The American ‘way of life’ is unsustainable for so many. Is it time to build radical forms of community?

I spent the early months of the coronavirus pandemic feeling desperately claustrophobic. Quarantined in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, I would sometimes imagine my fire escape was a creaky porch in the woods somewhere as I sat outside in the early evenings, listening to my neighbors cheer and bang pots for the essential workers carrying the city on their backs. Life felt stuck: no way to plan, nowhere to go, nothing to build toward. The calendar had been emptied of weddings and dinners and reunions; the comforting rhythms of weeks and seasons disappeared. I found myself alternately plotting wild adventures and pining for a quiet, communal life.

A professor of mine used to call this kind of musing “Jesuit daydreaming,” his description of the rich Ignatian tradition of spiritual discernment. I should pay attention to daydreams, he said, because they can be more revealing than I might first assume. In this case, I think he is right: My pandemic mind loop was tracing the problem I have come to see as one of the great dilemmas of modern life.

In my work as a religion journalist, I often offer a mental image to explain the importance of the beat to secular colleagues and readers. While not everyone describes themselves as having faith or even feeling spiritual, everyone has those searching moments in the middle of the night, covers pulled up high as they are lying in bed wondering how to have a good life. More often than not, people’s descriptions of what a good life looks like depend on a single factor: the strength of the community around them. As a reporter, it is my job to follow along as individuals and communities try to figure out who they want to be and how they want to live.

It is hard to be a man or woman for others in culture that is dominated by us versus them. 

Over the past eight months, however, the path toward a good life has become obscured for many Americans. As I sat inside my apartment daydreaming about the future, dozens of people on my street were getting sick, losing family members or navigating the anxiety of being immunocompromised during a public-health crisis. Many Americans, especially in New York, have spent their last eight months mostly alone, and mostly at home, sometimes unable even to wave hello to loved ones from a distance.

The unemployment rate in New York City this summer reached 20 percent; many beloved businesses will likely never come back after the shutdown. The basic ingredients of a good life—decent health, the warmth of family and friends, economic stability—are now out of reach for far more people in our country than at the start of 2020.

But the pandemic has also revealed the extent to which a good life felt elusive for countless Americans far before any of us had heard of Covid-19. This is not just a matter of money or resources. In my reporting, I constantly find evidence that Americans feel isolated and unmoored from their communities, unsure of their place in the world.

I am thinking of a Black Southern Baptist–trained pastor who could not stomach taking his kids to church within his denomination anymore because of his fellow church members’ reluctance to talk about racism. A longtime staffer at a major American archdiocese who feels daily rage at the Catholic Church’s inability to address the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. A young woman fired from her job at a conservative Christian advocacy organization because she spoke out against President Trump. A Catholic professor who bitterly wishes the Democratic Party had room for his pro-life views. These are all examples from the world of religion and politics, but they speak to a deep and expansive truth: In many parts of American life, people feel the institutions that were supposed to guide their lives have failed, and that there is no space for people like them.

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The result is a widespread sense of mutual mistrust. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that fewer than one in five Americans say they can trust the government. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have a hard time telling the truth from lies when elected officials speak, and even more believe the government unnecessarily withholds important information from the public.

I have encountered plenty of mistrust in the course of reporting stories. People believe they know my politics, suspect me of bias and assume I will be hostile to religion because of where I work. Religious leaders may be the most distrusted group of all. As one influential Catholic businessman in Boston told me a couple of years ago, following the sexual-abuse scandal, “I go to Mass about three or four days a week. I’m not into Vatican politics. I’m not into Vatican museums. I’m not into people who wear red slippers and fancy robes. I bought into this as a kid, because of the life of Christ. So I’m in. But I’m not drinking any Kool-Aid.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans have a hard time telling truth from lies when elected officials speak.

This year I have been reporting on the way political and spiritual alienation plays out in northeastern Pennsylvania, a historically Catholic area important in national politics. The mayor of Scranton pointed out to me that people in the city and region were devastated by the 2018 grand jury report that detailed dozens of instances of child sexual abuse in their diocese. Taken together with the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal and widespread corruption among public officials in the area, she said, local residents had effectively lost their government, their football team and their church. Versions of this story are playing out across the country, leaving Americans feeling unsure of who they are and who they can trust.

And we certainly do not trust one another. Our lives as Americans are increasingly sorted by partisan identity, in ways that are frankly shocking. Researchers have found that Republicans and Democrats drive different kinds of cars, watch different television shows and listen to different music. We tend to live next to neighbors who share our political beliefs and often pick our friends and communities based on shared convictions.

Surveys show that a significant minority of Americans basically never encounter people with different worldviews from their own and would be unhappy if their son or daughter were to marry someone from the opposite political party. This sense of tribalism is exacerbated by political officials who intentionally sow division, seeing chaos and animosity as a political strength rather than a collective weakness. As President Trump said on the grounds of the White House during this year’s Republican National Convention, apparently referring to Democrats, liberals or just people who do not support him: “We’re here, and they’re not.”

