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Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures

by Frances FitzGerald
Simon and Schuster, 414 pp., $19.95

The title of Frances FitzGerald’s new book is taken from John Winthrop’s admonition to the Puritans: “We shall be a City Upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” an early example of American self-consciousness. FitzGerald’s book is born of the sense we all share of being watched, and, as she points out, of often presenting “bizarre and comic spectacles to the world,”—but good-naturedly, our excesses of social experiment arising, after all, from our democratic notions and an idea of human perfectibility. This is to put a good face on it. Another impression one might receive from this fascinating book is of a spoiled society far gone in self-indulgence, beyond cooperation and simple community, so that crises (AIDS) can bring only uneasy coalition or discord.

In order to understand the ways American society has changed since 1960, affected by economic changes that have brought women and blacks into the work-place, demographic changes, and changes in the cultural behavior of the white middle class, FitzGerald takes “soundings” in four groups that sprang up in the Seventies and Eighties, perhaps in response to these changes. The groups are: the gay community in San Francisco, Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia; a retirement community in Sun City, Florida; and the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Antelope (until recently, Rajneeshpuram), Oregon.

Although the four groups are widely dissimilar, they all have some relation to an American utopian tradition in which people withdraw to form groups either to escape from mainstream society or to provide it an example. One could quarrel with FitzGerald’s notion that these people are trying to “reinvent” themselves so as to reinvent America, or convert or coerce it, into becoming a society of theological probity or sexual freedom or myriad golf courses—a society of certitude and play. Unlike the utopians of the nineteenth century, who were always able to move westward in expectation of an open space in which to found an exemplary community, these groups have had to deal with the rest of us, and, like people fleeing from plague, bore within them certain germs of defeat already contracted from us, whose depredations FitzGerald chronicles with wonderful drama, so that her accounts of the battle of the bathhouses or the downfall of the Rajneeshee become as exciting as they are depressing.

Her method is to visit each of the communities at intervals, talk with people, look around, read, and report. Because she is thoughtful, intelligent, detached, and learned, she is a reliable observer, and her method seems admirably adapted to the complex subject, especially when compared to pretentious works of political science or sociology that ask meaningless questions, deny the presence of the questioner, pretend objectivity, and lead so often to conclusions that are contrary to the world as we know it, or that we could have figured out for ourselves. (FitzGerald finds examples of this in studies of retirement communities, which proved, for example, that they provide “life satisfaction to that self-selected group of people which choose to live in them,” or that “the inhabitants of a certain retirement village were better educated and better off than the average retired person—a fact that could have been deduced from the price of houses in that development.”) She seems to have been a tactful guest, earning the confidence of a wide variety of people—and not betraying it, in refreshing contrast to the sort of journalism that rips off the naive. (Sometimes this ladylike reticence does disappoint the reader’s merely vulgar curiosity: what are the “various forms of group sex,” for instance, that the Rajneeshee practice?)

The book begins in 1978 with a trip to San Francisco’s predominantly homosexual Castro district. There, it appeared, a gay community was for the first time exerting political influence proportional to the number of its members (around 20 percent of the city). It was a time, FitzGerald says, of gay “manifest destiny,” when leaders of the movement believed themselves to be in a sexual revolution and often resisted attempts by the straight community (exemplified by then Supervisor Diane Feinstein) to accept them. There were confrontations with the straights on issues of taste and tolerance: “To report that the sight of gay men in Nazi caps or gay men having sex in public did offend other San Franciscans—that Feinstein was not making it up—was to call forth a storm of objection from gay activists.” The revolutionary mentality compelled many gays to conform to extreme fashions of dress and behavior. Part of the agenda of gay freedom was what seemed to some straights an unusual degree of sexual promiscuity; and some gay social institutions, notably bathhouses, would become the focus of a civil rights debate.

