‘Suburban’ is not the same as ‘theologically conservative’

Let me follow up on one point in the previous post.

Over the past, say, 60 years or so, America has become increasingly suburban. Those churches that rose to prominence in city centers have declined in prominence along with their cities, while suburban forms of church have grown along with the suburbs.

Ross Douthat’s attempt to frame that development as a matter of “liberal vs. conservative” theologies isn’t quite wholly beside the point, but he elevates a corollary effect to the point where he begins to confuse it with a cause.

America in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950. American Christianity in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950.

We can begin to consider what this entails in terms of allegedly “liberal” or allegedly “conservative” theology only after we first consider another pair of questions: How has American Christianity shaped the suburbs? And how have the suburbs shaped American Christianity?

I contend that the latter influence has been far greater than the former. I believe, in other words, that American Christianity has been shaped by the suburbs far more than the suburbs have been shaped by American Christianity. To borrow a word from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12, American churches have conformed to the suburbs.

The effect of this has been huge and pervasive. It has tended to favor forms of church and flavors of theology that fall toward the conservative end of the culture-war spectrum, but it’s misleading to therefore refer to this as a more “conservative” theology. Radical changes and a massive break with the theology, traditions and institutions of the past aren’t usually the sorts of things we describe as “conservative.”

The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.

The suburbanization of American Christianity has altered our theology in other fundamental ways. Consider, for example, the church-growth movement and its focus on the archetypally suburban idea of the “homogenous unit principle.” Could there be a more radical rejection of Pentecost than that?

Conforming to the suburbs produced a host of major changes in American Christianity — major breaks with the past. How is it that the churches that have raced to adopt such revolutionary innovations are routinely cast as the “conservative” faction?

The answer, I think, has little to do with theology and everything to do with politics. The suburbs have become a Republican stronghold, and thus all that is suburban has come to be viewed as “conservative.” That’s part of why the hallmarks of “conservative” churches remain political: opposition to abortion, opposition to homosexuality, etc. And that’s a big part of why these radically modern, newly suburbanized theologies came to be regarded as conservative and — even more outlandishly — as “traditional.”

 

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “The suburbanization of American Christianity has altered our theology in other fundamental ways.”

    Prosperity Gospel

    It was during the Healing Revivals of the 1950s that prosperity theology first came to prominence in the United States, although commentators have linked the origins of its theology to the New Thought movement. The prosperity teaching later figured prominently in the Word of Faith movement and 1980s televangelism. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was adopted by influential leaders in the Charismatic Movement and promoted by Christian missionaries throughout the world, sometimes leading to the establishment of mega-churches.[...]

    In Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan Rose speculate that the movement was fueled by a prevailing disdain for social liberalism in the United States that began in the 1970s. Rosin argues that prosperity theology emerged because of broader trends, particularly American economic optimism in the 1950s and 1990s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

  • Tonio

    Fred could have gone further. From the beginning, suburbanization was about white flight, a reaction first to blacks who migrated north to flee Jim Crow and find employment, and later to school desegregation. In my state, I’ve seen whites flee even further to the exurbs as the suburbs become more diverse, with one local mall often derided as becoming more “ghetto.” No accident that the politics of those “conservative” churches are about preserving privilege, with the attitudes becoming more reactionary as the privilege becomes harder to maintain.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    Since American suburbs are a place where people live so they don’t have to deal with their neighbors—thanks to white-picket palisades surrounding vast, green no-man’s-lands—it should come as no surprise that suburbanites require a more insular, polarized version of Christianity with which to identify.  

    Unlike their urban cousins whose proximity and shared spaces require a kind of organic affiliation with one another, suburbanites can pick and choose who they call “neighbor”.  When given the option, most people exclude far more from their circle of trust than include.

  • flat

    I don’t know much about the american suburbs but I know this song written because of them.

