Dreaming of the Suburbs

Matthew Loftus brought up this article on the suburbs (The Conservative Case Against Suburbs, a reaction to an earlier Joel Kotkin piece). It’s a form of the conservative critique that sees the suburbs or suburban sprawl as the enemy of the local, the agriculture. I can get behind that to a certain extent, but still.

Of course, it’s always fun to bash Joel Kotkin. Nevertheless there is a lack of subtlety regarding suburbs, not least how we want to describe them. In larger metro areas, there are all sorts of neighborhoods that once were properly suburban but now with leafy streets and the like.

I probably would not think of the suburb as “centralized” although that fits certain conservative memes. The heart of the suburb is its decentralized quality, its “nowhereness,” part aesthetic, and part philosophic. The suburban organization is less centralized, than one of nodes and interstate ganglia. At its core, a decentralized place makes it more difficult to live a public life, to participate in public narratives be it the library. the school, the local symphony.

In further criticism of the piece, the question of race is inescapable. The federal policies that promoted home ownership did so at the cost of opportunity for African Americans. The policies (redlining) gave institutional and geographic warrant for racism — see the work of Thomas Sugrue. An urban philosophy that does not wrestle with the questions of race and economics would appear to be at best, effete, the stuff of More Brooklyn sentimentality.

Fact is, we will need to deal with our suburbs — they won’t get bulldozed. We will need to think carefully how we create robust spaces within this suburban matrix where individuals can thrive, and more importantly, where we can live out full (and public) lives.

Students and Self-Determination

This fall the Cal State system will be without its InterVarsity groups. This is  no accident, but one of policy, part of a deepening movement at a variety of higher educational institutions (see this report from The New York Times on similar policies at the highly selective Bowdoin College)

While it is easy to think of this as one more outpouring of anti-Christian (or better, anti-evangelical) animus, the bitter fruit of the gay-religious traditionalist battle, structural considerations also seem to be in play. Two stand out.

First would be  the particular form of American para-church ministry. Para-church is an offshoot (I suspect, fundamentalist offshoot — another story) to the civil religion of the mid century and its ecumenism. Structurally, the para-church does not have any other authority it can appeal to except itself. This autonomy is its great strength, but leaves it open to institutional actions, as it is both “within” and “without”. By contrast RUF do not have this problem since leadership is locked in with the ordained leader.

Secondly, there is the more philosophic question as to how any organization maintains its mission. How does it guard against missional drift? All kinds of organizations, secular and religious, have a vested interest in preserving their internal mission; campus provides one setting, but one can see the same phenomena with other NGOs in society e.g. foundations.   The Cal State position assumes that such preservation is associational in nature rather than structural. Campus groups are whatever they decide to be; this aligns with present-day libertarian and public choice ethos. Groups are what we decide them to be. Period. Practically, this reduces the horizon for any campus group to the school year, but of course, any number of groups plan for longer term since their mission is broader than simply that of student chocie.

Student organizations especially (but not exclusively) represent not only choices, but finally commitments. Being of like mind is the structure, the embodiment of how any association grows.

— a version of this post appeared as a comment in Facebook discussion with Matthew Loftus.

More on Christian Politics

In an extension of comments on Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Loftus challenges a previous post of mine:

As to politics, I would treat it like art: there are some who say that Christian art is that which has an explicit Christian theme; it’s about or illustrates Christian belief. A second school thinks of christian art more in terms of the artist who is Christian so that individual objects or projects may not be “Christian” but nonetheless reflect the mind of the maker who in fact is Christian. In politics, I’ve found the latter to be the better approach. rather than trophy legislation, legislation that rarely works, there is the basic task of helping the community better run its affairs — and that calls for an eye for justice and and ear for mercy.

Loftus writes

I think you’ve made a false dichotomy there– I’ve run into very few people, even on the internet, who would favor your former approach. I think it’s way more useful to talk about more specific things,

On the question of politics, one can read (at least I have) a variety of conservative comments that those who differ from the conservative position are somehow not real Christians. The corollary of that being something close to the notion that this or that political position is the “Christian” position. (In art terms, more pictures of Jesus or at least dispersed light a la T Kinkade).

Now, I’m speaking as an old politico of Democratic sensibilities here: the manner of one’s conduct in politics is far more likely to actually build the Kingdom and win others to Christ, than the advocating of a particular, let alone exclusive policy position. The temptation of partisan politics and of the cultural wars is to transform the making of winners and losers (bright lines are a necessary component to political decision making; you have to take a vote) into something harder edged, more Manichean if you will. So we lose ourselves and demonize the other side; our casual political smack-talk becomes the creation of an untouchable Other. This is spiritually treacherous terrain.

And rhetorically, the appeal to higher values is so very tempting: it seems to offer a trump card. God, Liberty, Equality is on my side. Not surprisingly, this trump card easily becomes a sort of disguised coercion. And I think this has been part of the dynamic of the cultural wars, that the smell of coercion rather easily encourages those on the other side to not simply resist, but reject. For want of better words, this outcome deeply offends me. And this is perhaps also Evans’ point.