The Lonely American: Rootedness and Reconciliation in a Riven Land
In this Evening Conversation on “The Lonely American: Rootedness and Reconciliation in a Riven Land” with Senator Ben Sasse and Russell Moore in Washington, DC we discussed the growing problem of loneliness in the country — the ways in which our alienation from each other is destroying individual lives and the fabric of society — and what can be done about it.
Transcript of The Lonely American: Rootedness and Reconciliation in a Riven Land with Senator Ben Sasse and Russell Moore
Cherie Harder: So with each new Evening Conversation, we try to take on and wrestle with one of those big questions. And tonight, our speakers will grapple with several such questions arising from the strange and even sinister paradox in which we find ourselves. We live in the richest country in the history of the world, and yet in the last few years, we’ve seen a decline in average life expectancy, a surge of suicide, more than a doubling of overdoses, a spike in deaths of despair. So why, in the midst of both peace and prosperity, are we increasingly pessimistic, angry, and fearful? Why do we claim to be more isolated even as we grow ever more virtually connected?
In his new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, our keynote speaker tonight argues that the fundamental crisis facing the body politic today is not actually about politics. It’s about the state of our relationships, our communities, and our souls. It is, he argues, a crisis of loneliness. Fully half of us report feeling lonely, rejected, or left out. Thirteen percent of Americans say that no one knows them well. Along with our isolation, we are more polarized, divided, indebted, medicated, overfed, and depressed. Some measures show that each succeeding generation is actually lonelier than the one before. And not surprisingly, many hurting, lonely people seek company and community in a tribe of the like-minded. Looking for community, they find some measure of solidarity and shared antagonisms towards those on the other side of the political spectrum. There is money to be made in peddling outrage, and there are plenty of peddlers ready to profit. The result is ever more outlets dousing our loneliness with fear and loathing, leaving us ever more angry at each other, all alone together.
The path out of this rather brutish state of nature requires, according to our speakers, something radical: the formulation or formation of deep relationships and connections with both people and places, a rootedness that can lead both to a reflowering of community and a reconciliation of that which divides us. It’s a provocative, intriguing, and countercultural argument, and it’s hard to imagine a writer or a thinker, much less a senator, who could make it with the conviction, cheerful boldness, or eloquence than our keynote speaker tonight.
Ben Sasse is the junior senator from the great state of Nebraska. He grew up in Fremont, a fifth-generation Nebraskan, before leaving to study as an undergrad at Harvard, followed by graduate work at St. John’s College at Oxford, completed his Ph.D. at Yale, where his dissertation won both the Field Prize and the George Washington Egleston Award. Over the course of his career, he worked for the Boston Consulting Group and in private equity, as well as the executive director for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and at one point edited the Modern Reformation Journal. He also worked as a Capitol Hill staffer and in Departments of Homeland Security and HHS before assuming the presidency of Midland College in Fremont, where he worked for the next four years, during which time the college went from near bankruptcy to a surplus and doubled enrollment. He left it as the fastest growing college in the Midwest.
Since coming to the Senate, Ben has quickly established a reputation as one of the Senate’s most thoughtful, historically-informed, and articulate members, even though he is still occasionally mistaken for a page. In the last 18 months, he and his wife, Missy, have juggled homeschooling their three children, and he has written two significant works, the first of which, The Vanishing American Adult, focused on the decline of agency and independence in young people, which we were delighted to have him here last year to discuss.
Responding to Ben Sasse will be Dr. Russell Moore. Russell is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency and arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He was named last year to POLITICO’s list of 50 influence makers in D.C. and has been described by The Wall Street Journal as, “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate.” He previously served as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary and a visiting professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as well as the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he seems he writes many, many books, including Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year award in 2016, along with Tempted and Tried, Adopted for Life, and his most recent work, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home. A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, Russell and his wife, Maria, have five sons, the oldest of whom are adopted from Russia.
After Ben gives keynote remarks, Russell will offer a response which will then be followed by a short, moderated conversation between the three of us, followed by questions from all of you.
