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.