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Taking Faith Seriously

Contempt for religion costs Democrats more than votes

Mike Gecan

8 One day in January I was meeting with a longtime friend, a smart and experienced publisher, and we were talking about the recent election and the inauguration. My friend was shaking his head, as many Americans have been doing since election day, wondering why so many people voted for Bush when it did not seem to be in their economic interest to do so. I said that I thought I understood, and that it was Harold Bloom’s engaging, provocative, sometimes wacky book The American Religion, among other things, that had helped me see more clearly why Republicans are victorious and secure and Democrats are defeated and unsure. Like Nixon and China, Bloom and religion are the least predictable of pairs. But Bloom did what few have done: he inhaled practically every word written about American religious life; he read nearly every page produced by the leaders and promoters of Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, Pentecostalism, and other sects. And he tried to come to grips with the unique dynamic and appeal of American expressions of faith.

My understanding did not begin with Bloom’s book. It began where Bloom taught, at Yale, in 1967—a time and place where George Bush, John Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and others all crossed paths. I wrote about that period in a piece called “The Tribes of Yale,” which the Village Voice published in the summer of 2003, about a year before the national election. What I experienced at Yale—and never forgot—was not just the haughtiness of the rich on the right (which I expected), but the contempt and superiority of the newly emerging elite on the left. Both groups tended to treat cafeteria workers like me, the Puerto Ricans who bused trays and washed dishes in the dining halls, and the blacks who cleaned the rooms and hallways as servants or worse. I expected the wealthy to act this way. I was surprised to hear many on the left, antiwar to the bone, talk about those who went to Vietnam, particularly the white working class, with utter disdain.

On the most basic level, the contempt of the progressive elite for ordinary people—for their faiths, their speech patterns, their clothes, their hobbies, their hopes, and their aspirations—has driven scores of millions of Americans out of the Democratic Party and into either the Republican Party or a no man’s land between the two. The willingness of many Republicans to simply show respect for the habits and interests of these mixed and moderate Americans has paid growing political dividends. The Republicans have understood that communicating respect is more important than offering programs or incentives. The Democrats have failed to realize that multiplying programs or policies designed to meet people’s needs is doomed to fail unless and until those people sense a fundamental level of recognition of who they are, not just what they need. The medium may not be the message. But a medium of respect and recognition is what makes the reception of the message possible.

What does this have to do with religious faith? Almost everything. When George Bush says that he has been born again, that he has been personally saved by the Lord, and that he has a personal relationship with Jesus, he is speaking the language of somewhere between 60 and 75 million Americans. It is not his region, the southwest, that matters. It is not his accent, Texas southern, that matters. When he talks about personal salvation, he places himself directly in the tradition, traced by Bloom, of enthusiastic, diverse believers who met at Cane Ridge, in rural Kentucky, in 1801, and who express their faith in different ways in every state of the union.

The core of this tradition, described by Bloom and many others, is clear. Believers strive for—and achieve—a personal relationship with God. This intense experience—a spark, a fire—is individual, not collective. The less mediation and interference by denomination or organization or professional clergy, the better. And there is simply no need for much organized communal activity. No church-defined version of “social justice” can compare with the intensity, purity, and clarity of the one-on-one relationship with the divine. Many Americans, in mostly exurban and rural counties, subscribe to this tradition and practice. But it is not exclusively a white, Southern, rural, or middle-class religious culture. Many scores of millions more, in megachurches in Houston, Pentecostal storefronts in lower Manhattan and the South Bronx, and Holiness congregations in Boston, have the same core habits, patterns, and basic beliefs.

I write this with deep respect for those who express their faith in this way. Just watch Pastor Joel Osteen’s services—25,000 believers packed into a Houston facility, Bibles on their laps, pens in hand. The preaching is excellent—prepared, thoughtful, positive. But it’s the response—from people who have worked hard all week, people who traveled far to come to the service, people who have all the pressures and strains of every other American, sitting and listening and working at their faith—that’s really remarkable. The racial and ethnic mix of the congregation is a marvel. I am a lifelong practicing Roman Catholic who has had the good fortune to spend many Sundays in Baptist and Pentecostal churches. The quality of the experience, the depth of feeling, and the impact on believers are often extraordinary. It is a tradition that must not be dismissed, that must be understood, first on its own terms and for its own sake, and then because it is at the heart of the cultural change that has already occurred and that continues to occur in our country.

