Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
“Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven”
John Kinsella: Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella: It's Iowa.
John Kinsella: Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.
Ray Kinsella: Is there a heaven?
John Kinsella: Oh yeah. It's the place where dreams come true.
[Ray looks around, seeing his wife playing with their daughter on the porch]
Ray Kinsella: Maybe this is heaven.
-Field of Dreams (1989)
It’s spring. Baseball players are back on the diamonds and the supplies for upcoming civic holidays from Memorial Day to Fourth of July are already on store shelves. It reminds me of that time of year as a kid when you were still in school but dreaming of the summer days ahead. One of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone called “Walking Distance” (1959) deals with these dreams. It’s about a big city advertising executive who has car trouble and walks into his old hometown outside New York City and unwittingly into the past to see one of his childhood summers again. He gets to revisit the soda fountain and the gazebo in the town square where the bands play.
This fantasy appears to have as much relevance today as it did more than 50 years ago. The Pew Research Center interviewed a random sample of American adults (N=2,260) in their Social Trends series a few years ago and asked, “If you could live anywhere in the United States that you wanted to, would you prefer a city, a suburban area, small town or rural area?” A majority of respondents (52%) said they would prefer to live in a “small town” or “rural area.” Among adult Catholics, 47% preferred these types of locations to an urban or suburban way of life.
What makes this finding so odd is that fewer and fewer Catholics actually live in a small town or rural area. According to the General Social Survey (GSS) only about one in ten (12%) call this place home now—even as nearly half say they would prefer to live there. By comparison, in the mid-1980s nearly one in three Catholics (28%) called a small town or rural area home. This percentage fell as manufacturing industries that were once at the economic center of many of these small towns left for other parts of the globe and many of the small family farms that spanned the countryside were consumed by corporate agriculture increasingly relying on machines (…and pesticides and genetic tinkering) instead of old fashioned small scale human labor. Populations follow jobs and increasingly these are found in the retail and service industries of the suburbs and cities.
Yet the cultural and historical dream of small town rural America remains very much alive in the national psyche (...even if it never really existed in the ways we remember it). As shown below, Catholics who say they live in small towns and rural areas overwhelmingly prefer to live there (73%). Catholics who live in the suburbs would prefer a rural small town over the big city (25% compared to 20%) and those in urban areas would prefer the rural small town to the suburbs (38% compared to 17%).
What makes the small rural town so appealing to so many? In the Twilight Zone episode I noted above, advertising executive Martin Sloan put it this way, “One day I knew I had to come back here. I had to come back and get on the merry-go-round, eat cotton candy, and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe and close my eyes, smell, and listen.” His father then tells him to go home to his own time and place and that, “We only get one chance. There is only one summer to every customer.”
Are Americans looking for that second summer? Perhaps. Many say they prefer a community with a slower pace of life as shown in the figure below. More than seven in ten Catholics and other Christians prefer this lifestyle speed. Those of other religious affiliations or no affiliation at all are a bit less likely to agree but are still in majority territory for this preference.
Americans of all affiliations are also looking to live in communities where people “know each other well.” Only about one in five prefer the alternative, “a place where neighbors usually don’t know each other’s business.”
It is also clear that perceptions of small town life are not just a mirage. Catholics who say they currently live in a small town or rural area are the most likely to report that they are “very involved” in their communities. Majorities of those in these towns (or in the suburbs) report that they are at least “somewhat” involved in community and neighborhood activities. Those living in cities are less likely to report this.
As shown below, it is also the case that those living in a small town or rural area are more likely than others to report they have a “lot of friends.” Recent CARA research has shown that elements of community are what most draws Catholics to their parishes. It appears that similar social realities (real or perceived) are what attracts many to their notions of an ideal community of residence.
The Pew survey also shows that those in small towns and rural areas don’t fit the George Bailey stereotype of the person who is “stuck” and could never make it out of town. Nearly two-thirds of Catholics (65%) living in small towns and rural areas report that they are from somewhere else. This figure is similar to that of Catholics living in the suburbs (73%) or the city (69%). On average, Catholic residents of small towns or rural communities have lived in three different states in their lives—the same as those living in suburban or urban areas. The average ages of the Catholic adults living in all three types of communities is similar—in their late 40s.
In other posts we've pointed to evidence of a possible geographic “heart” to American Catholicism (1, 2). It is not even near many of the places that may immediately come to mind. It’s not Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles. New Orleans is important but I think the data more consistently put the strongest pulse somewhere just west of Iowa in Kansas or Nebraska (1, 2). There is plenty of small town and rural life to be found here for those dreaming about it. If the survey data are correct these dreamers are not an insignificant population.
Photo above courtesy of Pete Zarria from Flickr Commons.
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