Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In an important new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Charles Murray observes that America has become increasingly divided. Once largely united by a common middle-class culture, we’re now trending in different directions, one up and toward a new elite class, the other down toward a more and more dysfunctional working class. “The divergence into these separate classes, if it continues,” Murray argues, “will end what has made America America.”

The economic divergence is old news. Over the past fifty years, household income for the top 1 percent has grown from $200,000 (in today’s dollars) to $400,000. Meanwhile, household income for the bottom half of Americans has stayed flat, and would have fallen for many were it not for increased spending on government programs and the earned income tax credit.

Liberals presume that the income gap is the problem. We need to combat income inequality, we are told, which means raising taxes on the winners in the global economy, so that the government can transfer even more wealth to the poor. Murray’s analysis is important because it indicates that this alone won’t reduce the growing and troubling divide between Americans, because the difference is more a function of moral capital than income and assets. It’s the culture, stupid.

The new elites live in places like Belmont, the toney Boston suburb and the name Murray uses as shorthand for wealthy and influential Americans. When he speaks of “Belmont,” he is referring to a statistical cohort created by aggregating the affluent, well-educated, and professionally successful people throughout America. All told, about 20 percent of white Americans live in statistical Belmont. They are the new upper class.

Folks in the bottom third live in Fishtown. The real Fishtown is a white working-class neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia that has been the subject of a number of sociological studies over the past fifty years. Murray draws on those studies, but in Coming Apart, Fishtown, like Belmont, is shorthand for a statistical cohort: people with blue-collar or low-level office jobs and no academic degree more advanced than a high-school diploma. These people make up the working class that is becoming America’s new lower class.

The 1960s ushered in many changes, one of which was the end of the broad social consensus, call it bourgeois morality, that held sway among white Americans of all classes, upper, lower, and middle. What is striking, however, is that no thick, overarching social consensus has emerged after all the turmoil. Instead, as Murray charts in compelling detail, when it comes to behavior, affluent white America and poor white America have gone in two very different directions.

Take marriage. In 1960, the overwhelming majority of prime-age white adults (the cohort of 30 to 49-year-olds that Murray focuses on) in Belmont and Fishtown were married, bore very few children out of wedlock, and rarely divorced. Over time the sexual revolution and women’s movement changed attitudes dramatically. But Murray’s analysis shows that Belmont residents have readjusted in ways that largely preserve marriage as the norm. Today 85 percent of Belmont is married.

Although private schools in the real Belmont and other neighborhoods populated by the affluent teach well-to-do teenagers to be nonjudgmental, tolerant, and inclusive, the social environment is still safely bourgeois. Not only does marriage remain the norm, but hardly anybody in statistical Belmont is getting divorced (only slightly more than 5 percent), fewer than 5 percent of children are living with a single parent, and next to none of their classmates were born to unmarried mothers. In other words, today Belmont talks the talk of the sixties, but walks the walk of the fifties.

Meanwhile, sadly, statistical Fishtown is living the sixties. Less than 50 percent of prime-age adults are married. Their divorce rate is around 35 percent. Nearly 25 percent of children are being raised by single mothers. Only 30 percent of children are living with both biological parents when their mothers turn forty. Among mothers who drop out of high school, 60 percent of their children are illegitimate. This collapse of marriage, Murray warns, “calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”

There are other signs of crisis. Prime-age white working-class males have increasingly dropped out of the full-time work force, and the same males are dramatically more likely to be in prison now than in 1960. Far fewer are likely to go to church or be involved in any civic or community organizations.

Murray comes up with a very useful measure of community dysfunction: the percentage of “problematic people,” which he arrives at by combining prime-age males not making a living, single mothers raising children, a guesstimate of prime-age adults who are living alone, and those uninvolved in any community activity. In 1960, only about 10 percent of people in his fictional Fishtown were problematic. Today more than a third. Belmont? From 1960 to present the number of problematic people has been negligible.

These statistical trends are among the reason why white working-class communities in America, whether in rural Iowa or ethnic Philadelphia, are more violent, less cohesive, and less pleasant places to live. Because we’re fallen creatures who tend toward lust, sloth, and greed, our communities require constant reinforcement and renewal. If the fundamental social mechanisms for renewal are diminished—marriage, parenting, productive work, interpersonal trust, and religious or communal involvement—then the social law of entropy takes over, which is what is happening today in poor American communities

How did this happen? We can’t identify a single cause. But reading Coming Apart I found myself entertaining a hypothesis about Belmont’s contribution to Fishtown’s dysfunction. “Within just a few years,” Murray observes, “white college-educated men and women became enthusiastic recruits for the sexual revolution.” By 1970, only around 50 percent of the cohort that makes up Murray’s statistical Belmont in the General Social Survey believed that “extramarital sex is always wrong.” Yet by the 2000s, 70 percent affirmed that extramarital sex is always wrong.