In 1981, the first reports of AIDS came to the attention of health authorities, and by 1984, 37 percent of gay men in San Francisco were found to have the virus (which means at best that many will eventually get the disease). Evidence was available by early 1983 that AIDS was sexually transmitted, but some recommended public health measures (closing bathhouses) were at first strenuously opposed by gay leaders more afraid of political restriction than of death.1 City health authorities, who also did not fully understand the disease, and were sensitive to the opposition of the gay community after the murder of Harvey Milk, the gay city supervisor, by another former supervisor, laid themselves open to later charges of homophobia by not insisting on closing the bathhouses. The horror of the advancing contagion eventually compelled realism and cooperation on either hand. The present day finds a sobered gay community and a subdued lifestyle. “It’s just like the ‘fifties again,” FitzGerald quotes one man as saying, however facetiously: “people are getting married for the wrong reasons.”

FitzGerald next visits Jerry Falwell’s congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, the members of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. One has the sense that she is not as comfortable here—as a New Yorker who has not been familiar with this world of TV-commercial families with double-knit clothes and Tupperware—and the encounter mars the perfect equanimity of her tone, elsewhere so kindly, polite, and accepting, which here becomes at moments slyly judgmental. The host of a barbeque is “resplendent in a fitted white shirt, cream-colored trousers and white shoes.” It’s the “resplendent” that alerts us to the fact that she finds exotic Americans like these, whom we are usually told are so typically American. It is this contradiction that she seeks to illuminate.

Most of us are familiar with the rise of Falwell’s influence and the progress of the Moral Majority, or of Pat Robertson’s presidential plans—generally, with the secularization of theology—and will have been struck, as FitzGerald is, with the oddness of comfortable Americans embracing in their millions the television ministries of people preaching damnation, biblical inerrancy, and descriptions of premillennial terror (except, of course, that the latter do conform in a disturbingly literal way with what we know of the sin, suffering, and tribulation of our world). FitzGerald is sensitive to the sincerity of their religious beliefs and to the extent to which they really do perceive moral controversy as threatening their homes and families. She advances the usual class explanations. Thomas Road people are either poor or recently emerged from poverty and troubled childhoods. Some scholars go further to suggest that there is such a thing as a fundamentalist personality or “generally prejudiced mind” that functions on antagonism and suspicion. For such people things must be right or wrong, simple and clear.

But even this doesn’t explain their geographical concentration in the South. FitzGerald looks at education and history, especially the effects of the Civil War, and suggests that personal piety was one response to military defeat—though the people she describes seem not so much pious as conforming, and even lacking in the interior life that real piety presupposes. At Liberty University, formerly Liberty Baptist College, she finds a complete absence of skeptical inquiry. To any question, the students are taught the one right answer. The library contains no works by Thackeray or Melville, and only one by Dickens. FitzGerald remarks that intellectual passivity seems to go against the “American grain,” which has been assumed to be “faith in science, faith in the power of human reason and faith that men can improve the conditions of life on earth,” but her account reminds us that this is only one kind of American grain, and that we are equally heir to a tradition of romantic anti-intellectualism, the kind of thing that Mark Twain made fun of. Right after the revolution, only 10 percent of Americans went to church, but they were swept by fundamentalism in the middle of the nineteenth century, and again in the Twenties—movements that led to Prohibition and the like. For all their disputes over Darwinism, fundamentalism and liberal faith somehow coexisted, sharing a belief in charity and freedom of religion; but fundamentalism seems no longer committed to the latter.

Reading FitzGerald’s account reminds the reader of Mark Twain’s view that the North and South of this country are simply two nations. They have completely different patterns of settlement, traditions, accents, even cuisine—rather like France and Belgium. If non-southerners feel anxious that the values and beliefs of this other nation can affect those who do not share them, the decline in Falwell’s influence in the last election might be reassuring. FitzGerald feels too that Falwell himself, a pragmatic and increasingly worldly man, is making accommodations, and may in time become “a tolerant conservative kind of preacher with influence in Washington,” in fact leaving some of his more rigid parishioners to follow the more fanatical preachers to come.

