Walkerton, Indiana, seems like an improbable locale for a major battlefield in the ongoing American culture war. Not far from South Bend, the town had a population of 2,248 in 2013. It advertises itself as a “great place to live”, industrious but also relaxed. The main tourist attraction is a few 19th-century houses in the center of town. But the epicenter of the political earthquake that has recently engulfed this middle-American idyll is an eatery with the nostalgic name Memories Pizza, located some distance from the center. If you google this establishment, you will discover that its pizzas are priced under $10.00, that it does not accept reservations or credit cards, that there is no waiter service and no TV. The atmosphere is cordial and “very loud.” If this ambience does not entice you, takeout service is on offer. Here is what happened: In April 2015, Mike Pence, the Republican governor of Indiana, signed the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which granted a religious exemption from laws or regulations that offended the conscience of individuals. This exemption was not absolute (you could not, say, claim a First Amendment right to disobey traffic rules). It followed closely a federal law of the same name passed with an overwhelming majority in Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. As one might expect, there has been a lot of litigation triggered by this law. (Does a Native-American cult have the right to consume hallucinatory drugs in its religious ceremonies? Can a Muslim woman refuse to unveil her face to be photographed for a driver’s license?) Twenty other states have passed so called RFRA laws. In Indiana, as elsewhere, Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics lobbied for the law, encouraged particularly by the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in support of Hobby Lobby, a “closely held” family business whose owners objected to the Obamacare mandate to include allegedly abortion-inducing contraceptives in the health plan offered to their employees. In the Walkerton case, the issue was the right of same-sex couples to insist on services available to the public but refused to them on grounds of religious conscience. Interestingly, there was not an actual case of discrimination, but just an opinion voiced by the owner of Memories Pizza, Kevin O’Connor, and a hypothetical brought up by his daughter. In an interview by a local television station (in a program about the new state law) O’Connor said that he opposed same sex-marriage on religious grounds, his daughter said that she would not cater for a same-sex wedding. (I have been trying to imagine a couple that would order pizza for a wedding reception). This seemingly innocuous TV interview triggered a huge outcry.
The LGBT lobby went into action ferociously, attacking not just the hapless owner of Memories Pizza, but the governor, the legislature, and indeed the whole state of Indiana. A number of institutions and other state governments imposed boycotts, prohibiting the use of their funds for travel to Indiana. The charges of course were discrimination, bigotry, and specifically “homophobia” (viewed as both an evil ideology and a psychiatric disease). The ferocity of the attack is powerfully reminiscent of the religious police in strict Islamic states. Saudi Arabia and Iran, with bitter hostility between their respective governments (one supposedly allied with the United States, the other implacably opposed to “the Great Satan”), are remarkably similar in the way in which they enforce their view of Islamic morality. Both have government agencies with the mission of Propagating Virtue and Preventing Vice, expressed in actions ranging from beating women dressed “immodestly” in public to inflicting the death penalty for adultery and homosexual behavior. I am not suggesting a moral equivalence (no one, as far as I know, has been killed for opposing LGBT orthodoxy). But the mindset is very similar in its calm assurance about the superiority of one’s own moral principles (and the right to impose them on others). Of course there are, shall we say, slight differences in the respective definitions of virtue (divine law/sexual freedom) and vice (“unnatural sex”/“homophobia”).
The outcome of the Great Pizza War was swift and decisive: Gays 1/Godders 0. Both the Indiana legislature and the governor hurried to “clarify” RFRA, letting the religious exemption stand, but adding a statement that nothing in the law should be understood as permitting discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. The original formulation and this amendment are, to say the least, in tension with each other. (I am reminded of the Balfour Declaration issued by the British during World War I, which said that “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine”—as long as there is no infringement of the rights of the indigenous population. The ambiguity of the Balfour Declaration led to decades of conflict in the Holy Land. The present ambiguity will have the less dire result of decades of employment for lawyers in state and federal courts.) Still, the LGBT lobby claimed victory, Mr. O’Connor “clarified” that he would serve his pizzas to all comers. And the Christian Right was reinforced in its view that Christianity is being persecuted in the United States. The boycott of Indiana was rescinded and after about a week Memories Pizza reopened for business.