Ben Sasse: I’m a huge Cherie fan. We went to college together. And I don’t know what the term “fiercely articulate” means, Russell, but I’m scared of you now. It seems vicious. Where are the pages, Senate pages? I heard you’re here. My people! I am— My wife’s joke is I’m 46, look 36, regularly act 26. I’m a newbie. I’m one of eight people, I think, in the Senate who has never been a politician before, and the Capitol Hill Police regularly mistake me for a page. So it’s good to have you all here to vouch for me so I can get in without an ID. I live in rural Nebraska and I work here, but I live there, and I commute it almost every week, and I bring a kid with me. So we have 17-year-old this weekend, 15-year-old daughter, and a seven-year-old son. And I usually have somebody that comes—not usually, but about half the time—I bring a date along. One of my kids is my commuting partner. Every week I get home on Friday afternoon, and my wife tells me who annoyed her most that week, and they get a plane ticket to come back to work with Dad next Monday. But since there are only three voting weeks in the Senate left this year and my family comes out here for about 90 days on the 1st of the year every year, I don’t have any kids who wanted to come this week, so I’m kind of lonely in a different way. But it is great to be at the Trinity Forum and see so many familiar faces. This is such an important organization.
I’m not going to try to give a coherent beginning, middle, and an end to a talk here. I’m going to tee up a bunch of themes that Russell can then pull apart and pick at, and then we can discuss when we’re together. But I think at the macro level, there are three things that I want to try to persuade you of in our first 20 minutes with me alone. Number one: I think that we think that political tribalism is a really big deal in this moment, and I’m fairly convinced, and happy to have you argue with me, but I’m fairly convinced that that’s not really true, that political tribalism is far more symptom of our moment than cause. There’s all sorts of big and important stuff happening in politics. Some of it bad, some of it moderately good. But a lot of what we’re obsessing about in politics, I think, is far more epiphenomenal or echo or symptom of what’s really happening in America right now than the politics being causal. So I think that the digital revolution through which we’re living is much bigger and more important and longer lasting than the political moment we’re in. And I don’t think we can do even the politics part right without understanding the larger context of the digital revolution through which we’re living.
Number two: I want to argue that one of the aches about public life—not just political life, but public life and the public square more broadly—one of the big aches we feel right now is we have almost no sense of “we.” And that is strange. And it isn’t the case that there used to be a big and coherent American national “we” that didn’t have scars and blemishes and problems. It was that you had local communities, and then distant communities served a distant and lesser purpose. And so because they were properly in a box of what happened far away, you could have your local community and you could have your distant community, and your distant community wouldn’t be the thing on which you tried to impose all sorts of grand meaning. And so it could meet its purposes. Right now because of the digital revolution and the hollowing out of local community and the evaporation of place in a lot of ways, we’re projecting things onto a distant polity or onto a distant national identity of 320 million people, but we aren’t really sure what the “we” is that we share and that we have in common.
And a lot of that is about the ways that we consume media. So the digital revolution is bigger than media, but obviously the digital revolution is having massive effects on media. And I mean that on print journalism, on broadcast journalism, on cable news, on social media, on all sorts of other internet-based media. Across all of the media ecosystem in which we live right now, we are doing lots more siloing than we’re probably aware of. Another way to say this is that maybe all websites are clickbait websites right now. Maybe there isn’t a distinction between serious websites and clickbaity websites. It might be that every website, because there’s an algorithm behind it, is figuring out what you clicked on yesterday, and you might be self-selecting into communities that are more and more siloed than even we’re aware of.
And the third thing I want to suggest tonight is that this is not an unprecedented thing. We’ve gone through macro changes in American life before, and I think the best analog to the moment that we’re living in now is industrialization and urbanization from about 1890 to about 1920. I think it’s very similar to the moment we’re in the last couple of decades and maybe the next half century. I don’t think this is going to be fixed soon. There is no upcoming election that’s going to solve all the problems America is wrestling with, and I think that the analog to moving from rural-agrarian America, small-town America, known, small local communities—for all their virtues, but also all their stifling downsides as well—to a much more anonymous urban America, an industrial America, I think that the analog between that moment and our moment shouldn’t just scare us, though I do want to pick at some of the stats that Cherie flagged about the depths of despair literature because we’ve had a moment like this before too, from about 1918 to about 1935. But when you got to cities and people felt really anonymous and lonely, they eventually found community again. It was a different kind of community than you knew in small-town America. But community was found in urban ethnic neighborhoods again, 20, 30, 40 years after the rise of big cities.
