Article
Culture
Politics
5 min read

Will America succumb to the undertow?

A returning expat asks if an exhausted majority is, in fact, asleep.

Jared Stacy holds a Theological Ethics PhD from the University of Aberdeen. His research focuses conspiracy theory, politics, and evangelicalism.

A sleeping voter sits and snoozes next to voting booth.
'Which One?'
Nick Jones/Norman Rockwell/Midjourney.ai.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously made a decision to return to Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War. The year was 1938, and he was visiting America for a second time. Instead of taking a theology teaching position in New York that would’ve kept him above the fray of a deteriorating social world in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s sense of spiritual responsibility drove him to solidarity with the German situation.  

I’ve thought about Bonhoeffer a lot these last few months as our family is making a transition back to the States during an election year. Not because I’d ever directly compare our move with Bonhoeffer’s. But because I’m anticipating the “shock” of returning to a deteriorating social world. Unlike him, our decision to return is far more modest and expedient. Still, we’re often asked by our friends here in Scotland, “why go back?” 

My immediate answer is straightforward and entirely different than Bonhoeffer: we did what we came here to do. Our visas are up; I’m defending my PhD this month. But behind these questions of expediency, I do feel the weight of an existential question, one directed towards myself as much as it is towards America. 

And that question is “who is going back?” Because after three years, America has changed to us as we’ve changed ourselves.  

The persecution confronting white Christians in America is the soft persecution of opulence diffused in the ordinary.

With that change comes new choices and new questions that didn’t confront us years ago. Returning to America has us asking questions like, how do you talk to your school-aged kids about active shooter drills in their new school? How will we navigate the racialized social scripts that pervade not just American communities, but also American churches? How will we re-enter a job market that ties production to basic health care? 

We’re bracing for the shock of going back to America. It will be more difficult than leaving ever was. Not just because we’ve changed, but also that the American situation has grown more extreme while paradoxically denying that change.  

We’ve discovered that if American Christians are persecuted at all, it’s not from President Biden’s “corrupt regime” seeking to jail Trump or secure power through another “rigged election.” No, the persecution confronting white Christians in America is the soft persecution of opulence diffused in the ordinary. 

As an expat returning to America, I wonder if this exhausted majority is, in fact, asleep. 

Perspective changes everything. The outsider’s view of America careening towards a crisis of democracy and a social fabric rent at the seams isn’t felt as much by those who live within its social world, whose experience of the mundane obscures the poly-crisis pressing our social fabric at the seams. How did we get here? 

Researchers discovered an interesting demographic cohort in American life, you might have heard of it. It’s called the “exhausted majority.” It refers to an ideological diverse cohort at the center of American life that has all but disengaged politically. Researchers began to talk about this “exhausted majority” in 2018, before the pandemic, before a less-than-peaceful transfer of democratic power. The hope was, then, that this “exhausted majority” might be mobilized to fend off polarization and extremism. As an expat returning to America, I wonder if this exhausted majority is, in fact, asleep. 

What has become of this exhausted majority? In the wake of 2020, America underwent significant backlash and retrenchment. This affected churches, too. Friends who are pastors tell me churches in their communities have “re-sorted” along partisan lines. One pastor suggested the election might not divide churches this time, as much as partisan-determined churches might contribute to social division. Polarization has worked its way from the outer edges of American life to the very center. It does this work silently, mediated by our reliance on algorithms, a life conformed to and captured by digital architecture. 

There’s an element of surprise here, at least for us as we return. Because what we experienced as the collapse of our social world in white evangelicalism—a world that we no longer are at home in— I’ve found is still very much active, very much automated—like survival reflexes—still providing an artificial coherence and plausible deniability amidst a deteriorating social situation. 

This retrenchment and backlash creates a dangerous condition: an undertow. For so many, life goes on as normal on the surface, while democratic institutions are pulled apart beneath. America is caught in a rip current, but asleep on the surface. This undertow partly explains, at least to me, why all the talk of “the crisis of democracy” doesn’t register with many Americans.  

A recent survey found that more than half of Americans haven’t heard the term “Christian Nationalism”—in spite of a flurry of academic and popular discourses on the term, often at the center of “crisis of democracy” rhetoric. 

The fact is, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t fall in a day, either. The Senate handing over power to Caesar one day didn’t do much to alter the mundane early morning routine of bread makers in Rome the next day. Tyranny dawns, but the ordinary continues. The routine of the mundane and ordinary, of bread and circuses, makes talk of a democratic collapse seem just another political game, a distraction from all the amusement that Neil Postman observed might be our death. 

As we return to America, reflecting on who we’ve become and the responsibility of faith, I’ve found myself considering the difference between being fated and being holy.  

Fate confronts us as necessity. The holy confronts us as something other. And this “other”—at least for Bonhoeffer—was the freedom of God. And I can think of no better prayer for the church in America in the coming years to maintain in ourselves the crucial distinction between fatedness and holiness. To not confuse the expediency of partisan games with the responsibility made visible in the light of the central claim of Christian faith in the body of Jesus Christ. The Crucified One, not the fate of Western Civilization, determines what it is to be the ekklesia, the “called out” community, both free and responsible, never fated. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.