Mansions on a hill?

ChevyChase6OK, what is the statute of limitations for an item here at GetReligion? You would think that I would know.

In this case, the late item is even stranger because I am not sure whether there even is a religion ghost in it. Stranger yet, I am not sure that there should be a religion ghost in it. It’s more like a hunch on my part.

I wanted to post about this Washington Post story last week to ask for the insights of others, but it got buried in HHGR week — which is turning into HHGR month, even as I speak. It was a very busy week. Now I am heading out of town for a complete week, so I thought I had better blog on this right now or just forget about it.

The feature in question is Stephanie McCrummen’s human-passions-meets-zoning-war drama about people tearing down nice little houses and replacing them with massive retro houses in the highly symbolic elite suburb of Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, Md. This is a life and death battle, it seems. What gets to me is the sense that there is much more at stake than mere bricks and concrete, sight lines and community spirit. It almost seems like there are people who believe in transcendent Good that is clashing with transcendent Evil.

I am not alone in thinking this. Check out this summary:

Indeed, amid all the arguments this summer, something else has lingered awkwardly in the air: the sense that the debate over mansionization has laid bare a culture clash, an impasse in taste, mores and perhaps even values.

“We believe in ‘Don’t take up any more space than you need,’” said Don MacGlashan, a moratorium supporter who has lived in the town nearly 30 years. “They obviously feel ‘The more the better.’ It’s a different sensibility, a different worldview. It’s conspicuous consumption, meaning in a sense their values are all out of proportion.”

Now Rod “A Friend of this Blog” Dreher is wading into this controversy in his upcoming book Crunchy Cons, which is about cultural conservatives who love healthy food, elite art, the environment, classic books, large families and other dangerous things. Maybe Rod will drop in to explain some of that.

But in Chevy Chase, there are no “Birkenstocked Burkeans” on the scene. The folks who act as if their values are being shredded are all on the left, at least, as far as we can tell. This suburb is about as blue as blue can get, on the red vs. blue zip code scales. And where are the churches in this debate? Most fights of this kind end up with megachurches fighting dying oldline mini-parishes.

Does anyone else sense a ghost in this story? Are the houses themselves religious objects?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • CV

    Full disclosure: as I type this I am sitting in a 1920s classic Craftsman house (in a 100-year old neighborhood) that I love dearly and would sink more renovation bucks into in a heartbeat if our elementary school age kids didn’t need those pesky groceries, clothes, tuition, etc. (Plus I happen to be an orthodox Catholic and a cultural conservative, if that matters, so I can fairly say I have my priorities straight when it comes to religious objects :-)

    That said, I’d say yes, for more than a few people preservation/renovation projects are approached with a kind of religious zeal and houses do become quasi-religious objects of sorts. (My sister has worked in the preservation field for years and refers to certain neighborhood organizations as “hysterical societies.”)

    But honestly, I put myself in the position of those residents who are against the increasing teardowns and “mansionization” and I completely understand where they’re coming from. Large construction projects are loud, messy and inconvenient for neighbors. Add to that the fact that the neighborhood character that appealed to many in the first place is being bulldozed before their eyes…

    I say the righteous indignation is justified, and you don’t have to view a house as a religious object to think so.

  • Dan Berger

    Here’s a ghost: when was the last time you saw something both serious and profound written about the Seven Deadly Sins? Like Greed?

    [A woman who built a 5000-square-foot house] does not consider her house extravagant, but merely adequate and a deserved reward for reaching the upper middle class.

    5000 square feet!! There are gymnasiums that are smaller. As a matter of fact, that probably applies even in the European sense of “gymnasium.”

    I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a clergy conference in which one of the speakers asks, “Is it possible to own a house that is sinfully large? And how large would it have to be?”

    From the back, someone piped up, “Bigger than mine!”

  • Rod Dreher

    Like CV above, I live in a Craftsman bungalow, one I would dearly like to refurbish (so y’all better BUY MY DANG “CRUNCHY CONS” BOOK WHEN IT COMES OUT IN FEBRUARY). It’s hard to know precisely what’s going on in this story, but I do have a few thoughts.

    1. As David Brooks has observed, many modern people make up for the spiritual emptiness in their lives by fetishizing material objects. I don’t suppose that’s really a modern thing; after all, the Israelites fetishized the Golden Calf. It’s modern version, though, comes with the kind of lifestyle you see celebrated in the upscale shelter magazines. It’s easy for me to see that secular lefties fetishize the old historic houses as embodiments of a certain spiritual purity they see threatened by McMansionization, and what it represents (the “More, Faster” society of rampant consumerism).

    2. On the other hand, a religious conservative like me arrives at much the same place, for different reasons. I don’t think I’m a better person for having chosen this old house of ours, but I do think, in a sacramental sense, it mediates a spiritual ideal of modesty and simple beauty, which I find much preferable to the McMansion ethos. And it’s important, I think, to conserve old places, because of the links they provide with our past. Our neighborhood in Dallas doesn’t look like all the other neighborhoods, and the people who moved in long before us, when it was a dismal, drug-infested slum, worked real hard to reclaim the original beauty and integrity of these old houses, and restore the neighborhood to its original charm. All the things they fought for are now being challenged by Republican developers, and Texans who believe in the sacredness of Private Propitty. You can drive around my neighborhood and see obnoxious McMansions that dwarf the other older, more modest houses. What this says to me is that the person who builds and owns the McMansion says to his putative neighbors: Screw you people, I’m going to do what I want to do, and you’ve just got to live with it.

    3. In this sense, perhaps, what secular lefties in that Maryland neighborhood are fighting is an individualistic ethic that asserts the right to disregard tradition and the sensibility of the community for the sake of exercising the sovereignty of the individual. As I believe a lot of what’s wrong with this country is out-of-control individualism (on the left, resulting in the extolling of sexual libertinism, and on the right resulting in the extolling of shopping), I would come together with the left-liberals in this neighborhood as a matter of principle. How we arrived at the idea that the old neighborhood ought to be defended is, to the outsider, a distinction without a difference. What matters is that we stand by tradition and community.