exurb hell

I’m sitting on the floor, drinking coffee and reading to Clementine from the New York Times magazine. Right now, we’re reading about the American exurb explosion and the conservative megachurches that it’s spawned. I don’t have time for a real post, but here are a few clips:

In the rapidly growing community of Surprise, Ariz., Radiant megachurch offers financial planning, athletic facilities, child care, marriage counseling and Krispy Kremes with ever sermon. Welcome to the expanding conservative frontier….

The article tells the story of Lee McFarland, a highly-paid employee of Microsoft, who, after taking an on-line correspondence class on how to start an evangelical church, moved his family from Redmond, Wash., to the rapidly growing area of Surprise, Ariz.

McFarland’s messages are light on liturgy and heavy on what he calls ”successful principles for living” — how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt, even how to shake a porn addiction. ”If Oprah and Dr. Phil are doing it, why shouldn’t we?” he says. ”We should be better at it because we have the power of God to offer.”…

One of the more striking facts to emerge from the 2004 presidential election was that 97 of America’s 100 fastest-growing counties voted Republican. Most of these counties are made up of heretofore unknown towns too far from major metropolitan areas to be considered suburbs, but too bustling to be considered rural, places like Lebanon, Ohio; Fridley, Minn.; Crabapple, Ga.; and Surprise, Ariz. America has a new frontier: the exurbs. In a matter of years, sleepy counties stretching across 30 states have been transformed into dense communities of subdivisions filled with middle-class families likely to move again and again, settling in yet another exurb but putting down no real roots. These exurban cities tend not to have immediately recognizable town squares, but many have some kind of big, new structure where newcomers go to discuss their lives and problems and hopes: the megachurch…

The first problem McFarland set about solving was that of the public schools. The newly arriving parents told him they were terrible. So in the summer of 1998, less than a year after he’d started offering Sunday services, McFarland rented a trailer, strung up a banner and began signing up children for an as-yet-unbuilt charter school, Paradise Education Center; C.E.O., Lee McFarland. ”We had nothing to show them,” he told me. ”Literally there was just land here.”…

These are people that the Republican Party has always run well with — it’s conventional wisdom among political analysts that young, middle-class couples raising children tend to be conservative — and in 2004 the G.O.P. made a strong play for exurbanites. Megachurches were a key part of the strategy. Supporters were asked to supply the Bush-Cheney campaign with church directories so it could make sure these churchgoers were registered and planning to vote. ”For the first time we didn’t just engage businesspeople or Second Amendment supporters; we engaged people who said they were motivated first and foremost by their values, and these people were often churchgoers,” Gary Marx, a liaison to social conservatives for the campaign, told me recently. ”We asked them to reach out to their community, and their community is the megachurch.”…

In the run-up to the election, Radiant published nonpartisan voter guides in the church bulletin, and McFarland gave a sermon about the importance of voting, though he was careful not to express support for either candidate — ”God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. Still, the very fact that McFarland’s sermons are intended to feel ”relevant,” as he likes to say, means he at times takes on issues like abortion and homosexuality, both of which he believes are sinful. McFarland’s views are rooted in his faith, but congregants may, no doubt, draw political conclusions…

Happy Easter.

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  1. Suzie
    Posted March 27, 2005 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Greater Phoenix is spreading over the desert like you would not believe possible for a region with little freshwater resources. (It also has more fountains, pools, and green lawns than you’d expect/hope.)

    Surprise’s homepage notes that from a pop. of 1000 in 1960 and modest growth in the decades that followed, the 90s & on brought skyrocketing growth – to 72 square miles and pop. (estimated) of 42,000 – growth rate of 333% (three hundred thirty-three percent) between 1990 & 2000.

  2. mark
    Posted March 27, 2005 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Demographically speaking, we’re all fucked.

  3. chris
    Posted March 27, 2005 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    After reading this article I started to question my sanity. No, for reals…ya know what I mean?

  4. mark
    Posted March 28, 2005 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I like the way these communities intertwine religion, so called “self-help,” and consumption (and, most likely, patriotism). Perhaps that’s our future. It’s out there for us, and all we have to do is grab ahold.

    The mantra: “Mine, mine, mine.”

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