American Divide -- Sightings

Why is America so divided?  Why is the 99% falling so far behind the 1%?  Why is the church losing ground?  Martin Marty takes up the critique of our contemporary situation by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute.  Murray suggests that social policy that emerged in the 1960s has lead to a breakdown in society and development of a "cultural inequality."  There may be some truth in what he says, even if there is much that is debatable -- at least from what I read in the WSJ article Marty points us to.  I'd like to invite you to take a look, and offer your thoughts -- what is the cause of the divide?

Sightings  1/23/2012

American Divide
-- Martin E. Marty

Next week Crown Forum will publish Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 . The weekend Wall Street Journal gave a generous two-page preview. The foretaste in the Journal presented no surprises, since the author, Charles Murray, offered the standard American Enterprise Institute blame-throwing: “As I’ve argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration” of the culture, beginning with economic change. No doubt these urgent reforms did have a down-side and contributed to the “American Divide,” but this single-explanation approach leaves out too much about the “why” of the in accounting for the way “the working class falls further away from institutions like marriage and religion and the upper class becomes more isolated.”
One might add to the list of the many causes of the divide: cynicism spread by cynical popular culture and mass media; hyper-individualism (St. Ayn Rand) and denigration of community and support of “the common life;” polarization in politics and the loss of civility in “discourse;” quick-fix solutions to problems in religious, educational, and cultural life where patience would have more to offer; certainly the move into the world(s) of virtual reality with artificiality and insubstantiality in the bytes-world; radical pluralism and the jostling it brings. I know, I know: there is an up side to most of these, but we need to remind ourselves of more causes of division and isolation of “classes” than get much attention in Charles Murray’s world.

That being said, Murray is still worth a read, not least of all because of data with which he works and statistics he presents. Of the numerous “worlds” he headlines for the “white working class”: “Marriage down 36 percentage points;” “males with jobs working fewer than 40 hours per week, ” “percentage doubled;” “secularism up 21 percentage points. . . .” Mention “secularism,” and Sightings pays special attention. Murray necessarily has to use broad measuring tools, and concentrates on “people who profess no religion or attend a worship service no more than once a year.” If 38 percent were “secular” by that measure in 1971-76, we do well to pay attention if the figure is 59 percent in the years 2006-2010.
There are other ways to measure “secularism,” and church critics might look at the market-oriented and prosperity gospel churches and see that commitment to God through them may often be defined as “secular.” Still, Murray’s “churchy” concentration indicates what I call “seismic,” not “glacial” shifting.
The church (and synagogue and mosque and “whatever,” as they say in pluralist America), has known other seismic shifts through the centuries but, as many within them remind us, “they’re still here.” One hears many notices of the change, mixed with lamentations, whispered whining, expressions of nostalgia for a world that never was, along with careful analyses and efforts at programming. The theologians would say that all this has something to do with the nature of faith in God, hope for the future, and love for the good, and would ask for more than statistics, market analysis, and blaming. If Murray’s work is recognized as a contribution which merits attention, we can thank the author for it, but set it in a larger context than the one he provides.


Charles Murray, “The New American Divide, ” Wall Street Journal,  January 21, 2012.

Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing,  The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Very helpful analysis of “seismic shift” change in “the religious marketplace” is offered by C. Kirk Hadaway in a chapter from Church & Denominational Growth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jonathan Wyn Schofer explores how late ancient rabbinic narratives understand human vulnerability in relation to the environment, and the ethical instruction inspired by this understanding. Schofer proposes that "contemporary environmental ethics can learn much from considering these perhaps exotic rituals and stories," which "portray people as entrenched in natural processes."


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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