Monday, November 19, 2012

Race, Class and Christian Culture in America

Two weeks ago I watched an unsettling documentary on PBS TV about the future demographics of race in America. The program was professionally put together. Many experts were interviewed representing a wide range of minority interests. It was fascinating to see how the face of America has changed in the last couple centuries, and to see what it might look like in the future.  The most arresting datum for me (as a white man) was the change that will happen in the next few years: whites will no longer make up the majority of the American population.
This remarkable fact was meant to make a point. In fact it was meant to be the main point of the program. It was also meant to be alarming. And sadly, the conclusions to be drawn from this fact where made out to be somewhat sensational. They don’t need to be.

The PBS normally does a good job of not moralizing. It wasn’t so successful this time. Its argument was that race issues can be avoided (both now and in the future) if we focus on resolving class differences instead of worrying about race. Poverty and crime cut across all races and we shouldn’t stereotype. I agree.

But one of the implications of the program was that since we have been plagued with race problems from the beginning, we Americans will continue to be plagued by them if we don’t get our act together. And if we don’t, the tables will be turned. Instead of white supremacy, previous minorities will now have their say. Whites need beware.

The PBS should know better. And the reason it should know better is because America has a culture – believe it or not. It may not be a universal culture – certainly we come from many places. And many of us try to live beyond the constraints of this culture. But this culture exists nonetheless (both now and in the past) and it transcends both race and class. This culture is called Christianity.

The very fact of this Christian culture in America is studiously ignored in the public square. PBS is not alone in pretending that it makes little, if any, difference in our modern world. And besides, what many may call Christian culture really divides along racial lines anyway. It all boils down to race in the end – or so the argument goes.

But I disagree. Certainly we have local congregations that follow racial patterns. You don’t find too many whites in a black Baptist church in rural Alabama. Nor do you find too many black Mormons in central Idaho.  But here is my point: they do occur. And this racial mixing occurs a lot more commonly in metropolitan communities.

Even where this mixing is minimal, Christians are now more willing than ever to reach across racial lines in a shared community of faith. This last weekend I attended an inter-faith Thanksgiving service here in Fresno where I watched nearly a dozen faith communities accept and rejoice in our religious diversity. My son, who lives 3,000 miles away, occasionally attends a similar inter-faith community in Virginia. This is happening all across the country. Americans of faith are recognizing that the differences between their respective faiths are minor compared to the larger issues of rampant moral decay.

We see more and more that this widespread social concern is making the former issues of racial mixing less and less important. In many congregations race is no issue at all. The reason is simple enough: Christ teaches us to love all of our brothers and sisters. And in America right now, this Christian mixing is happening all the time, and in increasing amounts. The possibility of future inter-racial harmony in America is bright so long as we continue to follow Christ.

This may all sound historically na├»ve. After all, America was much more religious in former times when race relations were worse than they are now. How, then, can I claim for a mollifying Christian influence today?  Let me explain.

The first, and most obvious, argument is the compromises revolving around religion during the Constitutional Convention. Madison’s religious arguments, culminating in the First Amendment, allowed for a religiously diverse ensemble of states to join hands in a common cause. In fact this religious pluralism has probably done more than anything else to make America what it is today: the most religiously diverse and dynamic country in the world. And it is important that nearly all of the Founders were Christians. Even the few that may have had deistic leanings were morally grounded in the teachings of Christ.

And this Christian majority continued to inform American culture into the 19th Century. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the mid-19th Century, argued that “all the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same… So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

But what about the Civil War, where both the North and the South claimed to be Christians? Doesn’t this argue against my point of a convivial Christian culture? Well yes and no. Yes the Civil War saw Christians fighting against Christians. But a very relevant point is to be made that religion was not the main driver in the war. Economics, states’ rights and the protection of a culture were the main points. Yes each side in the conflict justified their position by quoting from the Bible. But the Civil War itself was not a war about the Bible.

