Book Review: The Big Sort

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Quick, easy read; moderate length (300+)

Summary
With increased mobility, the country to more and more choosing to live in areas of like-minded people. This has the effects both of intensifying our own beliefs and not knowing anyone else with ideas different from ours. This has had profound impacts on our national politics. The book is divided into four parts – The Power of Place, The Silent Revolution, The Way We Live Today, and The Politics of People Who Live Like Us. Each part is broken into three chapters each. There is also a great intro, if you are in a library or can find a book store, it’d be worth your time to go head and read at least this chapter.

My Thoughts
You might think the title is a riff on the largely known book and popular movie, the Big Short; I did, but actually, this book was written almost a year ahead of it. I have no idea if the titles are independent, or if the short was a play on the sort.

The basic premise of the book is that we are in fact living in more and more like communities and that this change is bad for us. We live increasingly with people just like us. That is fairly easy to prove, based on census data, voting data, and surveys. What he spends much of the rest of the book showing, is that this separation leads to negative consequences. For instance, social psychology of groups/tribes (as chapter three is called). Experiments showing people are more likely to have the extreme view than individuals – attempting to show you belong. On scale of 1-10 on how liberal/conservative someone is, the group average may by a six, but when they all get together or have to make a joint decision, that response ends up being an eight.

So, you have this odd case where the decision or policy of the group ends up being further on the spectrum than most of the individual members. Then you end up with the corollary, that you can’t imagine another person have the opposite view, the view that is different from the group. This is exacerbated with the sorting of our communities so that one might not even come into contact with someone of a different political belief.

He also writes on the move in marketing to focusing on tribes. He describes two white women that advertisers had previously seen as the same (age, income, gender, ethnicity), but now targets them differently, mostly based on political views. One particularly interesting chapter to me, he looks at church growth and the focus and the seeker sensitive movement as people try to reflect an audience or attract a specific group. His point with these two chapters is that the sorting into smaller and specific groups is impacting every aspect of our life.

It has even influenced the way we watch TV, there are rarely discussion on anymore, they also have to be combative and argumentative, to draw ratings. Somehow, we take that to be the correct way to act in public. He has a funny reference to ‘your fired’ to show that people would rather watch abrasive personalities than anything constructive. Personally, this is why I’ve stopped watching most sports coverage. I used to watch my shows on ESPN, but they have adopted the model where the yell over each other in disagreement, but I just find that too obnoxious.

Overall, I think Bishop proves his thesis. Clearly, our communities are sorting and (as the book is over 10 years old) we’ve already moved past some of his concerns and things are worse than predicted. It would be really interesting to have a follow-up after the 2020 Census and Presidential Election. The writing is good, the author is a writer and it shows. The writing is quick and often funny. The only issue I have is that it becomes fairly redundant. He will cite a study in one chapter, or even go into it in detail, and then in a later chapter, cite it again and describe it as if we don’t know what it is. The book has the feeling of multiple independent articles compiled together. This is likely more on the editor/publisher than the author, but it does start to feel a bit tedious.

I should caveat this review somewhat with the point that I have a degree in geography and a masters in city planning, so I was very familiar with many of the studies and ideas in this book. Also, as I previously had an academic interest in this topic, it may well not be as popular or interesting to a wider audience. I say you should put this on your list, but that would be if you already have a deep interest in politics, particularly in the idea that we are polarizing ourselves, or popular geography. If not, maybe grab it if you decide you are looking for something about it.

In the News 10/26/17

More anti-intellectualism, not surprising about Climate Change. If you don’t like something, just ignore it, what could go wrong.

I guess someone at WHO finally realized who Mugabe is.

American’s health continues to decline, but at least we are working longer in life. Not sure what to do with this sentence – “Declining health and life expectancy are good news for one constituency: Pension plans, which must send a monthly check to retirees for as long as they live.”

We’ll have a warmer, dryer than usual winter in the South. Most of the rest of the country for that matter. Wetter in the north, cool in Pacific northwest.

James Comey officially outed as Reinhold Niebuhr on Twitter. Lots of interesting speculation as to what that means, if anything.

Interesting thoughts on Trump’s political impact on the view of presidents for future generations.

I hope someone appreciates the irony of paying $1.5 million for a note about a ‘modest life’.

I hope this trend continues, not enough people know whether something is actually an add or not.

Flake is out, likely on fear he can’t win a primary. I guess this is good if you don’t like Republicans, but that also makes it easier for people like Roy Moore (quoted below) to get into the Senate.

His long record of political extremism includes suggesting that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, advocating making homosexuality illegal and refusing to rule out the idea that LGBT people who transgress against his idea of God’s law should face the death penalty.

Gun laws the Founders actually supported.

