When Faith and Community Erode

Two new books provide fresh looks at life in the back row

The best investigators illuminate what is right in front of us but unnoticed. Two new books—Dignity by Chris Arnade, and Alienated America by Tim Carney—shine a light on areas overlooked by other commentators baffled by the 2016 election results. Conventional explanations of Donald Trump’s victory have focused on economic alienation and alleged xenophobia and racism. Arnade and Carney reveal important realities that those narratives miss completely.

Neither Arnade nor Carney wrote his book about the Trump phenomenon per se, but both elucidate what is happening in the lives and communities of people commonly described as “left behind” by the political media. Arnade, a self-described socialist who crisscrossed America documenting community life, depicts a population in the “back row” beset by frustrations that cannot be explained by racism or economic anxiety alone. Carney, commentary editor of the Washington Examiner, shows that fraying community ties offer a more compelling explanation for working-class decline than the commonly accepted economic arguments. 

Arnade’s book is an elegiac blend of black-and-white photographs and first-hand encounters with people in hard-hit communities. We encounter prostitutes in Hunts Point in the Bronx, a homeless couple pushing their two children in a shopping cart in Youngstown, Ohio, and drug users on the desolate streets of the southernmost town in Illinois. The characters we meet throughout the book are gritty and colorful, often pained and beleaguered. 

Drugs play a leading role in the back row. They are everywhere Arnade goes. He routinely asks people if they are using, and most reply honestly, many of the stigmas against drugs having evaporated. Rather than resorting to clinical theories of addiction, Arnade is blunt in diagnosing self-medication. “Drugs really are a refuge for many in the back row,” he explains. Lots of users seek relief in drugs, and along with sadness and searing sometimes find “their own tight-knit communities” in the needle and the pill. 

Arnade, a non-believer, devotes an entire chapter to religious faith, offering a sympathetic view of the importance of churches and worship. He observes how faith helps people cope and find support in places where hardly any other sense of community can be found. In addition to offering deep acceptance, churches encourage accountability and self-improvement, making them rare examples of constructive belonging in the devastated landscapes Arnade surveys.

As traditional forms of community erode, people create ersatz communities elsewhere. Churchgoing, volunteering, and participation in fraternal organizations may be in decline, but McDonald’s has become a social hub that links people across race, income, and geography. People want to “hold on to community and dignity,” suggests Arnade, and when existing bulwarks fail they do this “by creating new relationships and communities in whatever spaces are available. In the Bronx and in rural areas, in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, that includes McDonald’s.” Arnade praises the company for allowing its restaurants to become gathering places, and suggests this holds lessons for civic organizations. McDonald’s serves as a local community center because it offers inexpensive food at all times of day, with Internet access, and a chance for people to sit together without programming restrictions. Time with others and access to information are part of what people without family supports, former felons, addicts, and other strugglers need, he suggests.

Arnade puts a face on the rootedness of most people. Even where hometowns are riddled with problems, when Arnade asks residents if they would move away, the answer is almost always no. Because most families are not intact in society’s back row, people lead complicated lives of mutual interdependence. Brothers and mothers, grandmothers and cousins, coworkers and nieces rely on each other in ways that make moving hard to imagine. 

Others are simply committed to “home” and would never think of leaving. When Arnade asks a young man who has battled substance abuse and says there are no jobs for him in the Ozarks why he doesn’t leave the area, he replies, “No other place feels like home.” 

Migration from troubled to prospering places is a proven source of improved life success and upward mobility. Arnade’s account, though, shows why people stay in declining cities, and even seek out attachments with other addicts or non-working people—because belonging is more important to them than healing. 

Tim Carney’s book has the nature of community, and its decline, right at its heart. Alienated America is a journalistic excursion into the two Americas that Charles Murray dissected in Coming Apart and Robert Putnam chronicled in Our Kids. Carney pivots back and forth between first-hand accounts and academic literature in surveying American disaffection: factory closings, men dropping out of the labor force, declining marriage rates, broken families, and crumbling civic institutions.

The originality of Carney’s take on these issues lies in the weight he gives to religious practice. Whereas religion is more of an anthropological curiosity for Arnade because of its therapeutic power for struggling people, religion in Carney’s account is essential to broad civic well-being in America. Outside of houses of worship, much of civil society is “a high-end good that most people can’t afford.” Yet “churchgoing people have access to civil society regardless of income.”

This is why secularization in America has hit working-class and low-income people the hardest. Upper-class Americans live in a rich civic ecosystem populated by associations of many types, including religious ones, but lower-income people have long relied on organizations of faith to anchor their communities. As religious life declines, civic life craters. It is a loss of civic capital even more than financial capital that alienated America suffers from.

The 2016 election revealed the relationship between religiosity and civil society in important ways. Carney explores towns that look the same demographically and economically on the surface, yet produced widely divergent voting results in 2016. The difference was owing to religion. For instance, Fremont County, Iowa, which has low levels of religious and civic involvement, went the strongest for Trump of any county in the state during the primaries. Iowa’s Winnebago County, which otherwise resembles Fremont but has high rates of church attendance, was much less attracted to Trump.

This phenomenon repeats itself all around the country. Trump resonates most strongly in places where people have largely stopped going to church, and participation in civic life is low. Trump fared about as poorly in highly religious communities during the primaries as he did in affluent Democratic communities during the general election. However different culturally and politically those two settings may be, they have in common strong institutions of civil society that work against mass alienation. 

Religious practice, Carney surmises, keeps people loving their neighbors—in practice, not just theory—as few other behaviors or institutions can. Religion is thus an essential buttress to civil society across the country. When attachment to religious precepts erodes, Carney notes, communities become less healthy, people become unhappier, and economic viability declines. Most social and economic successes depend on norms, habits, and personal virtues like reliability, patience, delayed gratification, and humility that pay bonuses in work life, family life, and community participation alike. 

People living in elite bubbles, with high income and inherited social capital to smooth over problems, have not been damaged as much as poorer Americans by the products of progressivism: secularization, hyper-individualism, and the large-scale centralization of government control. Progressivism doesn’t value private, faith-based, traditional, small-scale, local institutions. It prefers that national government exert control over all that is public and cares little that homegrown civic institutions are in tatters across America.

The pictures that Arnade and Carney paint of life in the back row expose the indignity that results from all of this. In Arnade’s back row, the civic vacuum is filled by drugs and ersatz communities that are faint replicas of the real thing. In Carney’s alienated America, mutual obligations are replaced by feelings of victimization and a demand to be rescued by others.

Philanthropists and other civic leaders should learn from both of these books. They should learn that people even in the hardest-hit places still care deeply about their flawed hometowns and want to partake in community life within them. That in declining places, reinforcing the remaining civic organizations may be the only way to jump-start renewal. And that bolstering houses of worship is essential in alienated America. 

Deep down, people everywhere still want to live steeped in community relationships and mutual support. One of the last remaining places you will find that—even in the bleakest corners of society, regardless of income—is the house of worship on the corner. 

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.