    1. Little boxes on the hillside,Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,Little boxes, little boxes,Little boxes, all the same.There’s a green one and a pink oneAnd a blue one and a yellow oneAnd they’re all made out of ticky-tackyAnd they all look just the same.

    2. And the people in the housesAll go to the university,And they all get put in boxes,Little boxes, all the same.And there’s doctors and there’s lawyersAnd business executives,And they’re all made out of ticky-tackyAnd they all look just the same.

    3. And they all play on the golf-course,And drink their Martini dry,And they all have pretty children,And the children go to school.And the children go to summer campAnd then to the university,And they all get put in boxesAnd they all come out the same.

    4. And the boys go into business,And marry, and raise a family,And they all get put in boxes,Little boxes, all the same.There’s a green one and a pink oneAnd a blue one and a yellow oneAnd they’re all made out of ticky-tackyAnd they all look just the same.

  • walden

    Interesting:
    So if John of Patmos envisions heaven as the holy city…
    And Augustine of Hippo sees theology in terms of the “city of God”…
    What would current evangelist writers do with their current paradigm?

    The Exurbia of God….where the lawns are wide, the people few, and there are gates and homeowners’ associations, and private security to keep out the riffraff perhaps.

  • walden

    “What would current evangelist writers do with their current paradigm?

    The Exurbia of God….”

    After asking the question, I just realize that the Slacktivist has already answered this question?  Left Behind, the series — it’s all based on this paradigm.  Our faithful remnant (TF) all lives in the exurbs — they never have to enter the urban hellhole (but can watch on TV as the cities are nuked); they have plenty of free parking (New Hope Community Church always has parking available — plus an underground bunker under the parking lot); the coming of the millenium means (1) working at an immoral job, but pretending it’s ok because your heart is true, and so long as you grouse about it; (2) being given a company credit card with an unlimited credit limit; (3) getting to show off your driving skills and knowing all the shortcuts and ways to avoid the rubes waiting in traffic; and (4) buying a $100,000 personal vehicle for the Lord.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Since American suburbs are a place where people live so they don’t have
    to deal with their neighbors—thanks to white-picket palisades
    surrounding vast, green no-man’s-lands—it should come as no surprise
    that suburbanites require a more insular, polarized version of
    Christianity with which to identify.

    As someone who has lived in the suburbs and spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time in urban areas (Chicago, mostly, but also Dallas and various other places), I find that this sort of argument is both specious and wrong.  It plays to a certain level of prejudice on the part of city-dwellers against suburbanites.

    I bought a house in in a suburb in April.  I haven’t actually moved in yet, due to a longer-than-expected rehab.  Yet I already know most of my neighbors.  I know their children.  I know how they react to my dog.  It’s nice, really.  I fully expect that, if I live in my house long enough, I will watch those kids grow up and they’ll remember me just like I remember my neighbors.

    This jibes with my experience on the suburban street I grew up on, where we knew every single neighbor up and down the block.  It jives with my experience at my sister and bro-in-law’s place, where they know their neighbors and have Super Bowl parties with them.  Not so long ago their next-door neighbors were having car trouble and money trouble, so my sister and bro-in-law went and paid for the repairs without saying anything (other than to me, obviously).

    This is what neighbors do.  This is not the behavior of people who don’t know and don’t care about the people next door or down the block.  It’s the behavior of a community.

    Now, where the suburbs do become insular is in the phenomenon known as “white flight.”  There are people who wanted out of more densely populated areas because of “those people.”  They’re the ones for whom certain code words take on special meaning (“good schools” comes readily to mind, even though that could literally just mean that there’s a really good school down the street).  But I think it’s a mistake to even take those folks and confuse, “I don’t want to be around those people,” with, “I don’t want to be around people at all.”

    Moreover, a lot of the children of the original generation of white flighters (to coin a phrase), at least in my hometown, went and moved right back in to Chicago.  After their experience as a 99.5% majority in the streets, schools, and churches of the town I grew up in.  We were all pretty sheltered, but a lot of us didn’t exactly want to stay that way.

