Growth Cycles

21 05 2012

I keep chewing over the role of growth in the development of the United States. At the moment, it seems a bit like the royal road into the American (un)consciousness. I’m sure some of that is just the excitement of finding a new approach to this material. Still, there is much that can be worked by exploring these avenues. Without undertaking the journey quite yet, I want to layout a rough outline of the map this approach suggests.

First, there is a discussion to be had about the nature of the elites spawned through this process of growth. It seems to me that in many cases, the shifts between one elite and the next is not one of radical discontinuity, of an entirely different community of people overtaking another, but of one elite bifurcating.

The old elite remains in place and members of it move into the new terrain growth opens. These children of the old elite, with the habits of power, make much use of their new environment. We can think of this proverbially as the younger brother outdoing his elder. The family remains intact, no doubt, but the way in which power is distributed shifts.

I am unsure whether or not this holds with the shift toward the industrial elite. I can’t help but wonder here about the role of immigration (whether chosen or forced, internal or external), in shaping the emergence of urban industrial centers as political powers. Some of these very clearly have ties to old systems of power, but others less so.

Second, this speaks to the overall character of U.S. religion. The movements are growth-centered, adapted to move quickly. The famed ‘burned over’ districts of the country, the popularity of charismatic religion without heavy ritual apparatus, the tendency of its religious movements toward fracture and division, all bear evidence to this. The famed brevity and flexibility of the U.S. government’s Constitution is thus mirrored in a comparable brevity in its religious life.

On this point, we might argue that the force of the most strident atheists today derives from much the same tendency. The criticisms leveled at religion by them are mirrored by the criticisms leveled by U.S. Protestants of rival religious forms. Just as 19th-century Evangelicals saw superstition in the too-complex ritual forms of Catholics, so contemporary atheists see superstition in any ritual form.

The criticism of superstition seems to intensify alongside the nation’s growth, suggesting that part of what is at stake in the attack on superstition is the individuality of religious practices and people. The destabilizing effects of growth on communities is paralleled in the destabilization of established forms of religion.

If the growth patterns that have defined the U.S. to date shift, then that suggests the patterns of community, too, will shift.

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