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BB&T Center Lecture Series Hosts Political Journalist Timothy Carney

Award-winning and best-selling author, columnist, editor and political journalist Timothy Carney recently came to Mount St. Mary’s University at the invitation of the Richard J. Bolte, Sr. School of Business’s BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism to present a lecture on how faith-based universities can help heal alienated America.

carney-in-text.jpgJohn D. Larrivee, Ph.D., associate professor of economics and director of the BB&T Center, challenged the audience to question why their service matters. 

“Every institution encourages you to get out and serve. But why?” Larrivee asked. “As you learned from your parents, the love, encouragement and inspiration of others comes best through personal relationships. What we call civil society—families, churches, civic organizations, soccer teams and clubs—are where those relationships most naturally blossom and people flourish. And some of our most challenging social problems will only be best solved when those relationships, your personal service, of civil society can be empowered to help,” he said before introducing Carney.

“My story is not about politics,” Carney began. “It’s about the American Dream and the widely held view that the American Dream is dead. So, it’s a story about work; it’s a story about family; it’s a story about faith; it’s a story about community. But, to some extent, it’s a story about how Donald Trump became the president of the United States.”

Carney shared insights from his book titled Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. In it, he explores the dissolution of organizations like places of worship, nuclear families and civic organizations that provide individuals with social connection, sense of worth and belief in community. In a speech given in July 2015, Donald Trump said, “The American Dream is dead.” Carney used this statement as a framework for his inquiry.

Carney’s story, fitting for a political journalist, began in Iowa. “And because I’m an Irish Catholic, the story begins in a bar,” he joked. At Joe’s Place, his first research site in Iowa City, Iowa, before the caucuses, he discovered Trump’s words resonated with individuals who had never voted but waited in line for hours to attend a rally. “Something about Donald Trump brought them out,” said Carney, who’d covered elections since 2000. In Orange City, Iowa, he found an outlier, and the thesis material for his book.

“What I found, in this very Dutch, very conservative Christian county, was Donald Trump’s single worst performance in the Iowa caucuses—followed closely by two of the most educated counties in Sioux County, Iowa.” Why?

He traveled to western Michigan where he continued learning about a new demographic, a Dutch vote, no other reporter had discovered. What he found was a community of people who looked after their neighbors. In another local bar, the husband of a college professor summarized their town: “People here look after anybody who needs help.” Carney believed this high trust in neighbors amounted to a safety net against inequality and drug abuse.

At Judy’s Place, a diner, in Oostburg, Wisconsin, he figured out what was driving the Dutch communities to be so cohesive. “What I saw there made clear to me what should have been very obvious: The families came pouring in from the 9 a.m. services at First Reformed Church and then 9 a.m. at Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian. Then the families came in at 9:15 a.m. from the First Presbyterian Church and then the 9:30 a.m. services at the First Christian Reformed Church—all in this village of 2,000,” he said. Carney believes churches are the drivers of strong communities.

“The reason there’s a church on the front cover of the book is that 50% of all civic activity in the United States originates in the church,” Carney said, citing research from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. “If you’re writing about what people belong to, if you’re talking at all about the middle and working class, if you’re talking about anybody except for the wealthiest and most educated, if you talk about what people belong to, you talk about church.”

He believes as churches fade from the center of middle and working class life, people are left with few things to belong to and thus become alienated. “The plague of alienation is a plague of secularization in this country,” said Carney, who also pointed to over-centralized government and a hyper-individualized economy as root causes. “Failures of the church, particularly my church, the Catholic church, have driven people away.” 

His research took him to Smitty’s Garage Burgers and Beer in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, where he met people who believed Trump’s words that the American Dream was dead. In his book, Carney writes that contributing factors to disillusioned communities include lower church attendance, higher drug use, lower marriage rates, higher rates of mental illness and high unemployment. Individuals in these communities lack purpose, belonging and self-esteem; they had a sense of pointlessness.

What can individuals do to help heal alienation? “Build institutions of civil society!” Carney exclaimed.

To demonstrate his point, Carney showed the audience a slide of Knott Arena. “The Knotts decided the way they would give back was by building up institutions of civil society. They had money and they spent it to make this school greater with more meeting grounds and more opportunities for people to thrive,” he said.

Carney showed a second basketball court with the St. Andrew Apostle’s 12 and under girl’s basketball team. Carney coached the team after being asked to volunteer by a fellow parish member. “Number 33 there, Larry Bird’s number, that’s my daughter.” He zoomed in on the jersey and pointed out a logo sponsorship from Al Weaver.

“I never met Al Weaver,” he said. While he didn’t have much money, he did have a love of basketball and coached the team for many years, dedicating his time and attention. “He made sure that St. Andrews wasn’t just some place where we did our religion on Sundays, but was a place that brought kids together, that gave other parents a sense of purpose, that formed us into being, that gave the kinds of experiences that so many of you had. My plea to every individual in this room is be like Al Weaver,” he said.

What can the Mount do? Carney offers suggestions: Become a servant to local parishes and local Catholic high schools, local adoption agencies, an addiction treatment organization, or a marriage counseling nonprofit. He imagines the Mount offering basic legal, marketing, accounting, logistical support and research to help others build community and make sure they belong. “A Catholic, Christian, Jewish or religious school is going to be more fit to do these things,” he noted.

“Economists don’t like talking about this. It’s hard to measure belonging,” he said. “We believe that not everything can be measured in these sorts of humanistic views, especially one that believes in the individual as something infinitely valuable, created in the image of God, that can allow you to accept the kinds of conclusions that other researchers won’t.”

Carney’s message reinforced that you serve God by loving your neighbor and you treat individuals as valuable and made in the likeness of God. “We know that individual human needs are not simply material. If you don’t attend to those less material needs, you end up getting very material costs,” he said. “That’s what I saw that day in Smitty’s.” The message in his book is clear: The plague of the working class in America is alienation.

“My analysis. My plea, as individuals, is be the people who build up civil society. As an institution, become that resource that is a servant of civil society,” Carney concluded.