One Nation, Under Who?

By Israel Rojas-Moreno, Class of 2016

The neighborhood church, under the influence of market forces.

The neighborhood church, under the influence of market forces.

This is the second church on my block turning into condos. This church was much grander than the first, and, as the signs advertise, will result in luxury condominiums. Why did the church fall under such disrepair? What happened to the community that erected the church? And has the community that remains lost anything by its absence?

I recently read an article talking about how the city of Des Moines, Iowa transformed from a dull, stale city into a very cool one. It seems, in the last 15 years, “Des Boring” has become a very rich and vibrant city with an emerging local arts scene, a “bevy of nationally recognized restaurants,” and a growing entrepreneurial environment. The article provides additional detail on how this transformation occurred, but it can be roughly summarized accordingly: a motivated coalition of civic leaders leveraged private and public sector resources to reinvigorate the city’s downtown hub. It was “a cultural ethos of working together and good manners” that enabled this bit of “radical cooperation.” Where did the motivation come from?

Iowa is a state of approximately 3.1 million people. Over 92% are white, with Des Moines a bit more diverse (76% white). Pew Research Center statistics say 53% insz the state say religion is “very important” and 66% absolutely believe in God (another 17% are only “fairly” certain God exists). Two of every three people in Iowa don’t believe in evolution. Is it correlation, or causation?

Almost 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville -- a French political thinker and historian -- recognized religion as a powerful force in American life. He noted religion’s contributions to American society, stating, “there can be no greater proof of its utility...its influence is powerfully felt,” in his seminal tome, Democracy in America. Going back even further, the political economist (and Stanford professor) Francis Fukuyama finds that religion was instrumental in helping humans move beyond tribalism and the “tyranny of cousins” toward organized states. His book, The Origins of Political Order, makes a case that without religion’s emphasis on divinity and higher laws, we would not have overcome our biological instinct to favor family over others.

Israel Rojas-Moreno, Class of 2016

Israel Rojas-Moreno, Class of 2016

Could religion -- and its expectations of service unto others -- have been the key in inspiring civic leaders in Des Moines to re-commit to their city? Perhaps. Certainly Des Moines faced competitive pressure as an aging city desperate to keep its young, educated, and talented residents from leaving town for opportunities elsewhere. Re-investing was a rational response. But, being influential civic leaders (who were presumably financially well-off), they could have also chosen to take their financial and human capital elsewhere. Why commit to the hard, and uncertain, work of rebuilding a city?

Few things can anchor a community like a church. Even fewer things inspire strangers to congregate, to be charitable, to develop a sense of community. I have lived in my neighborhood over three years and could not name anyone who lives here (beyond the five other condo owners in my building). I do know, once upon a time, the neighborhood was united enough to erect not one, but two houses of worship on the same street. Spend any time driving around the city and you will notice even more faith houses being torn down for residential buildings. You will not see many (if any) efforts to replace them. As the institution of religion fades away, will society follow?

Israel looks forward to living in a neighborhood where his neighbors aren’t nameless strangers.