When George Bush prays—when he invokes the Lord—he resonates with these Americans. He may be awkward and trip over his words, but he is in sync with the dominant religious rhythm of his time. In a culture cluttered with policies, proposals, and cause-and-effect analysis, with all the tools of the Enlightenment still at our disposal and dutifully taught at our academies, we often give short shrift to the appeal of a radical religious refrain that defies or defeats or simply stuns rational argument.

This resonance trumps reason. It lies outside the realm of polling and focus groups. It is not impressed with all the Yale Law School and Kennedy School of Government degrees. It does not just “level the playing field” and counter the contempt of the progressive elites. It tilts the field and sends them sputtering, fuming, tumbling to the floor. This resonance is there even among African-American voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, although for them it is canceled out by mediating institutional leaders—pastors, key lay people—who are able to raise the economic and social issues to people, to remind people of the limits of this resonance and the impact of the other conditions.

The resonance is felt by growing millions of Americans, like the decent young fellow who served me coffee in a downtown-Chicago Starbucks a few months ago. We began to chat about the wintry weather. I asked him whether he liked working there, and he said that he did, that he could get benefits by working just 20 hours per week, which was an advantage for him because he was still in school. Which school?, I asked. The Moody Bible Institute, he said. He and his new wife were planning to be nondenominational missionaries. Where?, I asked. In eastern Europe or central Asia—maybe Uzbekistan. He asked me if I went to church. I talked about attending the fine Catholic parish that my wife found for our family in central New Jersey. He asked me what I liked about it, so I told him—the bright and dynamic pastor, the creativity and flexibility of the worship service. The entire conversation didn’t last more than five minutes, but I knew I was talking to the kind of young man—healthy, mature, direct, frankly spiritual—who would hear Joel Osteen or George Bush and understand him instantly.

* * * 

This religious resonance is reinforced by an economic resonance that is also deep and powerful. The president’s “ownership society” is based on a vision of an individual who is capable of having a direct and personal relationship with the market. An individual should have control over his or her own economic destiny—should be able to own a home rather than renting, work for a private business rather than for the government, save money for retirement rather than expecting the government or an employer to make the arrangements. This is self-reliance, updated and reaffirmed.

The president is asserting that the individual person or family doesn’t need mediating institutions and programs. In fact, in his view, these institutions and programs have disrupted the development of the hoped-for relationship between the person and the market, just as many believers feel that denominations and religious bureaucracies impede the growth of the personal relationship with God. Rugged economic individualism parallels rugged religious individualism; it is a consistent, compelling, and profoundly appealing theme.

Even Social Security—a program that has been consistently stable and successful, that is fiscally solvent, and that is still valued by a clear majority of Americans—has been targeted for conversion. This targeting, which I believe will fail practically, has already succeeded in at least two ways. First, President Bush has signaled sharply to his most conservative corporate and social supporters his increasing commitment to reducing the presence and power of a wide range of mediating groups—labor, consumer, governmental, environmental, communal. Let there be no doubt, he is saying, of my conviction and my direction. Second, he has scared the hell out of moderates and progressives and forced them to play defense. My God, they think, if he will go after the sacred cow of Social Security, what’s to stop him from going after our program or organization? While they are defending Social Security, my guess is that the president will pick off a few other programs that will be left unguarded.

This theme of emphasizing the value and potency of the isolated individual, reducing the institutional structures that stifle him or her, and thus setting the stage for a direct and personal relationship with the divinity (or the market) has made its way into the least likely of places.

The new slogan of the United States Army—a remarkably large and successful government program, if there ever was one—is this: An Army of One. When I first saw this slogan on TV, I could not believe my eyes or ears. “An Army of One.” I wasn’t even sure I understood at first. But I think it means that each soldier is so well equipped, so well trained, and so well supported that he can and should think of himself as able to have a direct and deadly relationship with the enemy—no matter how numerous, how passionate, and how dangerous. Of course, “An Army of One” seems to contradict what lies at the very heart of why soldiers fight and die: their relationship to their country, to their platoon, to the people they entered with, trained with, drank with, and are now fighting together with.