Good job Georgia, not at all suspicious or confirming of our shady reputation.

In other state news, Massachusetts may leave the Eastern Time zone.

Some Election Thoughts

Edit – Russel Moore weighs in with his own thoughts on the affects of Trump, Andy Couch the editorial director for Christianity Today says Evangelicals must speak out about Trump, and Grudem finally pulls his support for Trump. I was critical of him previously when he claim Trump was the moral choice, so I want give him credit for admitting that that was a mistake.

 

I had originally planned to post something else today, but I think that in light of everything surrounding the election, from the newly released video to the debate last night, that I needed to address a few things.

Also, I came across this write up on the case against Trump that is by far and away the best I’ve seen.  It is long and comprehensive and you really should take the time to read it.

Trump poses special issues for Evangelicals this year. Mostly because he is unabashedly not Evangelical. He seems to take the vote for granted, that conservative Christians will just flock to him, and honestly, he has good reason. There is a Pew study out showing that a strong majority of Evangelicals still plan to vote for Trump (this is pre-video release, so it may change). If Trump wins Evangelicals after everything we know about him, we lose any right to ever claim to speak on moral issues.

It’s this support that causes the tension. Is Hilary the paragon of morality? Of course not. I personally believe that in our political system, you cannot make it as far as running for president without being morally corrupt. However, it’s a refrain I hear over and over, especially not with the Trump video. People say, well, Bill obviously didn’t have much respect for women and marriage. Two major problems with this reasoning. First, Bill is not running for president, so it some ways it is irrelevant. Second, and more importantly, he wasn’t the conservative candidate that Christians overwhelmingly supported. He never claimed any sort of religious high ground.

You look at certain people, such as Ralph Reed and Wayne Grudem, who in the late 90’s thought that Bill’s morality and infidelities were issues. So, where are the now? Reed literally works for the Trump campaign.

I get that some people don’t like Hilary, and that’s fine. But there is a huge difference between not voting for her and actively supporting Trump. I feel like I will just keep repeating myself if I keep writing, so I’ll wrap it up. We just cannot afford to have the Evangelical vote go for Trump. We will lose any voice we have left in ethics or morality.

Go read the article I linked above, it really does provide invaluable guidance.

Failing to love

Hey, look at this, I’m actually posting again like I said I would. Of course, it’s not Monday, but oh well. I hope to get something out once a week (or so (ish)). I was originally thinking about writing up something about the Supreme Court ruling from yesterday, but instead I will just a link an article (here is another, about different group’s view on abortion).

I will say a few quick things about it. One, I’m not really sure what to do with it. Hobby Lobby seems sincere in their belief that certain types of birth control are paramount to abortion, as they are willing to provide other types of BC. Part of the argument gets down to when is something abortion, when is it not. I don’t really know enough about it to fairly comment, though that does seem to be the point of Plan B. I think balancing religious beliefs and implement universal public policy is incredibly difficult. As a supporter of ACA, I don’t like seeing aspects stripped away, but on the other hand, I don’t want people to be forced to provide what they see as abortions. The whole ‘slippery slope’ argument in either direction or question of when life begins is a discussion for another post (or never).

What I want to try and write about now is something pertaining to the abortion discussion and the broader implication for Christian and their reactions in the public realm. Every few weeks or so, a few other theology nerds and I get together to discuss, argue and debate. Our topic last night was abortion (coincidently with the SCOTUS ruling). I don’t want to get into the specifics of the abortion debate, at least not yet, but I do want to bring up something that came about tangentially to it and something I see as a big problem with American Evangelicals/Fundamentalist.

That problem is the complete lack of love and mercy. We were discussing what we should do, as Christians, realizing that Roe v Wade will not be overturned. One thing I support is more birth control access or even providing them in schools. This is controversial in some circles, because people think it means we are condoning the action. My view is that the action is happening, regardless, and that even the seemingly act of condoning sex outside of marriage is better than someone having an abortion. Now, this is something I could go on and go into a lot of other detail about, but I’m trying to stay on point. I kind of moved the conversation from there to other morality issues like giving clean needles to heroin addicts as a form of ministry.

Again, one of the guys in the group (probably the only true fundamentalist of us) was just adamantly opposed to this. His reason being, for the most part, that not only are we condoning and accepting these bad actions, but we removing the consequences of those actions. I’m trying to be fair and not misrepresent him, but I believe his point was they deserve punishment and we shouldn’t do anything to ameliorate that.

Y’all, that’s not love. That’s not mercy. That is not justice. Who are we to judge? Are these people not ‘the least’? It is incumbent on us as Christians to take care of the widows, the orphans and those imprison. Honestly, this is why we are viewed so lowly in society. We don’t serve people, we condemn them. We stand on the street corners, yelling and pointing, letting others know whom is and whom is not going to Hell. We see a strung out junkie and say this is what you get for your life choices. Just like Christ did right? No, he said whoever has not sinned, cast the first stone and he offered another sinner Living Water.