Why isn’t this completely good news? The neo-traditionalism that now exists in Belmont lacks moral energy. As Murray points out, and with some exasperation, our elite culture insists on a nonjudgmental public ethic. Children out of wedlock? That’s not wrong, it’s just a life style choice. Divorce? Unfortunate, perhaps, but often necessary, and in any event it only makes things worse to condemn it.

Given the neo-bourgeois uniformity of Belmont—marriage as the norm, infrequent divorce, very few illegitimate births—Murray finds this nonjudgmentalism “one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture.” I’m not baffled at all. Precisely because it has largely isolated itself from the rest of America, Belmont can get on quite well without the strict judgments of the old moral codes. Exclusive neighborhoods, private schools, and elite universities preserve an environment of sensible but restrained hedonism. A fierce focus on academic success among the young and career success for adults builds habits of discipline that can function reasonably well without old-fashioned moral rigorism. And when things go wrong, therapists and counselors and other professionals are ready at hand.

So why moralize? After all, strict moral standards might rebound and strike elites in their moments of weakness. People in Belmont are human like the rest of us. Some do in fact get divorced. Their sons are sometimes gay, their daughters sometimes promiscuous, and so forth. The new elites are not about to sacrifice the happiness of their own for the common good!

Meanwhile, Fishtown disintegrates, and not because it’s poor. Abject poverty consistently produces a great deal of unhappiness, but that’s not the situation for Fishtown. Working-class people in the 1960s, an era of less material comfort than today, when surveyed largely expressed satisfaction with their lives and their communities. That’s no longer true. Although in surveys 40 percent of the new upper class today describe themselves as “very happy,” only 15 percent of statistical Fishtown do so.

Murray shows that if people at the bottom of the economic ladder have high work satisfaction, are married, experience levels of social trust, and engage in weekly worship, they have exactly the same self-reported happiness as Belmont types who have the same qualities. This suggests that “there is no inherent barrier to happiness for a person with a low level of education holding a low-skill job.” The problem is that Fishtown, unlike Belmont, does not have enough social capital to encourage the sorts of attitudes and behaviors necessary for happiness. Far fewer in the working class than in the upper class are married and go to church. Meanwhile, crime and a lack of communal engagement reduces social trust.

One reason for this social disarray is a lack of a strong moral consensus. Our crass and often crude popular culture deforms many lives, unchecked by the nonjudgmental ethic endorsed by the upper class, an ethic in many cases imposed in schools and reinforced at many levels by the official voices of elite society. Belmont refuses to make the sorts of moral investments necessary to rebuild the social capital of Fishtown.

One would think that bad times in Fishtown would make Belmont anxious. But for the most part they don’t. The collapse of functional working-class communities does not threaten the new elites. Not only have they segregated themselves, but they benefit from the social changes that make so many lower-class communities dysfunctional. As community activists know, “problematic people” can’t be organized. They have very little political potential, which is one reason why elite money rather than political machines and ward bosses matter in politics today.

Moreover, the social dysfunction increases the need for expert intervention, supervision, and remediation. And who oversees all this? Elites with degrees from the Kennedy School of Government or Yale Law School and other institutions that produce the people who design and run government programs, nonprofits, and labor unions as well as corporations. Today the staffs of ACORN and the AFL-CIO increasingly come from the same Belmont world as do the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs.

The super-elite neighborhoods—the most thoroughly isolated and really rich communities in America—vote for the most doctrinaire liberal candidates. This liberal commitment doesn’t reflect a bad conscience. It’s self-interest. As the majority of the population is demoralized by political correctness and infantilized by the nanny state, the democratic resistance to governance by experts diminishes dramatically.

Coming Apart suggests that the Occupy Wall Street slogan points us in the right direction, though the 1 is really 20 percent, and their offense is not economic. One of the most fundamental forms of greed that has emerged in the last fifty years is cultural and moral. Since the 1960s, elite culture in America has crafted a nonjudgmental ethic suited entirely for itself.