The third community is Sun City, Florida, for retired people, no children under eighteen allowed. Retirement communities have been both praised for keeping old folks busy and derided as unnatural ghettos that deprive them of their natural grandparental roles. No one has really explained why a mass of elderly people has chosen to leave their families and home towns and migrate to the Sun Belt, but this is “surely the first generation of healthy, economically independent retired people in history” to do so, (and in the absence of sufficient economic growth may be the last to be able to afford it). Census statistics suggest that this migration, along with a drop in the number of those who live with their children, correlates with the increasing wealth of the elderly, in turn suggesting that age segregation is voluntary and desired.

FitzGerald finds things working well enough in Sun City. Although there are a few rats up the palm trees—there’s the odd alcoholic, a predominance of widows, a note of social anxiety or pressure to conform—there seem to be fewer social problems here than in the other three communities, which are in any case not spared these defects of real life, and the Sun Citians believe they are as happy as they would be anywhere else, if not happier. They are “people of achievement, people who talk about ideas, not about their ailments,” as one resident describes them. FitzGerald adds that they are by and large retired professionals, school administrators, retired colonels and engineers, mainly Protestant and Republican, with incomes of twenty-one to twenty-nine thousand a year, a sum which, with homes bought and paid for, seems enough to mean they are people to whom most of the benefits of ordinary society are available. FitzGerald, focusing on the dynamics of the community, does not really ask what it is besides cold weather these people are avoiding in the larger society. They could, after all, do decoupage and square dance in their home communities. Perhaps they are fleeing urban crime and rock music, or perhaps it is just that human beings always do prefer their own age cohort, just as children or young adults do, but the old haven’t until now been able to indulge this preference.

Like the Shakers or New Harmonists, and unlike the gays or fundamentalists, the Sun Citians and Rajneeshee have formed a separate society. In the nineteenth century, such segregated societies typically broke up from within, on issues of privacy or sex, or under pressure from without. The Sun Citians seem under no pressure either way, but the Rajneeshee in their Oregon commune ran into problems within and without. This fourth, fascinating, section recounts the establishment and then dissolution of Rajneeshpuram, an ambitious agricultural and social project established by the followers of an Indian guru famous for his collection of Rolls-Royces.

For some years the red costumes of his disciples had been noted in California or London—people dressed entirely in shades of red, pink, or purple, rumored to be zombies and to hold weird sexual rites. More or less unwelcome in California, they were, it is easy to imagine, even less welcome in a rural community of Oregon, and especially when they began to employ high-handed methods to get their way in community affairs, out-voting or threatening the few local residents at first, and eventually using a variety of criminal means—poisonings, arson, and terrorism—dreamed up by the Guru’s Indian secretary, an autocratic woman named Sheela, now in jail. Careless of both law and feelings, they were prepared to do anything to have their way with central Oregon.

What is striking from FitzGerald’s account is how restrained and methodical the law-abiding community was when faced with these lawless invaders.2 Influenced by the cheerful tours and parties, the press was at first largely favorable. The objections later from the Oregonians were not made from religious intolerance or disapproval of the “various forms of group sex,” but because the Rajneeshee were not good neighbors. One might suppose this could be because the Indian henchmen of the guru did not really understand America—but many of the higher-ups and certainly the members were Americans—well-educated ones in their thirties, 12 percent of whom had Ph.D.s, mostly in the sciences or social sciences. One half were Protestant, one quarter each Jewish and Catholic, and many had been in the “caring” professions and were from the West Coast. They shared with Falwell’s parishioners the arrogance and impatience that comes with knowing you are right.

The Rajneeshee were somehow the most “American” of these experiments—like the nineteenth-century utopian communities, agricultural, communistic, and bourgeois at the same time. And their leaders, though encouraging Indian techniques of spiritual regeneration, bought jewelry and took drugs like good products of the “me” society. The collapse of the community through the madness and criminality of its leaders also seems an American tradition if we remember Jonestown, or L. Ron Hubbard, or Synanon. A few weeks ago one of the leaders of the Rajneeshee, “K.D.,” was sentenced to a stiff jail term for his complicity in Sheela’s plots, despite having turned state’s evidence; and Larry Layton, the only survivor of Jonestown to be tried, was recently convicted of conspiracy despite an earlier hung jury, suggesting perhaps the rather disproportionately vengeful feelings society harbors against returned expatriates and also against cultists, and the eagerness of prosecutors to cash in on a lone defendant when they have failed to move against a lawless group.