I’m not suggesting some sort of moral relativism here, but we can accept people without affirming their actions. We  should do good, even for those who do evil. At the very least, that shows Love. Either way, that is a much better option that ostracizing those who need Him most.

Christians and the ACA Continued

Last week I had a post up about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and specifically whether or not pastors should be speaking about it. That post ran long, so this is basically part 2.

I’ll be up front and state that I support the ACA. I don’t think it is a great law, especially with all the exemptions, and I fear it will be implemented poorly, but I have to support the idea behind it. If anything, I think the law doesn’t go far enough. I’d have preferred a true universal single payer system. I am fairly alone in the Evangelical community in my support for this. A lot of people have doubts and concerns about it, and I think that’s fair, but I’m not sure their criticism is based on the Bible.

Not the Government’s Job

From the article:

Wages says the Bible teaches that the care of orphans, widows and the sick are given to the church, not to the government. Early Christians were the first to create hospitals, orphanages and hospices.

“I have an issue with the government coming in to get money through me – through taxes – to take care of people, when my argument is that I should be free to give to charities or to my church in order to take care of the sick and destitute,” he says.

Wages says he has no doubt that lack of health insurance is a monumental problem, and that many people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. Yet there is no New Testament example of Jesus trying to shape public policy on behalf of the poor.

“I do not see any biblical precedent where Jesus ever went to Herod or Pilate and said you should be taking care of the poor,” Wages says. “Jesus told his disciples to take care of the poor and the apostles said the same thing to the early church.”

This is probably the most common line I hear about why we shouldn’t support healthcare for the poor. It’s not the government’s job, it’s the churches.

Frist, does the Bible prohibit the government providing healthcare? No. We are simply told to take care of them. Where the Bible is silent, we should remain silent. Forget the long laundry list of things that would be prohibited due to not being mentioned in the Bible, we’d also be required to be against Medicare and Medicaid, and I’ve never heard those arguments before.

Second, the writers of the Bible couldn’t have imagined the power Christians would have today. The early Christians were an upstart maligned sect of a minority religion who weren’t considered citizens of an empire ruled by a Caesar. This is why we don’t have Jesus arguing for public policy. Forget for a moment that modern medicine didn’t exist 2,000 years ago, but try to figure how such a small powerless group could have even gone about making the change to have care provided from the empire. Today, however, the President puts his hand on the Bible to be sworn in. The congress opens its sessions with a prayer. The majorities of Americans attend a Christian church and believe in God. We have to read the Bible in the context it was written and realize we have far more power to do far more good than Paul could have fathomed.

Third, while early Christians were very active in care, we modern ones have failed. I’ve seen multiple new hospitals and urgent care centers built in the general area where I live. None have them been Christian based. Old city centers are filled with Frist Pres and Methodist General, but even with all the new urgent cares that pop up in old shopping centers over the past 5 years, I’ve never seen a Baptist Urgent Medicine. But you hear this all the time, Christians should care for the sick and needy, but we just don’t. There probably isn’t a financially feasible way to care for all the uninsured, but that is moot as there certainly isn’t the will.

Finally, related to the last two points, how much do you give? We hear the common line of leave it to charity, but how much do people who express this actually give? I certainly don’t give extra money to some Christian charity that helps with peoples’ healthcare, I’ve never even heard of one. My guess is that most people aren’t out giving more than to their church and that very few volunteer to provide free medical services. My understanding of the ACA is that unless you are extremely rich or frequent tanning beds, you will not pay extra ‘through taxes’ to help provide people with insurance. If your taxes do go up, you always have the opportunity to gain charitable deduction by giving away more money to organizations that care for the poor.

God’s concern for the poor

Wages’ position is impractical and unbiblical, says Ronald Sider, a longtime advocate for the poor and author of “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics.”

Churches and charities don’t have enough resources to take care of an estimated 48 million Americans who don’t have health care. The Bible is filled with examples of God’s fury over economic oppression of the poor, which Christians should regard as scandalous, he says.

“If you are not sharing God’s concern for the poor, it raises huge questions about whether you are a Christian at all,” he says about pastors who say nothing about the uninsured poor.

“As God’s spokespersons, you ought to be talking about God’s concern for the poor as much as God. In the richest nation in world history, it’s contradictory to have millions without health insurance.”

While I think it is too harsh and a jump to judgment to say someone isn’t a Christian, I agree with the rest of the sentiment. Again, maybe there are a lot of Evangelicals out there that care, but there just are not very many who show it. We are called to go the other mile and to give someone our jacket and I like people believe that, but when it is time to step up we get this:

“Government programs sometimes encourage dependency, unintentionally break down family structures, and become unsustainable financially,” Moore says.

