Dignity, in the Back Row

Are 'basic American values' the foundation of our dignity?


Community Faith

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America recounts his four years of accompanying, and listening to, Americans who have been left behind. The book comes with striking photographs of the people to whom he introduces us. Many he meets at the local McDonald’s or a storefront church.

Arnade explains how McDonald’s serves as a community center. And since folks from the “back row” are often religious, their storefronts are vital expressions of their faith. Arnade was raised a Catholic, but science and history (whose science and which history?) led him to agnosticism. In time, though, his storefront experiences had him asking whether “religion” might just be true.

Drug addiction ravages the lives of many of Arnade’s friends and acquaintances. So do abuse and prostitution. Racism and joblessness are built into their stories. Regular politics bypasses towns that are slowly dying, and rumors of their revival are wishful thinking.

So why don’t the denizens of towns and neighborhoods that “you don’t really want to visit” move out? Why don’t they get out while they can? It is in part because they lack the skills and education to do so.

But there is another reason. Americans who are left behind often have a deep commitment to place. Home and family, even if struggling mightily, are at the core of who they are. Upward mobility is a mandate for the privileged. But for those who are “anything but,” it is too often an uprooting mobility. Poor people who left the South now wish that they could go home.

In any case, Chris Arnade is not a sociologist any more than a politician. He is someone who has been listening to people left behind and maybe falling still farther behind. What he hears them say, loud and clear, is that they want respect. And for what? For their basic human dignity.

So do we all. But the times are tough. In Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio), St. John Paul II observes that in modernity “the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt,” and so “many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going.”

A pandemic might well push some of us over the abyss. It can surely prompt us to think more about the demands of human dignity. Here is an example: The lead editorial in Sunday’s L.A. Times rejects medical triage proposals that assign different values to different human beings as “an affront to human dignity.”

Yes, and what is the foundation of that dignity? The Times cites “basic American values.” It reminds us “that all human beings are created equal.” Sorry, I can muster only two cheers for that answer. Truth be told “basic American values” are a jumble and only too often are cited to justify the unjustifiable. Think abortion on demand. And the Times, as a vehicle of the zeitgeist, is usually of the opinion that all men are evolved à la Darwin, not created. But evolution does not give us evidence of equally evolved individuals.

Takeesha, an addict and prostitute that Chris Arnade meets, points us toward an answer to the question about the foundation of dignity, and her answer will never be found in the Times. In defining herself, in all her afflictions, she says, “I am a child of God.”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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