America is coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class. Or so Charles Murray argues in his latest book, Coming Apart. His observations are not particularly new; for years social scientists have observed the growing cultural disparity between an emerging “upper class” and mainstream America. Murray does us all a favor by adding new evidence and organization to these observations and issuing a clarion call to “look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem.” His prognosis is grim: “The divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.”
Murray has an affinity for doomsday rhetoric, but his evidence merits real consideration. Drawing upon sociological, historical, and anecdotal data, he makes his case for the first-time emergence of an American upper class. America’s history is not, of course, one of classless egalitarianism: the wealthy have always enjoyed the luxuries and lifestyle distinctions that money can buy. But in the past, Murray argues, the ruling sector was culturally contiguous with mainstream America, just wealthier; now they increasingly live in a world totally their own. What is new is the emergence of classes that “diverge on core behaviors and values—classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”
With chapters’ worth of sociological data, Murray compares the civic health of two hypothetical towns: Belmont, which represents the new upper class, and Fishtown, which represents the working class. On all four of his chosen metrics – marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity – Fishtown is left in the lurch.
The disparity in family life is the most disturbing. In Fishtown, only 48 percent of adults 30-49 years old are married, and over 35 percent have been divorced. In Belmont, over 83 percent are married and less than 5 percent have been divorced. When it comes to raising children, under 35 percent of the kids in Fishtown live with both biological parents whereas over 85 percent of kids in Belmont live with both biological parents. Comparisons of crime rates, religious practice, and hours worked per week reflect similar disparities between the two towns. Unfortunately, the trends don’t show signs of improvement.
Such is the portrait Murray paints of a diverging American community. What, then, should we do? For those in the new upper class, Murray embarks on a moral pep talk: leadership is responsibility. He is generally encouraged by the moral conduct of the upper class and so implores them to put aside their casual relativism and cultural isolation, regain moral self-confidence, and “preach what you practice.” He puts his hope in the civic awakening of the upper class, and in the good news they have to share. To everyone else Murray doesn’t say much. Perhaps… listen?
It’s an odd prescription coming from someone who earlier in the book expressed disdain for even a “whiff” of the “we’re better than the rabble” mentality that can be found lingering among the yoga practices, heath food stores, and recycling campaigns of the upper class. Murray rightly criticizes the elitism and self-righteousness that often accompanies these “nuanced moral sensibilities.” In so far as such pretensions stand upon the moral elevation of one group over another, they amount to little more than scolding and can only widen the gap. Would not the sweeping moral sermons Murray calls the upper class to preach be met with the same disdain and dysfunction? One might look to the failures of the temperance movement of the 19th Century for ample historical precedent of elite paternalism in action. A more general question shouldn’t be missed. In any circumstance, how could paternalistic posturing bring about the kind of civic reform grounded in the dignity and equality of human persons that has made America great? It would seem that a deeper, transcendent recovery is needed, and not just for the upper class.
In his final chapter, Murray looks to history for perspective and guidance. “Thankfully,” Murray writes, “the United States has a history of confounding pessimists.” He points to Nobel economist Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Fogel’s thesis is that since its founding, America has been periodically swept by religious movements known as “Great Awakenings,” each characterized by powerful preachers, increased religious devotion, and new social reforms. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1840), for instance, precipitated the abolition movement, education reform, and the beginning of the woman’s suffrage movement. Interestingly, it was in these times of religious revival, when the eyes of the people were elevated to something above and beyond themselves, that they began to remedy their injustices. When they saw with fresh eyes the spiritual anthropology of each person, that each man is a sinner and each man is of inestimable value in the redemptive purposes of God, they were able to move beyond moral posturing and get down to the business of joyful, humble, and confident reform. Paradoxically, when their eyes were on heaven, they did the most good for the earth.
Perhaps these historical awakenings, grounded in a new religious understanding, provide us, too, with a way forward.
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