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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9 thoughts on “The Polarization of America: Whatever happened to Average Joe?

  1. I considered myself “middle class” prior to the financial crisis…I had no problem buying what I needed, and had access to most things I wanted. I got healthy raises every year, and Bank of America would frequently call, asking if I wanted to increase my line of credit. As far as my faith, I aligned myself pretty firmly to the right.

    It’s interesting to me how things have evolved. As my economic status drifted more toward the deep end of pool of poo, I found that my faith drifted more toward the via media. I think one reason for this was the cultural hiding game that is so prevalent amongst the far right…There are no problems, everyone has their houses in order, and they operate purely according to “Biblical” standards with little to no difficulty. I’ve divested myself of a lot of things over the past 5-6 years…a home, all my credit cards, the need for a new vehicle when mine hits 100,000 miles, etc. I’ve also abandoned a faith that calls for me to appear to be perfect. In the words of Brennan Manning, my cheese just won’t stay on my cracker, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. I believe I’m now thankful not just for what evangelicalism classifies as “blessings” (prosperity, good health, etc), but also for those more sublime moments that we often overlook if we’re preoccupied with being at one of the spectrum or another…a nice sunrise, a cool breeze, laughing with my one of my little girls as we both hold our hands out of rolled-windows of a truck that doesn’t have working AC, a piece of bread, a sip of wine, and pondering whether we’ll ever live in a place that has more than one closet again. We haven’t been stripped of dreams…We’ve been given the opportunity to dream again about what can be. For me, that’s the essence of faith…

    • Hi Lee,
      Isn’t it odd that we strive for comfort and security (your old life) when risk and faith and love and trust are the stuff that actually make us alive.

      Btw, the beautiful/perfect people thing was what I really, really disliked about “going to church.” It was a hollow recapitulation of our politics, social fears and material aspirations. Much different to engage in the “mystery of faith” and to be gathered in baptism and sent in the Eucharistic humility to invite others to the feast of our God.

  2. Maybe we have created the problem. Respect for the other person is at an all time low. Consider the total lack of respect for the office of the president. Whether we like him or not he deserves the respect of the office, not the name calling and disrespect that exists. Can we ask a new generation to do different, especially in politics.
    This attitude has carried over to the demonizing of others also. The graces of God the Father and Jesus Christ have been lost in the hearts and minds of the churches.
    The answer. I really do not know except that our faith begin to reflect the love of God for all of us.
    Not an easy answer.

    • We certainly have! Your comment makes me want to do a google search on the attack ads on presidents back to Reagan – it may just be my age, but that is when I remember it starting. Each succeeding president has been the antichrist who has destroyed our children’s future. It seems to have become impossible for us to grant the humanity of those who gaze upon the same problems and come to different solutions.

  3. Matt, I LOVE your pointed reflections on the increased polarization of America, as seen politically, religiously, and socio-economically. Superb.

    As you describe them, I, of course, am one of those what-do-you-call-them, bridges. Yes, walked upon. Yes, smack in the middle of things. Yes, striving to bring consensus and equanimity and (most importantly) peace and serenity. The bridge is so often overlooked except when people notice the aging infrastructure breaking down all around their ears–as in earnest pastors trying to continue to be faithful in mainline denominations in 21st century America.

    I find the pastoral, welcoming, affirming, _countercultural_ attitude of Clinical Pastoral Education one that would behoove more people to imitate. Follow. At least, be open to. I don’t know . . . are the tenets of CPE just a pipe dream? Will people keep pulling further and further apart, and never the twain shall meet? I just don’t know any more. *sigh*

  4. Matt, I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. I often find this issue of polarization to be frustrating and disheartening. I simply don’t understand why it is so difficult for so many to participate in civil discourse without vilifying each other. It’s bad enough in politics but it becomes even more discouraging to see among Christians. I fit into that cateo

  5. Matt, I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. I often find this issue of polarization to be frustrating and disheartening. I simply don’t understand why it is so difficult for so many to participate in civil discourse without vilifying each other. It’s bad enough in politics but it becomes even more discouraging to see it dividing Christians.

    I fit into that category of millennial young adults you mentioned and one of my desires in life is to be a bridge builder, one who encourages dialogue, the laying down of harsh rhetoric, and meeting together in the middle where we can hash out the truth with love and not condemnation. It seems to me that it is the height of arrogance to think we have the ultimate authority/knowledge on subjects of politics or matters of theology and yet that is the way I see so many (myself included at times) living. I try to find humility in remembering that I do not have all of the answers and that those I discourse with are searching for what is true just as I am. Thanks for articulating these thoughts!

    • Thank you, Edmund. You are articulate and humble, just the sort of stuff good bridge builders are made of!

      As I type an image came to mind-that truth may be black and white. At least in the middle. But the edges blur out into all manner of shades and fuzziness. I try to give grace around the edges and cling to the middle: That an all powerful all loving creator made us in the image of the Triune one to live in love and unity. That when we refused that love, that “word” “became flesh and dwelt among us” and redeemed us.

      So, although I have no authority and very few answers, I cling to the one who does and who loves gently as we walk into those answers…and that the answers always seem to be a person rather than a set of propositions.

      Thank you for joining the conversation here! Blessings as you seek truth with peace.

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