My father lies in St. Adalbert’s Cemetery outside of Chicago, with these words on his gravestone: “August Gecan, Sergeant, U.S. Army.” His dying wish was to be remembered forever as one of a group of men that landed on Omaha Beach, took terrible casualties there, and fought all the way to the Battle of the Bulge. That is where his war ended—with a shrapnel wound that took out a lung and nearly claimed his life.

“An Army of One” would have made little sense to my father or his platoon. But it makes perfect sense in 21st-century America because it reinforces the theme of personal autonomy and potency, because it reduces the dependence on other institutions and structures, and because it carries the rhythms of religious and economic individualism to their cultural (not logical) conclusion.

* * * 

What is the nature of this appeal? What is so resonant in its refrain? First, it is positive and optimistic. When I watch Joel Osteen, I have a clear sense of why his congregation has grown from 7,000 to 25,000 in just a few years: he exudes good feeling in his preaching. Forget the words. Watch his eyes, his face. He communicates his belief in the ability of the people to reach for Jesus and relate to him. Many liberals and progressives have never understood the power of relationships—relationships that start with an enthusiastic recognition of the capacity of others to grow and develop, of the innate preference that most people feel to be viewed not as clients of agencies or bundles of needs desperate to be “served” but as good and full beings who are agents of their own destinies. Osteen seems to understand this deeply and radiates it with every gesture, expression, and word. Bush communicates it, too, in his own way, by positing a picture of each individual American with the ability and means to control his or her financial future.

Second, it is spiritual and inclusive. It assumes the presence of a human spirit—a spirit capable of finding and engaging the divine, a spirit capable of organizing and marshaling a variety of economic opportunities better than any outside institution, a spirit capable of routing or killing any foe. The worth of the self is not tied to great SAT scores, or Ivy League degrees, or celebrity associates, or vacation homes in Vail or the Hamptons. Anyone can participate in this version of American achievement.

Third, it is distilled and clear. It leaves many of the details and variations on the main theme to the individual, not to some academic or media know-it-alls. The message is that every American can write his or her own script rather than serving as cogs on some denominational committee or in some union campaign that they were never consulted about and had no ownership of.

Fourth and finally, it is, at this point and possibly for the foreseeable future, very poorly contested. Why? Let me reminisce a bit.

* * * 

I was born in 1949 on the west side of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago. And I became aware of a larger public world in the mid-1960s in Our Lady of the Angels Parish and in the streets and alleys of West Garfield Park.

I didn’t know it at the time—couldn’t see it or sense it—but the institutions that formed the core of that community and city, along with communities and cities all across the country, were just beginning a long, slow, costly arc of decline that has continued to this day.

Those institutions included Scandanavian neighborhoods filled with Lutheran churches in south Brooklyn, Italian areas that supported Catholic parishes in South Philadelphia, Irish parishes in Chicago and Baltimore and Boston, synagogues and Jewish community centers, labor locals that represented legions of manufacturing workers, armed forces that drafted and trained millions of young men, the solid and segregationist South led by the likes of Strom Thurmond, a Democratic Party that was sustained by all of these institutions and more, and a government that included a GI Bill and a Social Security system and other supports. It was a world of institutions, large institutions—each with its network of leaders, its points of entry, its training grounds, its corruptions, and its glories.

The leaders and representatives and organizers of these institutions were everywhere. Back then the Democratic Party existed in physical space, in communities, in storefront offices, in the regular human presence of precinct captains and district leaders and aldermen. They often shook down the adults of our community, demanding illegal payoffs for service or access. But they sometimes delivered jobs that put bread on the table and sent kids to Catholic school. The priests and sisters, ministers and rabbis were not locked away in rectories. They taught and coached and road the buses and els. They shopped on Chicago Avenue. The union leaders were not college-trained legal experts or business agents; they were men and women used to working in the plant, who did the same jobs as the people they represented.

Platoons and companies and armies; parishes and congregations and church vestries; labor locals and federations and councils; precincts and districts and wards—it was a culture of corporations (from the Latin corpus, body) of various sizes and kinds. From work to church to party, what resonated was the experience of life within and among groups, collectives, institutions. The dynamic of individual and family life was one of being incorporated, if you were fortunate and savvy, and excluded and isolated if you were not.

I won’t romanticize this world. I saw much of its narrowness and negligence, its corruption and physical violence, with my own eyes. I saw it stunt and damage people in ways that I can never forget. One reason that I became an organizer is that I believed that it was possible to build and wield institutional power in more humane and effective ways than the ways I witnessed.