Murray hopes for “a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.” It’s not impossible. In 1960 few imagined that the old, strict bourgeois morality would crumble so quickly in the next decade (though in retrospect the changes were already underway). Today a nonjudgmental ethic and its close relative, political correctness, have become the default positions of the establishment. Young elites mouth these anti-pieties, but without conviction. Perhaps they tire of elite self-regard. Perhaps they desire to be arrested by moral conviction.

For the sake of Fishtown—for the sake of a renewed common moral culture in America—I hope so.

Seductive Social Gospel

America remains religious, but it might have been otherwise. In the late nineteenth century, Americans whose fathers and grandfathers had been earnest Congregationalists or Presbyterians were beginning to fall away. They were uninterested in Calvinism’s fine doctrinal distinctions and resentful of the Calvinist emphasis on total depravity and the high decrees of divine election.

This alienation from classical Reformed theology and practice could easily have led to the secularization of America one hundred years ago. But Protestantism reinvented itself. Horace Bushnell wrote books that shifted the focus of faith away from doctrine and toward sentiments and feelings. Against the traditional forms of Calvinism that interpreted Christ’s saving death in terms of the debt of sin and its payment—which is to say, the doctrine of penal substitution—he argued that Christ’s example of selfless love provides a decisive moral influence that causes in us a renewal and transformation.

The Social Gospel movement seems very different, focusing on “the social question” rather than sentiments and feelings. But like liberal Protestant theology more generally, it became so influential in the early twentieth century because it directed attention away from traditional doctrine. A concern for justice replaced theologies of justification.

Walter Rauschenbusch, the most prominent spokesman for the Social Gospel, provided in his programmatic book Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) the most explicit rationale for this shift. Nineteenth-century historical critics had sifted through the Bible, separating out what they designated the most ancient and therefore authentic witness from later accretions and distortions. Rauschenbusch used this scholarship to make his case for a social gospel.

He argued that the early prophets—Amos in particular—reflected the original genius of Israelite religion, which was concerned with ethical conduct and social justice, preaching a “primitive democracy.” However, already in Old Testament times, this original message was corrupted by Jewish preoccupations with ritual and purity. Ezekiel shifts away from ethics and to an “ecclesiastical attitude” preoccupied with “ceremonial correctness.”

The historical Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch argued, which meant the ethical action and social justice emphasized by the earliest prophets. However, corruption intruded again. The Jewish writers of the New Testament introduced the “ecclesiastical attitude” and other distortions that led to what Rauschenbusch calls “ascetic Christianity,” a religious attitude that thinks in terms of heaven, divine intervention, and personal salvation rather than social justice.

Rauschenbusch’s story of the true meaning of Christianity is archetypically Protestant: The original purity of faith was lost and obscured by later corruptions, only to be discovered anew in our age. The distinct twist—which is what made the Social Gospel so effective in preserving the influence of mainline Protestantism—was that Rauschenbusch implicated older forms of Protestantism in this history of corruption. Thus, Protestants who insist on confessional standards reflect an “ecclesiastical attitude” concerned about mere “ceremonial correctness.”

The effect of this critique was to reassure those whose faith was wavering. As Rauschenbusch writes in a characteristic passage, “We are today in the midst of a revolutionary epoch fully as thorough as that of the Renaissance and Reformation.” Now “we need a combination between faith in Jesus in the need and the possibility of the kingdom of God, and the modern comprehension of the organic development of human society.” The troubling inheritance of traditional Protestantism—sin, damnation, grace, election, and even particular matters of personal morality—has been found irrelevant, if not corrupting. “For the first time in religious history,” Rauschenbusch writes, “we have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility.”

This is heady stuff, made all the more intoxicating by the fact that, according to the logic of the Social Gospel, America and other “advanced nations” are the proper recipients of all this religious energy. Here “Christianity is being converted to Christ.” Here technology and science have advanced. Therefore, Western civilization or “the Christian world”—which Rauschenbusch and his readers consistently saw in racial and ethnic terms—has a social mission. America in particular is to be a light unto the nations.

Christianity and the Social Crisis was a surprise best seller, and in retrospect one can see why. The mentality that Rauschenbusch deployed to seduce his readers—the turn away from troubling debates about doctrine, the shift from personal salvation to social reform, and the reassurance that progressive disdain for traditional religion was in fact a sign of a more authentic and scientific faith—provided a way to remain Christian while setting aside whatever seems incompatible with modern life.

