We have in town a store where clerks in hushed and reverent tones sell breviaries and Bibles, Holy Cards and St. Christopher medals, rosaries and coffee-table books of photographic scenes of Rome, Assisi, and the Holy Land. On the walls, and all for sale, are photos of the Pope and JFK and Mother Teresa, interspersed among the reproductions of da Vinci’s Last Supper and other well-known paintings with religious themes. On the shelves, between the statues of the Blessed Virgin and the votive candles, are small framed posters espousing sweet and optimistic sentiments: a quotation from St. Francis inscribed on a photo of two kittens tumbled in a basket of yarn, a passage from the Psalms inscribed on a deliberately childish water-color of a rainbow and a dove. In the back they keep domestic pews and prie-dieus, heavy faux- Victorian things with heavy red faux-velvet cushions.
But what the clerks sell most of all are crucifixes-crucifixes and crosses, from three inches high to three feet, made of painted plaster, machine-carved wood, or chrome-plated pot-metal, overly realistic with a sickly sentimentalism or overly abstract with an indecipherable form: chintzy, ugly, cheap, and vulgar. Not inexpensive, however. The wall- mounted crucifixes are routinely priced above a hundred dollars, and their cost was the second thing that caught my eye when I went down this spring to buy a crucifix to hang up in the dining room.
But the first thing I noticed was their vulgarity and ugliness, and there followed hard upon my notice of their vulgarity and ugliness a host of awkward and distressing thoughts. Certainly one’s sense of vulgarity, and possibly one’s sense of ugliness, are products of one’s class, and though to be an American may be to notice constantly the thousand subtle marks of class distinction, to be an American is also to be suddenly and overwhelmingly distressed by noticing that one is noticing the marks of class distinction. Even to mention class in any way that suggests there exists a class lower than one’s own is to sound an antidemocratic, un-American snob.
And among the times when snobbery is out of place, the time when one goes down to buy a crucifix must surely rank high. Self-reflection is self-delusion if it shies from noticing the ways one’s own judgments and feelings are class-bound, but to think about class is to step into the tar pits and to struggle to think clearly while sinking deeper in the unclean, sticky stuff of self-disgust. Standing there before the display case, watched silently by the reverent clerk, I began to think I ought to buy one of the insipid, uninspiring things in expiation of my distaste for them-and then began to think that such a thought was still class-bound, and then that the crucifixes were marks of a simpler, better faith than my own, and then that to buy one would be to indulge a sort of inverse snobbery. And behind all my thoughts stood the one fact that I found the crucifixes ugly, and behind that stood the unthinkable Crucifixion they sought to represent, and I fled out on to the loud and busy pavement, where good and everyday people strolled happily unthinking past the reassuring storefronts and reassuring shops.
Sociological studies commonly suggest that it is members of the lower middle class who feel the marks of class distinction most strongly, and yet I disbelieve the studies. One of the ways in which members of the upper middle class seek to distance themselves from the lower middle class is by affecting a cavalier disregard for class distinction. Thus the parvenu, who masters with infinite care the marks of a higher class, finds that his care is exactly the mark by which the higher class knows him for a parvenu. And thus, too, when slumming by, say, refusing to wear a coat and tie when he ought, the member of a higher class gets both the delicious thrill of indulging an anti-class rebellion and the secret self-congratulatory thought that such rebellion is actually a sign of his higher class.
And yet, sociological studies are right in one sense. If class in America is mostly about money, the marks of class distinction are particularly important for those without much. The financially comfortable and financially secure have less need to defend their status, and the declaration of a casual attitude toward class is one mark by which the comfortable and secure identify each other. The hold the lower middle class has on its place is much more tenuous, much more susceptible to financial collapse, much more pressured by migration from the neighboring lower classes, and thus the members of the lower middle class are forced to take the marks of class much more seriously. And thus, too, the members of professions that are for antique and nonfinancial reasons taken to indicate a certain class-the clergy, for example, or military officers or academics-are forced to observe the marks of class distinction in compensation for the lack of money corresponding to their cultural status.
It is possible that class is not entirely invidious. In an essay on Hawthorne’s novels, Henry James famously sets a catalogue of all the British class institutions the lack of which makes it impossible for Americans to write real novels. But class is certainly mostly invidious, and if Henry James’ own novels are in some sense a profound indictment of class, then his complaint is the curious one in which the complainer complains about the absence of the thing about which he wants to complain. Perhaps, however, James’ actual complaint is that class in America is both real and invisible, lacking visible institutions other than money to give it intelligible form, and thus class in America is even more invidious than class in England.
To write about class in any way other than to deny its reality, particularly to write about the higher classes, is to risk being taken for a snob-as James often is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald often is. Like a boast of humility, like shouted praise of silence, the peculiar American snobbery is a self-proclaimed impatience with snobbery. There exist nonetheless in America marks by which class distinction is enforced. The well-paid, technologically competent elite recognize each other by certain marks, and, being good snobs, recognize the lower standing of those who lack these. Some of the marks are as minor as awareness of particular brand-names (of cars, of colleges, of computers), but three larger ones come immediately to mind: a conventional accent in speech, a conventional disbelief in established religion, and a conventional anti- Victorian preference for clean and simple visual lines. However much money they may have, the bumpkins find themselves betrayed by their strong regional accents, their church-going, and their crowded rooms of clunky furniture. The elite may recoil from the taste of the lower classes, or they may ignore it, or they may go slumming in it, but they always know it.
