveled to Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland for a conference on “human good and healthy communities.”

I had hoped to attend this conference, but I already had a speaking engagement scheduled at Fort Ticonderoga.  While I don’t agree with everything I read at the Front Porch Republic, and I do not consider myself a “porcher,” I do agree with enough of their world view to have considered driving down Route 15 for the gathering.

Matthew Dill did attend the conference and has written a nice summary. Here is a taste:

There was, however, someone missing from this conference that has his thumb nearly on what we were all trying to talk about: a modern Thoreau or Frost, who bypassed the sirens of New York, privilege, prestige, things, and bling, Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry. He skipped out on opportunity and material prosperity offered by big cities and important institutions and returned home to the farm. The scheduled speakers strode to the podium at “The Mount,” as the college calls itself, almost all building their story upon the work of this agrarian poet.

Berry knew well that “however frustrated, disappointed and unfilled life may be, the pursuit of self-liberation is still the strongest force now operating in our society.” He knew “the net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become ‘free’ for the sake of not much self-fulfillment.” He knew to get to big ideas we need to “think little.” In a time of disorder Berry tells us to return to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope. Isn’t that what all this politics stuff is about? A way of life? An order of the soul? A foundational thinker of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk, thought so.

Does Walmart Make Small-Town America Stupider?

Peter Lawler, in his Big Think column called “Rightly Understood,” asks if Walmart is really “change we should believe in?” Here are his conclusions:

1.  It is good news that Walmart “has become a catalyst for change on the environmental front.”

2.  He asks if human beings live better lives as “social beings” after Walmart comes to town.

3. Walmart is good for consumers

4.  When Walmart comes to town “Main Street” closes down.  Locally-owned stores disappear.  He adds: “Main Street is sometimes eventually revitalized, but hardly ever as a retail district.  It becomes a fake-historic place full of restaurants, coffee shops, etc., and so not a real center of the social and economic life of the community.”

5.  Walmart makes a small town stupider.  Locals are “pretty much stuck with doing what they are told” by the store “brains” who live and work in some “undisclosed location.”

6.  Walmart is boring and predictable.  Shoppers who go to Walmart “in general are getting stupider or more easily satisfied.”

7.  Walmart holds ordinary citizens “hostage to the impersonal forces of globalization” because localities do not have the power to keep Walmart out.

Amen.  Thanks Peter Lawler. I find this conservative critique of Walmart to be quite compelling.

Loyalty and LeBron

I feel for Cleveland fans today. Bob Robinson, Jay Green, Kelly Phipps–I am doing my best to feel your pain. I have been reading your Facebook updates with much sympathy.

Who do residents of northeast Ohio hate more–LeBron James or Art Modell? Both men left Lake Erie for greener financial pastures. Of course any city would be upset if their football team left town in the middle of the night or the best basketball player in the world left town to “wade” in the Miami surf, but this is Cleveland. You know, “the mistake by the lake.” The place where Craig Ehlo cowered in failure as Michael Jordan hit the game-winning jumper to knock the Cavs out of the first round of the NBA playoffs in 1989. This is the town that watched their beloved Browns fall victim to John Elway and “The Drive” in the 1987 AFC Championship Game. This is the town that watched their Indians get robbed by a Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series. (I should also add that it is the city with one of the best football jingles–“Bernie, Bernie, whoa, whoa, Super Bowl“).

And now the heartbreak continues… Somewhere in a dressing room on the set of The Price is Right, Drew Carey is bawling uncontrollably. James Garfield is turning in his grave.

The fans of Cleveland are understandably angry. They feel betrayed. But did they really expect that LeBron would stay loyal to his Akron roots? Did they really expect that LeBron would do the counter-cultural thing and stay put in the community in which he was raised? After all, LeBron is living the American Dream–a placeless, rootless, individualistic, narcissistic American Dream that places a higher loyalty on economic success, personal happiness, comfort, and mobility than on loyalty to places, sacrifice (if you can really call it that in the case of LeBron), and roots. Americans are increasingly defining themselves as individuals rather than as members of a particular community. Before we criticize LeBron we should all look into the mirror.

Of course this is the way of free-agency in modern professional sports. I gave up on the NBA long time ago. It is a horrible brand of basketball–a game of individuals. I continue to keep an eye on how the Nets are doing, but I must confess that I did not watch a single NBA game in its entirety this season. I would rather watch Holy Cross and Bucknell battle it out for the Patriot League Championship.