    Meanwhile, in my experience in cities, they require a certain level of non-neighborliness.  You simply can’t talk to everybody on the street every time you go out.  You have to pick and choose those with whom you interact and those you ignore.  Otherwise you’d be overwhelmed.  And people would look at you funny.

    Also, I’ve found that there’s a big difference between life as a renter and life as a homeowner.  I barely knew the people around me when I was renting, because we were all just kind of there using up space for a while.  As soon as I bought the house I met everyone.  I think a big part of that was because they wanted to know whether I would be a good or a bad addition to the community that already existed.

    All of which is to say, be careful when you rag on the suburbs for being places where people go so they don’t have give a shit about each other.  It is, as with so many other things, more complicated than that.

  • sta

     “In my Father’s house there are many McMansions.  I go ahead to arrange adjustable rate mortgage financing with zero down for you.” 

    The Gospel According the St. Mark(et).

  • CoolHandLNC

    There is nothing conservative about the current crop of “conservatives”.

  • guest

    Great book that deals with the idea of the city as holy–God gave us Eden to live in, we rejected it and built cities; God has accepted humanity’s vision of itself and offered us Jerusalem as the new sacred space.

    http://www.amazon.com/Meaning-City-Jacques-Ellul/dp/0802815553

     

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     Meanwhile, in my experience in cities, they require a certain level of
    non-neighborliness.  You simply can’t talk to everybody on the street
    every time you go out.  You have to pick and choose those with whom you
    interact and those you ignore.  Otherwise you’d be overwhelmed.  And
    people would look at you funny.

    Also, I feel I should add to this thought.

    Cities are often historically segregated in much the same way as the suburbs.  There is a reason, after all, why pretty much every American city has a Chinatown or Little Italy analog.  Chicago has Pilsen, an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, and the Uki Village, where all the Ukrainians moved.

    It was long possible (and probably still is) for an immigrant to move from the old country to an ethnically homogenous neighborhood and never actually integrate as an American.  So, yes, you might have more people living cheek to jowl with each other in a city than in the suburbs, but if you’re living cheek to jowl with other people of your same exact ethnicity and background, you’re not actually any more diverse than a neighborhood where a bunch of non-diverse folk live on opposite sides of white picket fences.

    So, again, city = diverse = better than suburbs isn’t necessarily true.

    In fact, when I lived in the affluent Las Colinas section of Irving, a suburb of Dallas, I lived in an apartment complex populated mostly by Indians (as in, subcontinent, not Native American) and African Americans.  I worked with a bunch of people with diverse backgrounds, from native Texans to a Tanzanian Muslim and an Australian atheist.

    I, as a white male, was actually the minority in most of the places I went in my daily life.  Go figure.

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    All of which is to say, be careful when you rag on the suburbs for being places where people go so they don’t have give a shit about each other.  It is, as with so many other things, more complicated than that.

    I grew up in a series of Midwestern suburbs.  Boomer parents, all-white neighborhoods, nice schools that lacked much by way of diversity.  By the time I was in high school, I’d lived in six different houses in five different cities.  I can count the number of neighbors I remember as being friendly and outwardly nice on one hand.  The rest were strangers.  I live in the city now and know every one on my block.

    This was my experience.  That was yours.  Yes, it’s complicated.  We’re both generalizing, and we’re probably both a little right.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     This was my experience.  That was yours.  Yes, it’s complicated.  We’re
    both generalizing, and we’re probably both a little right.

    Absolutely.  I think if you’re moving to a gated community you’re fairly explicitly saying, “I don’t want those people around.”  I have never lived in a gated community and, given a choice in the matter, never will.

    And, really, just because I like knowing my neighbors and have no problems being around people who are different than I am, that doesn’t mean everyone is like me.  I think it’s useful to point out, though, that suburbanites aren’t just a bunch of weird reclusives with a fence fetish.

    I’d wanted to move to Chicago when I moved back from Texas.  I ended up buying in the ‘burbs for a host of reasons that involved convenience, owning a property with a garage, property taxes, and a higher space:cost ratio.  At no point did, “I don’t want to be around those people,” even factor into my decision.  But that doesn’t mean that other people don’t think like that.  In factk, we call it “white flight.”

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    Part if it depends on the type of suburb.   My suburban area has major employers like Microsoft and Nintendo … it’s not white flight, it’s convenient commutes.  

  • Lori

    I’m just going to jump in again and say: Detroit.

    I think we can see the flip side of this, the impact that culture can have on church and vice versa, in Detroit.  The white evangelicals here are, even the theologically conservative ones, are nothing like the evangelicals I’ve met from the suburbs.  Here, evangelical churches start programs where they buy a truck and drive around their neighborhood selling produce out of it, like an ice cream truck but only with vegetables.  They spend their Saturday mornings joining their non-religious neighbors tending community gardens and cleaning up local parks.  They start ministries to provide low-cost health care to the uninsured.  They have discussions about things like what it means to lay down privilege.

    And, of course, the mainline/liberal churches here are doing much the same things.

    But I think maybe, if we want a more progressive, engaged, transformative evangelical culture, maybe getting out of the suburbs and into the cities is one way for that to happen.  And, to some extent, a number of younger evangelicals do seem interested in doing that.

  • nirrti

     I think for the black church (which I grew up in), it was the opposite of economic optimism that has made prosperity gospel popular. Many black people in my generation and younger are seeing a decline in living standards compared to their older relatives. It’s been exacerbated by the economic downturn in the past few years but has been going on for decades due to job outsourcing and elimination of manufacturing jobs.

    Black congregations are looking for a glimmer of hope where there seems none. So they turn to the possibility that maybe if they do all the right things religious-wise, God will better their circumstances. Unfortunately, this has led to the rise of these preachers that live high on the hog while the members of their congregation struggle. These ministers are supposed to be aspirational examples…except it’s no longer about being better, more moral people but being richer.

  • nirrti

     I live in Memphis, the very place where MLK was assassinated. We have always been racially divided and when the busing legislation was passed, we saw an extreme upsurge in white flight private schools and whites fled as far out East as possible.

    Now we have an inner-city core that’s politically a blue dot in a sea of red. And the politics of the inner-city churches versus the suburban ones certainly reflect that. The big churches out East act as a sort of country club for whites who want to keep their families away from “bad influences” while the churches inside the I-240 loop have been left with the brunt of the real social work.

  • LL

    Oh, for the love of cheese. 

    It’s not just on this site (in the comments, not what Fred wrote), that I’ve found the same kind of “suburbs=bad, cities=good” attitude. It’s really quite ridiculous, this stupid school of thought now that people who live in suburbs hate non-white people. 

    Minorities are 35% of the population of suburbs (and in some suburban areas, they are the majority). “Suburbs still tilt white. But, for the first time, a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metro areas live outside the city. Suburban Asians and Hispanics already had topped 50 percent in 2000, and blacks joined them by 2008, rising from 43 percent in those eight years.” (source, Brookings Institution)

    The “suburbs=evil” people sound like idiots. The reason so many people live in suburbs now is because the U.S. population is about 315 million and the major cities don’t have enough space or infrastructure to accommodate all of them and the high price of housing in major cities has priced lots of people out of those markets. The median price of a home in New York  City in 2010 was $495,000. The median household income in New York City was a little over $48,000. Also, work isn’t always in the cities now. Lots of employment is now located in the suburbs. People move to and live in suburbs for lots of reasons, most of which don’t have anything to do with getting away from non-white people. 

  • http://twitter.com/jclor jclor

    At no point did, “I don’t want to be around those people,” even factor into my decision.  But that doesn’t mean that other people don’t think like that.  In factk, we call it “white flight.”

