Belonging … Or Not

David Brooks is at it again.

This American creed gave people a sense of purpose and a high ideal to live up to. It bonded them together. Whatever their other identities — Irish-American, Jewish American, African-American — they were still part of the same story.

Over the years, America’s civic religion was nurtured the way all religions are nurtured: by sharing moments of reverence. Americans performed the same rituals on Thanksgiving and July 4; they sang the national anthem and said the Pledge in unison; they listened to the same speeches on national occasions and argued out the great controversies of our history.

All of this evangelizing had a big effect. As late as 2003, Americans were the most patriotic people on earth, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Recently, the civic religion has been under assault. Many schools no longer teach American history, so students never learn the facts and tenets of their creed. A globalist mentality teaches students they are citizens of the world rather than citizens of America.

Critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates have arisen, arguing that the American reality is so far from the American creed as to negate the value of the whole thing. The multiculturalist mind-set values racial, gender and ethnic identities and regards national identities as reactionary and exclusive.

And he continues:

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism, which erects barriers between Americans and which is the dark opposite of America’s traditional universal nationalism.

Brooks’ presumes participation in the rituals fosters both a sense of inclusion and actual inclusion itself. He cannot imagine an America built on deliberate exclusion, that participation in the rituals is a gesture often demanded and frequently compelled not because it makes us all fellow citizens in solidarity with each other, but because it is creates a hierarchy of who is worthy and who is not.

We can still be strangers when we sing and pledge.


The solidarity Brooks yearns for here is frequently nonreciprocal. Sacrifices, loyalty, and love are often demanded, but rarely returned.

Let’s think of the most important ritual of the church — eucharist. Many churches reserve it for insiders, for members, for those who have confessed their sins and gotten right with God. Being at the table, taking bread and wine, shows that you belong, that you have done the long, hard, purposeful work of belonging. That you have learned to “discern the body,” as Paul wrote, when you eat and drink. And thus take no judgment upon yourself.

I don’t argue much with this view, since it has deep historical roots and legitimacy (“The doors! The doors!” as the Orthodox say, harking back to a time when the unbaptized were ushered out of our most sacred mystery). Nor do I feel excluded when a pastor or priest tells me I cannot take communion. (Though I do get miffed when a Lutheran tell me no, since I believe I am entitled to an opinion on that matter and I think they get what it means to be church wrong.)

America’s nationalistic rituals — the rituals of our civic faith — feel this kind of exclusionary to me. You can be at the table all you want, but if the priest and the people around you see you as a sinner, for whatever reason, there simply is no belonging. And unlike religious ritual (though, sadly, like too many religious communities), there is no meaningful repentance and penance.

Once a sinner, always a sinner.

I get what Brooks wants. An America, united in purpose and faith, even as we are divided by creed and color. This is a powerful story, developed and honed in the 20th century as Americans struggled against forces that sought to extinguish difference in ideological or racial uniformity.

But he fails to appreciate there can be no in without an out. And often, that out is right in our midst, a reminder that enemies and nonbelievers lurk among us. I honestly have no idea how they are identified — how I was singled out — but it happens. We are not all happy members of some great ecumenical holding company, with our share of stock and our little vote.

Some of us are singled out. And no mere recitation of words, or singing of a song, can save us. Can make us belong.

My Kind of Conservative

Daniel McCarthy over at The American Conservative has a review of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and describes the author and former army officer this way:

Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.

Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.

This is the kind of conservative I could be, one that critiques both the market and state in favor of society and community. This is akin to the conservatism I grew up, and it often feels right to me even as it embraces a rhetoric that is frequently contradictory — anti-government and anti-state even as many of those who espouse such views are utterly dependent upon the state for careers and livelihoods. I am drawn to self-discipline, self-sacrifice, restraint, and solidarity — in a European context, I’m probably an old fashioned Christian Democrat. As both a Muslim and a Christian, I was and am drawn to social orders built upon cascading layers of mutual obligation, and that language speaks to me in ways the language of rights does not and never will. A confident assertion that I am responsible for my neighbor, and he is responsible for me. That is a politics build upon solidarity.

