So I read in the thread the request that we postmodern conservatives develop an opinion on the view of Alan Jacobs on Wendell Berry on PLACE. I naturally thought he’d been endorsing Berry’s view, and I’d have to criticize Alan from a Christian point of view. And then we’d be at war with ‘dem PORCHERS and so-called AMERICAN CONSERVATIVES again.
BUT it turns out that Alan is critical of Berry in just the right way. Christians don’t care about PLACE as much as Berry does. Jesus was neither a boomer nor a sticker. Nor were the APOSTLES nor the Christian missionaries that our SOUTHERN EVANGELICALS still send all around the world. The Christian “lives the tension” between the universal CITY OF GOD and his natural attachment to particular communities, to particular manifestations (such as the political community) of the CITY OF MAN. All Christians, to some extent, are aliens or pilgrims, wanderers and wonderers. Our more-admirable-than-not Christian Founders—the PURITANS—called themselves PILGRIMS. That’s what they were, of course, in more than one sense. The Puritans were neither boomers nor stickers. Nor, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr. Where would we be without our Christian pilgrims?
So as Jacobs says so well, excessive PLACISM is idolatry. It’s bleepin’ PAGAN. We Christians don’t suffer from POLIS ENVY (as does Pat Deneen on occasion). Nor do we think that the NATION-STATE is something demonic. Well, the nation-state—in the sense of nationalism—can become idolatrous too. But it doesn’t have to . . . And so we like to read PIERRE MANENT and even ORESTES BROWNSON on the LOYALTY we should have to the modern form of TERRITORIAL DEMOCRACY. Our proper political loyalty, of course, is not our highest loyalty. We are American conservatives, but we don’t buy into some American civil religion.
Having said all that, we POSTMODERN CONSERVATIVES are all about what some pointy-head would call “a phenomenology of place.” We’re concerned with the family, the church, the local community, citizenship, and friendship and all that, all those personal and relational institutions and arrangements. That’s why PETE is so concerned that our conservative policies be pro-family, be attuned to the struggles faced by the working guy as the safety nets that have secured his life erode. And that’s why we mock the complacently irresponsible libertarianism of our bourgeois-bohemian “cognitive elite.”
We think the place that was the FAMILY FARM had its good and bad points. So did, it’s come to my attention, the Southern mill town that was humanely run (such as Lindale, GA) and certainly the steel town of the unionized North (with its deep relational institutions and family wage). So does PANERA BREAD and WAFFLE HOUSE (well, Waffle House is all good). So does the EVANGELICAL CHURCH—both in its mega- or ( much more usual in the South) modest communal manifestations. We don’t think either human dignity or particular attachments to place depend on the prevailing mode of the division of labor.
That, of course, would be Marxist. We postmodern conservatives think there’s plenty to be concerned about coming from the competitive marketplace of global capitalism. But it’s a big exaggeration to say it’s reducing America to a WASTELAND or emptying the working man’s life of all real content.
That’s not to say that Berry is all wrong. And I do have selective nostalgia for the STOIC dimension of the old South too. In general, we postmodern conservatives are okay with nostalgia that’s self-consciously and rigorously selective. So we try to read Berry with some—but not too much—irony—the way Walker Percy would.
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 firstthings.com.
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?