This is probably true, but not to the extent that some people fear. My question is, so what? Christ didn’t ask us to determine how much someone needs and then to provide only that; he didn’t command us to judge how worthy they were of assistance; and there is certainly no mention of the question of why the person is in need.

Final Thought

I think this quote perfectly summarizes the American Evangelical Christianity:

… a memorable quote from the late Brazilian Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Helder Camara, who said: “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist.”

Christians and the ACA

There was a great article up last Friday over at the Belief Blog that touched on the Affordable Care Act’s  (ACA) coverage gap as well as how pastors should handle discussing it. The gap being a ridiculous situation where, in some states, people can make too much money to qualify for Medicare but not enough to qualify of subsidies for health insurance (see more here).

I guess more specifically the author is trying to call out ‘Bible Belt’ pastors because their states rejected the Medicaid expansion.  First, though, as a Southerner and someone with academic and professional training in cartography, let me clarify; this is a map of the states that rejected the Medicaid expansion:

States and Medicare Expansion

Half of the states and DC (dark green) are expanding coverage, 21 states essentially rejected and four states are considering expanding. Now, for comparison, two more maps, first, a map that Wikipedia deems as the Bible Belt and second, a map showing church attendance based on Gallop polling data (source):

Bible Belt Map

Church Attendance Map

So you have Arkansas and Kentucky expanding coverage while known Bible thumpers like Idaho, Main and Wisconsin rejecting expansion. Again, I get his point, that most of the most religious states rejected the expansion. Also, writing against the Bible Belt draws views and honestly I just get really nitpicky about things like maps, stats and facts. For example, as even Jon Stewart noted, a better overlay would be which states have Republican governor s. I’ll also note that Southern states are the poorest and had the most to gain from expansion but sadly the vast majority rejected coverage.

Pastors and Politics

Sorry for the digression, back to the article: a major theme is whether pastors should be talking about the coverage gap or the ACA in general. This is a really interesting topic that has been in the new recently. Not necessarily the ACA side, but rather churches discussing politics topics overall. There are a number of groups that say if churches are supporting specific political causes or politicians they should lose their tax-exempt status. By the letter of the law, I think they should, because the law explicitly prohibits certain non-profits from engaging in political activity. In reality, that is not what happens. Many pastors do speak out on political issues and the IRS has never challenged any churches’ exempt status.

The author seemed to be of the opinion that the pastors should be speaking out on the issues of healthcare. You have to wonder, though, what he would have said about speaking out against gay marriage. I think that is the frustrating thing about the discussion about pastors and church involvement in political issues. If it is a conservative cause, you see groups calling for the end of the exempt status, but no one would disagree with Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for racial equality. The problem becomes exacerbated then as conservatives double down with a bunker mentality as they claim the media or government or society is against them.

However, maybe there is a case to be made that you could support ‘justice’ politics over let’s say, ‘sin’ politics. That is you could support pastors discussing things that help the poor and need while avoiding promoting law that seek to prohibit sin. I think the coverage of the issues does a poor job of pointing this out, instead showing a fairly clear bias towards supporting so-called liberal ideas.

Conservatives are just as hypocritical, the article points out:

“When their own interests are involved, they are very much involved in politics,” Cone says.

And I think that is right. You have a number of conservative pastors who talk issues like gay marriage and the ‘sanctity of marriage’, but then turn around and say that the issue is a political one and something they don’t need to address.

Sometimes pastors have to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

My bigger concern is that the pastors are scared. They know the ACA is a political landmine that most of their congregants do not support. So they don’t speak up for the poor, because speaking for the poor seems to be liberal, and that can get you run out of the church. Maybe that is another post all together, but it seems ever since the fundamentalist controversy, conservatives and evangelicals are afraid to be associated with anything related to the social gospel.

Pastors shouldn’t be afraid. They should be calling out their congregants to love the world. That should include taking care of the poor, and we should be concerned for those without healthcare. I guess, in my mind, pastors should discuss political issues from the pulpit. They are, after all, our shepherds in life that are supposed to help guide us. Some issues are large and divisive and affect many people, and those are issues we shouldn’t shy away from. I think pastors should have the freedom to give what they believe is Biblical guidance.

Of course, pastors need to be cognizant of what they speak for or against. They need to remember that we can’t hold non-believers to the same standards as we hold ourselves; that we need less condemnation and more calls to action and love; and mostly that we need to look towards Christ and remember that most of his admonishment where for the religious.

To be continued…

The other main theme that comes out of the article is how Christians react to and view the ACA. That will be another post sometime next week.