White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse” by Tim Carney

Published Tuesday, December 31, 2019 By John Stovall

As I write these words, our British cousins have concluded their version of an election campaign. It took six weeks.  A mere breeze of politics.  But everything is bigger in America, so our electoral contests now seem never-ending, with no time to stop from 2016 to 2020.  As those contests, so their lessons: never-ending books written about America after 2016, each its own morality play with strategies for success.

Into the crowded space of post-Trump Americana has arrived another diagnosis.  This one, Alienated America, is from Timothy Carney, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writing as part of the economic commentariat and attempting to analyze what he sees as parallel, divided tracks of American life.

Carney’s brief is simple: the last election showed that parts of America are successful and thriving; other places (those that voted for Donald Trump), are a “wasteland of alienation.”[1]  Our social glue is crusted, old, decaying. The American Dream is fading.

But in this retelling of the Dream, the key problem is not money, but family.  Not the factories closing, but the shuttering of churches.  The rise in anxiety, depression, unemployment, and the collapse of virtue all stem from a higher purpose found in mediating institutions.

The diagnosis is similar to others in the genre, with a couple of noted variations on the theme. Carney refuses the false choice between an economic and a cultural cause for the 2016 election, between unemployment or Midwestern values.  Instead, the cri de coeur of the 2016 election was a longing for community, an objection to social and economic change that went deeper than merely losing a job or feeling depressed.  The depression is corporate, not individual.

Combining standard social accounts such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone with newer economic studies, Alienating America includes chapters on the fallout of the family, the danger of large corporations and state bureaucracy, and the threat of a distracted, individualized, commodified citizenry.  The best of this analysis is rightly aghast at the interchangeability of humans in the 21st century economy, at the dissolution of marriage (not primarily among the jet set elites but in the working-class towns), and at the loss of a virtuous people.  Carney is at his ablest when identifying the gap between the safe family structures of economic and cultural elites (on both sides of the political aisle) and the realities of lost community in the rest of America.  Like any idol, the allure of a good job, a stable family, and a regentrified downtown promise so much yet fail to deliver for most Americans.

I serve in a county that provides a glimpse at all of these factors—the blessings of middle-class prosperity and the dangers of working-class isolation.  So I’m inclined to agree with these challenges mentioned.

What is Carney’s solution?  The answer is rooted in a vision of local government and nearness to neighbors, in a combination of the Catholic social teaching on solidarity (the common good) and subsidiarity (local needs met locally).  In this reading, our society is valuable because it’s not centralized, and entanglement between central government and local institutions is a problem. Existing in an awkward embrace with this Roman Catholic teaching is Carney’s recommendation of American exceptionalism.[2]  But in a pluralistic society, is American exceptionalism able to bridge the divides between newly arrived Americans and lifelong citizens, or between individuals who view the American Dream as getting the most toys the quickest?

In addition, he emphasizes more directly the place of religion and the church in promoting this mom-and-pop morality.  The religious congregation is the fundamental institution of American civil society.  Selfishly, I wish he was right.  But here is my pastoral concern: Carney fails to distinguish between types of churches.  He is glad to push Washington out of Main Street, but fails to analyze the impact of megachurch spirituality on the form of religion in America.

In fact, the fallout from a therapeutic gospel and a self-centered religious experience is as corrosive to communal life as anything else.  It is instructive that the cover of Alienated America is a picture of an old wooden church, not a sleek ecclesial campus.  But a well-administered and well-financed organization will be able to overcome better our social alienation, able to be that ‘mediating institution’ beloved by Carney. This failure to identify the current presence of American Protestant churches bedevils the entire project.  In a world where Islamic, Wiccan, and Christian beliefs are all seemingly plausible, his proposal appears slightly blinkered.  As Carney admits, many of the social goods he offers are able to be given by non-religious groups or organizations.

Perhaps the greatest danger of Carney’s positive program is this: the church is relegated to giving a little moral boost, a bit of extra significance to the ordinary parts of our lives.[3]  Is that it?  For all of the praise of the church as the bedrock of American civil society, Carney falters at the last. Sometimes I miss the medieval Popes—at least they followed up their grandiose words about the primacy of spiritual power over secular power with commitment.

What will overcome the alienation of citizen from citizen and brother from sister in a divided America?  As Christians, who do belong to an alternative city, whose citizenship is in heaven and whose lives are hid in Christ, our challenge is not merely to assist in a small way our local towns.  Our challenge is to be the light which Christ himself declares we are—neither avoiding the needy nor pursuing them at all costs, but displaying sanctified labor in the middle of institutions. The examples of Esther, Daniel, Joseph, and Moses (not to mention Paul’s appeal to Caesar) indicate that ‘big government’ is not to be annihilated or always distrusted. Rather, as Christians find themselves in organizations—whether mediating institutions or hegemonic—we are to work wisely, responsibly, honestly, and courageously.

Every week, I gather with fellow believers and proclaim the Apostles’ Creed. That ancient text includes this statement: “I believe in Jesus Christ…who ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”  The calling upon Christians today is to match our full-throated proclamation of the Almighty God with an enthusiastic commitment to the local body that God has formed.  Not primarily because it will save America or bridge social divides, but even if the American church fails to reconnect, we will know the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

John Stovall serves as the pastor of The Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, GA and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.

[1] Carney, Alienated America, 13.

[2] See his remarks on page 290: “There’s something about the blend of America and religion that creates the best environment for the mutual flourishing of shared norms and individual liberty…the rugged individualism of America, the multilayered nature of our civil society, and probably the diversity of religious groups make it more possible.” I am uncertain whether the Vatican would equally prize American exceptionalism.

[3] Carney, Alienated America, 299.

  • John Stovall