It just happens that the issue of slavery can be ambiguous in the Bible. Issues of civil rights are no longer so ambiguous. A slave owner could argue against treating property (his slave) with the respect due to his neighbor – as Jesus’ teaching of the Good Samaritan requires. But this is no longer the case. No nation in our time accepts this corrupted version of human dignity. Even in our most segregated white churches today, racial equality is taught as a Christian mandate in Sunday school – even if not everybody totally agrees.

America changed a great deal after the Civil War. It changed again significantly after World War II. Christianity became much more diverse and more political. It also went through various cycles of popularity. Even during the 60’s and 70’s, when the media portrayed any Christian affiliation in a negative light, America remained predominantly Christian. And it remains so today.

Some older members of our congregations may have grown up in segregated communities and still feel uneasy around anybody that looks different than they do. But their grandchildren are playing with a world community that completely transcends the provincialism of yesteryear.  In America’s Christian churches today, race is not a limiting factor – at least doctrinally. And it is becoming less and less of a factor culturally.

I remember several years ago attending church in Maui, Hawaii. I was amazed (and very pleased) at the racial diversity in the congregation. The leaders on the stand were of Anglo and Hawaiian heritage.  Others in the congregation were from Latin America, some were from Africa, some were from the Philippines, others were from South Korea and other Asian countries, still others were from different parts of Polynesia. I (as a white man) was not in the majority. In fact there was no majority – except for the fact that we were all Christians – Mormons to be precise.

Did this commonality detract from individual family histories? I mean did individuals have to give up their heritage in order to be part of the group? Not at all. In fact the Hawaiian gentleman who conducted the meeting wore the expected white shirt and tie along with a nice Hawaiian lava-lava. Christianity does not destroy local cultures – it enables them.

Maybe this sounds a little too strong. But think about what it implies. Most cultures identify themselves by their virtues. Of course they are not blind to skin color or other obvious differences. But if you ask someone to describe their own culture, they almost always tell you about a locality, a faith, a heritage. It’s when we think of other (i.e. not our own) cultures that we invoke skin color, bad habits, and incomprehensible behaviors.

And Christianity is an inclusive culture. It also happens to be the major religion among the growing population of America. The growing Hispanic population is predominantly Catholic (but with Protestant and Mormon elements as well). The Black community is primarily Protestant (often Baptist). The White population that continues to grow is predominantly Christian (with Catholics and Mormons having the most children).

Of this religious core (made up primarily of Christians) Russell Reno states: “Decades of survey results report that around 40 percent of Americans say they attend church more or less weekly. Some sociologists speculate that this cohort, what I call the “committed core,” has been pretty constant for more than one hundred years. Sociologists know that people over-report their religious observance. Fieldwork suggests that 25 percent of the population goes to church weekly. However one parses the data, the fact remains: For a very long time, the committed core has been stable and substantial. It looks to remain so.”

America may be headed for a changing demographic future but the Christian majority is not going anywhere. I do not doubt that we will have to deal with some ongoing racial conflict. But I do doubt that the declining white population will be cause for greater violence. Nor do I think that we have to focus on class parity, like PBS suggests. America’s changing appearance is not the concern. The bigger issue is to deny our Christian heritage. Sadly, we can’t expect the popular media to give this reality much consideration. But this is to be expected. Popular media have always been jealous of religion’s cultural significance. We just need to be wiser than they are, lest these sensational documentaries become self-fulfilling prophesies.


Tocqueville’s quote is from Democracy in America (The University of Chicago Press, 2000) Volume One, Part Two, Chapter Nine. For a look at American religion after the war see Patrick Allitt, Religion in America since 1945. Reno’s quote comes from the most recent issue (December 2012) of First Things, pp. 4-5.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review of Spillover by David Quammen

During the last week of September, I found myself in Georgia looking for a good book to read. Knowing that David Quammen’s newest effort was about to be available, I walked from my hotel to a local bookseller and asked if they might have a copy.  In fact they did but it was in the back room and wasn’t supposed to be on the storeroom floor until the first of October. Fortunately, for me, they made an exception. I decided not to ask about the legality of it all and promised not to tell anybody.

