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… 


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.


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…


The Latino challenge for an all-too-White Church

latino-familySnark MeterrealMID.003A week ago our bishop had our clergy and key lay leaders attend a day-long meeting to contemplate evangelism in the Latino community. He received a great deal of push-back, including comments like, “Those just are not our kind of people.” Below is my emotional reaction in this family-fight in defense of my bishop whom I support and love and his vision for us to embrace the message of the signs we place in front of our churches, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”…

I have noticed something: Most people like diversity. As long as the diversity is a lot like us – People in our social class, who tell the same jokes, like the same music and watch the same tv. We like diverse people…as long as they aren’t too diverse. We like Inclusion. But it is always easier to include those who like what we like and look like we look.

Eight months ago I was asked by the Diocese of California to preach in a predominantly Anglo church in a predominantly non-Anglo neighborhood. They asked to be pushed on their racial disconnect. The leaders there previewed the sermon and, for the first time in my life, sent it back asking me to up the level of challenge. They were willing to be pushed. Are we?

Latinos represent a challenge for us. Latinos will be a majority in Arizona by 2020. According to Wikipedia, non-Anglos will be the majority in 13 other states by then as well. And first generation Latinos do not get our jokes or like our church music. Many don’t speak our language.

How will White Christians respond? We can cloister our churches until, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, we are the last Anglo in the neighborhood. We can put the “for sale” sign in the yard and move where people “like us” live. Or we could re-engage to reach those God is bringing our neighborhoods with the Good News and hope of Jesus.

We are not talking about doing what Jesus did and actually, “move into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14. We are just talking about not moving out of it.

There is an obvious question that many of my upwardly mobile friends don’t want to talk about: How can White Christians take seriously the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to “GO and make disciples of ALL nations,” if we move away from those “nations” to live behind a gate somewhere else? Many of us are aware that the Greek word for “nations” is “ethnay”- literally “Ethic groups.” So we are specifically commanded by Jesus to take the Good News of Jesus to those who do not look like us. God included them in the Great Commission specifically. How can the Church exclude them with our avoidance? How can we exclude them with worship services that are painfully non-welcoming in their mono-ethnicity?

I realize how much easier it is to paint “Welcome” on our sign than to write it upon our hearts. It is easier to make inclusion a slogan than a smile as we stick out our hand and say, “Hi my name is ____ and I want to invite you to worship with me this Sunday.”

Mark DeYmaz wrote a decade ago that the average church is 10x more segregated than the neighborhood it is situated in. Unfortunately, the research also tells us mainline churches, which pride ourselves on “inclusion,” are significantly more mono-ethnic than  evangelical churches.

It is no secret that many of Phoenix’s early suburbs are in serious decline. Manicured grass replaced with dirt and weeds. Trees lined streets are stark and stump laden. Cars that don’t run sit on deflating tires. Apartment screens hang from windows like the flags of defeated nations. The parents who supervise no longer allow their children to play in the streets for fear of the “bad element.” These things are not an accident. They are what happens when leadership leaves. When we pack up and move somewhere “better.” Even as our urban cores are renewed, the poor are being pushed out of the donut hole of poverty that were once inner-cities, for our neighborhoods. Now, dispersed throughout the donut, the poor no longer have easy access to services. The poor, of every ethnicity, need our engagement.

It is our new reality that makes me long for the vision of Zechariah 8 in which “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the…city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” That is a beautiful vision of what our decaying suburban neighborhoods could be once again. A vision of what God wants to do through his people – All of them.

Christians are “foreigners and exiles” in this world. (1 Peter 2:11) How can those who name the name of Jesus, extend anything other than welcome to fellow exiles? (Deuteronomy 10:19)