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A reader writes:

As someone who grew up in a small town in rural Illinois where meth is a big problem, I'm glad that you're focusing on it lately in the Dish.  But I would say to be careful in linking the social problems of rural America to "Christianism." The more you look into it, I think you'll find that meth use has much more to do with poor economic conditions and the general lack of opportunities facing small towns. I think that, like meth use, "Christianism" springs from these same conditions. So I'd just say to be careful of calling the relationship between Christianism and social problems in rural towns a causal one; try to look for the source of both phenomena.

Well, since I'm not a Marxist, I do not believe that rigid fundamentalism is a simple by-product of poverty. But I do agree with my reader that economic decline, unemployment and cultural alienation undoubtedly fuel meth and probably contribute to fundamentalism's growth. But the interaction is almost certainly complex and two ways, creating a mixture of economic despair, collapse of self-confidence, bewilderment at modernity and the lack of a traditional Christianity that, at its best, really did help people confront the ordeal of living.

Fundamentalism's failure to encourage genuine, humble and humane faith that can finally come to terms with science and history is critical to this, which is why, increasingly, I think a reform of Christianity is central to preserving the liberal constitutional state. What has replaced real faith is, in fact, a form of neurotic attachment to literalism in Scripture (effectively debunked by scholarship), to authority figures who enforce order, if not coherence, onto otherwise chaotic lives (think Dobson or Ratzinger or Warren), rigid attachment to untruths in human history (as in denial of evolution), or the insistence of maintaining the appearance of Godliness to avoid confronting real human sin (think Ted Haggard or the countless child-abusing priests). None of this helps anyone actually cope with modern life, because it is too opposed to modern life. And so fundamentalism as a coping mechanism in fact  makes it all much worse, as rising rates of dysfunction, family breakdown, illegitimacy, abortion, HIV transmission, and drug abuse in the Christianist states reveal - just as the sexual dysfunction in Islamist societies cripples and immiserates them. If you want to find Ground Zero for this confluence of poverty, isolation, Christianism and meth, take a trip to Wasilla, Alaska, whence the new Esther has emerged.

The core element of Christianism and Islamism is denial: denial of a diverse world, denial of history, denial of science, denial of secular authority in favor of an ever-more rigid ideology, conveyed directly into the bloodstream through the web or FNC or other propaganda outlets.

This strikes me as the core evolution of our time, as I lay out with some urgency in the opening chapters of The Conservative Soul. I regard it not as a rebirth of faith but as a collapse of faith into neurosis.

It has profound political ramifications, which secular conservatives and liberals have been far too coy in taking on.

A reader writes:

Your observation about the drug problem facing rural America is spot on and touches on a larger point:  the problems facing the underclass in rural and urban America are more similar than different.  

During the course of my adult, I have lived in D.C., West Virginia, New York City, rural New York State and, most recently, East Tennessee.  I currently travel to state courts throughout East Tennessee, including many rural counties, and I am always struck by how similar the problems of rural Appalachia are to those faced by the inner city poor of New York and D.C.: substance abuse, poor education, incarceration, unwed mothers, abuse, teen parents, gun violence, diminished opportunities, etc. The thing that I have found so ironic about the current Red State/Blue State, us versus them mentality is how wrong it is.  The same problems that a poor teen from the Bronx faces are the same that an indigent teen living in Tazewell, Tennessee faces.  Folks in both areas like to think they're very different from one another, but they really aren't.

Another writes:

As long as you're on the subject of meth and how it's devastating rural America, you should check out a book called Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. In addition to some pretty horrific anecdotes about meth addiction, it ties the its spread to the rural economy and globalization in a pretty convincing fashion.

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