In some ways this episode continues a development which I consider to be a rather sad story: The morphing of the gay movement from a profoundly just rebellion against an old and pervasive oppression, into a powerful pressure group seeking to coerce everyone not only to respect but to solemnly applaud its particular lifestyle. The modern gay movement in America began in 1969 with the so-called Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village. The Stone Wall Inn, owned by the Mafia at the time, was a gay hangout periodically raided by the police who harassed and arbitrarily arrested the patrons, while also extorting payments from them. One night, apparently spontaneously, some patrons attacked the cops, beat them up and threw them out. This triggered demonstrations throughout the city and the formation of permanent gay defense organizations. At the time I was teaching at the New School for Social Research; my office was just a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn; I applauded the gay action against the police. Alas, nothing really new there: It is not the first time that a movement of oppressed people, once victorious, became oppressive itself. But something was new at the skirmish between virtue and vice in Walkerton, Indiana: The participation of important elements of the business community in the pro-gay campaign. A number of large corporations joined the boycott of Indiana, cancelled conferences there or shelved plans to expand investments there. Among these corporations were Walmart, Eli Lilly, Apple, Angie’s List. I think it is fair to assume that these actions were not motivated by a sudden surge of sympathy for gay people. Of course public opinion in America has become much more favorable toward gay people and their causes. Corporations generally shy away from causes that are still controversial; this cause has become much less controversial. Also, gays as a demographic have high disposable income to purchase goods and services. Therefore, I tend toward the assumption that these corporations were motivated by soberly considered business interests.
First Things is a respected journal published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York. Originally founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus, it is now edited by R.R. Reno. Its June-July 2015 issue contains two interesting pieces dealing with the Memories Pizza case, an article by Patrick Deneen and an editorial by Reno. Deneen proposes that there is now a new “meritocratic global elite”, based on education rather than birth, looking down on the losers in the postmodern knowledge economy—people who lack the skills needed for upward mobility, who smoke and have bad eating habits, whose sons are unemployable and whose daughters become single mothers in their teens. President Obama is the perfect example of the multi-ethnic elite. In an unguarded moment in 2008 he expressed the contempt of an elite individual for his social inferiors in small towns—“they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Reno argues that the old Wasp establishment, on the defensive since the 1960s, re-invented itself by adopting elements of progressive ideology and co-opting upwardly mobile African-Americans, professional women, and gays. He draws parallels with the Temperance movement, an earlier project, mainly led by upper-class women who had no compunctions imposing their values on the lower classes by force of law. These social inferiors, if they stopped drinking, freely fornicating and other bad habits, would become ready to start climbing the ladder into modest affluence. But there is a significant difference between these “civilizing” projects then and now—the (mostly blue-collar) jobs that offered chances for upward mobility then have become very scarce (partly because of global competition, more importantly by technological change). The lower-class male today may stop smoking, lose weight and curb his machismo—and still have no place to go. (Lower-class women, it seems, have slightly better chances—at least if they avoid getting pregnant.)
I have found both Deneen’s and Reno’s reflections about the Memories Pizza case interesting and persuasive. But I would like to take the discussion in a slightly different directions (perhaps reflecting the professional bias of a sociologist—namely, to a re-assessment of the way one understands the top tiers of the American class system. When I first studied sociology (about the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural?) the conventional way of looking at this system was as a hierarchy with a small upper class, a bulging middle class (divided into upper-middle and lower-middle), a sizable working or lower class, then the bottom lower-lower class of unwashed losers. There was the assumption that, by and large, people voted their vested interests. Politically, this was supposed to imply that the higher up you went on this scale, the more you’d find conservative and Republican voters, farther down liberals and Democrats, to the lower-lower level where most people didn’t vote at all. In other words, “socio-economic status” was mainly determined by income and the education that income could buy. Some observers of this paradigm had some doubts about its accuracy, but these doubts became widespread as the turmoil of the late sixties was hard to fit into the earlier picture of the class system, especially its political aspects. After all, it was many children of the old Wasp elite who rioted on elite campuses, while construction workers in hard hats hurled insults at the students while waving American flags. Jews (mostly having comfortable incomes) were prominent in the student movement and the movement’s supporters in faculties and major media. (I think it was Irving Kristol who observed that Jews had incomes like Episcopalians but voted like Puerto Ricans). On the Left, there was the wishful idea that intellectuals were the vanguard of the