Kids today are more prone to root for players than they are for teams. The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to rattle off the rosters of my favorite sports teams. When I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s, I could tell you the starting lineup not only of my beloved New York Mets, but of most other teams in the Major Leagues. After all, they seldom changed much during the course of the off-season. Loyalty was easy then. Not any more.

I know this sounds like an old-fashioned rant about the community-destroying effects of free-agency, but I do believe that something has been lost as a result of these changes in professional sports.

I still hope that every now and then someone will come along and reject the big payoff in order to stay loyal to the fans of a particular city, town, place, or region. LeBron James is not one of those athletes. Par for the course.

David Brooks on the Limits of Policy

It’s less about policy and politics and more about social networks. Brooks concludes:

So when we’re arguing about politics, we should be aware of how policy fits into the larger scheme of cultural and social influences. Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it.

Therefore, the first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore.

Read the entire article.

A Different Kind of Freedom

A nice quote from David Foster Wallace via Andrew Sullivan:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day,” – David Foster Wallace.

Roger Cohen on Narcissism and Health Care

In today’s New York Times Roger Cohen reflects on the relationship between narcissism and America’s health care problem. Here a few snippets:

Community — a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions — has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection…

I was thinking of this during a recent spell as a grand juror. Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.

It was not always easy, of course; not easy to deal with the fidgety paramedic chewing chips through murder testimony, the scattershot flirtations of the former rhythm-and-blues musician, the off-point ruminations of the old guy who knew he was always right, the intermittent tedium and incoherence.

I can still hear the juror next to me. “I work at 311” — the number New Yorkers dial with complaints or questions about the city. “Drives me nuts, been doing it five years. People treat you like idiots. Most of the time it’s water seeping into basements, sewage systems blocked. At least my job hasn’t been outsourced to Bangalore. People ask me, ‘You in New York?’ They ask me, ‘Are you a human being or a robot?’ Sometimes I say, “I … AM … A … ROBOT.’ But we’ve got supervisors listening to calls. One thing that drives me crazy is all the people who speak slowly, as if I’m an idiot. I tell them, ‘You can speak faster, you know!’ Jury duty’s actually a relief!”

In a way, it was — a relief from being alone on a phone or in front of a screen. We got to know each other’s tics and, having dealt with killing and rape and assault and insurance fraud, we all embraced at the end. Oh unthinkable act, we’d done something selfless for the commonweal, learned to listen to each other, accepted differences and argued our way to decisions…

Americans don’t want a European nanny state — fine! But, as a lawyer friend, Manuel Wally, put it to me, “When it comes to health it makes sense to involve government, which is accountable to the people, rather than corporations, which are accountable to shareholders.”

All the fear-mongering talk of “nationalizing” 17 percent of the economy is nonsense. Government, through Medicare and Medicaid, is already administering almost half of American health care and doing so with less waste than the private sector. Per capita Medicare costs for common benefits grew 4.9 percent between 1998 and 2008, against 7.1 percent for private insurers. Why not offer Medicare as a choice — a choice — to everyone? Aren’t Republicans about choice?…

Clearing Snow From Your Parking Space: What Would Locke Do?

Jonathan Chait has an entertaining post at his The New Republic blog entitled “Hobbes, Locke, and Snowmageddon.” He begins:

If you clear a parking space in the snow for your car, are you allowed to keep that space?

Here are the options:

Ethically, it’s a complicated question. The act of shoveling out a parking space is almost a perfect example of Locke’s definition of private property in the state of nature — something you have created by mixing your labor with freely available materials. Clearly the incentive of ownership is needed in order to spur this shoveling work. Why should I spend hours breaking my back to liberate my car only to take it out and find myself stranded when I return?

On the other hand, let’s consider the communitarian objection. Granting property rights to a shoveled-out space has limitations of its own. Creating a property right out of cleared spaces only gives people an incentive to clear out a single space. Thus, many streets will go for the entire duration of the snowstorm with most of their spots covered with snow. Why shovel out more than one space on your street? Yet sometimes we would like to drive to another neighborhood to park. The individual ownership principle essentially makes that impossible.

Ultimately, like a good market liberal, I side with the Lockean concept of property rights but with a proviso. We should be granted the right to keep the space we shovel, but after a reasonable amount of time, we should also be required to clear the other spaces in front of our property.

