Friday, December 27, 2013

Morality and culture change in Tama-Toledo

From Toledo, IA
Heath Kellogg, Director
Tama Co. Economic Development
The saga of the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) here in Toledo, Iowa, continues. This week the Director of Economic Development in Tama County, Heath Kellogg, used his weekly column in the local paper to directly address our state's governor on his order to close the facility.

After opening with his characteristic folk tale, Kellogg has a few great things to say here. In his appeal to the governor, he's attempting to bypass the political and even economic dimensions of IJH's pending closure, and pushes into the realm of morality and culture, two things that I have an abiding intellectual and ministerial interest in.

A moral calling to account

Here's the first statement that grabbed me:
My message is not about table-thumping or shouting, and it's not about costs and profit. IT IS about fundamental spiritual things like caring, and respecting people (including you); the quieter gentler strengths and skills that all of us possess that we all must have the courage to use. (emphasis added)
Now, not knowing Kellogg personally, I have no idea what moral and spiritual tradition he's calling on here, but it's usually a safe bet in these parts that it's at least partially Christian in nature, and that statement sounds pretty Christian. If that's a correct assumption in this case, great. (As I wrote this paragraph, my friend here in town just texted me that Kellogg is indeed a Christian. Thanks, technology!)

But Kellogg is right: Caring for and respecting even people we strongly disagree with (maybe even those we consider "enemies") are indeed the "quieter gentler strengths" that Jesus calls his followers to practice every day in any situation. By the world's standards, they do look "quieter" and "gentler," even foolish and ineffective. But the scandal of the Christian faith is that these things are, as Kellogg calls them, strengths. It is this kind of love for the world that Jesus himself showed in his life and teachings. Living those out sent him to the cross, and he calls Christians to the same (crosses and all).

Another thing I'm ignorant of is whether or not Gov. Branstad is himself Christian. If not, it's slightly problematic to call him to account on Christian moral grounds, even if Kellogg worded them without explicit reference to the Christian faith. But if the governor is Christian? Well, I'm certainly not opposed to such public calls to account, from one Christian public official to another. Some might get upset that this is a violation of the national dogma on "separation of church and state," but such separation is finally impossible anyway, if one takes it that the Christian faith transforms the entire person and every corner of their public and private life. Must Christians be respectful and sensitive in our dealings with non-Christians? Absolutely. (Part of that loving neighbors and enemies thing...)

So I appreciate Kellogg highlighting these deceptively humble virtues in his address to the governor.

Quibbling on culture change

The next statement that grabbed me was this:
Real change in our state happens not because someone at the top makes a pronouncement - a culture-shift happens when the attitudes and behaviors of people change. At the root of any successful change you will increasingly find the qualities of love and trust, which together create the freedom for us to make the right decisions, to connect with others, to challenge and to innovate. (emphasis added)
Kellogg asserts that the kind of love and trust he's talking about happened every day at the IJH, and I certainly saw some of that shared at the town hall meeting last week. Love and trust are - like care and respect of others - incredibly important virtues that are inseparable from a living Christian faith, and I can't affirm that enough.

But the bit that I want to focus on here is his talk of culture-shift or changing cultures.

One of the most important books during my grad school years was sociologist James Davison Hunter's To Change the World. The book is mostly about Christianity in America, but the sociological work he uses in it is broadly applicable. Important here is that he challenges an underlying assumption in Kellogg's positive statement on culture change (while basically agreeing with Kellogg's negative statement about what culture change isn't).

The popular American way of thinking about culture change is a "hearts and minds" mentality, which comes down to a numbers game. Convince enough people that (x) is good/better than (y), get them to think/act in accordance with (x) and have them convince others too, and *boom* you'll start to change a culture. Hunter's problem with this way of thinking is that it's too individualistic and doesn't account well enough for the "scaffolding" that people in a society move within, especially institutions and those who run them.

Rather, Hunter thinks that cultures change like so (and I don't completely agree with all these, but they're helpful and succinct):

  • Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up [this is the one I like to quibble with]
  • Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige
  • (Culture change) is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap
  • Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight
  • (emphasis added)
It's not that a grassroots "hearts and minds" approach doesn't matter, because it does. But Hunters view takes more seriously 1) institutions and 2) those in positions of institutional power (elites), both of which help create the conditions in which all the individual "hearts and minds" in a given society beat and think together to a certain rhythm.

So if you agree with Hunger, Kellogg's statement is half right: Culture change does not happen by unilateral directives from above (and the governor's decision to close the IJH was certainly very unilateral/authoritarian, anti-democratic even). But if those who wish to see the IJH stay open in some form or another want that vision to come to fruition, it will take a multi-level both/and approach: grassroots "hearts and minds" work and overlapping networks of elites pushing the center of power to change its ways (i.e. keep IJH open).

I know this is already happening: At the town hall meeting last week, there were in attendance a number of state senators and representatives who could fairly be considered "elites" in their own ways. They have political capital and influence. It would take more than just political elites, though. Others with power and influence in non-governmental positions, such as business leaders in the state, would also have to take up the cause in substantive ways.


The interesting tension here is that the "quieter gentler strengths" that Jesus calls Christians to are seemingly ineffective if you're engaged with medium- and large-scale political and economic entities in the US and the State of Iowa. And this is a "secular" or "pluralistic" struggle in that there are many different people with many different worldviews (religious and otherwise) focused on this one issue.

And because cultures change "rarely if ever without a fight," we certainly have a fight on our hands in the case of the IJH closing. For the IJH to stay open, I'm afraid that the "quieter gentler (virtues)" will probably be jettisoned for "louder brasher vices," and there's certainly plenty of evidence every day that Christians have fallen for the latter.

I am minister of the Christian faith, so my "first family" is fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. So my counsel in situations like this is for us to exhibit those virtues that Kellogg rightly highlights in his address to the governor, even while the storm surrounding this controversy will no doubt get messy (and already has). I'm not advising withdraw or seclusion for Christians, so much as I'm saying that being a Christian "out loud and in public" is, as the kids say, complicated.

In light of that, perhaps it's appropriate to close with Jesus' sending words to his disciples in Matthew 10: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

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