The Polarization of America: Whatever happened to Average Joe?

 

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Thoughtful author and mega-pastor, Tim Keller, describes a seeming contradiction: How can conservative evangelicalism be experiencing slow growth when the wider culture is growing noticeably more secular? Keller’s answer: It is an indicator of an increasingly polarized America.

“…the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion in the middle…

I have been saying this for years. But finally somebody with a big-boy microphone said it – the middle, if not gone, is going fast.

“You don’t so much see secularization as polarization, and what is really disappearing is the middle.‘”

Here is how a disappearing middle plays out… 

-Politically-

In Arizona one would think that Republicans vying for their parties’ nomination for governor were the Hatfields and McCoys. For six months my inbox has been the sawed off shotgun of spam – Republican on Republican attack ads in every direction. And then the emails from the Democrats arrive. Both sides making sure we know the truth – “those guys” are ruining America! Accusations are fired indiscriminately, like buckshot. Want to win a political race? Run to a partisan sideline and attack your opponent. The middle disappeared.

-Religiously-

This loss of common ground is occurring in religion as well. It is seen on university campus’ as the forces of puritanical secularism rally to deny religious freedoms on even broad creedal bodies. A prominent clergy friend once said, “Twenty years ago I was decently left of center. Now I am the exposed right flank and wondering if there is still room for me.” A once self-proclaimed liberal the exposed right flank? What happened? In his church the “right” may have “quit,” but the middle disappeared.

It is true politically. It is true religiously.

It is also true socio-economically…

-In Our Neighborhoods-

When I was growing up the difference between the wealthy and middle class was a fourth bedroom and room for a second car in your carport. The poor lived in two-bedroom homes two blocks away. Rich or poor, no one was really too far from the middle.

Americans once shared a lot of common ground: Most folks went to church. Most kids went to public school  – even if the school was not good. We all bought clothes at the same mall and food at the same grocery stores. Parents stood together in the streets after work and talked about “our” kids. It was a community of the middle. We were all “Average Joe’s.”

Today in that same neighborhood the children of the one car carport/three bedroom homes are on free and reduced lunch and the parents can’t afford to water the lawns. In the two car/four bedroom homes most of the kids are in $15,000 a year private schools. They do 6 figure remodels of those homes every seven years. (Now before you light me up for being anti-wealth let me assure you that I have nothing against wealth. Neither did Jesus, by the way. Jesus was not anti-wealth. He was pro-generosity. What I am having issue with is the disappearance of Average Joe.)

Average Joe, and his wife Average Jane, were America’s sane, moderate middle. They paid taxes, worked the same job until retirement. They raised nice kids who got in trouble a few times, but who would surely grow up and follow in their average parents’ footsteps.

But along the way Joe and Jane’s kids surprised us. The kids grew up into Katie Cause and Kevin Consumption-polarized and polarizing. Perhaps it was economic pressure. Or fear of change. Or political winds. Whatever the causes, Katie and Kevin picked “sides” in the culture wars and retreated to them. We could have not have done a better job of rearranging our lives around our socio-economics and our politics if we had set out to. Last week a thoughtful clergy-blogger, Fr. Tony Clavier, worried out loud that our religion has become mere cover for our political aspirations.

-The Disappearing Middle-

But here I remain. In the increasingly empty middle.

And I am not leaving. I’m compulsive in my centricity.  I even joined a church who calls itself the “via media.” But I am looking around. And from here the “middle way” looks like the no man’s land between the trenches in the Verdun. Nothing but bullets, bodies, and folks running for cover.

There are some benefits to being in the middle, of course. Occasionally one gets to be a bridge. Which isn’t always as fun as it sounds. Bridges get walked on. And in times of war booby trapped.

And Yet…

Before my cynical soliloquy sends you to the medicine cabinet in search of antidepressants, let me assure you that I actually have hope for a renewed common ground. It comes from our young adults – those misaligned Millennials. At their best, they have the ability to hold deep convictions but without the need to coerce into their camp those who don’t share them. Among the over thirty the word “tolerance” is generally code for “progressive.” For many young adults, who have grown up in diversity, it means, gasp, the ability to have real, actual friendships with those with whom they disagree.

Average Joe and Average Jane are gone. I am fairly certain they are not coming back. But look who is beginning to move into the neighborhood! Their grandchildren, who are less interested in consumption and, although they care deeply for their causes, have a distaste for demonizing others.

And, if you are tired of living on the fringes and looking for a new friendlier place, there is room here in the middle of our block for you…

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