“Bad Faith” and Politics

I don’t know J. D. Vance at all, but I think I’d like him if I had the chance. The New York Times for June 26 offered his article, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class,” which you can (and should) see here.

This particular column could use some editing—either that or it has been over-edited so as to cram several themes into just a few column inches. I’m going to object to a few things I read here, none of which reflect badly on Mr. Vance. I just want to use his argument for some other purposes.  Let’s begin here.

The evangelical Christian faith I’d grown up with sustained me. It demanded that I refuse the drugs and alcohol on offer in our southwestern Ohio town, that I treat my friends and family kindly and that I work hard in school. Most of all, when times were toughest, it gave me reason to hope.

I like all of those effects. Who wouldn’t? As a Christian myself, I don’t take any particular satisfaction in the religious context in which Mr. Vance grew up because the good outcomes he describes are not an intrinsic part of any particular religious faith. A warm and loving coven of witches would do just fine. We’ll get to that.

His religious upbringing demanded that he refuse drugs and alcohol. [1] It demanded that he treat friends and family kindly. (No word there on how to treat enemies.)  It demanded that he work hard in school. It gave him a reason to hope—for what, Vance does not say, but I’d guess it had something to do with a stable and prosperous life.

These effects are produced by institutions that are vehicles of his Christian faith, as Vance understands it, not by Christian faith itself. When you look at the statistics, you find that kids who attend “church” [2] “perform better in school, divorce less as adults and commit fewer crimes. Regular church attendees even exhibit less racial prejudice than their nonreligious peers.”

At this point, Vance begins to move in a direction that concerns me. He points out that working class whites have largely abandoned their churches; not their faith, just their churches. And if it is true, as Vance and I both believe, that it is the institutional effect that produces the good outcomes he remembers, then this is a substantial loss to society.

Though many working-class whites have lost any ties to church, they haven’t necessarily abandoned their faith. More than one in three identify as evangelical, and well over 75 percent claim some Christian affiliation. But that faith has become deinstitutionalized. They carry it alone.

Those losses show up as increases in incarcerations rates for white women, increased deaths from drugs for white youth, and increased rates of divorce and domestic chaos. It is the loss of the institutional home, according to Vance, that has produces these effects among working class whites.

But I want to think now about what Christian churches are for. Presumably, the purpose of a church—as it sees itself—has something to do with God. I would hope that it had something to do with the invitation to reconciliation God offered through Jesus Christ. If churches aren’t for that, I’m not sure what they are for. [3]

Vance’s consideration of the value of institutional churches is entirely instrumental. Being a part of a religious community does all the good things he is talking about—the drugs, the divorce, the dropouts—but that is not “what they are for.”

jdvance 6Vance’s second point is that as “faith” as been de-institutionalized, it has been re-politicized. But politicization, even among white working class voters, means more than Vance considers in this column. Further, the black Protestant churches are almost surely the most politicized churches in the U. S. The “values voters” that Vance laments are only a pale reflection of the “black Christian voters” that the black churches turn out year after year. [4]

What Vance really wants to get at, though, is that Christian commitment can lead to “a certain amount of self-reflection and, occasionally, self-criticism.” The pale residue of a community of faith he sees among the “values voters” has enough power to collect and confirm class prejudices, but not enough to compel self-reflection. Or, as Vance says:

“…this fusion of religion and politics necessarily forces people to look externally [and]…a Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror.”

I didn’t know, for instance, until I read this article, that Donald Trump succeeded best among people who identified as evangelicals but who rarely—“a few times per year”—attended church. Among evangelicals who go to church frequently, Ted Cruz got nearly twice as many votes as Trump did.

jdvance 3Vance sees that as the difference between a religious stance with and one without an actual community. Evangelicals who worship in community have, as Vance puts it, “camaraderie, community, and a sense of purpose.” Evangelicals who are alienated from actual communities have only a vacuum there and “into that vacuum has stepped Donald J. Trump.”

I was first attracted to Vance’s article by the title the headline writers gave him: “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class.” Now that I have spent some time with Vance’s take on it, I think I can rule out some possible meanings and make a good guess about what the notion means here.

Jean-Paul Sartre used the expression “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) as a centerpiece of his existential critique. But he meant that we deceive ourselves about the real possibilities open to us and imagine ourselves to be the prisoners of our circumstances, when in fact we have consented to them. That is not what Vance means.

I think that for Vance, “bad faith” is more like junk food. You choose it, you eat it, you pay the consequences for eating it. It is advertised extensively and packaged attractively and you gobble it down, knowing you shouldn’t. And then you find out that it does not sustain you. It will fuel a considerable array of short term actions, but it will not sustain you through anything that takes time and consistent effort.

I think that Vance believes that a religious faith as part of a supportive community does actually provide that kind of support. A faith that moves you to remove the splinter in your own eye before you attempt delicate surgery on the speck of dust in your brother’s eye [5] is “a good faith.” If it just provides more juice for the hating machine, then it is bad faith.

I think Vance is right about that.

[1] That one means something to me because he grew up, as I did, in a southwestern Ohio town. He grew up in Middletown, Ohio. I grew up in Englewood, which is roughly 75% smaller.
[2] I have seen the same effect in statistics about attendance at mosques and synagogues and I would guess that participation in any regular religious community would have this kind of effect. If rehydration is your concern, you don’t really care what flavor it comes in.
[3] By saying what they are for, I don’t mean to imply that they might not have other effects—such as the ones Vance is talking about—or that society might not benefit from them.
[4] The best film version of that role I know is The Long Walk Home starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek. The best academic consideration I know is Amazing Grace: How Religion Units and Divides Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
[5] Matthew 7:3, freely paraphrased.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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