The Pioneer Spirit

Note: The following post was written shortly after the November 2004 election, and has been edited from the original to make it less time-dependent.

I bear good news: the Pioneer Spirit is alive and well in America.

True, the American frontier was conquered long ago. But ancestors of those intrepid explorers are setting out anew to explore the unknown, the uncharted, to brave the savages and convert the heathen. To wit: Blue-staters are hitching up their wagons and heading Red. They may be coming to a town near you.

Two recent articles tipped me off to this modern-day Manifest Destiny movement, one on each coast, from the Washington Post and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. One can only speculate on the motivation for such intrepid ventures: perhaps the electoral drought and near-dust bowl voter yields have prompted the search for more fertile land (although it is rumored that Seattle has genetically engineered new loss-resistant voter ballots, which may help avert the impending famine). But whatever the reasons, there is a spirit of adventure in the air.

David Von Drehle, writing in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, begins with a tale of his journey to the Red Sea:

Early in December, with a photographer and his assistant, I drove from Nebraska, near the geographical center of the United States, to the heart of Texas — more than 700 miles, through empty spaces and sprawling cities and all or part of four states. We headed pretty much due south, no dodging or weaving. And never did we pass within 100 miles of a county that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in the recent election.

We were voyaging on the Red Sea.

Drehle actually paints a surprisingly balanced view of what he found on his journey – albeit in language whose flourish contrasts sharply with the simplicity of middle America. (“The sun was low in the south; its rays arrived languidly and aslant through the gray, tufted stubble of a cornfield.”) He seems encouraged to find people who voted for Bush, even though they disliked him (as if this were an unusual phenomenon in national elections), but periodically reveals his confusion about Red America as viewed through his dark blue sunglasses:

Kern returned several times to his belief that cities have become dangerous, expensive, disorderly places, in contrast with the safe and dependable countryside. And he seemed convinced that there is some causal link between the unpleasantness of that other America — the one beyond the Red Sea — and the variety of people who live there. The idea of diversity appeared to be meshed in his mind with the specter of change, and change is clearly something he prefers to avoid. Monochrome Nebraska, as he put it, is “the last frontier. Where else do you have a place where you don’t have to worry about crime, about juvenile delinquency, where you can leave your doors unlocked?”

Drehle seems unable to grasp that cities generally are dangerous, expensive, disorderly places (although obviously not without offsetting benefits for many), and that most Red state residents don’t frame their view of the world through the lens of “diversity” (much less think of Nebraska as “monochrome”). And change — that bogeyman that Mr. Kern is thought to dread — is not an inherently good thing when it brings about crime, personal risk, and social disorder.

Far from home and feelin’ Blue, Drehle is mystified and intrigued by these strange Red ciphers he has unearthed. He finds his Rosetta stone in a small Midwest bookstore:

I heard a lot about a book that claimed to explain how people … have been tricked by the moneyed class into voting against their own best interests. I found a copy of What’s the Matter With Kansas? at a bookstore in Ada and began reading it as we resumed our southward journey.

The author, Thomas Frank, grew up in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City and received a PhD in cultural criticism from the University of Chicago. … In Frank’s view, if Red Sea residents knew what was good for them, they would vote for capitalist-scourging Populists today. But they don’t know what’s good for them, Frank explains, because of ‘a species of derangement.’ The deranged people of the Midwest are no longer able to make ‘certain mental connections about the world,’ because those once-‘reliable leftists’ have been deluded into caring about moral issues … Frank kept me reading until it was too dark to read anymore.

It doesn’t get much deeper blue than a Ph.D in cultural criticism at Chicago University, now does it? Drehle has found comfort, like a kid reading a letter from home at camp, in his bunk, flashlight under the blanket.

He seems perplexed when encountering an Oklahoma woman who opposed Kerry for his position on abortion and gay marriage:

She was too polite to say, in so many words, that she felt John Kerry was a man of bad morals. Instead, she put it this way: ‘When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn’t see our country being led by someone like that.’

Later, I double-checked what Kerry had said on those subjects. During his campaign, he opposed same-sex marriage and said that abortion was a private matter. But Joyce Smith heard it the way she heard it, and voted the way she voted.

Doesn’t the poor woman understand that a Democrat man’s word is his bond? Except when its not, of course. Sometimes eyes and ears comprehend things which Google searches don’t disclose.

