Alienated America
June 26, 2019

The past few years have seen a lot of analyses of what’s wrong with America. Few are more insightful or satisfying than Timothy Carney’s Alienated America, published earlier this year. An editor of the conservative Washington Examiner and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Carney sets out to understand why some places in American thrive while others collapse.

Economics plays a crucial role of course. When the factory closes, workers lose jobs, hope, and the extra money that they would spend on sports, clubs, and other civic activities. The unemployed become alienated and isolated.

Alienated Americans also lack networks and social institutions to support them, give them a continuing sense of belonging, and provide bridges and ladders to new employment. More than financial capital, Americans suffer a deficit of social capital.

Carney recognizes that in America, social capital usually flows through the church and other religious communities. Carney is Catholic, but his analysis is sociological rather than theological. He emphasizes the tangible psychological, health, social, economic, and familial benefits of being part of a religious community. Americans who belong to religious communities live longer, are healthier and happier, make more, give more, and are better educated than others. “Religious” Americans who don’t go to church are worse off in these categories than secularists. Carney draws out the political import in detail: As many others have observed, the non-churched religious were especially susceptible to raucous Trumpian populism.

By way of contrast, Carney spends a late chapter talking about “the church people” in the Dutch Reformed towns of Iowa or the German Lutheran sections of Michigan. These places have social capital out the kazoo, tight local networks that look out for one another. They are deeply conservative, Republican, but mostly hostile to Trump.

Two sentences summarize Carney’s thesis: “The unchurching of America is at the root of America’s economic and social problems. The woes of the white working class are best understood not by looking at the idled factories but by looking at the empty churches” (122).

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