On every hand we hear it said that “divisions” in “our society” (American, that is) are deeper and wider than ever before. Is this true? Is it even half-true? Hard to assess, isn’t it? And yet we encounter such assertions ad nauseam.
When I consider my own experience, setting aside for the moment any historical big pictures, I cannot agree. When I was partway through fourth grade and my brother partway through first grade, our mother took us out of the nearby public school we had been attending in Pomona, California, and enrolled us in a Missouri Synod Lutheran School, St. Paul’s. We were Baptists, not Lutherans, but there were not nearly as many “Christian schools” in 1957 as there were later.
That was the first time I had a sustained encounter with another stream of the Christian faith, and it was enormously beneficial to me. Lutherans talked much more about “church history” than I was accustomed to, and of course particularly (and hagiographically) about Martin Luther and the Reformation. By contrast, the Baptist churches in which I was raised were profoundly ahistorical. (I didn’t learn about “Baptist history” until years later, when I was no longer a Baptist!)
Near St. Paul’s there was a Catholic school, on a big cross street. Our mother and grandmother warned us not to walk by St. Joseph’s; Catholic bullies, they said, might attack us. This advice was intended to be taken seriously, and we didn’t question it at the time. Were our mother and grandmother unhinged? Not at all! They were, though, deeply prejudiced against Catholics and Catholicism, as was common among many “Bible-believing” Protestants at the time (and the reverse was true, of course, among Catholics).
Then again, within the mostly Baptist churches we attended, we were often (though not invariably, thank God) encouraged to be suspicious of “intellectuals” who put the “head” above the “heart.” By the time I was thirteen years old, this false dichotomy routinely drove me mad. In the early 1960s, a related theme became increasingly prominent: the perfidious teaching of “evolution.” I was about fourteen, I think, when I was given (by a well-meaning church member who knew I read a lot) a screed on this subject in which some legitimate criticism was mixed with a lot of baloney. It took me some years to discover the difference.
Racial intermarriage? That was, believe it or not, a communist plot. (Martin Luther King Jr., of course, was a pawn of the Red Menace.) Meanwhile, I was beginning to be aware of “intellectuals” who routinely defended the Soviet Union. I was floored by that self-deception way back then, and I feel the same way about its equivalent today.
Before I graduated from high school, I had inwardly detached myself from the faith in which I was raised, a condition that persisted until midway through my second year of college. I was led back to active faith, in part, by the attitudes of my professors: their utter disdain for “religion” and religious believers, their certainty that no one of reasonable intelligence could continue to hold such beliefs when given the opportunity to become enlightened, and so on. Does this sound like a caricature to you? Believe me, it’s not.
I see no warrant for the claims that our “society” is experiencing an unprecedented level of disharmony and disjunction. To say that, of course, is not at all to suggest that all is well, that we have no reason for concern about the state of our country and its social contract. But we need to reject lazy, ahistorical claims about the challenges we collectively face.
Let us resolve, in this new year, to push back against the fashionable narrative. Reality is messy, and it always exceeds our grasp. That is not a counsel of despair; on the contrary. It is rather a call to guerrilla warfare against endlessly repeated banalities and untruths.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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