Sadly, I don’t see those things on offer much anymore, and have not for some time. All there seems to be is the angry language of rights. And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

JOSHUA Fighting Faithfully and Loyally

With peace established in Canaan, It is time to send the eastern tribes of Israel — Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh — back to their land across the Joran River:

1 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. 4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

When Joshua assumed command of Israel upon the death of Moses, the second thing he does is command the people of Reuben, Gad, and Mannaseh, who have all been given land east of the Jordan River, to send their “men of valor” (גִּבּוֹרֵי הַחַיִל) across the Jordan to fight with the other tribes of Israel (10 tribes, because Manasseh has land in the middle of northern Canaan too) to take possession of the land.

When peace has come, the men of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben will get to return to their allotments when the war is over, when all Israel has taken possession of Canaan.

Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh respond enthusiastically: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.”

This is loyalty. This is solidarity. This is Israel fighting together, for Gad and Reuben have no share in Canaan between the Jordan and the Great Sea itself, and Manasseh has enough of a share in the east to ignore the fight for its share in the west. They are fighting for their brothers, and not for their land.

We see something similar here when Israel fights for its newfound Canaanite allies in Gibeon.

And now that the land is at least temporarily subdued (hint: it won’t last), and there rest on all sides for Israel (interesting that Joshua does not use the word “peace” here to describe this, as the Book of Joshua does not shy away from using the word peace שָׁל֔וֹם), Joshua is fulfilling his promise to the people of Gad, Reuben, and East Manasseh. They fulfilled their obligations — they fought for the patrimony of others while theirs was already secure — and so they will be allowed to go back home to their wives and children and land with

… much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers. (Joshua 22:8 ESV)

The three eastern tribes have kept their promises, and Joshua is keeping his. Because God has kept his promises.

The only condition they have been given is to remain steadfast in their worship of Israel’s God — a command given to all Israel, not just those who are going back their homes across the river.

The Failure of White Solidarity

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a piece on the troubles besetting the white working class (I think term is inadequate, and I will explain a bit later), vamping off some recently released data which shows that white men without college degrees are killing themselves in record numbers.

Go read the Dreher piece for yourself. It’s one of his better essays of late, though I suspect given how he tends to write about African Americans and social order, this won’t help him much.

Still, someone does need to care about poor and working class whites — people who in previous generations would have been called proletarians and peasants.

Dreher notes the difference between poor whites, poor blacks and poor Latinos — blacks and Latinos, despite the poverty and violence, are not killing themselves — and concludes that the given the spiritual tools that churches give their members, “white people do not know how to suffer successfully.”

… [T]he bottom line is that the changes in the American economy over the past few decades have worked to alienate working-class whites from religious life because of the way the white working class connects its sense of self, and of justice, to the ability to be rewarded for hard work, being honest, playing by the rules, and delaying gratification. When this formula fails, they don’t know how to deal with it. Say the sociologists, “In brief, the declining economic position of white working class Americans may have made the bourgeois moral logic embodied in many churches both less attractive and attainable.”

What I think Dreher is saying here is that bourgeois aspirations for peasants and proletarians are good things when those aspirations can lead to some kind of attainable success, to something more concrete. And the rearranging of the economy in the last four decades has made life brutal and unrewarding for many white proletarians and peasants. Social change over the same period has not helped those least able to successfully navigate or even manage those changes.

Dreher uses the word dispossession, and notes that the order of the world — which up until the mid–1970s generally favored white proletarians and peasants — suddenly came undone. And it has left white proletarians and peasants without a way to measure their self-worth or social worth, or to feel like successful participants in a communal endeavor.

What is missing — at least overtly — from Dreher’s analysis is an understanding of solidarity.

White proletarians and peasants benefitted hugely from the Progressive Era and New Deal arrangements that created the very world that built a floor under their lives and provided them with some significant economic security. But that order didn’t simply come into being on its own — proletarians and peasants organized and agitated hard for that order, frequently fighting and dying in the process in order to gain some say over how their lives were viewed, valued, and protected. Labor unions were the biggest part of this, and along with fraternal organizations, created and fostered solidarity — “we are in this together, and no one succeeds unless we all succeed.”

Of course, there was the reality of America’s racial order to content with. Progressive and New Deal intellectuals and policy makers were just as committed to America’s racial order, and white solidarity rarely included Blacks Americans (though this was not always the case). It was a limited “we.” But it was a “we.”