For a long time I resented this strategy, but now I’ve become more sympathetic. I still think that Rauschenbusch’s approach, which was a rhetorically brilliant version of modern Protestant theology, debases Christian truths. But it succeeded in throwing a vaguely Christian sacred canopy over the progressive project that reshaped American society in the twentieth century, delaying the triumph of a secular mentality.

Well into the twentieth century, American liberalism was Christian, or at least many significant and powerful liberals were. The dominant establishment was the Protestant establishment, something made possible in part by figures such as Rauschenbusch. It was a vague and diminished Christianity, but it helped America avoid the ideological brutality of secular modernity, especially the perversions of fascism and communism that so damaged secular Europe.

And it provides us with an opportunity today. Because the Protestant establishment endured well into the twentieth century, American secularism is different from the secularism one finds in Europe. It is young, uncertain, and weak. There are elements of religiosity in the new upper class that Charles Murray describes in Coming Apart. That’s one reason why folks like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins fight so vigorously against faith. They sense, perhaps, what St. Ignatius knew. Only a handful of men of genuine piety and personal integrity would be needed to enflame a place like Harvard.

Critical Blindness

Freud ranks among the great critical minds of the modern era. He did not take our conscious beliefs at face value, recognizing that they often reflect unconscious desires. “One thing only do I know for certain,” he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “and that is that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness—that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with argument.”

Freud was, I think, correct. We tend to argue passionately, not dispassionately, and that leads us to emphasize the evidence that supports the conclusions we want to be true. John Henry Newman said as much, although unlike Freud he did not commit the fallacy of equating what we desire with self-serving illusions. We are made for truth, thought Newman, and if our desires are well-formed and properly directed, we’ll end up wishing for the happiness of knowing and living in accord with the truth.

In any event, it was reflecting on Steven Pinker’s sharp attack a few years ago on a proposed revision to the Harvard core curriculum—it would have required students to engage religious questions—that made me think of Freud. Freud was convinced that things are hidden below the surface, and he saw his scientific work as showing the instinctual sources of religion, culture, and morality. His deepest wish, it seems, was to live without illusions, especially without the illusions of religion. I suppose Steven Pinker has the same wish, as do Richard Dawkins and many of the so-called New Atheists. Fair enough. One wishes for what one wishes.

Yet, a now forgotten but quirky and insightful book by the venerable Notre Dame professor of literature John S. Dunne, The City of the Gods, helped me see something hidden below the surface of this apparently high-minded critical project. It seems not to have occurred to Freud that his wish to live without illusions may have been so powerful as to have clouded his reason and infected his arguments about wish fulfillment. After all, his strong desire to live without illusions will, according to his own theory, have the effect of conjuring illusions—illusions of illusions, if you will—that provide him with something to debunk and unmask.

The tendency of the New Atheists to conjure caricatures of Christianity that they can destroy with their arguments suggests that the same dynamic of wish fulfillment holds for them as well. And not just for them. Our postmodern professoriate manages to find racism, patriarchy, and oppression everywhere. They do so with such sure ease that I find myself wondering if they are in the end, as Freud warns, using the rhetoric of critical thinking to support their illusions—illusions in this case arising from an intense wish to be critically and morally superior.

Notes from the Editor’s Desk

Although it snowed in New York only a few days ago, spring is coming, and in that wonderful season of daffodils and dogwoods we’ll be on the lookout for a bright young person to serve as a Junior Fellow. It’s a position very important for the work of First Things, in fact essential. And it’s an extraordinary opportunity for someone who wants to learn about journalism, writing, and speaking up in the public square. Please look at our ad on page 16 and at (the fine website that should be your homepage). Apply, or encourage a talented young person you know to apply.

As I write, we’re closing the books on 2011, and I want to thank the many of you who supported First Things in 2011. The commitment of all our readers to First Things inspires the staff, and certainly me. We are blessed to have both broad and deep support.

By the time this issue reaches you, we will have produced the first annual report for the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the nonprofit foundation that publishes First Things and as well as running a variety of programs. The report gives an overview of all the things we do to promote the influence of faith in the public square. Please write us and we’ll send you a copy.

I would be remiss not to thank in these pages our most generous supporters over the past year: The John Templeton Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The William E. Simon Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Sean M. Fieler, Mr. and Mrs. Frederic H. Clark and the Casillas Foundation, The Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis, and the Donahue Family Foundation.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift