Small Town Culture Wars

This article was the first bit of serious writing I ever attempted. I recall having published it online back in 2010, but I forget the website. The theme is one that still animates much of my thought. Cultural traditions are always in flux: building and adapting, or entering a crisis, fragmenting, and dying.


Route 70 runs South through Clinton, Massachusetts, a typically small and dense New England mill town, climbs up to the hills and towering pines, then winds along the bays and alcoves of the Wachussett Reservoir. Not far above the Clinton Dam, massive granite boulders sit just off the road among the trees or in the lake. Providence, it seems, had arranged that tectonic plates, prehistoric glaciers and road construction crews would leave the boulder nearest the road with its flat face, big as a kitchen table, oriented toward the oncoming traffic, providing a natural billboard for anyone with a can of spray-paint and a message to share. No one who drove by could miss it, even if he wanted to.

Perhaps the first messages were things like “Class of ’62” or “Rick + Kelly 4 Ever”, but the rock was too perfect a canvass for mere graffiti; such a space was not designed for the ephemeral. The class of ’62 would pass into oblivion by the time the class of ’63 came around and painted over it. Rick and Kelly would break up or get divorced, and if Rick did not know it before, he would have known it then as he spray-painted, stepped back, and saw his declaration looking absurdly small against the timeless granite.

One day the rock found its intended prophet, probably back in the late seventies when Pentecostal fervor was sweeping through small town America. The unknown prophet had painted the rock face white, and in tall black letters proclaimed:



Black and white, rock solid Gospel. Stark, but earnest and hopeful. The language was that of Evangelical Revivalism. Revivalism was born in the 18th century in the unforgiving New England soil, but later flourished in the South and Midwest before reverberating back home to be proclaimed to everyone who came to Clinton, both locals and passers through. What did they make of it?

Since the 19th century Clinton had been a predominantly Catholic town, when the hungry Irish began showing up looking for work in the textile mills, Know-Nothing violence notwithstanding. To this day most folks are Catholic or ex-Catholic. The three main tribes are Irish, Polish and Puerto Rican, though these last are now being displaced by more recent immigrants from Columbia and Brazil. Folks are proud to say that if you go back and count, there are about a hundred-odd priests from Clinton (“That’s right, about a hundred, and every one of ’em odd.”). There were three Catholic parishes: St. John’s, Holy Rosary, and Jasna Gora, the Polish Parish. Each had a parish school. As far as religion goes, the Catholic Church is still the main show in town. The stately Congregationalist and Methodist churches up on the hill, like the town library, are there mostly for show. The Seventh-Day Adventists and other sects are fervent, but few.

JESUS SAVES. For the both the Catholic majority and probably the rest of town, it was not an unwelcome message, just unfamiliar language. Of course He saves, what else is He doing up there on the cross? And the Pope is in Rome. And God bless America. And Jesus died for everyone, except maybe the Soviets and New York Yankees fans. JESUS SAVES was just part of the landscape, mental as well as physical, a given that no one felt the need to express. They saw it, acknowledged it, each in his own way, and moved on with life.

So it went for a couple of decades. The paint weathered a bit. It was so familiar it just blended in, and you did not notice it every time you drove by, just sometimes. Maybe once a year or so when you least expected, the headlights would light up JESUS SAVES and you had to think about it. No one dared spray-paint over the prophet’s word. There were other, lesser rocks for names and loves and four-letter-words.

Then came a breathtaking act of iconoclasm. Some would have called it blasphemy. One day those who drove by found the familiar proclamation gone. The rock had been painted gold, and said in loud red letters:



Probably it was just snotty teenagers, enjoying provocation and thinking in slogans, the way teenagers do, or maybe a new Prophet had arisen, burning with a different kind of zeal. Either way, JESUS SAVES had been replaced with PRO CHOICE, and it left everyone with a queasy feeling. It was wrong on so many levels. You do not paint over the Gospel any more than you use Bibles for kindling, and why paint that?

Even as an act of protest it did not make any sense. If someone really wanted to be contrarian, wouldn’t it be more proper to oppose JESUS SAVES with GOD IS DEAD or HAIL SATAN? Wouldn’t that be a true opposition, like showing up at Fenway Park wearing a Yankees jersey? PRO CHOICE was like showing up at Fenway with a Kansas City Chiefs jersey. Wrong sport. Wrong country. Where the hell is Kansas anyway? The New Prophet did not see things that way. For him, PRO CHOICE and JESUS SAVES were polar opposites: Ying – Yang, Red Sox – Yankees. No JESUS, just CHOICE.