And yet, in a rough-and-tumble world, in a world of powerful corporations and brutal business practices, these institutions enabled millions of Americans to make the transition from recent immigrant to stable participant, from poverty and precariousness to working-class employment and some security.

It shares little with the culture that President Bush embodies and promotes.

It was not nearly as positive or as optimistic about the individual as the president’s culture is. In fact, it suggested that the individual had no chance, that only through organization could the person or the family survive the pressures of the job or the city or the arduous journey of faith. Unmediated meant unprotected, vulnerable, exploited. A more guarded and qualified optimism could be sustained only if you were part of one or more powerful institutions.

It was not as inclusive or as spiritual. If you were defined by your status in a group, you also defined those who were not invited, not welcomed, and sometimes rejected from membership—those not of your faith, not of your race, not of your block, not of your craft or trade. And the work you did was more practical, more matter-of-fact than a liberal cause or a conservative crusade. The citizen-soldiers of World War II “had a job to do,” as my father and so many of his fellow veterans used to say. Was faith a factor? Was it part of what motivated and sustained them? Sure. But it was not the only factor for most, not the primary factor for many, and not at all a factor for some.

It was not as distilled and not as clear either. It was a dense world, complex and gray and contradictory at times. If you were black, you could get into the Cook County Democratic Party by swearing total loyalty to its white leadership, by stifling other, more independent blacks who dared to speak up, by undermining the civil-rights preachers who defied the great mayor. Over time you built power and rose in the party, but the cost could be high.

And it was heavily and bitterly contested—by business interests, by major newspapers, by Red-baiting senators, by organized crime, by fascist dictators with fierce armies, by communist and socialist countries that used guerrilla warfare to threaten our very existence.

* * * 

The world of institutions held together for as long as it did because people found three of their deepest needs partially met.

The first need was the almost universal appetite for relating to others—not only to the divine but to neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, and tenants. Religion tells us to love God but also to love our neighbors. Many of these relationships were never really “loving,” but they were the real-world expression of that ageless biblical call. Relationships like these—mixed and fractious and wonderful—cannot compete with an intense and direct relationship with the divine. But an exclusive relationship with God cannot substitute for these relationships either, or for the hard work of creating a society or for the possibility of experiencing community. In the world of social relationships, we find interplay, reciprocity, and (if we are lucky) occasional solidarity.

The second need that this world met was the almost universal drive to learn—to grow and develop as humans. In the old world of institutions there were apprentices and masters—skilled craftsmen capable of teaching others to work with wood and apply plaster, to deliver a public service and turn out a vote, to pray in the way of a tradition and raise your children in the faith. My uncle, the late Nick Juric, taught himself how to repair and fabricate electronic circuits at Ohmite Electronics in Skokie, Illinois. He rose from an entry-level worker to the supervisor of more than 300 technical workers. If Ohmite didn’t have the tool to repair a problem, Nick Juric invented it. Then he taught himself how to use it. Then he instructed others. Plants and playing fields and schools and religious institutions were filled with hundreds of thousands of Nick Jurics during this period—knitters and repairers and fabricators of social relationships as well as electronic circuits.

Today megachurches, realizing the intensity of relating to the Lord but also the depth of this drive in people, often sponsor a wide range of development opportunities to their members—everything from nutrition counseling to job placement to health care. They are reproducing, in microcosm, the range of options that used to be available to an entire society.

The third need is the hunger for victory in the world as it is. I’m not talking about money and mansions and vacations in Cancun (if that’s still where wealth goes). I’m referring to the innate drive in people to have a satisfying job, a respectable house, a cleaner block, a better school for their kids—improvements that have to be fought for and won against great resistance. These struggles, which were group struggles, were the stuff of legend. It was never an army of one and rarely a celebrity event. It was the union that brought health care and pensions to a class of families that would never have had either. It was the church or the temple that saved precious dollars for scholarships so the kids who achieved could go to better colleges. It was the Baptist and the Catholic men’s and women’s clubs that started savings and loan associations in their basements to enable families who could not get loans from the downtown banks to move out of tenements and into bungalows and brownstones.

Even today it is citizens’ organizations like East Brooklyn Congregations and South Bronx Churches that build thousands of homes in formerly forsaken sections of New York. Like the Old Testament figure Nehemiah, for whom these rebuilding projects have been named, these organizations build with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.

