Saturday, December 04, 2004

Red v. Blue State lifestyles (or religion & education -- both have social utility):

Great article by Andrew Sullivan on ironic demographic differences between the red states v. the blue. The bottom line: the red states talk the morality talk, while the blue states walk the walk.

Texas and Massachusetts. In some ways, they were the two states competing in the last election. In the world's imagination, you couldn't have two starker opposites. One is the homeplace of Harvard, gay marriage, high taxes, and social permissiveness. The other is Bush country, solidly Republican, traditional, and gun-toting.

So ask yourself a simple question: which state has the highest divorce rate? Marriage was a key issue in the last election, with Massachusetts' gay marriages becoming a symbol of alleged blue state decadence and moral decay. But in actual fact, Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country at 2.4 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants. Texas - which until recently made private gay sex a criminal offence - has a divorce rate of 4.1.

And the pattern is generally applicable throughout the entire country. In fact, "The Bible Belt divorce rate, in fact, is roughly 50 percent higher than the national average." And it's not just on the divorce issue, but on a whole host of others -- teen births, abortions, etc., as well.

And then he has some marvelous anecdotes re: public figures most famous for defending the "red state" ethos:

Even a cursory look at the leading members of the forces of social conservatism in America reveals the same pattern. The top conservative talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, has had three divorces and an addiction to pain-killers. The most popular conservative television personality, Bill O'Reilly, just settled a sex harassment suit that indicated a highly active adulterous sex life. Bill Bennett, the guru of the social right, was for many years a gambling addict. Karl Rove's chief outreach manager to conservative Catholics for the last four years, Deal Hudson, also turned out to be a man with a history of sexual harassment. Bob Barr, the conservative Georgian congressman who wrote the "Defense of Marriage Act," has had three wives so far. The states which register the highest ratings for the hot new television show, "Desperate Housewives," are all Bush-states.

Let me make a couple of comments. I think Sullivan briefly hits on what, other than blatant hypocrisy, might greatly explain this irony: "There's some correlation too between rates of college education and stable marriages, with the Bible Belt lagging a highly educated state like Massachusetts."

This is too important for Sullivan's brief one sentence "maybe." George Washington's comments from his farewell address are apropos to this whole issue:

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Sullivan's analysis casts doubt on the truth of Washington's statement, which implies a strong correlation between morality and religious belief. However, I think there is definitely *something* to Washington's sentiment. Reading the entire lecture in context, this passage, often cited as proof of Washington's pious belief, has a nuanced message that most don't fully appreciate. In this speech, Washington does not say that he was an orthodox Christian (because he wasn't), nor did he say that he believed the Christian religion to be true (he doesn't even use the word "Christianity"). Rather he made a fairly, what would now be characterized as "Straussian" argument: If we examine human nature, human beings often behave very badly. And religion -- devout religious belief in particular -- is something that helps to "keep people in line" so to speak. But, according to Washington, religion isn't the only thing that can do this: "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure...." Washington, basically, noted that philosophy or (elite) education, can serve the same "civilizing" function, as religion. Back then, it was more important for Washington to focus on religion, because an elite philosophical education simply was not available to the masses (nor did most have the "minds" for it); but religion was readily available (and you didn't need a "mind of a peculiar structure" to partake in it).

And nowadays most people still don't go onto finish their bachelors and get their masters degrees. But 1) because of our egalitarian ethic, a greater % of society now has the ability to become "well-educated" and 2) those that do tend to be more successful, earn greater incomes, accumulate greater wealth, and lead more orderly, productive and dare I say moral lives than those who don't. And a great many of these folks are also political and social liberals.

I'm not an expert sociologist and these demographic issues can get quite complicated. A great deal of the elite, upper-middle class and rich are red state conservative-Republicans. And many poor, uneducated folks with high crime and abortion rates, disproportionately concentrated among ethnic minorities, are blue state Democrats. But if we examine the typical "liberal Democrat" from say, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, or even the typical Northeastern Republican or swing voter (who tend to be socially and culturally liberal -- see Arlen Specter, Bill Weld, etc.) we are more likely to see a well-educated, middle class, elite individual. And such a person is likely to be living a fairly productive, orderly, responsible life.

Now, we could argue that such a person lives a responsible, conservative lifestyle, while believing in whacky irresponsible things that they personally would not partake in. For instance, many white Northeastern liberals back in the 60s and 70s supported aggressive welfare programs for the poor. Virtually none of these elites ever went on such programs; and it could be argued that such programs terribly harmed the poor. Many white middle class liberals are loath to cast "judgment" on a girl who has an out-of-wedlock birth, but relatively very few of the girls in their families do this.

Sullivan's article notes that the irony also exists on a global basis:

Or take abortion. America is one of the few Western countries where the legality of abortion is still ferociously disputed. It's a country where the religious right is arguably the strongest single voting bloc, and in which abortion is a constant feature of cultural politics. Compare it to a country like Holland, perhaps the epitome of socially liberal, relativist liberalism. So which country has the highest rate of abortion? It's not even close. America has an abortion rate of 21 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44. Holland has a rate of 6.8. Americans, in other words, have three times as many abortions as the Dutch. Remind me again: which country is the most socially conservative?

Again, I think this can be explained by the fact that many of these European nations have a well-educated populace. Statistics show that levels of education, literacy, etc., strongly correlate with low violent crime, high per-capita income, high wealth, etc. -- in general, the best educated places, tend to be the most livable, "civilized" places. Whether it be in Japan, or Singapore, or the Netherlands or Sweden, the pattern is there.

And we ought not simply conclude, "Education is the solution." So just dump money into public education. There are other factors -- complicated, sociocultural factors -- that explain why places as different as the Netherlands, Cambridge-Massachusetts, or Japan have managed to become well-educated, orderly, and civilized.

Another thing I've noticed regarding religion -- notably with new converts -- is that it has especial utility for those people whose lives are most out of control. People who have had substance abuse problems, problems with violent crime, etc. There are some people (but certainly not all of us) who really do need something, like religion, to keep them in line. And I personally have seen (or otherwise know of) devout religious conversions work in certain instances.

Take prison programs. There is some evidence that religious conversion works to rehabilitate criminal offenders. However, there is also evidence that education programs rehabilitate criminals. This is important to note because out of the 4 classic rationales for criminal punishment -- deterrence, restraint, rehabilitation, and retribution -- rehabilitation has been an abysmal failure, given recidivism rates. Very few things work, and while I am loathe to spend tax dollars to benefit criminals, if these folks are going to come out of prison, I'd like them to come out less dangerous. And both religion and education programs seem to be part of the very few, perhaps the only things that work.

I have heard proponents of religion rhetorically ask something along the lines of: If, while walking down the street at night, you encountered two groups of males, one group coming from a rap concert, the other coming from a Bible study, with which would you feel safer? Obviously, I'd feel safer with the Bible study group. Yet, I'd feel safest when encountering a group of males comprised of Volvo-driving, NPR listening, red-wine drinking college educated liberals.


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