Christian Belief is a Mark of Low Status

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In his recent memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance tells the story of growing up in a working class family in Ohio. He recounts the violence, the drug abuse and emotional turmoil that marred his childhood. He also captures the fierce loyalty, determination and commitment that held his family together through the difficulties they encountered.

I did not grow up in Ohio, but next door in Indiana. But, like Vance’s family, my ancestors migrated from Appalachia to the industrial Midwest in search of manufacturing jobs. My family functioned better than Vance’s. I was free, as a child, from exposure to drugs and violence. My family was more stable than his.

And yet, much of the book resonated with me, bringing to mind people I knew. I had friends whose families were like those Vance described. Vance’s journey from a hollowed-out, economically depressed small town in the Midwest to the Ivy League in some ways mirrors my own.

When I was a child, my father worked on the factory line. My mother worked as a cleaning lady. My upbringing was as working class as they come. A significant part of my journey has been attempting to move up the American class ladder. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I was, however, the first person in my family to go to college. Later, I became the first person in my family to earn a PhD.

Near the end of the book, Vance dissects the problems of the white working class. He concludes that many of the problems working class people struggle with are of their own making, a result of their lack of agency, drive and curiosity.

What Social Advancement Requires

This is true, but Vance fails to mention an important factor that creates obstacles for people who attempt this sort of class change. Class is as much a matter of attitudes and belief as it is of financial income.  Access to positions that guarantee upper-middle class income and influence requires more than skill and competence. It requires demonstrating to those in power that you are fit for their realm, not just by possessing the right credential, but by possessing the right outlook.

The establishment of Leftism as the default belief system of our elites means that serious, traditional Christian belief has become a signal of low status. Under the current ideological regime, advancing through the ranks of elite groups and institutions means downplaying, if not repudiating, Christian belief. Not only do many working class people not want to do this, they resent a system that would ask it of them.

Some Biographical Notes

The implications of this situation go far beyond considerations of class, and I plan to develop this point in subsequent posts, but for now I want to add a few biographical notes.

As an undergraduate, I attended the flagship institution of the evangelical denomination in which I had grown up. Almost immediately upon arrival, the beliefs, attitudes and customs I learned in my working class, small-town church were attacked or undermined.  Faculty did this openly, but the general intellectual and spiritual climate on campus was equally derisive.

I vividly remember an instance where a very far-left philosophy professor challenged a freshman to defend his faith. The student, armed only with a shallow understanding of his theology and the sincerity of his belief, was reduced to tears. The professor responded by telling the student that if his faith were so easily shaken, it must not have been very strong in the first place.

The lesson was not lost on us. If we students aspired to an elite position like the one our professor held, we would have to abandon traditional Christian beliefs.  These beliefs, it was clear, would exclude us from positions of influence, even in organizations which explicitly taught those beliefs.

This lesson intensified when I moved on to more secular graduate education. There, traditional Christian belief was fine so long as it was private and considered irrelevant to one’s philosophy and research.  In the rare instances when such beliefs did surface, they were considered fair game for merciless and often irrational critique. The apex of this was the professor who told me twice to stop asking such deep and difficult questions in his class, and then later said he didn’t like religious people like me because we don’t ask questions.

When critics malign Christian belief because they are, in their view, the wellspring of difficult questions AND because they discourage the asking of questions, it’s clear their animosity is rooted in something irrational.

The Irrational Root

The irrational root of this animosity is a visceral sense that those who hold traditional Christian beliefs simply do not belong in elite institutions or professions. The gatekeepers who demand the surrender of traditional Christian belief need not even think Christian claims are untrue. They must only see them as a threat to the ideological system that creates and shores up their personal and professional status.

Vance’s story of moving from the working class to membership in the elite establishment downplays this reality. But, it’s there.

The author relates how, as a teenager, he embraced a version of fundamentalist Christianity only to reject Christian faith later. It is only after he graduates from Yale Law School that he returns to the faith of his youth. This is not an accident surely.

I can’t be certain about Vance’s experience or motives, of course. What I am certain of is that rejection, or at least, concealment of Christian beliefs are an expected part of upward mobility in America. When it comes to America’s elite institutions and the power, wealth and privilege membership in them bestows, losing our faith is, it appears, the price of admission.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Paperboy_73

    Interesting that the article implicitly assumes that being on the left is incompatible with “serious Christianity”.

    Never let it be said that religion isn’t subservient to politics in the US.