    Exactly.  And one of the reasons they become those people is because kids grow up without them around.  This sheltering might not be intentional on the part of parents, but it happens, and it perpetuates itself.  Many of the Midwestern cities where I lived are more segregated than their equivalents in the South.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Part if it depends on the type of suburb.   My suburban area has major
    employers like Microsoft and Nintendo … it’s not white flight, it’s
    convenient commutes.

    Yeah.  Mine and the one next door started as the place where rich folks built their summer homes/cottages to get away from the city.  There was even a hot springs resort (which was EXTREMELY popular in the mid- to late-1800s.  I did a paper on them in college).  So it was the place where affluent white folk built their playground and also their institute of Midwestern higher learning (Wheaton College.  Yes, that Wheaton College, which has a longer and more colorful history than just being the epicenter of Evangelical thought).  As such, it was a natural magnet for white flight.

    The irony is, though, now that Chicago has gone beyond suburbs to exurbs, it’s now greatly useful as a commuter town because it’s centrally located and it’s much easier to get downtown from Wheaton than, say, Aurora or West Dundee.  There’s also a strong chance for employment in a corridor from Naperville in the south through Schaumburg in the middle north-ish.  Even with those factors, though, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn are still bastions of lily-white, affluent folk, though, because of reputation and the relatively high costs of access.  And, y’know, Wheaton College tends to mean rich white Evangelicals.

  • AnonymousSam

    The Tacoma area waves hello, neighbor!

  • walden

     It’s not so much “ragging on the suburbs” as needing to recognize that the societal implications can vary quite a bit.  Indeed, there are hostile city environments, as well as neighborly suburbs.  I tend to make a distinction between suburbs and exurbs — with suburbs tending to have smaller lots, narrower streets,  and more interactions among people; exurbs are in general less likely to do that and are so dependent on automobiles as to eliminate most chance encounters face to face except at the mall.  Exurbs are often the “road warrior” commuter areas, where every trip is an auto-trip.   Also many older suburbs have greater diversity in age, ethnicity, and income — unlike many newer exurbs which are sorted quite finely into homogeneity. 
    Community and Christianity can live in all of these places — wherever human settlements occur — but the characteristics are shaped by the physical, demographic, and sociological setting (just as in the settings of the Middle Ages, or 1st century rural Near East).  And we need to distinguish where these influences are coming from and what difference they may make.

  • walden

    “People move to and live in suburbs for lots of reasons, most of which
    don’t have anything to do with getting away from non-white people. ”  — This is true.  Interestingly, though, the exodus of jobs to the exurbs has made employment less accessible to people without cars, or some basic asset base.   But to return to the main subject of the post — we (at least we Christian-type folk) need to be aware of the ways in which our living patterns shape our theology and practice, and not just assume that it’s all the same.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Wisdom!  You can’t understate the impact of the car on ruining America.  I’m sorry, did I say ruining?  Oops.  Anyhow, lets not forget that those lines of “preference” are also lines of racial & class boundaries; suburbs police their own exclusionary standards.

  • Tricksterson

    It’s been a long time since I lat read it but wasn’t that how C. S. Lewis pictured Hell in  The Great Divorce?

  • The_L1985

    There are other forms of diversity besides ethnicity.

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    My suburb is pretty white with a sizable Asian minority.  Three out of eight houses on my cul-de-sac are Asian (for example).  

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    I was listening to an interview on RTÉ Radio 1 with a representative of Ianród Éireann, and he was saying interesting things about urban planning and public transport. If  urban expansion happens radially, along the railway lines, the railways are far better placed to take the strain.

    He even said that many people get to know their neighbours on the commuter trains. They can be neighbourly places.

    Cars, less so.

    TRiG.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I am an urban dweller by choice– & I find that yeah, I totally have “neighbors” on the train!

