Explaining white evangelicals: American Evangelicalism, Embattled and Thriving

With all the talk of white evangelicals in the postmortem of the 2016 election, it is useful to return to a 1998 sociological book about this group: Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Here is one way we can understand white evangelicals from a sociological perspective:

1. Smith adopts the subcultural theory to explain the group’s success and current standing. This has two dimensions:

“The subcultural identity theory of religious persistence is this: Religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic, modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying morally orienting collective identities which provide adherents meaning and belonging.” (118)

“And the subcultural identity theory of religious strength is this: In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.” (118-119)

In this perspective, pluralism can actually help religious groups by fostering a sense of shared identity compared to the broader society and also providing opportunities for engagement with others.

2. The vitality of the group often depends on drawing strong distinctions between the group and the outside world.

“The evangelical tradition’s entire history, theology, and self-identity presupposes and reflects strong cultural boundaries with nonevangelicals; a zealous burden to convert and transform the world outside of itself; and a keen perception of external threats and crises seen as menacing what it views to be true, good, and valuable.” (121)

3. Evangelicals want to engage social issues but are ultimately limited in what they can accomplish because of their approach.

“the only truly effective way to change the world is one-individual-at-a-time through the influence of interpersonal relationships.”(187)

“they routinely offer one-dimensional analyses and solutions for multidimensional social issues and problems.” (189)

4. When it comes to political action, evangelicals support government intervention in some areas (like abortion, gay rights, and prayer in schools) but not in other areas. This leads to an unresolvable tension.

“By this we mean, in short, that many evangelicals think that Christian morality should be the primary authority for American culture and society and simultaneously think that everyone should be free to live as they see fit, even if that means rejecting Christianity.” (210)

5. Thus, the problems with evangelicalism come from within.

“Evangelicalism’s problems, in other words, are largely subculturally indigenous, difficulties of their own tradition’s making.”(217)

While the data for this book came from the culture wars era (comprehensive surveys and interviews conducted in the mid 1990s with ordinary evangelicals), a lot of this still rings true today.

A follow-up post tomorrow will contrast Smith’s understanding (as well as other sociological emphases) compared to how white evangelicals understand themselves.

Both parties treat the President as too powerful and important

One of my takeaways from the long 2016 election season: both political parties put too much effort into electing a President who only has limited powers. The President is certainly an important symbol and they have a bully pulpit – and both parties in recent decades seem to be interested in increased executive powers, even if they want to exercise those powers in different areas – but they are only one part of the government. Voting for the right President is not a do or die affair: it is great for the media (and while they may not have liked Trump, they liked the attention he drew and the controversy around him) and perhaps more interesting to the public but I’m skeptical that a single good or bad leader can make all the difference.

I’d rather we view the American government as a complex system. Certain actors, like the President, may be more visible or powerful than others but they can rarely act unilaterally.

A zoning paradox: sacred residential spaces are dependent on their market values

The last page of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA lays out a key paradox in the American zoning system:

Isn’t it ironic that American residential space is so sacredly residential (so protected from intrusion through land-use law, that is) only because it is so commercial (because it is an object of trade rather than an object of our sentiments)?

Perhaps this another piece of evidence that single-family homes are one of the biggest objects of American consumption as well as key pieces in the American economic system.

The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?

Comparing the architecture of Chicago and LA

If baseball teams from two cities square off, why not use it as an opportunity to compare the architecture of the two locations? “Chicago vs. Los Angeles: Which city has the better architecture, public art, and parks?” Here are the comparisons in the iconic skyscraper and landmark categories:

Willis Tower

During much of the twentieth century, Chicago was a merchant city and the biggest name in the business was Sears. In the late ‘60s, the company decided to build a new headquarters and tapped Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design what would become the tallest building in the world. Designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan, the building’s “bundled tube” design not only allowed it to reach new heights, but to also make a grand gesture in the Chicago skyline. With an official height of 1,450 feet (1,729 feet if you include its antennas), the tower held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed.

US Bank Tower

The tallest building on the West Coast—until about six weeks ago, anyway—is strong and mighty—it was built to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. But that hasn’t mattered much to filmmakers. It’s such a standout building that director Roland Emmerich targeted it in no less than three of his blockbuster disaster films; Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, Tornadoes swept through it in The Day After Tomorrow, and it was felled by an earthquake (presumably above 8.3) in 2012. Completed in 1989, it was designed by architect Henry N. Cobb, who outfitted the structure with its signature crown. This year, the tower unveiled a terrifying glass slide that suspends riders above the street 1,000 feet below. (Even the engineer admitted it’d be “scary as hell” to ride in an earthquake)…

Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower in many ways is a reminder of Chicago’s ability to endure through difficult times. The 154-foot tall limestone structure is a physical connection to the city’s early days as it is one of the rare buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which wiped out most the city’s downtown. Today, it is surrounded by towering skyscrapers but remains a popular tourist destination and symbol of Chicago’s strength and determination.

