By Russell Arben Fox
Bill McKibben’s latest book, The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, lays out almost everything you need to know about his memoir in its title—though it’s really more of an extended, three-part autobiographical essay than a memoir. McKibben, arguably the best known and most influential environmentalist writer and activist in the United States, has been developing arguments about the combined, globe-spanning catastrophes of America’s overwrought patriotism and deadly oil dependency for decades, whether in terms of climate change, the Iraq War, or the hollowing out by conservative forces of the precious social democratic accomplishments that McKibben’s parents’ generation greatly benefited from through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In that sense, while McKibben’s recollections of his family and youth do add interesting detail, the first and third sections of this book ultimately add little to arguments whose details, insights, and limitations have been much on display throughout his long journalistic career. The second section though—“The Cross”—stands out, in some unexpected ways.
For one thing, McKibben does something quite brave considering the leftist circles within which he has built his audience: he confesses fondness for the pious and deeply earnest—and almost entirely white--mainline liberal Protestantism of his Baby Boomer youth. Born in 1960 (just old enough to be lumped in with all the hippies and radicals that were changing America’s political and popular culture through the 1960s and 70s), he talks about growing up singing “Kumbaya” in complete sincerity around a campfire at church camps, along with “Morning Has Broken” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” For my part, as one born into a conservative Mormon family in 1968 and who came of age in the 1980s, the fact that any white person ever sang “Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya” with real intent and without a deep sense of cringe requires a genuine act of generational and cultural imagination.*
And that, perhaps, is exactly the point. McKibben remembers fondly a Protestant Christian world shaped by the legacy of abolitionism and pacifism, a tradition which prompted churches to send money and volunteers on Freedom Rides and civil rights marches and to organize protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear war—and yet, within his own lifetime, that particular Christian reality had all but entirely disappeared in the United States. By the time I was an independent adult making my own faith decisions in the early 1990s, the liberal mainline was, in cultural memory at least, mostly either a hilarious punching bag or an embarrassment to be denied.
Well, McKibben does not deny it—though neither does he say he greatly misses it. He is a man of faith, but also a man who is realistic about, and adaptable regarding, how faith makes itself known in human lives, for good and for ill.
First, regarding his non-embarrassed embrace of that history: McKibben talks thoughtfully about what he owes to the liberal Protestantism, the mainline (and, again, very white and upper-middle-class) Methodist and Presbyterian churches and more, which he was devoted to and which shaped him, with their retreats to Cape Cod, weekly shifts as volunteers at a mental hospital, and mission trips to South Carolina (McKibben grew up in Lexington, MA):
I am well aware now that all of these actions had more to do with charity than justice—that they would probably now fall under the general rubric of “white savior complex.” And I’m aware that those are sound cautions. When we were at Frogmore [SC], our college acceptance letters were arriving back home; when we got off the bus we went home to envelopes that held the tickets to an easy kind of future. Still, for some of us, contact with a larger and harder reality was an enormous gift. And it was important to have contact in a setting—the church—that helped me understand that it was my job to do something about it. I have no doubt that those years helped set the course of my life.
McKibben, like so many activists who come from comparatively privileged, education, and writerly backgrounds, is often put through the wringer—sometimes deservedly so, though I would say, mostly not—by those who have come onto the scene in the wake of the many changes over the past generation in how the U. S. left views social and environmental problems. The savior complexes, the structural realities of the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and other institutional forces, are something that the white liberal Christians of McKibben’s era have been obliged to learn to overcome, and perhaps that work still needs to be done. But it’s not as though McKibben is himself unengaged in that ongoing effort.
Key to that, on my reading anyway, is his second point: the recognition that the power of Jesus’ message, insofar as social justice is concerned, is its appeal to universal moral truths which, by definition, challenge institutional and cultural power—and when the Protestant mainline was the dominant power in the United States, that challenge, and thus that appeal, was muted. “Yes,” he writes, “it’s true that being part of that broad moderate consensus offered a certain kind of power to make things a little better: that was the world I’ve described, where all the pastors in Lexington would welcome Dr. [Martin Luther] King to give a talk, and could join him in Selma; the world where they could guard the veterans [protesting the Vietnam War] on Lexington Green.” And yet, he observes, with emphasis,
In the largest sense, an established religion—whether official, like the Church of England, or unofficial, like the Protestantism [which President] Eisenhower named as America’s “firm foundation”—baptizes whatever is around it. It can’t really exist as an independent force; it’s as trapped in its role as those red-coated soldiers marching down the middle of the road into Lexington. Their firepower is immense, but entirely predictable. They have no freedom to maneuver. When an institution gets very big, its radical edge is very far from its center. And for Christianity that radical edge is actually the heart—or should be….[W]hen…mainline Protestant churches contained fifty-two of [every] one hundred Americans, they had to be all things to all people. The power that came with that—what we’d now call “privilege”—was attractive, but it was such limited power. If you’re the culture, then you can’t be the counterculture.
McKibben does have regrets about the loss of the liberal Christian mainline he knew. He is saddened how the balanced individualism which, in his view (a view that could be seriously contested, of course), the Protestantism he knew gave support to has been mostly replaced by what he sees as a secular, hyper-competitive individualism which associates Christianity with insularity and xenophobia and only rarely with the common good. And he worries that a generation that has fled from organized religion so thoroughly might be limited in its resources to fight social-Darwinism-dressed-up-as-“family values.” But he also sees silver linings. He recognizes that the roots of that same damaging hyper-individualism were always present in the mainline establishment (the good Protestants of late 1960s Lexington were willing to support civil rights in the South, but a church-led effort soon thereafter to support the building of public housing in town, the sort of thing that might potentially threaten property values, failed), and he hopes that that the small, counter-cultural, activist Christians whom he sees humbly joining in social justice efforts with all sorts of partners, religious and otherwise, all without the kind of evangelical presumption he recognizes in his background (even in himself), will be the future.
So for all its limitations and points of critique, I think Christian socialists should take to heart McKibben’s story of this one particular graying Baby Boomer activist and the religious world that shaped him—its legacy is important, and its perspective, even if only in reverse, might yetbe a helpful guide yet today.
* Some Christian folk I know a generation older than me who remember singing “Kumbaya” in their congregations as children in the 1950s and 1960s tell me they felt cringey singing it even then, so anecdotally at least, even allowing for the unreliability of memory, one should probably assume that McKibben’s naïve, good-hearted, earnest piety was not universally shared among all young white liberals at the time.
Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS. He is a member of the Wichita chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Image credit: The Ralph Nader Radio Hour