by Father William J. Byron, SJ
Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” has provoked a lot of commentary from the left, right, and center of the ideological spectrum.
The book’s subtitle, “The State of White America, 1960-2010,” explains to some extent why readers would be curious. But something else is driving the well-deserved attention that Murray’s book is receiving.
A self-declared libertarian and an acknowledged leader among social scientists, Murray says his book “deals with the divergence between the professional and working classes in white America over the last half century.” He argues that the divergence in these two social classes, if it continues, “will end what has made America America.”
What has made America America? Murray identifies four “founding virtues” that help to explain what America has been and might continue to be. They are industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. All, in his view, are now on the decline, increasingly in the working classes than in the professional.
America is “coming apart” in a cultural divide between these two classes. Our future depends on the viability and enhancement of all four virtues everywhere in America.
Limiting his analysis to white America removes racism and the experience of slavery from consideration as contributory factors to our present national condition.
The divide Murray identifies is symbolized by two fictional geographic areas into which he lumps all those studied in this book – Belmont, a suburb of Boston, and Fishtown, a predominantly white working-class section in NE Philadelphia. Each has sharply contrasting demographics.
Belmont, for Murray, means well-educated, white-collar, managerial and professional employment; Fishtown means no academic degree beyond a high school diploma and, for those who work, low-skill employment primarily in construction and the service sector.
As to the founding virtues, they are on the decline in both Belmont and Fishtown but more precipitously, says Murray, in the Fishtowns of America.
Murray assigns about 20% of the white population in the U.S., ages 30 to 49, to Belmont; and about 30% of whites in the same age group to Fishtown. This class division has been widening since the 1960s.
The whole country would surely benefit from a fresh infusion of the four founding virtues. A recommitment to industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity would transform individuals and communities, businesses and civic life.
Commitment in all of its forms (and in the areas of life related to each of the four founding virtues) is a category calling for examination as we assess our present condition and look to the future.
Murray sees a new upper-class culture in America and a new lower-class culture. If the four founding virtues are to be resuscitated in each, the transmitters of culture – family, schools and religious, recreational and cultural institutions – have a lot of work ahead.[hr] Father Byron is the former president of Catholic University, Washington, D.C.