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark this side of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hollywood Sign has come to stand in for so much—show business, fame, excess—but is locally a symbol of the city’s complicated relationship with growth and change. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was merely an ostentatious billboard advertising a new subdivision during a 1920s development boom. Later, when it had become a recognizable local landmark, preservationists sought to restore and preserve the sign. And now, with tourists from around the world flocking to Beachwood Canyon to get a closer look at those giant letters, it’s apparently become the bane of local residents’ existence—some of whom have proposed dismantling the sign entirely.

If we are comparing the most iconic representatives of each categories, the cities may be closer than many realize. Chicago is widely recognized as a capital of architecture yet Los Angeles has a good number of interesting and well-known buildings and designs. Additionally, the “feeling” of each place – spatially, culturally – is quite different so it could be hard to make direct comparisons. Yet, I would guess that if we went with quantity as well as history, Chicago would be a more clear cut winner.

I would be interested to see how many architects worked in both cities. In other words, were they separate architectural worlds or was there a lot of back and forth? Given that the two cities are so different, I wonder how much overlap is possible and then how much either the cities or architects would want to broadcast such overlap.

Coming soon: more fully automated parking garages

Adding more automated parking garages could lead to more saved time and space:

Right now in the U.S., 22 garages already are using automated systems to store and retrieve vehicles, and it’s starting to scale up. Ground is breaking soon on a parking structure for a mixed-use development in Oakland, California, and it is claimed to be the newest such fully automated structure in the San Francisco Bay Area—and one of relatively few to allow public access (it will be visitor parking) and to be unmanned. The structure’s footprint is just 1600 square feet, the size required by seven surface-parking spots, yet it has 39 parking spaces over seven levels.

What it amounts to is virtually a dumbwaiter for cars. You drive the vehicle past a height sensor, then through a garage doorway and onto a platform—which itself is on what look like the tracks you’d find at an automatic carwash. Following instructions on a screen, you exit your vehicle, and visit a kiosk to get a ticket that you use to retrieve the vehicle upon your return. The system rotates the vehicle, loads it onto an elevator, and then stores it away on the appropriate shelf, potentially several stories up or down in a narrow-footprint building.

Retrieval, according to CityLift, the company behind the development, takes less than two minutes after inserting the ticket.

This summary is missing one key piece of information: how does this work financially? Putting more cars into less space should generate more revenue but this technology could be costly to purchase and maintain. In other words, how attractive would this option be to developers and owners of parking lots and garages?

I wonder how this might alter an experience I had in an underground garage in Chicago earlier this year. This particular garage was long and narrow with the lengthy side going away from the entrance. When we drove into the garage, it wasn’t much of a problem: we found the attendant and he had plenty of time to go find a spot further back in the garage. However, our return after a large sporting event concluded was more problematic. One side of the garage had cars stacked two deep, the other side had them stacked three deep, and the one attendant was running back and forth to bring cars up to the front of the garage. We were fortunate to be closer to the front of the line but I’m sure others behind us waited over an hour to have their car retrieved. Two minutes retrieval would be a significant help in this situation as would having fewer cars total in the garage (this helps with a rush of people coming in or out at the same time).

Once a home is labeled a McMansion, can it be redeemed?

McMansionHell recently examined a home in Flower Mound, Texas. A real estate insider asks what the listing agent is now supposed to do:

I post this not to be mean, because obviously this home has people who love it and it is someone’s home, no matter how much of a “mound” it is. There are some very pretty parts. I post it because I truly want your opinion: what would you do with a listing like this to make it more appealing?

A good question for either a real estate agent or a homeowner. With McMansion almost never serving as a positive term, I assume having a home labeled a McMansion is not going to (1) help with the selling price or (2) entice buyers. Even when such homes were really popular, I don’t think too many people would label the homes McMansions to help their cause.

Crazy idea: could you shame people and damage their lives by outing McMansion owners and agents who sell such homes? If you don’t like suburbs – and there are plenty of people who can’t stand them, including a number in academia – this could be an individual level strategy to discourage people from living there. Or perhaps some wealthy McMansion critic could buy up such homes and redevelop the property (presumably with structures they liked better or they could provide a memorial garden).