The Four Americas
Although this discussion begins with a social or political analysis of our current “situation in life,” I would ask you to be patient for the theological application that I promise is my goal.
As I read George Packer’s “How America Fractured Into Four Parts,” I kept saying to myself, “That’s it!” Or “Now I get it” about every other paragraph. To divide anything into four parts is certainly a simplifying of the complexity of our experience. The purpose of making such distinctions is to create a model of something that seems to big to understand. The risk is over simplification but the reward is the opportunity to create insight and discussion. Here is a simple description of the four Americas in the article:
Free America— Libertarians who resent regulation in favor of individual freedom; such folks speak reverently about Ronald Reagan and the “Reagan revolution.”
Smart America— A class of high earners and technocrats who attend competitive schools, embrace meritocracy, own MacBook Pros, and don’t intermingle with the rest of the country.
Real America— Mostly white, working class, Christian (American Evangelical), nationalistic; recently energized by Donald Trump. They live in “fly over” country.
Just America— A young generation (Millenials) that believes injustice is at the heart of the country’s problems and speaks the language of identity politics.
The first “aha!” moment I had reading these summaries (Packer goes into much longer descriptions) was how they describe me.
My political upbringing was every bit “Free America” with Ronald Reagan reverently referred to as “Ronaldus Maximus!” Yet, I was raised in a working class world that today has strong “Real America” roots and continues to suffer the loss of its jobs and communities. My personal journey involved higher education and an “escape” from that world into “Smart America.” This article is being written on my MacBook Pro… Finally, as the father of five Millenials, I have had many long arguments/discussions with “Just America.”
My second “aha!” observation was how these worlds help to explain the “talking past each other” miscommunication I see so often in media, particularly social media. As people get used to living in and communicating only in their Americas, they lose the ability to understand the experiences and language of the other Americas.
It’s too easy for a Smart America person to breezily suggest that a Real America person “just move” from their midwestern town that has just lost it only employer. It’s hard for the same midwesterner to understand the need to put instructions on a bus in a dozen languages in Seattle. Free America feels very at home in Wyoming, but even though Just America lives in the same United States, living in Washington D.C. is a very different experience.
I’ll let the author summarize his point and then we will move to a theological perspective:
First, the “Law”
All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment. They all anoint winners and losers. In Free America, the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government. In Smart America, the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers are the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress. In Real America, the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country. In Just America, the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that want to go on dominating.
I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them.
Second, the “Gospel”
All four of the narratives I’ve described emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years. They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid. They rise from a single society, and even in one as polarized as ours they continually shape, absorb, and morph into one another.
Finding a Church in Seattle
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped all travel I had the chance to visit my oldest daughter Amanda in Seattle. Her apartment was adjacent to Seattle University in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that would soon become famous (or infamous depending on which “America” one most identified with). I walked most of the neighborhood. I visited the Roman Catholic Chapel on campus. Not surprisingly, the campus ministry gave off a heavy “Just America” emphasis. The ELCA church nearby on the park was very similar. To attend the nearest LCMS church I would have to taken a bus to the University of Washington at least 30 minutes and a world away. That church would be have a “Free America” pastor in a “Smart America” world. To close the point, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran ministries in Capitol Hill would be much more alike and equally as different to the Lutheran ministry at UW.
My premise is that you can place major church bodies into each of the four Americas. Traditional main line churches feel comfortable in Free America. American Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and conservative Catholics live in Real America. Smart America is attracted to mega churches heavy on experience and light on doctrine. The liberal main line and liberal Catholics resonate to justice and liberation theology.
My assertion is a difficult one to accept from within any one of the Americas— that you can find Jesus in all of these churches and in each of these Americas.
I do not mean this to be an acceptance of universalism. I am very willing and proud to “believe, teach and confess” as I have been taught from the Book of Concord. I believe that the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church are a correct interpretation of Holy Scripture.
I am just acknowledging a reality that is beyond my early and human understanding. I can find Jesus in His Church no matter where I look for him. His Church seems to be bigger than my imagination and defies the limitations I would place on it.
Here is why I think this is good news. The author proposes two secular solutions, enhanced civics education in High School and mandatory public service. The former to install common civic virtues and the latter to make the separate Americas work together as youth. Although I agree with these proposals, I would add this insight. The Church is the one essential common denominator and therefore is the one essential solution. In short, Jesus is the answer.
What this requires of us is to see Jesus in each other. To treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ worthy of honor and respect. It requires that we listen to each other. We are allowed to argue as fellow citizens but we are never allowed to hate, to be rude, or to label and dismiss. We need to object to critical and negative words and behaviors in regard to each other. We need to apologize readily and forgive easily. Consider Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
How many times in the Gospels do we see Jesus showing up in places where he is not supposed to be? How many times does he eat and drink with the wrong sort of people. Not only do the religious authorities rebuke him but his own disciples squirm and object as well. Jesus has a habit of showing up despite our best efforts to exclude him.
I often see handwringing about worry about “keeping America a Christian nation” or worse “losing America as a Christian nation.” America is only a Christian nation to the extent that the Christians in it behave like Christians. We do this by seeing Christ in each other. Here is the surprise— Jesus can be found everywhere, even where you least expect him.