A “sensory-deadening” dystopia. A bleak and brutalist hellscape. A soulless structure whose ugly construction befits its immoral purpose.
Patrick Deneen’s dark description is worthy of a place where real evil transpires. Coming from a Catholic commentator, it could easily depict a Soviet gulag, or an abortion clinic, or the execution chamber at a federal prison. But Deneen, a Notre Dame professor and blogger for The American Conservative, is describing none of these things.
He is writing about a strip mall.
In a post entitled “Even if Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose,” Deneen argues that Christians who cheer on the retailer in its religious freedom lawsuit are missing the broader point. Sure, he allows, Hobby Lobby deserves to win this case. But ultimately, it—“like every chain store of its kind”—aids and abets a worldwide evil: the spread of global capitalism.
Deneen articulates a standard traditionalist critique. He charges that free enterprise economies artificially and harmfully separate markets and morals, that modern societies have unwisely “liberated” commerce from the “moral and religious norms” that once constrained it. He alleges that capitalism transforms the real people it touches into the self-serving, money-grubbing “rational actors” that star in its theoretical models. Deneen pines for a previous era when economics were geared more towards “community order and [the] flourishing of families,” and less fixated on delivering maximum stuff for minimal cost.
This old narrative is popular but profoundly misguided. Its rose-tinted view of the past is a fiction, its complaints about the present are hyperbole, and its prescription for future action is nonexistent. It needs to be put out to pasture.
Free Enterprise Has Radically Improved the World
For starters, precisely when was the past period that Deneen praises? How did ordinary people then live? It is easy to wax poetic about the simplicity of bygone eras from the comforts of a modern office. But is there any evidence whatsoever that the lived experience of men and women ruled by the Church in feudal Europe was more transcendently fulfilling than ours? Bemoaning the downfall of past golden ages is a classic conservative pastime, but we must be careful not to gloss over flaws in the past and ignore positive features of the present.
And while cross-century happiness comparisons are hazy, we know for certain that free enterprise has executed the greatest antipoverty achievement in human history. The proportion of the world’s population trapped in chronic deprivation has collapsed. Average life expectancy and physical health have soared. Even the poorest people in most countries enjoy a rudimentary standard of material comfort that would have been unimaginable in the eras Deneen idealizes. We’re not talking about crass consumerism, but about food, water, and medicine for billions across the globe. These miracles, no less than “crumpled fast food wrappers,” are the fruits of free trade and globalization.
We cannot ignore all this progress by saying that living standards are too materialistic a yardstick. Scripture and Church teaching both place heavy emphasis on just this sort of physical relief. To a Christian, these are spiritually meaningful gains, and it is far from obvious that the worrisome trends of today overshadow them. Hey, medieval farmers may have been cold, hungry, and sick, but at least they weren’t socioeconomically “disembedded”! To everyone outside the academy, this is absurd on its face.
Traditionalism Now Requires Pluralism
These are just some of the social benefits of free enterprise. What of its social costs? Deneen is absolutely right to doubt that a society of atomized, individualistic consumers who see ethical commerce as government’s job and not their own is what we should aspire to be. But in his haste to condemn our culture’s emphasis on autonomy and individual choice, he forgets that his own preferred model is itself an option which citizens may choose.
We can all breathe intentionality into our economic lives. We can patronize family businesses, purchase locally and traditionally crafted products, or explore “opting out” of modernity in much more dramatic ways. Deneen’s artisanal economy in which everyone knows their neighbors is no longer the only option available to us, but it is emphatically still an option. In fact, it will continue to become a more viable option for more people in more ways. This is thanks not to anti-market policies, but to the new flexibility that free enterprise and rising prosperity bring. Paradoxically, only people who have attained a certain level of basic security through the mechanisms Deneen decries can be as intentional about their consumption as he rightly challenges them to be.
And if liberty and pluralism were ever the mortal enemies of tradition, they certainly aren’t today. Conservative Christians are no longer a culturally dominant force. They do not have the luxury of pondering how firmly they should grip the reins. Whether traditionalists should steer every aspect of society as we see fit or leave individuals more freedom to err is not a question that bears any relationship to reality in 2014. On most issues, the pertinent question is how much space conservatives can cordon off from an increasingly secular society to live and worship as they please.
The Hobby Lobby case illustrates this about as clearly as anything could. The very lawsuit that prompted Deneen to condemn “choice” and autonomy shows why his own values need that liberty to survive. Deneen is confident that Christian communitarianism is the most satisfying dish at the long buffet of lifestyles that modernity makes available, and that people would be much better off if they stopped gorging on everything else. But this does not change the simple fact that if modern society closes the buffet and implements a prix-fixe model, it will not be traditionalists who set the menu.
The challenges that Deneen spotlights are real. Norms and values that were once the default inheritance of generations must now be deliberately sought. Virtue must be willfully and forcibly carved from of the rock of modern life.
But with new obstacles come new paths to grace. Even if moral living was easier when our worlds were smaller, ease and automaticity have never been the point. Christianity holds that Truth is a road we must freely choose to walk, not a carefully-fenced trail where straying off course is impossible. Individual choice and agency may not make our spiritual lives simpler, but it makes them uniquely rewarding. If capitalism has introduced the same wrinkle in our economic lives as well, we should rise to the challenge, not perpetually mourn a very imperfect past.
Rockin’ the Suburbs
One final point of personal privilege. In an essay full of oversimplification, Deneen never oversimplifies more than when he slanders suburban life. He devotes line after line to attacking the bleak “acres of cracked and barren pavement, awash in discarded plastic bags” on which millions of our countrymen go quietly about their lives. He goes so far as to call his local Hobby Lobby “about as profane imaginable a place on earth.” And “on the rare occasion” that he disdains to set foot in the strip mall and shop there himself,
amid the Chinese mass-produced crosses and the piped in Christian music, under the endless florescent lighting and displays carefully managed to optimize impulse buying, I am hardly moved to a state of piety, prayer, and thanksgiving.
Because Deneen cannot wring meaning from big-box stores and six-lane roads, we are meant to assume that no one can. But this elision of any distinction between personal aesthetic preferences and objective universal laws is as empirically false as it is politically problematic. As a happy son of the suburban Midwest, I can personally attest that plenty of good people have little difficulty finding much to worship and be thankful for, no matter what they drive or where their kids’ toys were constructed.
Erudite, comfortable people are always so bemused that middle-income Americans could possibly opt for a suburban life of cars, backyards, and affordable goods. The alternative, of course, is an urban life spent waiting for buses and watching the erudite, comfortable people enjoy boutique brunches that they will never be able to sample. For millions of our brothers and sisters without PhDs, the parking lots and mini-malls that Deneen dismisses are sites of real grace and meaning. They are places where paychecks are earned, conversations are shared, and the sanctification of even mundane work can transpire.
To fret that the architecture of suburban life somehow blots out the light of creation is to put far too little trust in the source of that light. Faith transcends time and place. Its light and warmth can radiate into all circumstances and scenarios. It is not some fragile phenomenon exclusively available to Wendell Berry wannabes.