I first became aware of Christopher Rufo last year as I followed the American debates surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT). Rufo is making an enormously positive contribution in this area, investigating the creep of ‘wokeness’ in education, and taking the battle against CRT to the courts. It was Rufo’s reporting that ultimately led President Trump to issue an executive order banning CRT from the federal government.
But scanning Rufo’s website this week, I discovered that he is also a film producer, his latest offering of which is entitled America Lost (2019). America Lost is at once a heart-rending and hopeful documentary, and one that every thinking Christian should watch.
America Lost explores life in three forgotten American cities — Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California.
The film depicts the dramatic decline of America’s interior through thoughtful commentary and deeply emotional stories. As the website records, those interviewed in the documentary include “an ex-steelworker scrapping abandoned homes to survive, a recently incarcerated father trying to rebuild his life, and a single mother dreaming of escaping her blighted urban neighbourhood.”
You will be touched by each of their stories, and challenged to consider how poverty, addiction and crime are interwoven problems that confront every Western nation in the postmodern era. Most significantly, America Lost goes beyond the material to trace the spiritual crisis underlying these issues.
Below are excerpts of Rufo’s commentary. He made the documentary — and collected his thoughts — over a five-year period. Prepare to be shocked at the decline of once-great Western nations like America. Prepare also to be inspired to see the white harvest fields that God is preparing in the wake of postmodern meaninglessness.
It took 150 years to make Youngstown rich, but less than a generation for it to fall.
Today, Youngstown is the poorest city in America. It’s lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and more than half of its total population. The reality is that cities like Youngstown failed to make the transition from the modern to the postmodern world.
On the surface, they’ve lost the factories. But deeper than this, they’ve lost the human bonds that once held people together.
For most of the people here, it feels like there’s a vortex beneath the city. Over the past 30 years, there’s been a dramatic rise in depression, addiction, violence and suicide. So many people die each day from opioid overdoses, the county coroner can’t handle all the bodies.
But it’s at night when this spirit of destruction comes out in full force. Every year, vandals set fire to more than 200 abandoned homes across the city. The fire department lets them burn to the ground.
We’ve demolished the old social order but found nothing to replace it…
In many ways, Youngstown is a symbol of what’s to come. We’ve had economic changes before, but this is the first time our social institutions have collapsed as well. At heart, the crisis in America’s forgotten cities is a crisis of meaning. All of the old structures that once provided a solid foundation — faith, family, work and community — have slowly fallen apart. The real problem is not just economic, but deeply personal; human; even spiritual.
There’s no way of getting around the fact that in order to truly understand American poverty, we have to address the question of family. The challenge in places like Memphis is that the family has been broken all the way down. Fathers, husbands, brothers and sons have all been displaced from their traditional roles…
The most profound danger in places like Memphis is that the atomised individual, deprived of family and community, is too fragile to survive alone. The bureaucracy can ensure people’s basic material needs, but it will never be enough. One mistake, one bullet, one illness can send it all off the rails.
In cities like Stockton, we’ve been fighting an invisible war for nearly three generations. We now spend $1.1 trillion a year on anti-poverty programs, but the official poverty rate hasn’t changed in half a century.
The problem is that both political parties have treated human beings as functions in a math problem. If we can just change some of the variables, cut spending here, increase spending there, we can fix this.
But the truth is that human beings can’t be reduced to the mathematical sense. We’re complex, individual creatures who live in a vast web of family, culture, economics, and community. No matter how careful its design, the bureaucracy can never satisfy our deep human needs. Ultimately, the people I met in America’s forgotten cities are searching for a sense of meaning, purpose, and moral order. They’re desperately looking for something higher…
Walking with the pastors and the healers through the streets of Stockton, I discovered a city with its soul laid bare. I didn’t set out to tell a story of religion, but the reality is that faith-based organisations are still the cornerstone of poor communities. In places like Stockton, inner-city churches are often the only remaining institutions that offer a clear sense of meaning, purpose and community…
We’ve tried to solve our problems through top-down public policies, but I’ve learned that real change doesn’t happen from the top-down. It happens from the inside-out. It starts within each individual human heart, then slowly works its way outward to families, neighbours and communities.
The solution for our forgotten cities is not just to revive their economies, but to create a new foundation for our fractured, postmodern world. We must rediscover the traditional sources of meaning — faith, family, work and community — and adapt them to the modern condition.
Christopher Rufo ends America Lost on an incredibly hopeful tone that should encourage every follower of Jesus about the opportunities that lay before us as bearers of the Gospel:
Although we may have lost the old structures, within each individual is the capacity to create new webs of meaning and connection. Even in the bleakest situations, human beings have agency. We all have the capacity to make life a little better.
The film’s website fills out this opportunity in greater detail:
The crisis of American poverty goes deeper than economics and public policy — it strikes at the very heart of family, community, and spiritual life. The solution is not just to restore the economies of our forgotten cities, but to rebuild our families and communities from the bottom up.
It is not just on foreign mission fields that spiritual hunger can be found. It is in our midst, in nations like the United States and Australia. The field is white for harvest.
America Lost can be viewed for free at the film’s official website.