  • Dean

    You clearly don’t understand what the Left is.

  • Dean

    You clearly don’t understand what the Left is.

  • Alan Drake

    Hillary Clinton is a social justice Methodist (one of the “sheep Christians” as contrasted to the “goat Christians”).

    Donald J Trump worships only himself and his desires.

    That is who the right and left supported in the last election.

  • Alan Drake

    I disagree.

    Some types of faith (Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Assembly of God, Southern Baptist) may have negative markers associated with them. But not so for Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.

  • Paperboy_73

    You know that most of the world is much further to the left than the US, right? Are the rest of us – political moderates by our nations’ standards, but far-left commie socialist communists by US right-wing standards – locked out of being “real true Christians”?

    Or are we stuck with being godless heathens forever just because we take for granted the benefit to our societies of “handouts” like universal healthcare and paid maternity leave? Or, more pertinently perhaps, because we value secular governance despite our personal beliefs?

  • Dean

    Your conception of Leftism seems to be really hung up on politics, a topic I never mentioned.

  • Tyler Aylin

    I believe the problem is less with the economic aspect of the left, and more its cultural side and abortion

  • Craig Belcourt

    By “most of the world” you mean Europe. Islam is not further to the left. I spent several months doing medical missions in West Africa and they are not further to the left. Central and South America are not further to the left (don’t let their quasi-socialistic states fool you). It appears only those white, elitist countries of US, Europe (and Canada/Australia) are embracing the leftist values.

  • Paperboy_73

    Fine. The question still holds, even if you limit the scope. I like to think that us latte-sipping elitist lefties aren’t necessarily godless heathens.

  • Estoy Listo

    Point taken. The Left easily accommodates Atheists who are openly hostile–you might even say, intolerant–of Christianity. It is a marker for intelligence.

  • Bungarra

    From some studies of the Black Sea it appears that it was cut-off from the Mediterranean Sea during the last ice age and water levels declined substantially. It consisted of a marshy center fed by rivers flowing from the land about it. It is interesting to see some photo’s of the sea floor where on the banks of what seems to be a streamline, what appears to be the foundations of human huts. (Published in Nature, within the last 20 odd years, I lost the reference when I crashed a computer). It was estimated in that paper that as sea
    levels rose at the end of the ice age the connection with the Mediterranean was re-established through the Straits of the Dardanelles. Date about 6-7,000 years BP. Was that Noah’s Flood? Totally consistent with the rise of sea levels as defined by current R&D as well as stories by such groups including the Australian Aboriginals.

    Note also that the deposits of salt in the bed of the Mediterranean Sea indicate that it was a salt lake at various times in the past.

    Re the world wide flood emphasized by the Young Earth Creationists, I can understand that those from areas where the glaciers of the last ice age wiped the slate clean – eg Northern parts of the USA that great antiquity is not that obvious can accept this.

    Just travel about Australia and be cognisant of the soils many with great depths of of weathered rock on the base rock, patterns of drainage and of vegetation. The amounts of and the distribution of salt in the landscape. With the huge proportion of unique life forms here, one finds it difficult to sustain the Young Earth Creation stories. Eg how far can a Kangaroo swim?

    Re Carbon Dating – if it is so messed up, why have not those who claim this been awarded a Nobel Prize.

    Overall such YEC thinking demands that one totally ignores what can be seen in Creation. Does this make a mockery of those who claim that their interpretation of the Creation is valid, and hence the religion they purport to promote? God created, now how was it done? As an Agricultural Scientist, that is how I view creation

    See
    https://theconversation.com/island-hopping-study-shows-the-most-likely-route-the-first-people-took-to-australia-93120
    for a discussion on the effects of sea level changes and humans in South East Asia, India, and Australia.

  • Bungarra

    RE Australia, we are suffering from the Neocon’ disease to the discomfort of our poor . Expect some changes when the contents of the ‘trickle down’ boost from the tax cuts that is claimed that will boost the living standards of all, is properly analyzed and found to contain an excessive proportion of urea.

    Please look up and read the history of the French revolution as to its causes. Those who demonize the Left, are the descendants of the cause of the Revolution and consider that only the chosen have a divine right to power and property. Time to reconsider the concept that all humans are equal before God, so why the assumption the Right has a particular claim to dominate the rest. That 1% of the Worlds population control more assets than 50% of all humans makes the concept all are equal before God a mockery.

  • jekylldoc

    Speaking of proving the point of the article.