Eric Miller on Wendell Berry’s Fiction

Check out the recent edition of The Cresset for Eric Miller‘s essay, “Technology and Human Renewal in Wendell Berry’s Port William.”  Miller focuses predominantly on Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth to illustrate how “the technical advances of the West” have threatened our “deepest experience of well being.”  Here is a taste:

To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, ­participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose ­contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador’s recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In “Why We Need Small Towns,” Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It’s a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called “stickers.” In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner’s, stickers are people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” America’s first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don’t always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the “boomers.” In Stegner and Wendell Berry’s use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today’s U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.

Does "Staying Put" Cultivate Community?

For the good folks at the Front Porch Republic the answer to this question seems to be an unqualified “yes.”  And anyone who reads this blog carefully knows I am sympathetic to the Front Porcher’s understanding of “place,” especially as espoused by writers like Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch.  (I actually wrote a few things for the Front Porch Republic website a few years ago).

But Ross Douthat’s recent column at The New York Times complicates the relationship between “place” and “community.”

Here is a taste of his argument in “Place is Not Enough.”

It’s easy to assume that America’s current crisis of community — the fragmentation of family life, the retreat from civic and religious engagement — is related to people being too quick to pull up stakes and leave their existing communities behind. But the surprising reality is that the recent weakening of social ties has coincided with a decline in mobility. Here are the relevant Census figures:

The percentage of people who changed residences between 2010 and 2011 ─ 11.6 percent ─ was the lowest recorded rate since the Current Population Survey began collecting statistics on the movement of people in the United States in 1948, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today. The rate, which was 20.2 percent in 1985, declined to a then-record low of 11.9 percent in 2008 before rising to 12.5 percent in 2009. The 2010 rate was not statistically different than the 2009 rate.

Now Americans are still a more mobile people than most. But if you’re looking for a straightforward link between staying in place and the health of America’s communities, this is not the trend you would expect. We are staying put more than we did in earlier eras, and yet outside of the upper class it isn’t translating into the kind of personal and familial stability that communitarians want to cultivate.

I am sure Patrick Deneen is on the case.

Quote of the Day

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.  There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population.  Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.”  When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.  They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.”  Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”  This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

–Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 30.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes 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.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

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 know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.

Humanities and Civic Life

Paula Krebs is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University (MA) and a member of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  In a recent piece at Inside Higher Ed, she reflects on the relationship between the humanities and the cultivation of civic and community life.  Here is a taste:

Through my role in public humanities, I have come to understand that the humanities are what allow us to see ourselves as members of a civic community. Public history, public art, shared cultural experiences make us members of communities. This link has not been stressed enough in defense of the academic humanities. It’s past time to make this important connection — to help our boards of trustees, our communities, and our legislators to know what the humanities brings to civil society and gives to students as they enter the workforce.

Gun Culture and Rights Culture

Greg Weiner, a political science professor at Assumption College and author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, believes that the only way to curb gun violence is to curb the “rights culture” that defines American public life.  He argues that our obsession with rights “isolates the individual from considerations of the common good decided upon by deliberate majorities.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Front Porch Republic:

Advocates of gun control, most of them on the political left, are justifiably pointing to the excesses of rights talk today.  But Newtown provides an opportunity for bipartisan reflection on the false absolutism and hyper-individualism of the rights culture. In this matter, liberals are not innocent.  It is the left that, for near to a century, pioneered the tactic of pressing claims of rights—understood as exemptions for the individual from the authority of the community—in the courts, short-circuiting the slow but sure political processes that require engagement with one’s neighbors and consideration of their views.  “We talk a lot around here about voting on rights,” said Rachel Maddow on an MSNBC broadcast.  “Basically, rights are rights because you are born to them; you don’t vote on rights.”

But there is a right to own guns, and it is difficult to see how it can be limited without voting on it.  The problem with the absolutist line is that it assumes politics has no role to play in determining what all rights have: namely, boundaries.  The framers of the Constitution recognized only one absolute right: the sacred liberty of conscience, and that only because it resided in an internal realm and was therefore literally impossible to regulate.  All other rights—from speech to guns—had public repercussions and were consequently subject to public limitation.

Elsewhere in the piece, Wiener mentions abortion rights:

Thus when the citizens of the District of Columbia decided their city would be safer if it banned handguns, the Supreme Court—in the case of D.C. v. Heller—told them they could not.  One need not resolve the wisdom of such a policy to see the revolution worked by the judiciary trumping the deliberate sense of a community in resolving the boundaries of rights. The resort to the courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act resulted from the same mentality.

But so does the use of the judiciary to overturn majorities on abortion or any number of other priorities prized by the left. That is not by any means to equate those issues with what happened in Newtown.  It is, however, to say there is an inescapable linkage in the absolutism surrounding rights that characterizes both sides.