  • JonathanPelikan

    I get this way whenever we want to start Ascribing Stuff To Folks Based On X, partially because I have a thing where if I’m part of a group that’s being addressed or spoken of I take everything said as though it was said personally on some stupid emotional level, to my face (college is really fun): (also why discussions of Why People Really Enjoy Zombie Movies and What It Says About Their Moral Fiber irritate me)

    I feel like I need to put in a plug here for people who don’t want to be around people but do not therefore as a direct consequence hold hatred in their hearts or something. I’m towards the introverted end of The Scale and the idea of being on a bus or train every day as opposed to a car where it’s me and maybe a friend/family member is Not Pleasant. At all. Partially because I remember the some-good lots-bad of The School Bus!

    When I take my college courses I prefer online to physical class, and part of that is the 30-40 people staring at me when I make the slightest cough or drop my pencil or ask a question.I like my apartment complex because there’s folks around but very little through-traffic from people who don’t live here or have some kind of business around here. I like to go out on the town occasionally and then come home and be by myself or with the roomie or whatever. This doesn’t prove anything about any hatred or bigotry or discrimination I hold in my heart.

    (In fact,  most of my hatred and bigotry comes from politics when I learn the latest conservative/teaheadist/republican offense against this country, etc. So that’s where my hate-energy goes.)

    (Also, not to say things like ‘white flight’ aren’t real and aren’t quite important in this world, and not to say this discussion is Wholly Not Legitimate or something, I just really needed to get that off my chest as we go forward.)

  • Dan Audy

    I have to admit that I really miss the community that existed around my home when I lived in the city.  I lived in a row housing condo complex which was awful but the neighbours were great.  We had some really terrible neighbours too (an unfortunate reality that comes in cheap housing) but we also had a dozen families who we would hang out with in our yards, cook for each other, be friends, and help out.  That was in a community primarily composed of immigrants.  Now in the suburbs I almost never see a non-white face, have only met one neighbour, and generally I am extremely unthrilled with the community.  

    I know my experience isn’t necessarily universal but I wish to hell I could have had my new house and my parents close in my old community.

  • MorganGuyton

    Suburban is a label for a lifestyle and a set of interests, not the physical location where you live. Suburban Christian life is “family safe, kid friendly,” like our Jesus radio station in Fairfax County, Virginia, the suburb of suburbs where I live. When suburbia defines evangelical Christianity (which it HAS), then it projects a “hard” God who draws clear lines between good guys and bad guys, whose purpose in the cross is defined according to a capitalist understanding of debt, and whose ultimate goal is protecting the people of the gated community called the elect from the damned whose only purpose in existence is to harm your children. The God of suburbia puts the bad guys in hell where they belong along with the queers and Muslims and illegal aliens. More on that here: “Why a hard God is more attractive” http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/why-a-hard-god-is-more-attractive/

  • Tonio

    From my reading, no one here is claiming that racism is the only reason people to suburbs. I was describing how the suburbs came to be. They’re far more diverse now than in past decades, but most because of white flight to the exurbs. Prince George’s County outside DC symbolizes the problem. It has some of the wealthiest black communities in the nation, people who can afford Nordstrom’s, yet the nearest such stores are across the Potomac because of redlining. I know many people who talk as if every intersection in the county has an open-air drug market. As some of the black families move further out, they’ve been greeted with some hostility, even one instance of arson.

  • PJ Evans

     Malvina Reynolds. And the second verse is “And the children in the houses…’.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

     I grew up hearing this assessment of liberal Christianity.  My father was one of those conservative ministers who denounced it.  My father remains a Dispensationalist.

    We lived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970′s.  My father had to deal with a few tax-evaders and white supremacists in the church, which he did not take kindly to.

    I remember on one occasion he invited an African-American evangelist to speak to the church for a week.  There were a couple of people that refused to attend precisely because the evangelist was African-American.