I don’t live in a city, but I think I lean slightly toward the communitarian position here.

Vladimir the Barber-Philosopher

I have now mentioned a few times on this blog how I slipped the name “Jayber Crow” into the acknowledgments of both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and an earlier Journal of American History essay by the same title. (By the way, if you want some insight into how to teach the article or the book, the Journal of American History has featured it in their pedagogical series, “Teaching the JAH.”)

As some of you know, Jayber Crow is not a real person. He is the barber in Wendell Berry‘s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky and the title character in Berry’s greatest novel to date, Jayber Crow. Jayber’s barbershop on the main street of Port William is one of the places where the local farmers go to hang out and solve all the problems of the world.

Something about me is deeply drawn to the way Jayber’s shop is a place where community and place are cultivated among the men of Port William. Perhaps it reminds me of Carlos’s Barbershop on the corner of Main Street and Boonton Avenue in the town of Boonton, New Jersey where I grew up. Carlos and his brother Frank, both Italian immigrants (or perhaps sons of immigrants), would hold court in their shop as the Boonton locals wandered in and waited for the next chair to open up. As a young lad I would sit there quietly and listen, usually with my Dad and my two brothers by my side. I never thought I made any impression on Carlos or Frank until I walked in about six or seven years after I graduated from college and both of them recognized me and asked me about what I was doing with my life. Shortly thereafter, Carlos died unexpectedly.

I thought about Jayber, Carlos, and Frank today as I sat down to get my hair cut by my current barber–Vladimir. Vladimir is a Russian immigrant. He grew up in Moscow, but he has lived in the United States for about thirty years. Vladimir is smart, or at least he thinks he is. When I sit in his chair I need to be prepared to talk about anything from Russian history to how one balances their loyalty to family with their loyalty to their country. In other words, don’t talk about sports or movies.

Today, as might be expected, the topic turned to Haiti. Vladimir argued that the people of Haiti should have never tried to revolt against French colonization in the 18th century. Imperialism could be a good thing, he argued. Once the French left Haiti everything went down hill. He also pointed to the way the Soviets modernized eastern Russia in the early 20th century.

One of the things I like about Vladimir is that if you challenge his beliefs he is at least willing to listen. Actually, he is quite polite. I asked if he would be willing to trade his liberty if it meant having the modern improvements that imperialism or colonization might provide. I always hesitate bringing up these kinds of moral quandaries with Vladimir because it normally means that I end up sitting in his chair talking long after the actual haircut is finished. In today’s debate Vladimir was particularly passionate. I could tell he was enjoying this immensely. So was I. And, by the way, Joy liked the haircut.

I like writing posts for “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” and having a small space here in the blogosphere, but I am not sure what I would do if I could not chat with Vladimir and the other people I encounter by living my life here in this place. For me, the “way of improvement” must, in some way, lead me “home.”

Can We Talk About the Virtues of the South Without Being Racist?

The scholars affiliated with the Abbeville Institute think that we can.

I had never heard of the Abbeville Institute until I read this essay about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Named after the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, the Institute attracts scholars “devoted to a critical study of what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.”

Here is a brief description:

“…its work is more philosophic in nature, namely to explore the metaphysical image of things human and divine to which the Southern tradition bears witness. This includes seeking to understand the value of those features of community that promote an enduring and humane order: the importance of private property, place, piety, humility, manners, classical liberal studies, rhetoric, and the importance of a human scale to political order. We are interested both in what those values intimate for our own time, and in how they came to be features of the Southern tradition.

“Community,” “place,” “piety,” “humility,” and the “importance of human scale to the political order.” I am in favor of discussing all of these things. I believe in all of these things. And if the southern agrarian tradition extols these things then I think there are definitely some qualities worth considering in the southern agrarian tradition.

But can we affirm these kinds of ideals as they were championed in the context of southern history without also embracing the slavery and racism that came with them? For example, I often find myself strangely attracted to the pro-slavery arguments of people like George Fitzhugh because they provide such a scathing critique of the evils of northern capitalism. In this sense, I find the work of Eugene Genovese on the white antebellum southerners very appealing. At the same time, however, Fitzhugh’s actual defense of slavery disgusts me. It is, after all, a defense of slavery.

