Among the great paradoxes in modern religion is the transformation of evangelical Christianity from a progressive, left-leaning movement to its present incarnation as the conservative base of the Republican Party. Whenever I mention this shift, as I do from time to time, I’m met with skepticism from secularists and evangelicals alike. Neither group approves this narrative. Nonetheless, it’s true.
“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t just a popular book. It’s an important book, especially for those concerned about the social and economic disintegration among what used to be called the working class, which increasingly can’t or doesn’t work. It’s my story and it’s a lot of people’s story.
Among my earliest memories is the death of my baby brother. It was 1960. I was 4. Timothy — I’ve always thought of him as Timmy — died during birth, a full-term baby, chubby and healthy. Through most of my life, Timmy’s death didn’t affect me much. But as I’ve aged, that’s changed. I feel his loss more keenly. I guess it’s connected to my growing sense of my own mortality.
Fairly regularly, one or another of my Facebook friends announces that he has secured a permit to carry a concealed weapon. I have no problem with that. I was raised around guns. What puzzles me is the notice of besiegement that accompanies these announcements. Let’s not let our feelings hijack our reason.
I’ve not been the type of Christian who blames public or personal mayhem on the evil one. I tend to think we live in an imperfect world where humans make squirrelly decisions, after which regrettable results ensue. Now I’m wondering whether I threw out the Damien with the holy water.
If I were to pick one current economic or social trend I consider the most dangerous, it would be the decline of the newspaper industry. As you probably know, formerly vibrant newspapers across the country have cut their staffs to the nub. Yet they continue hemorrhaging money. Some big-city dailies have closed altogether. Those that remain are wobbly.
I distrust all extremists — right-wing cranks, left-wing wackos, militant atheists and obsessive Christians. I distrust Communists and Ayn Rand disciples equally. I distrust protestors who burn our flag and self-appointed patriots who wrap themselves in it.
The Simpson debacle reinforces two principles at the center of how I understand society: first, true justice doesn’t, cannot exist in our fallen world, and second, we humans, individually and as a species, are profoundly flawed.
Although I plead guilty to regularly dispensing advice in the newspaper and from the pulpit — I’m paid to do it — the truth is that in my real life, which is to say, my unpaid, day-to-day interactions with friends and family, I dispense hardly any advice at all.
Why does time seem to pass so quickly? I mean, literally, where does it go? Is time only linear? When a moment is gone, has it vanished forever? Or do past events in fact continue to live on somewhere?
Humility ought to be a starting point for our social discourse. Sad to say, it has been largely discarded as a public — or, for that matter, a private — virtue. I think about this a lot, especially when I’m listening to preachers or political candidates or various activists rage on TV. I thought of it again recently while reading the “Ethicist” column in the online New York Times Magazine.
Recently I accompanied my son, John, to Sin City. Let me acknowledge that Las Vegas is, I realize, a dream destination for many. My good buddy Gary, for instance, loves loves loves it. Personally, I’d rather have someone pour a kettle of boiling bilge water directly into my eyeballs than go back again.
The Christian ethos is perhaps the simplest in the world. And the hardest to live. Its difficulty might be why so few people, including the great majority of Christians themselves, rarely attempt to follow it.
I was thinking about my mother on Mother’s Day. She wasn’t rich or famous or highly educated or socially prominent or even particularly sociable. Yet she deeply touched others’ lives. She managed this without making a single grand gesture. She did it just by loving people, and by being kind to them, and by going out of her way for them.
When I was a kid, my peripatetic Dad moved our family, it seemed, every six months. What I craved was stability. For me, stability meant a place to call home, a place that would always be there, that I never had to leave unless I wanted to.
I might be a slow learner. I’ve been writing newspaper columns almost 30 years — and I still can’t predict how readers will react. My April 17 column is an example. I tried to explain why evangelicals are so eager to share their faith.