    Yours and Fred’s explanations make so much more sense than Higher Criticism and the 3 Isaiahs.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     There are other forms of diversity besides ethnicity.

    Um, yeah.  You might have noticed that I brought up ethnicity a lot, but that’s precisely because it’s the reason for a large amount of the separations I discussed.  However, I also tossed in the Uki Village and Little Italy as being two different neighborhoods where people of the same skin color but different nationality spread out.  I also mentioned that I worked with a Muslim and an atheist when I was in Dallas (on a team that also included a liberal Catholic and a vegetarian, teetotaling 7th Day Adventist).  I’ve also worked and/or been friends with any number of gay people.  And if you really want to get technical about it, I’ve worked with women, too.

    But, in general, when people split apart into large-ish groups and isolate themselves from others, the sort tends to be set on skin color and religion, with the default in the direction of skin color and ethnicity.  People tend to say, “We’re going to go over here and start a community because everyone is like us,” and then say, “Because we’re all white people,” “Because we’re all good British folk,” or, “Because we’re all good Christian folk.”  Really, race, nationality, and religion are the three big dividers, with sexual preference as a fourth in a big enough community (Chicago has Boy’s Town and Girl’s Town, Dallas has The Gayborhood, etc.).  There are countless other forms of diversity, but you won’t tend to see the Evangelical neighborhood next to the Unitarian neighborhood or the vegetarian district.

    There are points where discussing diversity is useless because the sample size is too big.  For instance there is no such thing as a monolithic “white culture” or “black culture.”  There are also points where discussing diversity is useless because the sample size is too small.  For instance you’ll never see a Firefly neighborhood next to a Buffy neighborhood, since there aren’t enough people who focus solely on those two television shows as a reason to sort themselves into a group and fight it out.  There are also point where discussing diversity is useless because the cross-section is too confusing.  For instance you’ll probably never run into a vegetarian Italian-American polyamorous bisexual women neighborhood, since that’s just kinda weird and confusing from a demographic standpoint.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t polyamorous, bisexual, vegetarian women who’s ancestors come from Tuscany out there.

    So if we’re talking suburbs v. city or city neighborhood v. city neighborhood, we’re pretty much going to be talking about the overarching demographic forms of diversity: race, religion, nationality, income level, and sexual orientation.  Historically, those demographics tend to also split into a broad category of affluent white Christians v. everybody else.  That tends to be the broad category that comes up when talking about the suburbs v. the city.  I’m not ignoring other forms of diversity, they’re simply not the key factors for this particular issue.

  • Katie

     What you say resonates a lot with my suburban experience in Arizona.   On the other hand,  in my city, there is a big difference between the older suburbs, which were built in the ’50s and ’60s, and the newer suburbs, which were built from the late ’80′s on.  My suburb, the older one, has grocery stores, dentists, doctors, restaurants within easy walking distance from my house, and good mass transit access.    Its very suburban,  lots of ranch houses, big trees, nice yards, but its also a real community.  Its a neighborhood in the truest sense of the word.
    The newer suburbs are a lot less walkable,  farther from things that people need, and its harder to get to know the neighbors.  They are subdivisions, but they aren’t neighborhoods.
    I think that part of this is due to the toxic influence of HoA’s, and the way that people are encouraged to view their house as a investment, a semi-liquid asset, rather than a *home*.  Every effort is made to keep the house and the subdivision looking  ‘new’, improvements made to the house are ‘updates’, made with an eye to improving the eventual resale value of the house.

  • E_Hyde

    Nirrti, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I moved to Memphis about a year ago and I’m still looking for a church to attend (well, to be honest, I kind of gave up looking after a while). Are there any you’d recommend?

  • http://twitter.com/randomjeweler randomjeweler

    I’m not nttr, but what about Neshoba UU? Very friendly, although it’s in Cordova(out east)

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

     I think income/social class is another very potent mechanism that people use to separate themselves and form groups.

