Earlier this week, David Brooks effusively praised Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart, saying that he’d be “shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” Sorry David, I don’t have time these days to add another 400 page hardback to the pile, but Murray was kind enough to summarize the book in a 3200 word Wall Street Journal essay. Using the rule of thumb of 250 words per page, I figure the paper pillar of Robert Murdoch’s media empire saved me from reading nearly 97,000 words. And they wonder why kids these days have such short attention spans…
Anyways, Murray starts with the premise is that America has bifurcated into two incredibly divergent classes, and that this division threatens the success of the American Experiment. But before you yell “Occupier!” and flip on Fox News, wait for the twist. He doesn’t repeat the classic liberal charges. Instead, his thesis is that the real inequality in America is a cultural inequality, a gap between the have-middle-class-values and the have-not-middle-class-values. Murray focuses solely on white America, ostensibly to demonstrate an effect independent of race and ethnicity. Analyzing trends from 1960-2010, he identifies the decline of marriage, increasing numbers of children born to unwed mothers, a hollowed out work ethic, increasing criminality, and falling religiosity as the primary drivers of poverty, obesity, and dreams deferred amongst the lower class. Those in upper class, having retained the civic and personal values of the 1950’s, have far brighter horizons.
I’ll leave it to those with more time and more brainpower to really pick apart the ways in which he ignores or misconstrues the structural issues at play. At first glance, his omission of similar analysis for African-Americans or Latinos seems telling; if these effects are independent of race (and all the systemic factors bound up in that), shouldn’t they hold true there as well? Or did the specter of the kerfluffle over The Bell Curve loom too large?
That doesn’t mean I completely reject his diagnosis. Anyone who thinks the poor are all suffering saints who never made a poor choice that deepened or sustained their poverty needs to get out a bit more. Scripture is clear that personal moral failures can cause poverty, though, as Keller points out in Generous Justice, the Biblical emphasis is usually on systemic issues of oppression and injustice.
Back to Murray. To close the values gap, he suggests that the virtuous move outside their enclaves and engage with the rest of America. Once again, before you yell out “incarnational missiology!” and clear a space for the book right beside Irresistible Revolution, wait for the twist:
“The best thing that the new upper class can do…is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”
Perhaps he supposes that the upper classes missed the Sunday School lesson on Luke 18:9-14, 18-30 because they were away at Space Camp? But not to pick on Murray, he’s certainly not alone in his prescription. Some months ago, R.R. Reno described a similar sentiment in First Things:
“Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.”
So we’ve been doing all this work, when it was really so much simpler ? That’s a bummer.
But seriously, and more to the point, Stephen Corbett & Brian Fikkert point out some of the dangers of these remedies in their book When Helping Hurts, a book that I actually read (If you don’t have a copy, and you call yourself an Evangelical, stop reading this and order it right now). In chapter 2, they highlight the ways in which paternalism and the God complexes of upper-class saviors don’t square with a Biblical theology of sin and poverty. And in chapter 3, they hurl a bomb at the kind of “missional morality” advocated by Reno and Murray. After applying for federal funds for a Gospel-centered jobs-training program for an inner-city organization, they were told to delete any explicitly Christian references, and only teach the values of the “Protestant work ethic”. They rejected federal funds, saying:
“…how sad it would have been if we had ended up communicating to the program participants: ‘You can pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps. Become more disciplined, hardworking, and responsible, and you too can achieve the American dream of material prosperity.’ Even if the participants had then managed to change their behaviors without the Biblical teaching, the result might have been people who put their faith in middle-class values and in their ability to adopt those values. We would have replaced their own worldview with that of the modern worldview, which believes that humans can achieve progress through their own strength.”
It’s in that last sentence that Corbett & Fikkert put their finger on the lie that undergirds most failed poverty alleviation efforts, regardless of whether it’s laissez-faire moralism or statist redistribution. If we believe, whether individually or collectively, that we can adopt and embody the values that lead a more prosperous, more just society, then we will always be disappointed. We are not made of so stern a stuff as we would like to think. We need a cross-shaped humility, which will first recognize the knowledge and goodness that come to all people, rich or poor, through the imago dei. But it also will acknowledge the pervasive brokenness and selfishness that grips our hearts and taints our political and economic structures, a brokenness that can only be redeemed by the Savior.