And my assumption is that we’re ultimately going to figure out how to solve a lot of the loneliness of our time, but it’s not going to come fast. It’s certainly not going to come by politics, and it’s only going to come when lots of people develop new kinds of habits for how to navigate an age where we have, as Cherie said, more material abundance than any people have ever known in all of human history. But simultaneously, as we have this arching material and economic largesse, we’re feeling more and more spiritually impoverished and more and more lonely, much less communally connected than at any point than any of our lives have ever known before.
So three macro points, again: One, the digital revolution through which we’re living is bigger than our political moment, and most of our political tribalism is downstream from it. Number two, the media environment in which we live is going through rapid changes, and it leaves a lot of us feeling like we don’t have a sense of “we,” who are we in it with, and “them” as a consequence to not feeling a “we.” And number three, this is soluble. There’s all sorts of optimistic and good news things to say, but it will follow from habits or it will follow from different kinds of addictions. Habit and addiction are the same word, really. They’re just whether or not you want them. If you have a habit you don’t like, you call it an addiction. If you have an addiction you do like, you call it a habit. And I think that that’s actually what comes next.
So I’m going to unpack those three points just a little bit, and then I’m going give the microphone over to Russell. First of all, the digital revolution through which we’re living is a really, really big deal. I’m a historian, and so usually a historian’s job is to be a skunk at a garden party and to say, “You know, you think there’s a lot more discontinuity than continuity in our moment. But really, at almost every moment in human history, there’s far more continuity than discontinuity. You think that this is a really big deal, but it’s just because you live here and you’re a narcissist.” And so humans tend to always believe the moment at which they live has massive inflection. All of human history has been pretty flat until now, but look what we’re living through. Usually, people are wrong. I think in our time, we’re more right than wrong to think this is a really different kind of time.
And one of the simplest ways to say it is almost all of our economics through almost all of human history past has been about atoms, and the vast majority of economics in human history future is going to be about bytes. That’s new. It used to be about material stuff. Every time there was more economic output—as hunter-gatherers became agrarians, as agrarians became industrialists, as nomads became pastoral, as pastoralists and country people became urban—at every moment in the past, as you got more money and you got more stuff, you ended up with more stuff. You know what most business theorists think happens in the next 20 or 30, 40 years in American life and in sort of First World nations across the world? We’re going to get lots less stuff because the cost of rental is going to become cheaper than the cost of storage. Think about that for a minute. There’s never been a time in human history where rich people wouldn’t want more stuff. We’re heading into a world where lots of us are going to say, “Boy, I’d rather be less encumbered. I’d rather have a smaller closet and a smaller garage and a much bigger port at my mailbox that’s drone accessible.” Right?
There are basically two kinds of power drills in America. There’s a $50 drill and there’s a $180 drill. I could ask for a show of hands, but a whole bunch of dudes would lie and brag that they’re the person who’s so technologically competent there’s a reason for them to own the $180 drill. The vast majority of people buy the $50 drill, and it almost never works because by the time you need it, the battery is dead. And the people who are really good handy men and women, they have the $180 drill, but very few people actually need it. But when you need a drill, you’d rather have the $180 drill than the $50 drill. But if you think about how rarely you need a drill, if you had an option to announce to your app on your phone, 45 minutes or 60 minutes before you need it, that you’d like to rent a drill, you would gladly pay two dollars to use a drill for two minutes in 60 minutes if you only need it two or three times a year, and you could have the really good drill that works. That world’s coming soon to your mailbox. Very soon, we’re headed toward a world where storing your second car—or in the city, your first car—is going to make less sense than not just ridesharing, but car-sharing in the right moment.
