In his novel Jayber Crow Wendell Berry raises the question of how a person can love and give themselves to something that is dying. Throughout the novel, Crow, the book’s protagonist, reflects on his life in Port William, a small Kentucky town that is dying. At one point he likens the town, which is suffering the same fate as so many other small American towns, to a person on the side of an icy slope—no matter how much they try to stay put, they can’t help slipping. Jayber Crow is the story of how one man tries to keep faith with a place that is dying. It is, thus, the story of how one man dies alongside the thing he loves.
In one sense that question of how one can die alongside the thing one loves is the question facing all human beings throughout time, of course. Our families, homes, neighborhoods, and churches are ever dying, as is the fate of all places, and we live in the hope that we can die well alongside them and by the grace of God enter into their life again in the resurrection.
Yet there is another significant way in which the questions facing Crow are quite distinct from those facing most contemporary Americans, both in their political life narrowly defined in terms of partisan politics and in their political life defined much more expansively in the life of their local places.
Jayber Crow must answer the question “How does one keep faith when a place is killed by urbanization and industrialism?” Many of us are faced with a different and possibly more difficult question: “How does one keep faith when a place succeeds according to the terms of urbanization and industrialism?” To keep faith with Port William, Jayber must simply go on living as he always has in the town, honoring its life and caring for its dwindling number of members. And when Jayber departs from the world, so will much of the memory of Port William save what lives on in the work and life of the Branch family who are, in most ways, the sole modern heirs of Port William in Berry’s fictional universe.
But most of us have not been tied to places like Port William. We are not members of the small towns, neighborhood churches, and small local organizations that have been driven into extinction by the cruel forces of capitalism unhinged from anything save greed and ambition. Rather, we are tied to the sorts of places and communities that have often grown and become more successful (in a manner of speaking) thanks to those things.
We are members of growing urban centers and booming megachurches that, in many cases, started out as something much smaller. And so the question facing us is different, in one way, from that question Jayber Crow spends a book trying to answer. We do not need to find ways of keeping faith with a place that is dying, which ultimately means something as simple yet demanding as dying alongside what we love. We, instead, must answer how one keeps faith with something that is growing yet perhaps failing in its own fidelity.
This is one of the live questions facing principled conservatives in relationship to the Republican party. Excluding for a moment the #NeverTrump crowd who have pledged to abstain from voting GOP if Donald Trump is the nominee, Republican voters are facing the question of how to keep faith with a party that, via the likely Trump nomination, is expanding its appeal to a disillusioned group of voters who have not reliably turned out for a presidential candidate in some time.
In this rather simplistic and maybe even crude manner of speaking, the GOP is not dying but is indeed growing. If you could combine the constituencies that tried and failed to nominate John McCain and Mitt Romney for the presidency with the constituency uniquely galvanized by Trump, you may well have a constituency large enough to put a Republican in the White House. After all, Romney still managed 47% of the vote in what was widely seen as a route of a 2012 election won by President Obama. If you could keep that (amusing, given Romney’s pre-election comments) figure of 47% and add to it the base behind Trump, you may well have a group large enough to win the 2016 election.
The question, of course, is what cost Republican voters are willing to pay to win that election. My senator, Ben Sasse, has said the price of supporting Trump is too high and he, at least, will not pay it. (Would that I could say the same of my state’s other—and far more craven—senator.) Others may yet follow his lead, although I doubt the number will be as high as it ought to be given Trump’s horrifying endorsement of war crimes in a recent debate along with the myriad other reasons the man is unfit for office. And so Republicans must ask themselves how to keep faith with a party that is, in one sense, “succeeding” but in a more important sense has failed.
Members of the GOP are hardly the only ones facing such questions. Members of growing, “successful” evangelical churches that grow to look more like large brands will face the same question as they try to struggle with the call to ordinary, quiet Christian fidelity while ostensibly belonging to communities that are often implicitly (or even explicitly!) hostile to those very virtues.
Members of growing urban areas will face this question too. Does loyalty to a place, for example, compel one to adjust in some way as that place turns into a modern day Potterville as the city is turned over to tech companies and other—marvelous euphemism—”developers.” (This is a question our family is asking itself as we consider our place in Lincoln, a city increasingly given over to the demands of the endlessly ambitious university and the city’s growing tech scene.)
Of course, there’s an important sense in which this question isn’t necessarily different from the one facing Jayber Crow. Though it’s seldom stated in explicit terms, it’s not entirely true that the town of Port William is dying, much as it may seem that way to Jayber and Hannah Coulter, the other character of whom Berry has written at some length from the small town’s later history. Both Jayber and Hannah make mention of the town’s new residents who have bought up the abandoned farms of older generations: They are weekend residents, commuters from the city who want to have a “country retreat” to come to as they are able. Thus what was once a farm maintained by a loved member of the community is now a residential development called “Shady Meadows” and is occupied by a bunch of itinerant residents who know nothing of the place or of the life that has been there in the past.
Given that the vows of fidelity have been transferable from one generation to the next in previous eras, one might ask why Jayber is unable or unwilling to welcome these new residents in the way that Mat Feltner welcomed him. They are, after all, the town’s future in as much as the town has one. So why can’t Jayber receive them in the same way he was received? Answer: Because the Port William that Jayber loves is an incomprehensible mystery to these new migrant residents. If Jayber is to keep faith with the Port William he has loved, then he must keep his distance, at the very least, from these new interloping threats to that place. (In a more functional scenario it would be possible for these new residents to slowly be received into the life of Port William. But given the power discrepancy between them and the older Port Williamites as well as the fact that these new residents are gone so much of the time, such a reconciliation is not really possible.)
Ultimately, then, Jayber does not keep faith with a place strictly speaking, but with a way of life embedded in a place. And so his loyalty is not transferrable to any party which happens to live in the geographic location once called Port William. Rather, his loyalty is to the way of life that the old Port William allowed to grow and thrive, that shaped people for generations, people whose loves and affections were molded to the life of that small place. Thus there is, in this call to keep faith with Port William, a call to resist those who would threaten it. If those devoted to the old ways of Christendom are to be of any use to the thing they wish to keep faith with, their churches and the commonwealth generally speaking, then they must come to understand this close relationship between fidelity and resistance.
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