The Story: Political scientist Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 marshals mountains of data to argue that the United States is fragmenting along class lines, threatening to undermine the values that have long held together a diverse society. While the wealthiest 20 percent of white Americans enjoy relatively stable if sheltered lives surrounded by like-minded peers, the poorest 30 percent endure fractured family lives in downtrodden communities. Formerly these groups lived in close proximity. Earnings for white collar and blue collar employment did not dramatically diverge. But now their problems seem worlds apart.
The Background: The New York Times columnist David Brooks frequently comments on the cultural and political implications of these long-term trends. Based on American political discourse, where "real America" is often identified with the white lower class that predominates in rural and exurban locales, it might come as a shock to learn that the upper class is now responsible for perpetuating the bourgeois values associated with the 1950s: hard work, stable families, and disciplined children. Brooks writes:
Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country, and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Of course, not everyone seems pleased with Brooks's plan for a National Service Program that would force the classes to mix.
Why It Matters: If you've ever wondered why church planters tend to target upper-middle-class suburban and urban territory, now you know why. This is where they're most likely to find willing churchgoers, whether new converts or established Christians looking for a place to worship and raise up their children. We've long assumed that areas of the country where many reject traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality, for example, pose the strongest challenge to church growth. But consider where you find many of the most vibrant, influential churches with predominantly white or Asian members. You'll find them today in the hipster districts, the city centers, the wealthy suburbs---places that tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections in part due to their mistrust of the Religious Right. Meanwhile, the areas we regard as bastions of religious conservatism struggle with high incidents of family breakup and economic distress. Brooks explains:
People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.
Consider your own church. Is it a place where the classes mix? Have you considered planting a church or even starting a small group somewhere the lower classes predominate? Especially for those of us who may not encounter them in our regular routines, the poor must not be neglected in our prayers or our evangelistic efforts. That process starts with overcoming the misconceptions about the spiritual needs and practices of our neighbors. Don't be fooled by the political rhetoric. They might vote Republican, but they need Jesus.