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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

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Dr. Scott Black Johnston: The Big Sort and Us

October 05, 2010

I have been reading a really interesting book.

It is called The Big Sort.  It is written by Bill Bishop, a journalist, with the help of Robert Cushing, a sociologist/statistician.

The basic premise of the book goes like this:  Over the last three decades, we Americans have been sorting ourselves into communities that have become increasingly homogenous.

Now, most of us don't need sociological research to recognize what we see all around us: Americans choosing neighborhoods, news shows and places of worship that reflect their particular values.

Yet the depth of the polarization described by Bishop-this clustering of like-minded people-surprised me.

To demonstrate their point, the authors use the concept of a "landslide county."  A "landslide county" is a county that votes for one Presidential candidate over the other(s) by more than 20 percent.  If Bergen County in northern New Jersey were to vote 62% for the Republican candidate and 38% for the Democrat, that would be an example of a "landslide county."

In 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were running for President, 26% of the nation's voters lived in landslide counties.  (In The Big Sort maps included below, the counties in white are not landslide counties).

1976 Presidential Election (Landslide Counties have shading)

In the 1992 election, 37% of us lived in landslide counties.  In the 2008 contest, an election in which both candidates talked about transcending partisan politics, 48% of us voted in landslide counties.

2004 Presidential Election (Landslide Counties have shading)

In other words, as each year has gone by, more and more of us live in landslide counties.  What does this mean?

Well, according to Bill Bishop, it is but one indication (and he has many other fascinating examples based on economic figures, census data and, of course, religious surveys) of the fact that more and more Americans are geographically clustering themselves in like-minded groups.  These groups are having an increasingly difficult time tolerating diversity in their midst, and they are having trouble (a lot of trouble) understanding why adjacent neighborhoods think or act the way they do.

In other words, our clustering is tearing us apart.

I have long thought that New York City was immune to this phenomenon.  We are a delicious stew of colors, perspectives and beliefs.  Amen.  But lately, I have been wondering.  While "the melting pot" certainly describes the flow of people on our sidewalks, does it really describe our neighborhoods or our religious communities?  In some cases, absolutely.  In others, not so much.

Let me know what you think.  How have you experienced the Big Sort?

[Taken with Dr. Scott Black Johnston's blog, "Sharp About Your Prayers," originally posted 9/24/2010]


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