One result of the cultural marks of the elite is that American churches have never contained less class distinction than they do now. The presence of class feeling was perhaps inevitable in American churches through most of their history. And if the American churches sincerely struggled against it, and if class feeling had less powerful effect in the churches than in other American institutions-both possible propositions-nonetheless class played its part in the formation and development of American religion. The clergy of the established churches came primarily from the class of the educated elite, and though the church-built colleges gradually widened the class origin of their divinity students, the colleges also served to enforce class by forming students in the taste and manners of the educated. Like to like, the clergy through much of the nineteenth century could appeal for church funds to the wealthy, and through much of the nineteenth century, Americans of nearly all classes met in churches built and manned in the taste of the educated elite. And if the churches were nonetheless vulgar and provincial, it was with the vulgarity and provinciality that marked all things American.
As the election of Andrew Jackson signalled the approaching end of the educated classes’ domination of American politics, so, by the end of the nineteenth century, easy money and antireligious intellectualism signalled the approaching end of the educated classes’ domination of American religion. As the correspondence between the possession of money and cultural class began to break down, the cultural elite found themselves called upon less and less to direct the new religious institutions that were welling up from the lower classes. And as the members of the cultural elite gradually formed themselves into a class of technicians and advisors to expanding rival institutions-colleges, newspapers, the government-they became less and less interested in directing religious institutions.
By the 1920s, the cultural class distinction between believers and nonbelievers was firmly in place. When H. L. Mencken wrote his famous descriptions of the coarse, indecent, gibbering fundamentalists gathered in Dayton for the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, he was expressing no new thought, but giving at last exact expression to feelings of class distinction that had been building for fifty years. Educated people, the cultural elite, certainly did not want to go to church with the vulgar, unwashed hayseeds shouting Bible fundamentalism against science, progress, and liberal sentiment.
They did not, in fact, want to go to church at all. Some class distinction among churches developed in America through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it proved mostly transient. The mainline Protestant churches that at one time attracted the elite (and consequently found themselves identified with the elite) have in the last few decades suffered catastrophic losses in membership. The Catholic Church, with its older traditions, European associations, and sense of being kept outside American culture, may have maintained class plurality longer, as indeed may have American Judaism. But they too have suffered from the antireligious mark of class distinction. American churches have never contained less cultural class distinction than they do now, but that is because they now contain only a single class.
Cultural class distinction can be abused as a device for sociological explanation. One way, for instance, to explain the judicial activism of the last forty years might be by pointing out that the courts are the only branch of government still in the hands of the educated elite-left to the elite in their class role as educated advisors, but used by the elite to enforce their tastes and prejudices against the lower classes. Such explanations fail, however, if only because they are incomplete. Cultural class certainly forms a distinction among Americans, but it is a distinction in competition with a cloud of other distinctions-of financial class, of race, of locale, of gender, of language, of democratic feeling. No one’s motives spring from a single source.
And yet, the fact remains that a low suburban taste pervades American religion. The spiritual life cares nothing for class, and too much awareness of class can only interfere with one’s ability to enter the spiritual life. But religion has a public face in a secular nation; it performs its actions on a social stage, and actions on the social stage invariably indicate something about class. People who go to church build churches, and it is in the taste of people who go to church that churches get built. When the educated elite abandoned religion, they left the performance of religion to the vulgar and thereby lost all right to complain of the vulgarity of the result. Architects may identify themselves with the educated professional classes, and thus resist the taste of their clients for a while, but eventually the taste of the client wins out-as indeed it ought. So too the clergy may resist the taste of their rich parishioners for a while. But though (thanks to their education and the vestiges of old class distinction still clinging to them) the clergy tend to identify themselves with the educated class, they come nowadays mostly from the same class as their parishioners, whose taste and manners are their own. And though their education may have gentrified them in some ways, American suspicion of snobbery prevents the clergy from receiving in the course of their education much training in educated taste and manners.
In Latin Christendom, in Orthodox Greece, perhaps even on the revival circuit in the American Bible Belt, there is a festival vulgarity to religion that no one could call upper class, but that is nonetheless vibrant, earthy, dramatic, and strong-precisely because it does not stop to consider class. The worst thing about class distinction in America is that it poisons our ability to express aesthetic judgments. Without sounding like a snob, without being a snob, I do not know how to phrase my complaint that our parish church is built in the style of a Swiss skiing chalet, that it is festooned with pastel and paisley, that the abstract designs in its new stained-glass windows are ugly, poorly made, and meaningless.
And yet, the complaint needs to be made. The problem with the crucifixes for sale downtown is not just that they are vulgar, or just that they are ugly, or just that they are shoddy. The problem is that they, like most public performances of American religion, are suburban in the worst sense of the word: simultaneously vulgar and expensive, simultaneously class-conscious and class-bound, simultaneously timid and ornate.
Joseph Bottum recently moved from Baltimore to New York in order to take up his new position as Associate Editor of First Things .