And so the digital revolution that we’re going through is going to make it even more possible for us to be placeless. What technology is screaming in your ear, what your smartphone is screaming, right, this thing is constantly telling you you don’t have to be bound to the place where you are right now. I see you there in the second row from the back checking the score of the Celtics game who’s bored by my speech. But we’re clearly headed to a place where our technology is saying, “The world is so flat you can let your consciousness be anywhere you want it to be any time.” And that means we all have lots more relationships, supposedly, but we have lots fewer relationships of depth. The nuclear family is in statistical collapse in our time.
I’m the second or third most conservative voter in the Senate by voting record, but I sit in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s desk on purpose. Moynihan is the author—two points where he’s relevant tonight, I guess—he’s the author of the famous quote, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” The internet and our echo chambers are heading to a world where we all think we’re entitled to our own facts. But Moynihan is also the guy in the mid-1960s who flagged the absolute tragedy of the collapse of the Black nuclear family. At that point, out-of-wedlock birth rates in America were about six percent overall, and they hit mid-twenty percents for the Black community. And Moynihan said, “A republic can’t work like this. We won’t be able to survive as a people if politics is trying to fill in for all the stuff that needs to happen more locally. Politics is to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so the local communities where you actually live can be the places where you find your meaning and your happiness, and where you fulfill your vocation, where you live out gratitude to God by trying to love your neighbor in the place to which you’re called.” And Moynihan said this won’t work if a quarter of Americans of one sub-community are growing up without Dad. Today, we have 59 percent of babies born to women under age 30 with no meaningful connection to baby-Dad without regard to race. Everything Moynihan posited as this massive problem in the Black community is now exponentially larger in every community. This turns out to have almost nothing to do with race and has a lot to do with class. And in question-and-answer if we head there, there’s a lot of Putnam data and Charles Murray data that we can unpack. But the nuclear family is in statistical collapse.
Friendship is in an absolute devastating atrophy. In 1990, when I graduated high school, the average American had 3.2 friends. The average American today has 1.8 friends, a halving of friendship in 27 years, 28 years. There is no data that shows you’re happier when you go from 200 to 500 social media friends, from 500 to 1,000 social media friends. If you go from a thousand to five thousand social media friends, there’s actually some data which suggests mild decline in happiness because you’re actually spending far more time grooming this online personality, which isn’t who you actually are. And none of those people from one thousand to five thousand are going to come visit you when you’re sick. Statistically, if you know the person who lives two doors from you, you are much more likely to be happy than if you don’t. And if you spend more time on social media, you are less likely to know the person who lives two doors away from you. Social media can add genuine value when it’s supplementing extent human flesh-and-blood bodily relationships. When social media supplants bodily incarnate relationships, it has net destructive effects.
And right now we’re having a decline of nuclear family, we’re having a decline of friendship, we’re having a shortening duration of jobs. That’s mostly a great thing in terms of net economic output. We’re heading for a world— I graduated high school again in 1990, so I grew up in the 70s and the early 80s. For those of you keeping score, this is when Nebraska lost like one football game a year for a couple of decades. We’ve had a different experience of late. But average duration at a firm in the 1970s was two and a half decades. Average duration at a firm today—this was for the primary breadwinner, the data that I’m citing from the 1970s and early 80s. Average duration at a firm today is just over four years, and it’s going to decline over time. Why? Because we’re smart and smart people figure out ways to automate more and more functions as a part of any job over time. And when we can automate stuff, we figure out a way to routinized it and it becomes less valuable. That is great for consumers all over the world, and it is surely great for American consumers. It’s really bad as a way to try to have long-term coworkers that you’re next to on the line or you’re next to at the cubicle, because it turns out men are actually—for those people who want to say that gender doesn’t exist, you should look at the friendship literature closely—it turns out women are actually really good at continuing to build relationships over the course of their lifetime. The vast majority of men are horrible at building any new relationships after about age 25. If you ask adult men who their best friend is, 60 percent of men say their wife. Twenty nine percent of women said their husbands. It’s funny, but it’s really sad, right, because the vast majority of old men just shed relationships over the course of their life. You go from 25 to 30 and 35 to 40 and 45 to 50 and you’re, as a male, you’re likely just shedding relationships. And if you don’t have that sort of awkward grunt relationship with the guy two spots over from you at the workplace, when you’re 30 and when you’re 40 and when you’re 50, it turns out nobody remembers that you plan to save money to buy a cabin, a fishing cabin up at the lake up north.