On the Left coast, another journalist in Seattle hitches his Conestoga to the Google search engine in search of the abominable snowman of electoral politics: the Christian voter (“I’ve seen their footprints in the snow, Myrtle, but have yet to spot the beast!”). Tony Robinson, in Who Are Those Christians?, rapidly dismisses the vile misconception that Christians are all narrow-minded, hate-filled moronic drones:

For some today, all Christians are closed-minded religious bigots whose politics are somewhere to the right of the Terminator. For others, Christians can be explained in terms of two-party theory: There are liberal and progressive Christians on one side and the conservative and evangelical Christians on the other.

Both explanatory frameworks are inadequate to the diverse and complex reality of Christianity in America today. Like much else in post-modern America, the situation is wonderfully messy. It doesn’t lend itself to neat explanations or to a simple duality of liberal and conservative. Post-modernity is transgressive, that is, given to crossing boundaries. So today you have progressive evangelicals, theological post-liberals, the new orthodox, as well as ancient-modern Christians. Such stereotype shattering and boundary crossing strikes me as promising.

It is reassuring to know that Christians are not merely closed-minded religious bigots with bulging muscles and German accents, but rather boundary-crossing, stereotype-smashing, post-modern transgressives. Robinson finds this promising — as do I. I think. And as any good teacher, he does not simply leave us wondering what such wonderfully messy transgressiveness implies, but expands the outline in exquisite detail. He has discovered that Christians fall into different categories: mainline, evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic and, yes — Catholic!

One can almost hear the audible gasp from Belltown readers, sipping their not-too-hot Chai lattes as they gaze over Elliott Bay: “There are different types of Christians — who knew? Say, what time is that Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Seattle Center?”

Robinson’s depiction reads like an African safari adventure written by a National Geographic reader: one gets the sense — unlike Drehle — that he’s never actually met the people he’s describing.

From a sociological point of view, his overview of Christianity in America is reasonably accurate. But as an overview, it approaches being entirely meaningless — or at least irrelevant. He divides two broad stereotypes into five broad stereotypes — then tells us that these stereotypes are, well, not stereotypical. For example, when contrasting the mainline churches with the fundamentalists, he says:

One broad-brush way to differentiate the dominate Christian groups is how they relate to modernity or what some call ‘The Enlightenment Project,’ with its hallmark values of reason, progress, optimism, individualism and tolerance. Mainline Christians have been open and receptive to modernity, working to accommodate Christianity and modernity. By contrast, fundamentalists circled the wagons against modernity, which they perceived as a threat.

Aahh, modernity — who does not desire to be thoroughly modern, Millie? The red flag here is the “Enlightenment Project” — a key element of postmodernism, which emphasizes, in essence, opposition to all forms of darkness and superstition, as exemplified by religion:

Enlightenment was defined as the project of dispelling darkness, fear and superstition. It was the project of removing all the shackles of free enquiry and debate. It opposed the traditional powers and beliefs of the church (branded as ‘superstition’) and raised questions of political legitimacy.

Without plunging the depths of the contrasts and conflicts between the relativism of postmodernism and the centrality in religion (especially in Judeo-Christianity) of an absolute Truth over and above imperfect human reason, it suddenly becomes clear why this sort of generalization about Christianity is so vacuous: the labels are meaningless. If the mainline churches espouse postmodern skepticism, rejecting ideas of absolute truth of divine origin (a characterization not far off, in many cases), then they are no longer Christian in any meaningful sense, other than by name.

Herein lies the source of enormous confusion for our intrepid explorers: you cannot rely on descriptions, like “Christian”, or “fundamentalist”, or “evangelical”, because their meaning has become so amorphous, and they are overlaid with ambiguity and inferences which cripple their utility as vehicles of fact. For example, “fundamentalist” originally referred to Christianity’s emphasis on absolute, transcendent Truth as opposed to relativism. While the specifics of exactly what that Truth entails remains controversial to a degree, even to this day, within Christianity, the fact that there is an absolute truth of divine origin is undisputed in the faith. Yet “fundamentalism” has become a societal codeword for rigid intolerance, ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and even violent repression. It has been linked by common usage to Islamic terrorism, adding additional baggage, though the two religions could not be more different. While many devout Christians acknowledge the fundamentals of belief in absolute truth and Christian doctrine, few today will publicly admit to being a “fundamentalist”. The connotations of the word are too profoundly negative in our modern society.

To understand Christians, or those mysterious Red state middle Americans, you have to get down to individuals, without preconceived notions carried forward from the lofty towers of intellectualism and social theory. The fruits of postmodern relativism and social concepts, detached from the real-life problems and solutions of everyday living — which many understand to require transcendent Truth and reliance on divine strength and guidance — are increasingly seen as empty and destructive by a growing plurality of Americans. It is this, perhaps more than anything else, which divides Red and Blue in America today.

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