I am offering this litany not as general doomsaying, but to paint a backdrop showing why it is that some Americans might feel unsure of how to build a good life at this distinctive moment in our history. In pandemic times, we spend our days literally isolating from one another, shut away and alone. In spirit and identity, however, Americans were already isolated, feeling sold out by their leaders and dissatisfied with the implicit contract of American life.

My Jesuit professors did not just teach me to daydream. They hammered home how important it is to be a man or woman for others, that this is the point of education and a simple guideline for how to live out our lives. In my travels through American communities, the most joyful and peaceful people I have met are doing just that. Their lives are entwined with the lives of others, and they happily embrace their obligations to their community. But as a broader culture, I think we have lost our knack for building this kind of civic utopia. It is hard to be a man or woman for others in a culture that is dominated by us versus them.

Journalism Facilitates Encounter

As a journalist, I see it as my job to be a kind of guide, or perhaps a mapmaker. I plot landmark moments and trace the direction of currents, showing readers places and people they would otherwise never encounter. I think the widespread sense of mutual suspicion and total isolation in our country is the most urgent, big-picture story of religion and politics right now. In my reporting, I see two major kinds of reactions to this kind of cultural frustration. One is an attempt to repair America. And the other is an attempt to build something new.

Much of what I cover in the world of religion and politics falls into the realm of the culture wars: efforts to win over our culture and shape our politics with a specific vision of the good life. I routinely interview political organizers, writers, legal advocates and politically active clergy persons from the left and the right who describe an existential battle for the soul of America, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Joe Biden.

When I speak to pro-life activists who have dedicated their lives to ending abortion, they describe this year’s presidential election, and the Supreme Court appointments associated with it, as generation-defining events. They speak of abortion as being evil and are horrified by the rhetoric and convictions of their opponents.

American life is not possible, or does not work, for so many people—it is either unattainable, unaffordable or uninspiring.

Or take the progressive Black pastors who have staged protests at state capitols across the South over lack of access to health care and cuts to social safety-net programs, calling these life-or-death policy decisions that define who we are as a nation. One such set of protests, led by the Rev. William Barber in North Carolina, was explicitly framed as a fight over morality in public life. In the view of these activists, there is no morally or biblically sound argument for government policies that leave poor and working-class Americans struggling to make it.

Perhaps most powerfully, the massive protests we have seen unfolding across America this year are a cry to change the status quo of racism and police violence toward Black people in this country. I have watched as religious group after religious group contends with its own history of racism and bigotry, at times participating in those marches for cultural change. I met an octogenarian sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton who described the backlash to a giant Black Lives Matter poster erected on the campus of Marywood University, the college her congregation oversees. In her mind, there is no question that the sisters should be joining this kind of movement for racial equality.

These struggles over what it means to be American—our greatest sins, the lives we value, our political ideals—are critically important. To many, these fights are a matter of survival. They may be exhausting. And for good reasons, they may exacerbate Americans’ sense that there are people on their side, championing the right values, and people on the other side, pushing for a country they do not recognize or believe in. These fights are necessary.

And yet, I cannot seem to get rid of my sneaking suspicion that these abstract debates over who we are as a nation of 330 million people do not actually get us very far in our search for the good life. So much of America’s cultural attention—on social media, in the news, in pop culture—is directed toward life at a grand, almost unfathomable scale. I am personally responsible for helping create this sense that life only matters at the national level, and so are my colleagues at large in the media. We report on trends sweeping the nation, on the latest drama surrounding the president, on the hashtags trending on Facebook and Twitter. Two things are true at once. These national political debates matter. And they may actively make it harder to be a human with a sense of fellowship, personal direction and a meaningful life.

Countercultural Communities

That is why I have been following a sort of countercultural movement that seems to be blossoming now in America. People are seeking to build vibrant alternatives to the mainstream, versions of the good life that are idealistic, intense and built around the mutual dependence only possible in small communities. The people I am interested in have often gone through some sort of personal awakening—perhaps they discovered faith or became dissatisfied with the 9-to-5 monotony of workaday life. They are religious converts, hard-core environmentalists, skeptics of consumer capitalism. And they are willing to radically alter the way they live in search of the good life.

There are small networks of Black schools, community gardens and food-distribution centers that fashion themselves after the work of Marcus Garvey, the 19th-century thinker and activist who argued that freedom for Black people can only be won through self-reliance and independence from existing, white-dominated institutions. Or, to consider something radically different, there is St. Mary’s, Kan., a little Catholic town almost exactly in the middle of the country, where parishioners of the Society of St. Pius X (a priestly order that is considered canonically irregular by the Vatican) have built a community where they can worship, play, work and teach their children surrounded by people who share their theological convictions. The priests celebrate Mass in Latin, the families have tons of babies, and the life cycle of the town runs on a Catholic liturgical calendar.