I wonder: Does a criticism of Abraham Lincoln, like the one I recently made, make one a “Lincoln loather?” Does the fact that I am even open to the idea that the southern tradition can teach us something make me a racist? I hope not. But this seems to be the general tone of the Chronicle piece. I would like to think that I could learn something from anyone–even a slaveholder. (This, after all, is what I preach to my students. The study of history requires empathy and understanding before moral condemnation).

Is Genovese right when he said in his Massey Lectures at Harvard: “Rarely these days, even on southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South…”? (A quote, I might add, featured on the Abbeville Institute webpage). Or is Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center correct when she described the Abbeville Institute as a group of scholars who are trying to “revise the history of the South in favor of whites”?

These are not easy questions to answer. But let me direct you to the political Left’s embrace of southern agrarian, Wendell Berry. As far as I know, Berry is not a racist, but his fiction and non-fiction certainly reflect a “southern agrarian” understanding of place and community. Yet Berry is praised by the Left for his critique of corporate and consumer capitalism and his commitment to the environment and the land. I have yet to hear him criticized for being too connected to the southern agrarians.

I wonder if Berry might be a model for embracing what is best of the southern tradition while at the same time rejecting its immoral dark side.

Why Aren’t There More Juntos in American Colleges?

In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography he describes a group he created called the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I often wonder if my efforts to get students to think about course content outside of class is little more than tilting at windmills. Sure, students tend to study together for exams. Such gatherings, I am guessing, could be intellectually stimulating. But there is also an obvious utilitarian dimension to these study-groups. Where are the Juntos that meet when there is not an exam scheduled the next day (or later that afternoon)? I am guessing many of the potential members of such a Junto are sitting in front of a television set watching “The Hills.”

Perhaps I am being overly naive, but I still hold out hope that these kinds of Juntos can exist, especially in the kind of residential liberal arts college where I teach. My hope was rekindled a few years ago when a group of students were sufficiently inspired by Franklin to form a Junto of their own. These students met several times a week over lunch in one of the college eateries. They would occasionally report back to me the nature of their discussions, but I largely remained out of it. I wanted them to have a professor-free space to converse. Over the course of the academic year they developed a real intellectual community. Not only did they debate things like immigration policy or the meaning of the “American Dream,” but they strengthened their friendships, bonded as group, and experienced college in a way that most of their fellow students did not.

In the spring of their senior year, several of the members of this Junto approached me after class one day with an invitation. They wanted to know if I would like to “sit in” on one of their final meetings. The semester was ending and they would be graduating and getting on with life. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation. We met for about an hour, eating bad hamburgers and soggy french-fries and talking about the values that undergird the American culture that they would soon enter as new college graduates. I don’t remember a lot about the specifics of that conversation, but it was one of the greatest moments of my teaching career thus far.

Just yesterday I spent an hour or so with Josh and Phil, members of the Messiah College class of 2006 who were in town for a visit. They were both participants in that Junto. I now consider them friends.

And the conversation continues…

What About Rural Churches?

If for some reason I ever left academia, I would seriously consider putting my divinity school training to good use and become a pastor of a small, rural congregation.

This is why I really like Darryl Hart’s recent essay on rural churches. Hart begins with Wendell Berry’s observation that rural churches have been the places where young ministers get their training before leaving and heading off to more prestigious congregations in cities or large suburbs.

Hart, summarizing and quoting Berry, writes:

This stems from a two-fold disrespect for rural people. First is the assumption that persons not yet eligible for ministry are qualified to shepherd country folk. The other assumption regards successful ministry as one that occurs in conditions of high modernity, such as big cities. In other words, churches encourage young ministers to leave rural parishes as soon as possible and find a “normal” congregation. According to Berry, “The denominational hierarchies . . . regard country places in exactly the same way as ‘the economy’ does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of ‘better’ places.” Rural congregations can’t help but gain the impression that “they do not matter much.” Or as one of Berry’s Christian friends put it, “The soul of the plowboy ain’t worth as much as the soul of the delivery boy.”

Hart makes a convincing argument. Christians are becoming more and more concerned about the environment, organic food, and community agriculture, but seem to value the big churches in heavily populated areas over the rural folk who lives on farms.

He concludes:

But is it wrong to wish that Christians, who have discovered the value of wholesome food and the farming practices that produce it, would translate their choices about diet and carbon footprints into congregations and pastors more circumspect about cities and more respectful of the fly-over sectors of the greatest nation on God’s green earth? I hope not.