A Brief Review of
The Big Sort:
Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart
By Bill Bishop
By Chris Smith
Journalist Bill Bishop (in collaboration with sociologist Robert Cushing) has in his new book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing us Apart offered us a significant work of cultural analysis in a similar vein as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Over the course of the book, Bishop tells the story of how the neighborhoods of our land are becoming more and more homogeneous. Bishop’s benchmark in this analysis is the 1976 presidential election and he notes that in the intervening thirty years, Americans – who are notoriously transient (4-5% move across a county line every year) – have been sorting themselves by moving into increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods. Bishop’s criteria for measuring homogeneity throughout the book is that of electoral politics, and although my post-constantinian theology with Anabaptist roots leads me to be ambivalent about most electoral politics, there was two facets of The Big Sort that stood out to me. First, I am intrigued by his thesis on a general level (i.e., broader than party politics), and I agree that there is great danger in cloistering ourselves among like-minded neighbors. As he concludes the book, Bishop highlights this danger in a quote from J. Walker Smith: “I worry that the traditional democratic notion of accommodating differences through compromise in order to sustain a shared way of life is going to fade away” (302). From a theological perspective, this danger could also be expressed in terms of losing sight of the unity of God’s creation, and of the love for all of God’s creatures to which we have been called. When we settle into a social network of like-minded people, there is a great temptation to demonize those who are not “like us.”
The second part of The Big Sort that was striking to me was the role of churches in the story of the big sort’s emergence. Bishop begins his chapter on churches by noting that “American churches today are more culturally and politically segregated than our neighborhoods” (159). Bishop attributes this segregation to the application of Donald McGavran’s homogeneous unit principle within the church growth movement, the result of which was the rise of the mega-church. Toward the close of the book, however, Bishop returns to his examination of the role of churches in the big sort and looks at two emerging churches, noting their diversity and at the same time their ambivalence toward partisan politics and “America’s grand narrative”(301) in general. He emphasizes that in these churches a change toward diversity is happening. On a national level, however, Bishop is less optimistic. The book’s final chapter, which covers the stories of these emerging churches, as well as Bishop’s conclusion, raises – perhaps unintentionally – a pointed question: what role should churches play in working toward the healing of a fragmented national identity? With the scriptural depiction of the church as its own nation ( I Peter 2:9 ) in mind, I am inclined to answer this question toward the minimal end of the spectrum. However, I cannot forget our call to be peacemakers and lovers of our enemies, and these callings would seemingly lead us toward some larger co-operative groups, perhaps beyond the narrative of nation-states (or empires).
Bishop’s work in The Big Sort, is to be lauded for its exposition of the cultural phenomena in our land that are driving us toward segregation. In response, we as churches should reflect on this excellent work, confess our complicity in the sins that it names and prayerfully discern how we should start to move beyond homogeneity.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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