I am writing this morning at a McDonalds in a small farm town near my family farm in the Ohio River Valley. I go to McDonalds for the wifi, not available in the mom and pop cafes. The customers in the restaurant this morning are farmers rushing in for a sandwich and coffee before they head to the fields and a group of Amish in their Sunday best.
The Amish have been settling in this area for some time as their groups morph and grow. Local farmers prize their presence because land prices go up when the Amish move in. Unlike mechanized farms, Amish farms always thrive.
Why do nineteenth century farming techniques work so much better than twenty-first century farming techniques? Good question. But I don’t think it has anything to do with religion.
Conventional historians trace the decline of liberal religion back to the catastrophe of the First World War when the decline in liberal religion as a percentage of the population began. This decline has continued into our own time, despite a slight rebound in the 1950s.
Liberal religions and liberal politics are based in the concept of meliorism—a belief that human life can be made better by human effort. Opposed to this view are the Amish and the Evangelicals, the dominant religious view in the Ohio River Valley.
It should be noted that the area has been little touched by such traditions as Unitarian Universalism and Humanism, and mainline Protestantism here follows the neo-orthodoxy of the type Karl Barth pioneered, though many mainline denominations, such as United Methodism, show an Evangelical influence—the kind of influence that makes progressives in urban areas very nervous.
Here, hard work and a DIY attitude are considered the highest virtues. The religious—from the Baptists to the Amish—await the return of Jesus, and see themselves as struggling in a lost and fallen world. For evidence of its lostness, they will say, “Just look around you.”
It’s hard to disagree.
Is liberal religion dependent on a very materialistic sort of hope? Is liberal democracy dependent on a very material well being? The recent retreat of democratic values in Europe and the US in the face of collapsing empires may be showing us the answer. European values without European colonialism may be no values at all. (Just look around you.)
Can liberal denominations and Humanism establish a foothold in this other America? Probably not. Yes, liberalizing social norms will continue. There is clear historical evidence that these march on, even in the face of all the recessions and depressions that capitalism is heir to. But a belief that progressive values have any value in government? Not likely. From the bottom of the economic ladder, grinding capitalism appears to be the way of this fallen world.
The number of atheists in rural America roughly matches the numbers in urban areas, and atheism—unlike Humanism and liberal denominations—crosses all demographic groups. Yet, the atheists I talk with here have roughly the same beliefs about the future that the Amish and the Evangelicals do—this world is all about the struggle, and it’s not going to get better. Liberalism in religion or government is about meliorism. If you don’t buy it, you don’t buy it. And it is too expensive for many Americans.
For the non-religious of the Ohio River Valley and other poverty-ridden corners of the world, I think the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson perhaps sums up the best philosophy: “We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.”
Wisdom. Not dreams. Perhaps there is a positive liberal faith in there somewhere. As an old farmer who left the farm physically but not mentally, that’s my Humanism.
Oh, and why are the Amish more successful at farming than the Evangelicals, despite similar world-views? Because the Evangelicals, despite their theologies, have bought into the American chimera of progress.