Wheaton, Illinois, the “evangelical Mecca” long before anyone had ever heard of Colorado Springs, has been my home for the last 28 years. Christine and I came here when I was offered a job writing about missions. We have raised our three children here, found a church we love, and pursued our version of the American Dream in this idyllic Midwestern jewel.
According to Money magazine, Wheaton is No. 27 on its listing of “best places to live,” because of our rich history, cultural life, and economy. Livability.com ranks the city as its 48th best place to live, citing our healthy salaries, access to quality health care, and world-famous Wheaton College. “The city is only 30 miles from all the big-city offerings of Chicago,” the site adds, “but Wheaton residents enjoy the perks of a tight-knit community where people take care of each other.”
As someone who has benefited from our parks, museums, dining options, low crime rate, Christian influence—it is said, with only slight exaggeration, that you can find a church on every corner—and overall neighborliness, I concur. Despite the long and sometimes brutal winters, our family has been more than blessed to live here. It’s not uncommon, at least in our church, to come across extended families that have called Wheaton home for three, four, or even five generations.
But things are changing, and not always for the better.
While Christine and I were driving through a nearby neighborhood on a brilliant, late-October afternoon, I spotted an eight-foot-wide sign in someone’s front yard proclaiming that it is time to “take back our democracy.” Now colorful political signs supporting one candidate or another have been a perennial staple here, popping up in yards and on parkways before our frequent elections.
In recent years, however, I have seen many more signs proliferating in once-sleepy Wheaton—and these signs come with a decided political edge. A common one on immigration says, “We Are Not Afraid,” apparently assuming that neighbors holding a different view are afraid. Another one I have seen states challengingly: “Science is Not a Liberal Conspiracy.”
After the city council passed a controversial residential speed limit of 25 miles per hour a couple of months ago, suddenly scores of professionally designed signs popped up, touting the safety benefits. Apparently, there are now whole websites devoted to yard signs with political and cultural messages. One online retailer offers to sell you 100 signs for $100, with same-day shipping available.
I have a theory about Wheaton’s sudden signage, which is covering our well-manicured lawns like fall pumpkins at the nearby Morton Arboretum: There is an inverse relationship between the use of angry yard signs and the connectedness of our community. The more signs, the fewer relationships.
The evidence for my theory is mainly anecdotal. While the Wheaton ideal may be neighbors chatting over the back fence, children riding their bikes on tree-lined streets, and boisterous block parties in the summer, most days the city’s streets and yards seem eerily quiet. While there are still lots of park programs and team sports options (which consume the schedules of harried parents seeking to give their children every advantage), I rarely see young people outside, playing an unscheduled baseball game or drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. Maybe they’re all inside, glued to social media or filling out college applications. Or maybe there are just fewer children.
No doubt the advent of the two-income family has had an effect, as many wives—by choice or by necessity—have joined their husbands in the paid workforce. This puts undeniable stress on civic institutions in our communities. There are fewer parents available to volunteer as chaperones on school field trips or to do the other small, underappreciated tasks that keep deeply rooted communities growing. Fewer have the time to volunteer at church, or even to show up every Sunday. Most of us are exhausted by the time the Lord’s Day rolls around.
In our determined individualism and focus on our families, perhaps we are neglecting our neighborhoods, which provide the rich soil necessary for individual growth. New York Times columnist David Brooks points out the importance of flourishing neighborhoods. “It could be that the neighborhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change,” Brooks writes. “If you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace.”
My theory about all the snippy signs leads me to suspect that we no longer know or care about our neighbors—or at least those with whom we disagree. Thus, we won’t bother to have reasonable conversations with them (we used to call it civil discourse). Instead, we’ll plant an angry sign and slam our doors, daring people we don’t know to take offense, apparently believing them beyond the pale and not worth engaging. It’s kind of like Twitter in three dimensions.
“One of the most painful realities of this seemingly interminable political season,” says Micah Watson in The Public Discourse, “has been witnessing, and feeling, the rise of rancor and frustration toward our family, friends, and neighbors who think so differently than we do about this or that political issue, or this or that political candidate.”
This proliferation of the political over the personal is evidence of the decline of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”—those mediating institutions between the individual and the state, such as church, family, and community, that incline citizens toward virtues such as temperance and fortitude. As these institutions falter, politics looms ever larger in our imaginations. If our communities can no longer shield us from harm and give our lives meaning, we will demand these things from our politicians—and will overlook their flaws if they can deliver the goods. And we’ll demonize and destroy any who stand in our way.
Such a dynamic reveals a leanness in our souls. As Kevin Williamson, a National Review columnist, says, “Political fanaticism is not rooted in ideology. It is the hollow clanging sound that social life makes when banging up against an empty soul.”
For many people in this election season, politics is no longer a means to an end. It has become the ultimate for multitudes who no longer see that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” It’s a sign of the times.
But will the church, which finds its ultimate identity and security in a risen and reigning Savior, show our lost and angry neighbors a better way?
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of God’s Story in 66 Verses.
Image: Google Images