Most citizens of Massachusetts are squeamish at the thought that Jesus’ saving power and a woman’s constitutional right to choose might be somehow opposed. The local politicians would argue that “as Catholics we are more or less opposed to abortion, and as Democrats we are more or less in favor, and please shut up.”

The queasy feeling deepens: was a highly uncomfortable political slogan proper in such a prominent place? Is this what they wanted to see every time they drove past? Was that why the tectonic plates and glaciers left the granite face towards the road? Is PRO CHOICE one of those basic givens everyone felt, but never really put into words?

Some pro-lifers, mostly middle aged and Republican, talked about sneaking up at night and painting PRO LIFE or SAVE THE CHILDREN or just the old JESUS SAVES over the blasphemy, but there was no fire in their eyes. They were not prophets; they were too respectable, and in all their lives had never touched a can of spray paint with questionable intent. That was not all of it: deep down they knew it would not do much good. If JESUS SAVES could be painted over, and the blasphemer not smitten down in a blaze of Divine Wrath, then anything could be painted over. It would not be reestablishing the Ancient Truth, but starting a shouting match which would be won by whomever had more paint and the bile to use it.

A conservative does not know what he loves or why he loves it until someone else, who does not understand it either, comes along and destroys it. Only then does the conservative grope to articulate what was lost. By the time he can put it into words, it is no longer a given, it is just another opinion. The Revolution came and went. Maybe he was right, who knows, but he is fifteen years too late.

The conservatives should have seen it coming. As Fr. Joe Shwarch, saintly pastor of Jasna Gora back in 1980’s, was getting on in years, he used to fall into the old man’s temptation of complaining about “how things just ain’t what they used to be”: folks don’t go to church or confession much, don’t bother getting married before living together, don’t send their kids to Catholic school… but then his good heart would get the better of him and he would sigh, get a distant look and say, “I’m sorry, but when I think about how great this town could be…” and would just trail off leaving his congregation blinking. Great? Clinton? The words did not go together in most people’s minds. Mediocre, boring, insular… cozy, at best… lots of adjectives come to mind about Clinton, but not great. The second most famous bit of graffiti in Clinton, under the High Street bridge, has proclaimed that CLINTON SUCKS from times immemorial. What strange prophetic visions had Fr. Joe been having?

Fr. Joe’s conservative streak would not be satisfied by the Clinton of 2010. The Bishop having done the math for the diocese (each year: older priests, less parishioners, and more debt), Jasna Gora, is set to close this summer, along with Holy Rosary. Twenty-five years ago Fr. Joe could see the writing on the wall in those moments of crankiness: the tradition was dying out even then. Jesus and His Salvation were still written on a rock, but not so much in people’s hearts. Still, that was not the only thing Fr. Joe could see; somehow he could look past all that, to some secret greatness that might be.

Of course PRO CHOICE could not stay. Maybe Clintonians are Democrats, but they are not fanatics. Fanatics cannot brook incoherence, but the rest of humanity happily fudges it. PRO CHOICE could never preside over the town the way JESUS used to for so long. The authorities painted the rock black. Soon, of course, names and loves and four-letter-words reappeared, but there remained the uneasy memory of what had been, and apprehension of what might fill the vacuum.

Consciences were eased when the class of ’94 painted the name of the high school football team, CLINTON GAELS, on the rock in fancy gold and green cursive lettering. It had a spunky, artistic flair that JESUS and CHOICE had lacked, despite the latter’s gaudy colors. It had the comforting look of being publicly sanctioned. The wild-eyed prophet had been replaced by the cheerleader: shrill, yes, but tame and smiley, much to everyone’s relief. At long last, something everyone in town could unite around. And why not? The Gaels offer much to be proud of: Division 2 perhaps, but a football team with a decades-long tradition of toughness and discipline, and winning more often than not.

Without a common, living tradition that can help us direct our lives against the backdrop of the ultimate meaning of the universe, team sports is probably the best we can hope for.

Ashamed of our choices, and with Jesus’ salvation nowhere in sight, we have to settle for football to cover over the void, to lay down some rules, to define us from them, to give us the next game to look forward to, rather than the slow death that is the passage of time. It is a lot to ask of the Gaels. Meanwhile, we still find ourselves driving alone down Route 70, in the dark hours, some of us haunted by old demons of guilt and insecurity; others, by the strange beauty of the pines and black waters.

Will the headlights reveal anything on the rocks worth thinking about?


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