One of the things that I've been struck by when I check out my profile on Facebook is that this is a great way to reconnect with your high school class. Unlike many of my friends, I have not kept up with anybody much from high school. I moved on, they moved on or not, and that was that. I was happy to distance myself from an institution that in retrospect was about as fascist as it gets, though I was fond of many people in that institution. It's just Flint is now part of my past, and I don't have a lot of reason or inclination to return.
Mostly, I've been struck, after checking out their profiles, by how many of the people I graduated with have turned at some point in their lives to fundamentalist or conservative Christianity, often people I never would have pegged in this way. As somebody who identifies with the liberal, really left-wing branch of Christianity, I'm always taken aback when I see someone profess their faith so very openly on the Internet. For example, a lot of them list "Jesus Christ" as their chief interest, the Bible as their favorite book, and so on. So many of them identify themselves with this brand of Christianity that I thought that there must be some connection with this and the fact that we all graduated from a high school on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan.
And I think that there is. I've been thinking about this since we had a discussion of "gender panic" in my lgbt studies class (see, I told you that I was one of those hopelessly liberal Christians) and noted that people feel the need to calcify gender roles in times of stress, when the rules start to change and people are on unsure footing. We see this in all sorts of ways, not just that of gender roles; I'd be hard-pressed to explain the Tea Party movement except as a way to disgruntled people to give themselves some kind of sure, absolute ground on which to stand and hense denounce everything around them. And I think that this explains why so many Kearsley class of '79 graduates are now conservative Christians.
If you never lived there, it's hard to explain Flint and the kind of systemic economic divestment that has racked the place since the early '80s. Detroit is the current poster child for urban nightmare (having lived there three years, I can contest this hotly while not denying the problems), but I think Flint may have it worse: it was such a one-horse town, economically speaking, and the hundreds of thousands of auto jobs that left are now clearly never coming back. Ever. Not to the United States, not just not to Flint. It's hard to explain a city that now could potentially fill only one high school when it had four when you lived there. When every school that you attended there is now closed. When the entire huge manufacturing complex your dad worked at has been razed to the ground. All 80 acres of it. When it's just one of the complexes of that size and scope that's been totally razed.
If anybody would need something to hang on to, it's Flintites, and even those who have left have gotten by, I guess, by hanging onto something that gives them, if not hope -- that's long gone -- at least stability. Something to believe in is a powerful, needed thing, and I bet that this is why so many people I knew way back when have somehow found themselves conservative Christians. It's not the path I would have chosen for them, and certainly not for myself; I find that any theology that provides all the answers without raising questions, or allowing you the luxury of raising questions, or even doubt, is no theology at al -- or at least not a theology that deals with the messy business of being human. But I can certainly understand the appeal of such a theology.
As a case in point, let's take -- well, let's call her "Beth." Her Facebook page proclaims clearly, "I follow Jesus" where you're given a space to say a word about yourself. And judging from her postings, she does, and devoutly. She also has raised a daughter on her own; she became pregnant shortly after graduating without the usual procedure of being married and having a husband. I am guessing that compared to her siblings, all of whom did marry in the usual manner of things, this was a somewhat shameful thing to do. (In the interest of full disclosure, this is not merely speculation. I know the family, and I bet my reading is accurate.) She did not go to college, though since this time she has gotten an associate's in a health-related field. In the meantime, though,I am guessing that she has put food on the table with a job, whatever job, whatever would put the food on the table.
And you know what? She's raised what appears to be a terrific daughter. She is close to her sisters and clearly enjoys seeing them. She has many friends in the area and gets together with them a lot. Her daughter has just graduated from college and is now off on her own. In short, Beth managed to have a family and be a family on one income and with some familial disapproval in the metro area with the toughest economic situation in the country. I am also guessing -- and I am dead sure about this -- that one of the reasons she was able to do this was that she "follows Jesus."
For all my knee-jerk disapproval of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity -- and as a gay man, I have plenty to disapprove of -- I have to give it credit: at its best, it can provide a structure that makes in possible for a Beth to raise a child. It's not my structure, and I know that there are lots of other ways to raise a child, equally valid and equally effective. Beth could have chosen any of them, and things probably would've worked out. But that's not the point. The point is that having a strong core of belief, whatever it may be, allowed her to ignore or at least deal with the economic train wreck surrounding her, focus on the future, and get the food on the table that got her daughter through all of school and college. And do it alone. If following Jesus got Beth where she is today, well, bully for it.
And I'm convinced that this is why so many Flintites follow this brand of Christianity. It's tough, it's intolerant, it's inflexible, and it's frankly often mean-spirited. But "tough" cuts both ways: "bullying" is one aspect of it, but "strong-willed" in the best possible sense is the other. Inflexibility makes me crazy, but if I were raising a child alone, I think having rules for us both to follow that don't have wiggle room would be an absolute advantage; you and the child, in the absence of another parent, would always know where things stood.
I would not raise a child of my own this way. But Beth's very beautiful daughter is proof that it can work. It makes me rethink my own attitudes toward Christians that I don't always -- OK, never -- see eye to eye with on pretty much anything. And it makes me wonder: if I had stayed in the Flint area, what would I have hung my beliefs on while the city crumbled around me?