And one of the things we don’t talk about—and I’ll move on here because I need to say something about the media consumption point, but I’ll just pre flag this. One of the things we don’t talk about is the vast majority of the political addiction in the country that comes from certain types of websites and certain types of cable news channels is consumed by people who are watching alone. The overwhelming majority of it is people watching alone. And over time, the people who consume more tend to be people who have fewer other relationships in their life. We are using politics to fill in for deeper, more meaningful kinds of community.
Thoughtful Christians at a group like this, we should be thinking intentionally about how you rank, order, your identities. I have lots of different callings. I have lots of different identities. I’m a dad. I’m a husband. I’m a Christian. I’m a Nebraska football addict. I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican. I’m temporarily a public servant. This is the job that I have for a time. I can go through a list of 15 or 20 identifiers that I have, and then I should back up and say, “Hey, some of these can’t get in front of other ones, or there’s something wrong with me,” right? My Cornhusker football addiction is a great thing. There are a lot of people that I have it in common with in my state. But if my football addiction becomes rank-ordered higher than being a father, there’s something terribly wrong with me, right? And if my Christian identity somehow becomes subordinate to my Republican Party affiliation, there’s something wrong with me.
What we have happening right now in American life is a whole bunch of people going through the digital revolution where we’re hollowing out place. We know from the happiness literature that almost all the key drivers of happiness—Do you have a family? Do you have a few deep friendships? Do you have meaningful work? Do you have a theological or philosophical worldview to make sense of death and suffering?—all of these things are connected to place. They’re connected to roots. Happiness is deeply informed by whether or not you have a sense that you think of as home. And yet, at exactly this moment, our smartphones—more computing power in this little thing in my pocket than the supercomputers the size of a gymnasium at MIT in the late 1950s and early 1960s that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. These things are really powerful tools, and they scream to us, “You can be rootless.” But it turns out you can’t be rootless and happy. And so as we hollow out a lot of those deeper, more meaningful points of attachment, those more meaningful types of community, those places where we have vocations and callings to people who actually know our name, people who need us, somebody liking the quick put-down you had on social media, is not the same as actually being needed.
And one of the fundamental things humans need is to have a sense of vocation, to have a sense of calling, to have a sense that someone needs me. Politics are important, but they’re about maintaining a framework for ordered liberty. You can’t have a distant polity become a first or a second order identity for you and have either your worldview make sense and work well or your politics work well. Because if you start deciding, “we’re trying to find the grand Manichean lines between good and evil in our politics,” it turns out it’s almost impossible to do an infrastructure bill. It’s almost impossible to do entitlement reform because there are a whole bunch of pragmatic choices that have to be made there that really aren’t about good and evil. And so if you try to put politics at the top of your pyramid of identities, your identity doesn’t work, your happiness isn’t going to come, and your politics won’t work. And I think the vast majority of what we’re going through right now in our politics—and this isn’t to deny there are really important meaty, meaningful fights to be had about our politics and about the First Amendment right now in our time—but if you don’t have identities that precede your political identity, I don’t think our politics can work either.
I want to give you just a couple of stats about media consumption, because this is why—some of this is new—and why I don’t think we have a lot of good handles and hooks to make sense of it. In the 1950s I Love Lucy had a 68 percent share. I Love Lucy wasn’t important content, but it was shared content. If it had a 68 percent share in any given week, that means 95 percent of Americans knew the basic storyline. You knew what Lucy and Desi were fighting about. You knew if she was pregnant, right? You had a whole bunch of shared experiences. I want to go back to a Michael Ware joke, but I’m just staying right on to our task right here. You had a sense that if you’re having a conversation with a coworker at the office and you get in an argument about the prioritization of a certain part of the workflow, or if you get in an argument with somebody about politics, you can de-escalate the conversation back to Lucy and Desi because it’s something that you have in common. Again, not important, but still shared.