revolution, leading the poor (especially blacks and “Third World” people, whose consciousness had been sufficiently “raised” to rebel against “the system”). As far as I know, this fantasy was first formulated by Antonio Gramsci, the idiosyncratic Italian Communist disappointed by the failure of the working class to play the revolutionary role assigned to it by Marxist theory. On the neoconservative Right, the idea of the so-called New Class was taken up to explain the late sixties—this was the class, broadly overlapping with the intelligentsia, whose interest was the expansion of the welfare state which provided income and status to it. I too found this perspective plausible and used it in some things I wrote at the time. A further implication of this perspective was that the political interests of the New Class (at one point I called it the “faculty club culture”) were opposed to those of the business elite (Samuel Huntington called it the “Davos culture”, after the Swiss mountain village that hosts the annual World Economic Forum, where a global assembly (in midwinter) of movers and shakers would wade through snow drifts to make authoritative pronouncements about the state of the world). It now seems to me that the Memories Pizza episode suggests that a new configuration is coming into shape: The cultural elite and the business elite are in process of merging. It is probably misleading to think of this in terms of “co-optation”—if anything, the two cultures are co-opting each other. Looked at from the viewpoints of progressive and conservative ideologues, one or the other co-optation can be viewed as “corruption”: The cultural elite (a.k.a. intelligentsia) has been “corrupted” by giving up its socialist ideals, thinking of itself as a hereditary aristocracy entitled to rule (like all aristocrats they seek to pass their privileges on to their children), and accepting greed and snobbery as acceptable personal values. Conversely, the business elite has been “corrupted” by opening itself up to previously excluded ethnic and racial groups, combining its old Protestant work ethic with a very un-Protestant liberality in all matters south of the navel. I suppose that both cultures can unite around the maxim “work hard, play hard”, respectively following the rules of the rat race and feeling free to engage in any variants of sex (as long as it is with the consent of all participants).
This is not the place to go into the implications of these developments for the American political system. The role of big money in politics has been immensely strengthened by the (arguably disastrous) Supreme Court decision to ease the restrictions on donors. Both major parties have become adept in chasing the deep pockets. Most of the donors have very special interests about which the new power elite does not care one way or another. As long as the United States remains a democracy, the unwashed losers will be able to vote, but neither major party can afford to really represent the interests of this class without alienating important constituencies in their base. The prospects for political leadership able to transcend all these cross-pressures are minimized by the perversities of primary elections. This blog is supposed to focus on religion. How does religion fit into this class dynamics? Not very neatly. Evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews generally come out on the side of “traditional family values”, but these issues have lost their traction with the penetration of the business world by progressive values (it seems that the Republican party in Indiana has very quickly drawn this lesson from what one might call “pizza-gate.” Mainline Protestants have lined up behind the progressive ideology long ago).
In the 1970s my family and I lived in Cobble Hill, an area between Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook that was beginning to be gentrified (the name of the area was probably invented by real estate agents). Essentially what happened was that upper-middle-class Brooklyn Heights was pushing into working-class Red Hook. Most of the indigenous inhabitants were Italians and Lebanese Christians, many of them dockworkers. The newcomers were, like us, upwardly mobile professionals with young children who could not afford to buy desirable houses in Manhattan and who therefore moved across to Brooklyn to purchase more or less decaying brownstones. The natives of the area liked to sit on their front porches on summer evenings, while the newcomers sipped cocktails in their miniscule backyard gardens. The natives’ term for the newcomers was “hippies”; we escaped this pejorative label because we had reasonably well-behaved children and were observed going to church on Sunday morning.
I will conclude this post with two anecdotes from our time in gentrifying Brooklyn, New York. The first anecdote provides a snapshot of the culture war of that period. In a house a couple of blocks from ours lived an elderly man who sat in a wheelchair and sported an American Legion cap. He had a number of patriotic signs in his window: “Support our troops in Vietnam”, “America—love it or leave it”, “Ban criminals, not guns.” The man was evicted. One day some men in a truck arrived and put his furniture and belongings on the sidewalk. Then they put his wheelchair, with him in it (American Legion cap on his head), on the sidewalk too. A few minutes later a car arrived with some of his buddies, who took him, his wheelchair, and two suitcases away. The next day the new owners arrived. And the new signs went up: “Make love, not war”, “America out of Vietnam”, “Support your local police.”
Across from our house was a small park, frequented by people with small children from both classes (the adults interacting with somewhat strained politeness). My wife started talking with a woman, evidently a “hippy”, who held the hand of a little boy aged around five. She asked my wife: “Do you think he is Princeton material?”