Jim Sleeper, who has thought deeply and written well about these matters, attended the first groundbreaking of the East Brooklyn Congregations’ Nehemiah Plan, in a rubble-strewn lot in Brownsville more than 20 years ago. He recently wrote, “For the Nehemiah builders who organized the crucial home-owner preparation and training, faced down the corrupt union and public officials who were driving up the costs of housing . . . civic responsibility rests on sustaining a general, public expectation of religious faith without any imposition of doctrine.”

This building takes place in the real world. It is done by people who are on the one hand hopeful and positive and on the other heavily armed to defend their effort against the inevitable attacks that arise in a world of conflicting interests. These are anonymous, organized, gritty, generational achievements. They lack the incandescence and purity of other kinds of transformation. But they fill those who participate in them with quiet dignity and with a depth of satisfaction that only this form of victory brings.

This too was an ownership society, but the form of ownership was shared, and scores of millions of Americans felt as if they were shareholders of their community and city and society.

* * * 

This dynamic corporate society will never be rebuilt. But within the dense mass of institutional life that operated effectively until the late 1960s and among the descendants of that tradition represented by powerful and supple citizens’ organizations like East Brooklyn Congregations is the living critique of the Bush approach. While no one should assail the religious impulse of the president and his followers—while those who don’t understand the evangelical impulse should make an honest effort to understand it and respect it—everyone should feel uneasy about the economic and social themes that the president promotes. His vision of individuals navigating a world of enormously powerful economic institutions—stock exchanges, corporate conglomerates, venture-capital firms, the U.S. Treasury, insurance companies, and the like—is naive at best. The majority of American families are not gaining ground. Even The New York Times (often the last to know) has noted that social mobility in America is either stagnant or on the decline. That is because social mobility has always been a collective, institutional process for the vast majority of Americans. And while the Republicans may talk about the importance of communities, voluntary associations, and churches as supports for personal transformation, their core message remains essentially individualistic.

The president’s views are also naive in their depiction of how change and progress occur. Change comes through controversy, conflict, negotiation, and resolution in the world as it is—domestically and overseas. That is why the Bush ownership society is a mirage. Individuals cannot possibly contend with the real and aggressive pressures of both the highly organized and self-interested market and the highly organized and self-interested state without their own highly organized base of power. Bush’s resonance with people of faith has led to an embrace of the individual as the only route to social mobility in an age when the words and terms of the Great Society no longer work. It’s the wrong path. But there are alternatives.

How will the next new world of economic opportunity and social mobility emerge? I can’t tell you what it is, but I know where it will be found: in the minds and hearts of ordinary Americans in Massilon, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona, and Oklahoma City, and rural West Virginia.

When I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post last December about the clueless Democratic Party and its inability to relate to modern Americans, the letters and e-mails poured in. Most were written by moderate Americans, several of whom shared the religious culture of the president but were experiencing social and economic difficulties that pushed them in the direction of the Democratic Party. The problem was that because they were evangelical, or because they were pro-life, or because they were in those vast tracts of the country where the Democratic Party has virtually ceased to exist (popping up frantically before elections every two years), they had nowhere to go. These people know that society is not working for them. They know they are falling behind. They know their kids can’t compete with the bipartisan elite of wealth and advantage. They know that the fervor of their faith does not guarantee them fulfillment in their social and economic lives. A clear majority of these Americans are white, but they now share many of the same experiences as African-Americans since emancipation—a deep and living faith along with an embattled and precarious position in a society that rewards corporate organization.

A few million individual meetings with Americans like these, a patient and respectful hearing of their problems and aspirations, a long-term commitment to relating to them and working with them—out of an approach like this will come the new themes and new message and new direction for the nation. The answer is not in your head or in your pen; it is in their souls and in their hearts.

The very future of the nation turns on whether we can design and pursue a new era of social advancement that provides equality of opportunity to more Americans and would-be Americans and overseas admirers of the American dream. Otherwise, long after Bush and his crew are gone, this period will be remembered as the time when the great American lamp began to dim, when our imagination darkened, and when the long, slow shadow of decline first darkened the Democratic Party and then blighted the entire democratic experiment.

No one, no matter what faith or party, prays for that. <

Mike Gecan has worked as an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore for more than 25 years.

Originally published in the April/May 2005 issue of Boston Review.



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