Today we have no such things. The most-watched programing—serial programing, obviously the Super Bowl once a year is still widely-watched—but the most-watched serial programing in America the last 18 years is for three weeks in 2014 Sunday Night Football hit a 14 percent share. The most-watched thing we had in common was for three weeks, one out of seven of us watched the same football game three times. When you don’t have anything in common, it turns out that it becomes a lot more meaningful, we become a lot needier to find other people that we can feel like we’re in the foxhole with. But most of our politics isn’t really about policy agreement or disagreement. It’s about deciding who we want to be against together. Having a common enemy isn’t meaningful community, but it’s still a lot better than having no community. And so I think “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not healthy. It’s not meaningful. But it really is explanatory. It really is helpful to make sense of how we do our media consumption right now. On cable news, the two most-watched programs in America on net over the course of the last six months have been Hannity and Rachel Maddow at 3.2 million viewers and 2.9 million viewers, on average, over the course of the last half year. One percent of America and nine tenths of one percent of America. Right now, in a city like this where people tend to be so politically obsessed, we think that most people are like us. Here’s some good news: they’re not paying any attention. I think it’s actually good news. That is not to say that people shouldn’t be well-informed about their responsibilities in a republic, but that’s different than rage-peddling as the thing that we consume as a way to think we’re having meaningful political debates. By and large, that’s not what we’re doing.
I think what comes next is a whole bunch of people are over time going to realize you want to self-regulate the way you consume distant information that you can’t affect. There’s all sorts of data right now that would show by catastrophe category after catastrophe category after catastrophe category, the average American thinks statistics are getting worse in places where they’re off-the-charts better. A simple example would be kidnappings. Child abductions are at record lows. If you go decade by decade, over the last seven or eight decades, we’re at record lows. And yet most American moms think there’s more kidnapping now than at any point in the past. Why is that? A huge part of it is because of the way we consume distant information that’s sensational. And so if you think of one way to think about happiness—this is a little too simplistic, but—needs met over presumed needs or activity that you can affect over information, the denominator is information that you’re consuming more generically. There’s a pretty huge set of experiences people have around bad catastrophes that come from far away that really have no connection to them or anything that they can impact.
And I think that Andy Crouch, who I think if you had speak here on the tech-wise family, is an example of someone who’s trying to think through what does it look like to have a technology-informed world where you’re trying to say, “What do I want to do to harness the best of technology and distant information? And what do I want to do to mitigate against allowing my consciousness to be primarily driven by things that are far away from me that I can’t affect and, by the way, regularly undermine me from being sufficiently present and focused on the things that I can affect?” Huge data out there. MIT has a lab on technology consumption now. Huge data out there showing that just the presence of your cell phone at the dinner table creates long-term insecurity in your children, even if you never check it. The act of laying the phone on the table tells your kids that they’re not the center of the world. Something may come in via that device that’s going to tell me something more important that I need to know, rather than telling them “this dinner table is the place that I want to be.”
We need far more dinner table in American life, and the data shows that the dinner table is in collapse. The average American 20 years ago hosted 14 times a year. The average American last year hosted eight times, a halving of hospitality in the last 20 years. You have all sorts of similar data about the family meal. There’s a reason why the sacrament on Sunday morning is a table. It is a picture of an eschatological feast, and I won’t go off into serious theology here, but there is a picture of a feast that says, “I, a lawbreaker who deserve to sit under judgment, get invited into the tent and weapons were laid down outside this tent, and in peace I got invited to a feast.” The same thing is true—that’s far more meaningful than what we’re here to talk about—but the same thing is true when you try to love your neighbor. There are few better pictures than meeting a basic, simple human need together in peace, inviting someone to your table and saying, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than this place right here right now.” And technology is making us rich, but it’s also tempting us to believe that here isn’t quite good enough, and something way over there could make me happy. It’s a lie. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Russell Moore: I was reading through Senator Sasse’s book, one of the things that immediately came to mind was a picture that a journalist posted on social media last year or so of a bumper sticker that she saw at a post office near where she lived that read “If Jesus had had a gun, he’d be alive today.” It’s someone who’s purportedly a Christian, and my first reaction as a Christian is “Jesus is alive today.” But then I realized if I’d actually had that conversation with the person who was in this car, it probably would have devolved to the point at which he would have said, “That’s not the point. I’m not making a point about the resurrection of Jesus. I’m making a point about gun control.” I probably would agree with this guy on gun control, but that’s precisely the problem. The really important issue is the gun control question, and Jesus—ultimate matters—is a means to an end to get to that conversation.
