Middle-class America: A Study in Apathy?
BY Robert Kennedy
July 5-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/5/98 at 2:00 PM
by Alan Wolfe
(Viking Penguin, 1998, 322 pages, hardcover $24.95)
One hundred twenty-five years ago, Abraham Lincoln spoke briefly at a new cemetery at Gettysburg about the uniqueness of the American nation, a nation founded on a shared commitment to a set of propositions. Where other nations were bound together into a civic whole by a common language or a common history, the American people were bound together by a conviction that certain things were true about how a society ought to be shaped. Whatever the background of an individual, he could be an American by dedicating himself to hold and defend these truths.
In recent years, though, we have heard a great deal about the disintegration of the American experiment, about the rejection of traditional values, and about the abandonment of our common convictions. We are moving, some would say, from being a Christian nation with a shared culture to a nation of many faiths, many cultures, and hyphenated citizens.
Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston University, and his colleagues began to wonder several years ago whether these claims and criticisms were really true. They decided to explore in some depth the convictions of a small number (about 200) of middle-class Americans from typical suburban communities around the country. In particular, the researchers wanted to discover what the views of these Americans might be on issues related to religion, morality, family values, multiculturalism and racism, and citizenship.
To ferret out these views they developed a written survey and followed the survey with extended personal interviews. The result is One Nation, After All, a summary of their research results heavily interlaced with quotations from the subjects themselves.
Their research led them to conclusions about middle- class morality that were somewhat different from what they had anticipated. Focusing on the suburbs, they expected to find people who were largely indifferent to the problems of the inner city and the poor, but found otherwise. They expected to find people who supported politically conservative goals, and while their research confirmed this, they were surprised to discover that most people were quite uncomfortable with Republican means for achieving these goals. They also expected to find a considerable erosion in the commitment of middle-class Americans to fundamental values, but instead they found a strong and consistent set of convictions.
The first area that Wolfe explores is the faith life of his respondents. Not surprisingly, he finds that a large majority of middle-class Americans readily admit that religion is important in their lives, but that faith takes quite a few different shapes in practice.
“Most middle-class Americans,” he writes, “take their religion seriously. But very few take it so seriously that they believe that religion should be the sole, or even the most important, guide for establishing rules about how other people should live.”
For most Americans, religion is an intensely private area of life. Wolfe notes with approval that tolerance toward the religious practices of others (not to say indifference) appears to be growing. While tolerance can be a virtue, especially in so pluralistic a society as our own, it may also arise not so much from a fundamental respect for differing religious traditions as from apathy toward one's own.
Wolfe characterizes many of his respondents as possessing a “quiet faith,” one that is held privately and perhaps even strongly, but one that plays only a limited role in shaping one's participation in the community. If this is truly characteristic of middle-class America then perhaps we are not merely quiet in our faith, but dormant.
Wolfe acknowledges a disconnection in the thinking of many people who admit that their faith is very important in their own lives, but who resist sharing that faith with others. In his view, we are quite individualistic in our beliefs. This emerges not only as an insistence on faith as a private matter, but also in a disdain for organized Churches.
“A situation in which every individual finds their own way to God,” he observes, “is one that a large number of Americans find more comfortable than one in which highly organized institutions fight with each other both for members and for truth.”
A similar disconnection appears to exist in the minds of many of the people interviewed when the subject is morality as distinct from religion. Wolfe's team was surprised to discover that while many people have firm views on the rights and wrongs of certain kinds of behavior, their willingness to oppose what they regard as wrong behavior is severely tempered by their concern for privacy. They may think something is quite wrong, as a large majority do in the case of homosexual activity, but they are unwilling to support restraints on it as long as it remains private behavior.
Part of this attitude apparently has to do with the fact that most people have intuitive rather than principled objections to immoral behavior. They may feel that it is wrong, but apart from those who appeal to Scripture or religious doctrine, they rarely have an explanation to offer.
Instead, they are inclined to make judgments in terms of immediate consequences. “Middle-class Americans seek not to do the right thing,” Wolfe notes, “but to do the workable thing.” They are very strongly disposed to avoid conflict and to prefer moral accommodations, as in the abortion debate, that respect a person's right to hold and express an opinion, but that also insure the liberty of individuals to act as they choose.
Though Wolfe is inclined to hold a position of greater tolerance for religious and moral differences, to his credit he is uncomfortable with a purely pragmatic morality. He is right when he writes that “A society that reaches moral judgments through anecdotes is a society whose moral judgments will always be arbitrary.”
One could quite readily come away from this book concluding that the real moral problem for American society is not a passionate attachment to the wrong moral principles, but rather a sort of apathy toward any moral principles at all. In the end, One Nation, After All is an intriguing portrait of middle-class America that rings true in many ways. Wolfe's liberal biases are apparent, but he takes care to make them so. While there are significant limitations in the book, the insights it provides are a reminder that the middle-class may not have changed as much as some would have us believe.
Robert Kennedy heads the Department of Management at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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