Vibrant, largely young communities like St. Mary’s, whose members see themselves as stewards of true faith and tradition against the secularization and liberalization of American society, have been the subject of much discussion in elite, conservative circles. An unexpected theater hit in 2019, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” centered on a fictional Catholic college in Wyoming whose students and faculty had created a mini utopia of conservative values. Notably, Rod Dreher chronicled these kinds of communities in his 2017 book The Benedict Option, in which he called on Christians to gird themselves for a long period of cultural marginalization. Mr. Dreher imagines and observes people building their own schools, developing rich prayer practices and, above all, insulating themselves from the toxic influences of secular American culture. Much of his book focuses on the expansion of L.G.B.T. rights and acceptance in America, purporting to show why conservatives should anticipate cultural rejection in the years to come. In Mr. Dreher’s telling, at least, one motivation for opting out is fear. He is convinced that mainstream America no longer celebrates, or perhaps even tolerates, people who share his beliefs.

It will be months, years even, before we fully understand the way American communal life has been affected by Covid-19.

But I think this focus on conservative retrenchment misses the richness of this countercultural moment. American life is not possible, or does not work, for so many people—it is either unattainable, unaffordable or uninspiring. The choice to live differently does not have to be motivated by terror or anxiety. It can also be driven by a search for broader horizons.

American history is littered with examples of utopian projects, built out of religious zeal or an idealistic vision for the common good. Members of the mid-19th century Oneida community in upstate New York believed Jesus had already returned and that sinless perfection was possible in present-day times. A little closer to the mainstream, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded Catholic Worker houses out of a desire to model Catholic social teachings: living in community, forfeiting personal wealth, offering hospitality to the poor. People in these communities believed that to live well, you have to give up nearly everything: your privacy, your claim to personal property, your assumptions about the structure of life. They had a vision for what was true and righteous, and they were willing to radically transform their lives to obtain it.

Perhaps, if people were left alone to build their little ideal communities, there would be less fodder for the culture wars. No side would need to defeat the other in a battle for the soul of America. We could each define the soul of America as we wish. And yet, the challenge is in doing this without losing a kind of civic vocabulary, an ability to empathically imagine the life and perspective of our neighbors. No matter how much we may fantasize about a world perfectly crafted to reflect our beliefs, surrounded by people who share our taste and convictions, the truth is that America works only if starkly different people are willing to vote in the same precincts, to respect each other’s rights and traditions, and to remain civil at city council meetings. We are caught between the demands of nationhood that lock us into dangerous cycles of conflict and the search for a small, good life that may tempt us to neglect our duties to engage as citizens.

We are living through a period of crisis in American life, in which it is no longer obvious that Americans share a sense of stewardship over our democracy. Our disunity is evident in the biggest news stories of the day. Crowds of protesters faced off against police night after night in cities listed off like war zones on the front page: Portland, Kenosha, Minneapolis. Culture-war fights bloom over the smallest impositions on our daily lives, like wearing a mask to diminish the spread of Covid-19. And our collective anger over politics has spiked dangerously. While polling is a rough and unrefined tool for understanding how Americans are feeling and thinking, the numbers are stark. A New York Times survey from early this summer found that voters are mostly feeling scared, anxious and exhausted about the state of affairs in our country. A CNN poll in August found that nearly 80 percent of Americans say they are angry about how things are going in this country, including more than half who say they are very angry. Previous CNN surveys asking the same question never found levels of American anger anywhere near this high.

It will be months, years even, before we fully understand the way American communal life has been affected by Covid-19. No in-person gatherings for months on end. Donations drying up as families struggle with unemployment or salary cuts in this economic drought. People moving away from cities in an attempt to find more affordable housing or to care for sick parents or siblings.

The biggest megachurches and richest organizations will be fine. It is the fledgling communities that will founder: the small churches with bi-vocational pastors, the vibrant grassroots groups that do not own a building or have much by way of savings, the communities of women religious whose numbers have literally been cut in half because of Covid-19 deaths. Zoom is no replacement for praying together in person, hands joined as voices rise together in hymns. New babies deserve to be feted with communal meal trains and passed from person to person in the back of a social hall. Mourning demands long hours of sitting together in quiet, a parade of neighbors showing up with aluminum trays of rosewater sweets. This quotidian form of togetherness is not to be taken for granted. It is one more painful thing to lose in our pandemic times.

This year will be remembered for many things—Covid-19, mass protests, the presidential election. But the theme lingering behind it all will be communal breaking, the further fracturing of an already isolated and angry nation. Community seems like a long-lost indulgence. Any kind of collective gathering feels like a precious treat that might be taken away at any moment. Pain, struggle and anxiety are the language of this year. When I ask my neighbors how they are doing, they mostly say, “Hanging in there.” It is a strange time to be thinking about radical new forms of community, to be questioning our assumptions about how we need to live in order to live well. But maybe that is a small gift in an otherwise lost year. Perhaps pandemic times will give us the freedom to question everything, and to commence new experiments in living.

 

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