In selecting communities to study, FitzGerald sought ones that had a “prismatic quality,” communities that “served to show what was happening in a much more diffuse fashion in the society around them.” This assumes that they all somehow express in various ways quintessentially American behavior and values, and one senses from FitzGerald’s account that they do. But what they say about America is more difficult to decide. FitzGerald conscientiously attempts a summary—it has the effect of a discussion period after an artistic performance—in which she reviews various theories. She looks at commentators like Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, finding in Hofstadter’s concept of “cultural politics” a possible link of a negative sort between the four groups. Cultural politics holds roughly that economics and status, usually thought to explain everything, are not enough to explain all; faith, morals, style, and similar cultural issues assert themselves in a heterogenous society, especially in times of prosperity. Still, this is not to say very much.

Other links may lie in the American evangelical tradition, “coming out” being a bit like being “born again,”—and in the ahistoricism and anti-intellectualism of evangelism; and in the human potential movement, which clearly has affected the Rajneeshee and the gays and has not left the newly self-expressive elderly untouched, and is also beginning to surface in Falwell’s church. FitzGerald finds the roots of all this in the religious and social history of the Burned-over District of upstate New York, the scene in the nineteenth century of much evangelical and communistic social experiment (though this discussion tends to ignore the influence of these rapidly spreading movements on the Midwest).

It would be nice to think that a shared heritage of social experiment has produced these societies in a generous spirit of vigorous modern utopianism, but in the long run the differences among these four (arbitrarily selected) communities are more pronounced than their similarities, and their differences are divisive and antagonistic. They are world-rejecting or they aim to change society, they are right-wing or left-wing, they involve different segments of the middle, lower-middle, or upper-middle class; any term that serves to describe three of them seems to exclude the fourth (usually the fundamentalists).

But it does seem that all four communities point up the increasing impracticability of cooperative life in America, and the powerful social forces isolating each individual from all others—drugs, cottage industry, the personal computer, television shopping, television worship, “single” parenthood. All four suggest, too, that if there is a drift to our history it is away from the nuclear family, a process begun by societies like Shakers and Oneidans, if not by their forebears. If communities can be characterized as much by what they reject as by what they substitute, all four of these groups criticize and reject the family (if you consider that the fundamentalists’ fanatic defense of it arises from anxiety: “frantic orthodoxy is [but] a method for obscuring doubt,” as Reinhold Niebuhr said). Related somewhat paradoxically to this is the fact that all four communities either tend to reject women or confine them to traditional roles, and in no case is reforming women’s lot high on the agenda.

All four groups instead propose a childhood world. FitzGerald herself notes that the Sun Citians in their little golf carts look like children, and that Rajneeshpuram is “the ultimate me-generation boarding school.” The gay community cherished its dream of unrestricted, guiltless, happy sex; all reject “responsibility” as defined by conventional society in favor of a pre-adult world of perfectly expressive sexuality, no family cares, and “fun.” The fundamentalists are connected to this childhood world by being, as it were, “good” children, as opposed to those other, naughty children—good children who do exactly what they are told by a strict authority figure, and feel anxious and hostile without him, or Him. The certitudes of religion must produce “freedom” in some sense, and they are willing to wait for the bliss that the other groups require now. Their members express the well-fed certainty of the right of each person to personal self-fulfillment, and are not concerned with programs of sacrifice for a general good. Even where members work together, like the Rajneeshee, the reward was “therapy” for personal problems. The donations to Falwell’s church buy personal salvation.

Freedom, as we know, is a word often used when “alienated” would be a better word, and all FitzGerald’s groups seem to be using it in that sense.

  1. 1

    For a résumé of the sort of argument used, see Richard D. Mohr’s cri de coeur in Raritan VI:I (Summer 1986), pp. 38–62.

  2. 2

    Perhaps the lessons they learned were of service to the Wyoming ranchers who recently met the plans of The Church Universal and Triumphant to build a city near Yellowstone Park forearmed with legal documents, demands for an Environmental Impact Report, etc.

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