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Elites, Barstools, Raw Beauty, and a (Philanthropic) “George Option”

The Gathering’s Fred Smith calls a thought-provoking, almost-jarring question—for us all, but perhaps for conservatism and conservative philanthropy in particular.


In an excerpt from his 2019 book Where the Light Divides that he published on his blog last month, The Gathering founder Fred Smith—with his typical warmth, charm, and thought-provoking insight—writes,

For many years I’ve leaned toward the argument of James Davison Hunter (To Change The World) and others that the real influencers in culture are the ‘elite networks’ at the top where the “deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occur… Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.”

Many have similarly leaned, of course—including in conservatism, in philanthropy, and in conservative philanthropy. Smith is ultimately concerned with more-transcendent things than merely political ideology or philosophy, but he is right: elites at the top are an important audience to at least address and perhaps convince of things, if even only partially—and maybe strategically fund, it’s worth adding here, if even only modestly and warily.

We at The Giving Review, for example, have been trying to encouragingly track new organizations and projects since 2016 that will help refine or redefine conservatism moving forward. Yet another new one was announced last month—the nonprofit American Moment, which will seek to “identify, educate, and credential” smart, energetic, and ambitious young public-policy professionals who can better fill a personnel pipeline that will help effectuate the new conservatism. Elites at the top, or maybe just wannabes on their way there.

As Well …

“As well,” Smith goes on in his posted excerpt, “I’ve been open to Rod Dreher’s argument” in The Benedict Option. Quoting Dreher, Smith writes

“American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.” According to Dreher, we are part of a culture much like during the fall of the Roman Empire. It is going to be small communities of faithful Christians preserving the faith through the coming dark times.

There’s probably less of this type of thinking in comfortable conservative philanthropy overall. Plausibly considered quite pessimistic in outlook, it’s a tough sell to either a donor him- or herself or a foundation board. There’s certainly some of it, though, and it may be growing. Withdrawal, protectively and to preserve an only potentially fairer future.

But …

“But, maybe there is another choice,” Smith proposes. “I call it ‘The George Option’ after George Jones,” the country-music singer and songwriter. After listening to a Malcom Gladwell podcast about country music, Smith writes, “I watched a YouTube of George’s funeral” in 2013

at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and row after row of wooden pews filled with the stars of country music. It was clear that many of them, like George Jones, had led rough lives but there they were in church because they still understood what that meant. There was something absolutely genuine about their roots.

George Jones. Credit: YouTube.

Smith then, almost jarringly, concludes,

So, I doubt it is really the cultural elites or the few that will turn to intentional Christian communities that will keep the core beliefs intact through the coming storm. Maybe, on the other hand, it will be people for whom I have no understanding or, until now, appreciation. It could be those whose stories are in a language the world will hear and is not offensive. Perhaps purity does not survive on its own and needs the protection of seeming impurity wrapped around it. Yes, it is dross and, yes, it will be burned away when the time comes, but what if the people who live with loss, change, love, friendship, unfaithfulness, and belonging are those who will preserve what is most precious?

There’s a raw, honest beauty in that. An optimistic beauty, and a true one. We should all strive so much harder to find and see such beauty—including for transcendent purposes, of course, but also in conservatism, in all of philanthropy, and in conservative philanthropy.

Encouragingly, some of those seeking to refine or redefine conservatism moving forward might be seeing similar allure in what’s now being called “barstool conservatism”—that of decidedly non-elite, regular everyday people for whom there has not been much understanding, or, until now, appreciation.

Maybe risking overgeneralization, they are anti-swank and anti-“Swamp.” They do not extol well-constructed journal footnotes. They are not invited to and do not attend launch parties for groups of wannabes on the way to any stinking top. There have always been and are some, though not enough, admirable wishes to and attempts on the part of elites to reach out to them, recently including the American Compass’ new Edgerton Essays project.

Invitations and (Self-)Admissions

One of my conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation mentors, Giving Review co-editor Bill Schambra, has similarly striven to so reach out, to see the same beauty that Smith saw at George Jones’ funeral. In his epilogue to The Triumphs of Joseph: How Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods by Robert L. Woodson, Sr., Schambra recognizes some challenges in his own life, then tells how Pastor Juan Rivera of the Victory Fellowship treated Schambra after Rivera came to know of those challenges.

With kindness, Schambra writes, Rivera “was inviting me into his family, the community of the broken, the addicted, the enslaved; the community of those who had acknowledged and repented for their sin; the community of those who had found forgiveness and redemption and have summoned into their midst the healing presence of Christ.”

Beauty there, too.

Smith- and Rivera-type requests to join that community aren’t very widely accepted, though, Schambra notes, “[b]ecause the critical first step in accepting that invitation involves admitting that we are indeed broken, that something is seriously wrong, and that we are helpless and our lives are out of control.”

Bringing Us Back, but to Brokenness

Which brings us back to Smith’s question. What if the broken sinners who sit in church pews and on barstools and live with loss, change, love, friendship, unfaithfulness, belonging, forgiveness, and redemption are those who will preserve what is most precious?

A question that unavoidably brings us to other queries, both implicitly arising out of what Schambra calls the necessary “first step.” What if we admit that includes us? Who are we, and what could we be?

We all, but perhaps conservatism and conservative philanthropy in particular, should consider a genuine “George Option.”

 

This article first appeared in the Giving Review on March 15, 2021.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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