That “we” was built on a very conservative social order. It was religious (too often in a parochial and utilitarian way, but it was religious), hierarchical, patriarchal, and it was far too comfortable with the racial order — black and brown people should be kept down and far away — but it still understood that social solidarity was important. Even with bourgeois aspirations, they understood themselves as workers and peasants, and they organized and acted accordingly (in an American context). And very successfully.

Two things undid this solidarity, I think.

The first was the economic success of the nearly three decades after the end of World War Two allowed bourgeois aspirations to become a reality for many of these proletarians and peasants. And especially for their children. They lived very well for almost 30 years, and in the process, they forgot to be a “we.” I cannot recall how many times growing up I heard relatively conservative members of that generation lecture us on self-reliance and hard work — this from the generation who created (and benefitted handsomely from) Social Security, went to university on the GI Bill, bought houses with mortgages backed by the federal government (the VA or FHA), worked for the government or for companies whose sole business was contracting with the government, and frequently drew government pensions. In short, their good and comfortable and successful lives were the result of a great deal of social investment, struggle, and solidarity.

And by the 1970s and 1980s, they’d either forgotten that, or had chosen to ignore it.

In becoming bourgeois, they became individuals. Someone’s success became utterly independent of anyone else’s. You can’t have solidarity under those conditions.

The second thing that, oddly enough, undid white proletarian and peasant solidarity was the end of the racial order. In the 50s and the 60s, the natural order of the world came undone, beginning with the Civil Rights movement, but continuing with various cultural revolutions that destroyed the family and social structures proletarians and peasants need to thrive. This was more disorienting than anything else, but by the 1970s, poor whites were having to compete with brown and black folks for a shrinking share of the economy. Things that had been guaranteed now had to be fought for, and increasingly lost. The same people who in 1948 secured Harry Truman’s surprise victory also propelled Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968.

In the process of voting their fears — which they’d always done, but in the New Deal era, those fears built an economic world they could thrive in — proletarians and peasants yoked themselves to a Republican Party intent on destroying much of the New Deal. In voting their rage, white proletarians and peasants voted, basically, to immiserate, isolate, and alienate themselves. They did so frightened of a changing world, and thinking they could put a lid on it. They voted for good order in 1968 just as much as they did in 1948. But their voting has done nothing to rescind that change and restore the social order they thrived in.

I don’t know where White solidarity comes from anymore. It is hard to be a people who are dispossessed of even what little you have and not turn that into a politics of resentment. Some whites are learning to become just more aggrieved ethnic group, thinking that’s how success is achieved in today’s squalid multiculture. Effective white solidarity will, as Dreher notes, have to learn how to suffer — to suffer in the way black folks have suffered in America, and to give that suffering meaning and purpose. To even find hope amidst the suffering. Ineffective white solidarity will seek to restore an old order, demonizing black and brown people and demanding not just their subjugation, but their happy assent to it as well.

The church can provide that structure, but it has to be a different kind of church. One not so invested in social order (which white churches always have been), but rather, in fostering successful resistance and survival in the face of difficult odds. White churches that succeed will become more like black churches, giving a story to tell that gives meaning rather than rules to live successful lives by. Because life may not be successful by any bourgeois definition. And yet, it’s still a human life Christ lived and died for. Loved and redeemed and given a purpose.

I bet some of this is already happening. I know this is something I want to do.

There is, however, on other thing to consider. In the history of Anglo-America, the lives of peasants and workers have largely been violent, brutish, and all-too-short. The arc of success of trade union and progressive movements, and all that brought with it, from the 1880s through to the 1960s, may be a historical aberration. It may be that proletarian and peasants lives — lives largely given over to chaos, squalor, and violence — are returning to historical type. Solidarity had never really paid off for white peasants and workers until the 20th century. Prior to that, in Anglo-America, attempts by the poor to organize were generally met with brutal and merciless repression. And failed nearly every time.

It would be a pity if that were true again. It doesn’t have to be. But I see very little will anywhere to change this. Any creation of a proletarian and peasant church, and of a culture of persistence, will have to begin at the bottom. One soul at a time.