Each claims its priorities are exempt from the judgment of the community.  Each is quicker to turn to the courts than to democratic persuasion.  Each claims its rights are absolute, without boundary, isolated from regulation, indifferent to the opinions of one’s neighbors.  Each amounts to a claim to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants, regardless of what others want.  And each is part of a culture of rights that, every bit as much as a culture of guns, must change if another Newtown is to be deterred.

So here is the question I am grappling with after reading this piece: What is the difference between the conservative defense of the right to own any kind of gun and the liberal defense of a woman’s right to an abortion? Guns have the potential to end lives.  Abortion does end lives.

The Internet Can’t Fix the Potholes

Anthony Esolen defends town life.  Here is a taste:

The watchword, of course, is efficiency. A large factory may be able to manufacture plastic bowls at a cheaper rate than can two small factories. I defer to economists to tell me whether this is always true. But a human being is not a plastic bowl. We require goods on a human scale. If you spend a year with twenty people, chances are good that you will end up with a rival or two, and ten or fifteen friends. If you spend that same year with two thousand people, it is entirely possible that you will leave with the same invisibility and anonymity you had when you entered. If you can walk from one end of your town to the other in an hour or so, and you actually care about the potholes in the roads or the semiliterate textbooks in the elementary school, you stand a decent chance of knowing someone who might help you do something about it. And that very knowledge gives you a stake in the locality. It is almost impossible to feel at all responsible about anything when the influence of your single vote is exiguous—is but the weight of a hair on a twenty-ton scale…

 …I know well that the internet has made conversation, usually of a perfunctory sort, possible across the world. But this pothole is not going to be filled in by the internet; these fourth-graders are not going to be taught English grammar by a Facebook chat (to be honest, they are not going to be taught English grammar at all, but that is a complaint for another day); this restrictive zoning law is not going to be repealed by satellite. To the extent that small political paramecia like Enfield and Sackville are swallowed up in the amoeba of the HRM, to that extent do people lose the experience of self-government, regardless of how often their residents, no longer townsmen, vote.

This Week’s Anxious Bench Post at Patheos: "Finding Hope at a Middle School Graduation Ceremony"

My daughter graduated from eighth grade tonight.  I was very proud of her.  As the president of her middle school’s student council she had the opportunity to address the audience and introduce the evening’s festivities.

After a few inspirational charges from school administrators, much of my evening was spent, as is the case with most of the graduation ceremonies I have attended, watching the members of my daughter’s class parade across the stage and receive a piece of paper akin to a diploma.  Such an exercise requires patience.

As each student’s name was read, teachers and guidance counselors said a few things by way of biography. For example: “Mary’s favorite thing about middle school was playing in the orchestra.  She wants to get good grades in high school and get accepted to a good college.”  Listening to the reading of these biographies (which as far as I could tell were written by the students)  helped me pass the time, but also provided a very telling glimpse of the goals, dreams, and aspirations of my daughter’s classmates.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Bruce Springsteen’s Spiritual Vision for America"

Ten years ago, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Bruce Springsteen released his first studio album in seven years. It was called The Rising and it offered a moving reflection on that fateful day in American history. Springsteen described firefighters wearing crosses around their necks (“the cross of my calling”) and fulfilling their vocations as they charged into flaming buildings. He encouraged people to find a way to get “through this lonesome day.” He took a song (“My City of Ruins”) originally written to describe hard times in his home town of Asbury Park and made it speak to the tragedy suffered by the people of New York City. As the story goes, in the days after the attacks a fan in a car stopped next to Springsteen, rolled down his window, and yelled “We need you now.” Springsteen took heed and delivered what many consider to be his most important album.

Springsteen is 62 years old and still going strong. His new album, which was released yesterday, is entitled Wrecking Ball. It does for our current economic recession what The Rising did for 9/11. The songs explore themes of work, community, and the tragic and hopeful dimensions of American life. Wrecking Ball is an album about America, but it is also an album of faith, rooted in the Christian tradition. In fact, fans of Christian music might be familiar with its producer. His name is Ron Aniello and he has produced albums for Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Read the rest here.

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.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Have You Started a Junto Yet?" (Original Title)

There has been much discussion over the last two decades about the state of the evangelical mind. Books such as Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and, more recently, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens’s The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, have pointed to a latent anti-intellectualism in modern American evangelicalism.

There are many places evangelicals can turn to strengthen Christian thinking. Recently, in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll has pointed to the Christology of the ancient Christian creeds as a source for a robust intellectual life. Others have suggested that evangelicals should rely on the theological resources of Dutch Calvinism or Roman Catholicism for their intellectual heft.

While all of these streams of Christianity offer solid theological grounding for loving God with our minds, let me suggest an unlikely source for helping us think about how to practice this kind of intellectual discipleship: Benjamin Franklin.

Read the rest here.

Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 38

 Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  In this post, she discusses a new urban initiative she is working with called “Agritopia.”  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

For nearly 40 years James and Virginia Johnston and their three sons farmed 171 acres of land situated 25 miles southeast of Phoenix. What once supported cotton, alfalfa, and a humble homestead now contains over 500 single family homes, an elementary school, two eating establishments (including Joe’s Farm Grill of Food Network fame) 15 acres of urban farmland, a community garden, a farm stand, and site plans for both a senior-living community and vast commercial/retail development. The Johnston’s acquired the farmland in 1961, but in 1998, the family and local developer Scott Homes entered into an agreement to begin the design of a special sort of community they would call “Agritopia.”

Agritopia planners offered potential residents 176 home design variations ranging from 1300 to 4500 square feet, allowing people with a broad range of needs and resources to find a home in Agritopia. When designing the homes, the team committed to eight design principles: to reduce physical barriers to relationship; to reduce social/economic barriers to relationship; to promote sharing; to promote a simpler life; to promote the foundation of a true neighborhood; to choose style and beauty over size and sizzle; to honor agriculture; and to create a balanced project. These design principles served as the foundation for all decisions regarding architectural style and land use for the urban farm community.

Agritopia must be understood within a larger social context. The Johnston’s vision for their unique community is not the first to emerge from the desert southwest. For hundreds of years people have attempted to redefine community life and to create alternatives to the troubling urban conditions that have evolved in many sprawling Sunbelt cities. Phoenix itself is on the verge of urban crisis.

Two questions loom large in the coming years: One, how will Phoenicians, in creative and sustainable ways, respond to the growing concern over food access and local food production? Secondly, how will Phoenix residents create viable correctives to what some consider the aggressive, monotonous, and isolating postwar suburban development in the Salt River Valley? Agritopia, in a morass of tile and stucco, provides its own answer. The planners created a “middle ground”—one that incorporates urban living and agricultural production—reflecting a commitment to satisfying the human need for community, and also to meet the very physical needs of its residents by providing locally produced food and opportunities for residents to grow their own food in community gardens. 

By looking at Agritopia—its successes and its failures, its novelty and its tradition—we can learn about the ways in which people are thinking innovatively about organizing urban life in Phoenix. Perhaps Agritopia can provide a blueprint for other valley neighborhoods that must build vibrant and healthy communities in order to prevent the erosion of agriculture and kinship in a state founded on both.

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.

People Outside the United States Are Bowling Together

Some of you may recall Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam argued that community is declining in America.  His primary evidence was the significant membership decline in civic organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis and other community groups and activities such as bowling leagues.

While people continue to “bowl alone” in America, community and civic organizations are thriving outside of America.  In this Washington Monthly article, John Gravois traces the rise of organizations such as Rotary, the Boy Scouts, Lions, and Toastmasters in places like Uganda, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates.

Here is a taste:

In a radio interview earlier this year, the former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee sniffed at President Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.” Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got one thing precisely backward. Indonesia has more than twice as many scouts as we do. In fact, with around 17.1 million badge-seeking, uniform-sporting, oath-swearing youth, Indonesia has the largest scouting association in the world. The United States, whose scout numbers are steadily dwindling, is not even a close second. And for the record, Rotary has around eighty-nine clubs in the country as well.

OK all you blog-reading pundits.  What does this mean?

Are We a Nation of Individuals or a Community?

Duke University history professor William H. Chafe asks the age-old question in an op-ed in the Seattle Times.  He reminds us that the tensions between individualism and community have been around for a long time.  Here is a taste:

THE partisan battles tearing us asunder in America today raise a fundamental question that has reverberated throughout our history — who are we as a people? Are we a community that places the good of the whole first, or a gathering of individuals who value first and foremost each person’s ability to determine their own fate.

The choice is artificial, of course. Each day, our lives represent a mix of the two. But looking at our history in light of these competing values can illuminate the choices before us.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 in search of religious freedom, their leader John Winthrop delivered a sermon titled “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said their mission was to create a “city upon a hill,” a society that embodied values so noble that the entire world would emulate them.

Winthrop wrote, we would need to strengthen, defend, preserve, comfort and love each other, and bear one another’s burdens. “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes the community as members of the same body.”

Massachusetts was governed in its early decades by a sense the communal good must prevail. “Just prices” were prescribed for goods, and punishment was imposed on businesses that sought excess profits.

Soon enough, a surge of individualism challenged such regulations. Entrepreneurs viewed communal rules as shackles to be broken so they could pursue individual aspirations — and profits. The “just price” was discarded.

While religion remained a powerful presence, secularism ruled everyday business life, and Christianity was restricted to a once-a-week ritual. Class distinctions proliferated, economic inequality increased, and the values of laissez-faire individualism displaced the once enshrined “common wealth.”

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.