A central part of Ben’s book is about this phenomenon of anti-tribes, magnified and somewhat created by social media. It immediately drove me to another book that was published last year by Jaron Lanier, 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. And one of the arguments that Lanier makes is that there is a, in human nature, there is a lone-wolf switch and then there is a pack switch, and we need both. You need to be able to switch over to pack mode if you’re fighting a war, if you’re under assault and you’re under threat. But as he argues, what social media does is to switch us to pack mode all the time. And I think the argument that Ben is making in this book is that actually we’re not being switched over simply into pack mode. We’re actually being switched over into the worst aspects of both modes. We’re in a perpetual pack mode of being absorbed into a hive mind of constantly evaluating, “What do people think of me? Who am I arguing against?”, while also being completely disconnected and rootless from the people around us? Often when I’m talking to parents about social media issues related to especially teenagers, one of the primary problems is the fact that high school is a difficult time for everybody. And one of the difficulties is constantly thinking, “What do my peers think of me?” But when you have 24-hour access to a scrolling feed potentially of what one’s peers think of one, that is almost the situation that a politician would be in, checking his or her polling data constantly. Except there’s not an Election Day in sight. This is the conundrum that we find ourselves in that Ben addresses in this book.
Now, as I was reading this book, as someone who serves the church and serves within the church, my immediate thought was, “How can American Christianity, my tribe in particular, seek to address this?” And that’s a far more difficult question to answer than one might suppose, because most of the alarming trends that Ben points out are affecting the church just as much as the outside world. His conversation in the book, for instance, about the potential social disruptions that will come with driverless cars, this is the thing that keeps me up most often at night as someone who, when I was serving as a local church pastor, knew every time the factory down the street would issue layoffs or issue furloughs, or if even there were a rumor to emerge that there would be such, I knew I would have to build into my schedule extra time for marriage counseling, particularly because of the men in the congregation who, losing a sense of meaning, losing a sense of purpose, would find themselves drawn into substance abuse, pornography, a dozen other problems to find meaning in life.
We also see the fact that often some of the internal skirmishes that take place within churches and within local congregations are usually not what they say they’re about. It is usually not so much that you have people who are at odds with one another theologically or at odds with one another in terms of mission, as much as the fact that you often have people who are bored and who are finding in a church conflict something akin to reality television. In sending a text to a pastor friend one time, I was writing the words “blessings on your ministry” and didn’t realize until later it had auto-corrected to “blessings on your miniseries.” Much of American life is just that, the attempted creation of a kind of miniseries for entertainment. And there also is the sense of a church that is in fear and in fear being resolved in several different ways, often that look nothing like each other. On the one hand, a fear that manifests itself in a hostility toward the outside culture and another in a fear that manifests itself into an absorption into the outside culture.