  • Roger

    Sorry, but I think this suburb thesis ridiculous, on a number of levels. I live in a blue suburb in a blue state. Democrats dominate. This suburb of DC has just turned majority minority, a county of 900,00o people with great schools and high property values and great services. With immigration, it is not unusual to find kids from 90 different nations in the local schools, of all races and ethnicities and religions. We are predominately a liberal county, I go to a progressive church.  It  is not o.k. to pigeonhole people, either. My conservative megachurch neighbors are excellent neighbors and community supporters, and are friends with the Moslem neighbors, and use their daughters as the best baby-sitters in the neighborhood. All the local families know each other, we have cul de sac barbecues together, and hang out at swim team events.  All the kids play together outside, like the old days.

  • Schrock68

    I don’t have time to read all of the 41 comments already
    posted on this article, so some of what I am about to say may have been pointed
    out already.  However, I would like to
    put forward my opinion that the entire premise of the argument is based on
    sociological fallacy.  The fallacy is that there are two basically
    monolithic categories known as “urban” and “suburban.”

    To poke holes in the latter category: what do
    you do with demographic regions whose population density is light enough to
    classify them as suburban, but are composed of lower income families?  I grew up in a rural/suburban area that fit
    into this category.  Most of the people
    around us lived in mobile homes.  Granted
    they didn’t face exactly same challenges that in inner city poor family does,
    but they certainly were not the standard educated, professional, consumer
    suburbanite which this article assumes. 
    Yet, most of those Christians were still “conservative” both in their
    theological and in their political views (and those are two different things by
    the way, another poor assumption which underlies this article). 

    To poke holes in the “urban” assumption: how do you go about
    classifying all the rather wealthy urban dwellers who are just as consumeristic
    as their suburban counterparts?  To get
    real personal, what do you do with all of the gen X’ers and gen Y’ers who are
    ticked off at their suburban parents and have moved into urban areas, but
    consume just as much as their parents, just from hipster merchants?

    And another wholly different demographic animal is not even
    addressed in this article at all: the rural community. 

    The fact is that discussions of what it means
    for the church to really practice love, mercy, and love of neighbor need to
    move past facile “urban good” “suburban bad” generalizations.  Every context provides a unique incubator for
    different types of pervasive sin.  But at
    root the problem of loving your neighbor, whoever they may be, is much deeper
    than demography and sociology.  It is an
    issue of the sin that still “dwells within us” whether we live in white picket
    fenced subdivisions, trailer parks, or row homes.  That problem cannot be answered just by
    moving from the suburbs back into the city.  It can only be answered by the simultaneously
    personal and corporate transformation that happens in the Gospel of Jesus
    Christ, a Gospel that is to be taken to every corner of the world, (even the suburban
    parents you’re ticked off with).
     

  • http://twitter.com/adeniro Alan DeNiro

      A major shift is going to happen in the next 20 years with these suburbs. A lot of it is precipitated by the housing collapse: vast tracts of uninhabited, poorly built McMansions being the most potent example. These are going to be areas of poor social services and limited transportation options, where the working poor are going to be forced to live (and where they can’t afford to). Yes the ultra wealthy will be able to have their remote tracts as well but it’s going to be a much more mixed picture.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/OKEONAMLFIOS5WI7MPQY6SXBCQ IRMO

    The reason for the high prices in the city is precisely that many people have realized just how problematic suburban living is, and are now willing to pay a premium to live back in the city. 

  • Jon Korneliussen

    My wife is Catholic and I am Lutheran (ELCA). We split our time between St. Patrick’s Church downtown and Peace Lutheran on Jackson and are pleased with both. Both have a great community and the diversity reflects Memphis itself.

    On a side note, we’ve found central Memphis much more appealing than any of it’s suburbs or outer neighborhoods. We both grew up in the suburbs (me NW and my wife Midwest) but downtown/Midtown have exceeded our expectations.


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