When a friend sent me the link to this essay by a progressive bookstore employee, whose aching moral dilemma is whether to sell a book he disagrees with politically, my response was simple. I said, “American progressive culture has become mid-1990s homeschool chain email culture.” Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical, homeschool niche, I am quite familiar with the idea that there are certain ideas, expressed in certain books, movies, or rock albums, that people who want to keep their heart pure should just not entertain. This kind of avoidance ethic doesn’t feel strange to me. It feels nostalgic. If this blogger were talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets instead of Hillbilly Elegy, if he had used all the same anathemas and descriptions and moral superlatives but applied them to Hogwarts instead of Vance, I would know his story immediately.
What this tormented bookseller has so helpfully demonstrated in his piece is that you can take a man out of church, but you can’t take church out of a man. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor. For what feels like a huge slice of American culture, that heir is politics. God is dead, long live politics. This writer talks of Hillbilly Elegy not as if it were a piece of cultural criticism he dislikes, but as if it were a work of heresy that his very soul might be compromised by selling. I feel for him. I know the thought process he’s going through, because it’s the same thought process that prevented from me taking that high school job at the local video rental store, knowing there’d customers who wanted the films from the “back room.”
For this fellow’s moral dilemma, the attempts by New Atheists to find ethical guidance in biology are, as he probably secretly knows by now, ridiculous. Believing that our numinous sensations are neurological responses to biochemical reactions makes for some punchy Facebook memes, but it doesn’t help in a moment of true moral crisis. Human beings are built to believe. The question is not whether they will believe, but what they will believe if not God. For some, especially in our temples of higher education, to Believe means to be intersectional, to be committed body and spirit to a Tao of tolerance. For others, to Believe means to Look Inward, to Eat, Pray, and, to Love (at least, love those who aren’t bigots!).
The subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy–which is a book you should read–says, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Some smart people in our world say those words could just as easily apply to religion. Laugh these people out of the bookstore. Religious fervor is doing just fine. As Dylan said, “You gotta serve Somebody,” not talking about the customer.