So what then does the church have to offer to this sort of rootless, lonely American life? And what I would suggest is the things the church has to offer are actually the things that are the most offensive at the surface level to the outside culture. And I’ll tell you what I mean. The first thing is the exclusivity of truth. If you talk to secular America, many of the things that will come up in terms of objections to the church that will be one of them. “The church thinks that it has the truth. The church thinks that it’s right and that we’re wrong.” But what I would suggest is that we’re living in a time in which, as Marilyn Robinson puts it, “a society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to the tribe.” The people around us do not have to agree with what those of us who are Christians believe about the Bible, about the Christian story. But the primary objection that the outside world has to the church right now, it seems to me, is not that we are too dogmatic in our beliefs. It’s that we do not actually believe what we say we believe. Look at the devastation that is coming with the revelations out of Pittsburgh in the Catholic Church. Look at the devastation that comes with some of the cartoonish and buffoonish behavior that will often take place in evangelical life. Does the church have the ability to speak to the moral imagination in a way that says, “You don’t have to agree with us, but you can be confident that when we are speaking, it is not in service to some other agenda—political, social, market-based—but actually because we are, as Jesus puts it, bearing witness to the truth”?
Second would be evangelism. Many people in the outside world would say, when they think about American Christianity, “What’s offensive is that they think that I need to be saved. They think that I need to be converted.” And yet, a Cato Institute study not long ago showed that evangelical Christians who go to church more often actually have more positive views toward their Muslim neighbors, toward refugees and immigrants, toward people of other ethnicities and races. Such does not surprise me at all. And what I have noticed is it’s not just true in terms of churchgoing. It’s that churches that are the most actively evangelistic are also the ones who most are connected with their neighbors, most love their neighbors. If you find a congregation that is working with Muslim refugees sharing the gospel, those are going to be the Christians who will say, “You will not scream at our neighbors. We believe they’re created in the image of God. We believe they’re loved by God, and we’re going to stand with them.” And also because that understanding of faith sees “Christian” in a very different way than the alt-right does, for instance, which sees “Christian” as simply a another word for Western civilization, white identity, European roots, fill in the blank.
And the other thing is demonology, of all things. Alan Jacobs has a new book this year called The Year of Our Lord 1943, which talks about several figures during World War Two who were trying to articulate a Christian vision. Talked about C.S. Lewis writing the Screwtape Letters from the vantage point of a devil and receiving hate mail. One letter says, “Much of the advice given in these letters seems to me not only erroneous, but positively diabolical.” To which Lewis had to say, “It’s all intended to be diabolical.” A group of people who actually believe that there is a devil are less likely to make devils out of other people, their neighbors. Having an understanding of demons ought to lead the church not to demonize other people. As Elie Wiesel would ask his classes talking about Goethe and Foust, the question is always, “Where is Mephistopheles?” The church ought to be the ones to say, “Mephistopheles is not the presence in front of you who disagrees with you. The devil is usually subtle, within your very midst, offering you pleasure and power.” We ought to be the people who understand that and are able to see that.
And then the last thing would be boring churches. Ben talks about in his book buying a grave plot as one of the ways to answer the rootlessness around us. I’ve said for years, one can usually tell the difference between a church that is booming and a church that is old and maybe past its prime on the basis of whether or not there is a church graveyard. They don’t build church graveyards at megachurches. Seeker-friendly congregations usually do not think about church graveyards. They think about coffee kiosks, and in that is a parable. The idea is, “We don’t want to be associated with death and inactivity. We want to be associated with velocity. We want to be associated with activity.” There used to be signs that would say, “The church alive is worth the drive.” The idea that one chooses a church on the basis of the activity there. And so congregations justify their own existence by the bustle of busyness within those congregations. It seems to me that we are living in a time when there is exhaustion of being active around us at a time when quietness and a kind of liturgy and a kind of disconnection from the whirl and velocity of the outside world is necessary. And it’s also true, though, that as we in American Christianity are looking at the outside world, we recognize that we are in danger of losing our own mission. Ben spends most of his time in this book talking about the “we” as Americans, and rightly so. But we also need to understand that behind that “we” there has to be a more preeminent “we,” that this is a nation—e pluribus unum—but it’s a nation under God. A group of people who have loyalties to something that is more than the nation itself. With that happening, I think we can then bridge the gap between who we are from who they are. But that requires remembering who we are in the first place. And only then, I think, can we say to rootless, exhausted, tired, lonely Americans, in the words of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” Only then can we learn to sing to ourselves, “Jesus loves them, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”