Within a few chapters, I realized that this book will be a prize winning title when awards get ladled out for this season’s offerings. Quammen is a very good writer, for sure. But good writers don’t always win awards. The book, The Song of the Dodo (Quammen’s 1996 book about island biogeography) was written as well as Spillover but treats a subject that many fail to consider immediately important. My experience is that most awards are given to subjects of broader interest. 

Spillover is a book that has this broader appeal. It is about human diseases that originate in animals. Such diseases are called zoonoses. Unlike many diseases (take polio, for example) that are spread from person to person and only remain in the human population, zoonoses grow and develop in other animals and then jump hosts: on to humans. This is called spillover: when a disease agent gets to critical point in its non-human host that it makes this jump. These zoonotic diseases have great potential to spread rapidly and with devastating effect.

You are familiar with some of these zoonotic diseases: AIDS, West Nile fever, rabies, Lyme disease, some malarias, etc. If you were captivated by Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller The Hot Zone, you will remember such maladies as Marburg virus disease and some of the hemorrhagic fevers. Quammen covers all of these and more: not as sensationally as Preston did, but with a researcher’s and a storyteller’s gift that makes this a real keeper.

Few writers put in the homework that Quammen does.  When he walks us through the complicated origins of HIV, for example, we get to meet scientists in lab coats, hidden closets in African hospitals, and animal traders that work the underground markets of Africa. Quammen also takes us to the corners of Cameroon where AIDS seems to have emerged into the modern world. Or to the jungles of Indonesia where we find malarial plasmodia living in macaques.

Quammen puts us into a different Heart of Darkness than we are used to. Conrad described an impenetrable jungle landscape that loomed mysteriously in the hinterland of civilization. Quammen lifts the canopied curtain and lets us see what dangers lie within. We find there a world of ecological disruption that disgorges the (perhaps) inevitable harvest of our previous ignorance.

These are big issues, indeed. But Spillover is also helpful in more immediate ways. The book’s discussion of Lyme disease, for example, is something that more of us should be aware of. Yes, the disease is spread by deer ticks; and yes, the forests of the Eastern US harbor the disease. But how many of us realize that deer are not the real problem?

Ticks that feed on deer will not feed on humans. The reason is fairly straight-forward: deer are the end of the tick’s life cycle. After a female tick lays eggs, the small ticks (smaller than a pin head) emerge and look for their first host which is neither a deer nor a human, but a mouse. This tiny tick will then drop off of its rodent host, develop a bit longer, and then look for another host. It is this errant arthropod that may find a human host (or perhaps it will find another mouse and feed again before it potentially finds its last host). Lyme disease is primarily a problem of forested areas that lack sufficient rodent predators. Small wooded lots can be prime examples of this. Deer are not our enemies.

Several things make zoonoses so important. Perhaps most significantly, they are very difficult (if not impossible) to eradicate.  Being able to “hide” in non-human animals, they can essentially disappear and show up at unexpected times and in unexpected places.

They are also prone to change. The very act of jumping host species creates an ecological setting for genetic change that makes many of these disease agents not only difficult to treat but likely candidates to get out of hand. Some of the most important examples that Quammen mentions are the flu viruses that are ideally constituted to this kind of change. Periodically certain forms evolve that cause us a great deal of grief.   

The punch-line of the book is when Quammen shows us a human population that looks very much like an outbreak poised on the brink of a pandemic – perhaps several pandemics. Quammen, fortunately, is not in despair – though he is clearly concerned. We have tools that other organisms experiencing an outbreak (before crashing) do not have.  We have our wits and our technology. The question remains whether or not we will decide to use them wisely.