America needs more coffee shops and fewer churches?

This is a minor little lifestyles feature from last week, but it is still bugging me. There is a ghost in here, methinks. The topic is "third places," which reporter Sherry Stripling of the Seattle Times defines as:

Today, instead of face-to-face encounters that help what Oregon poet Ingrid Wendt calls "keeping the human spirit in repair," we communicate by computer, by talk radio or by finger on the freeway.

When we wonder at the divisions of our society, we need look no further, some social observers say, than at the loss of what's been called "third places" -- safe, neutral gatherings spots.

The corner store, the local pub, the coffee shop that doesn't involve a long car ride. "Third places" cultivate deeper support and a broader range of ideas than you find at your first place (home) or second place (work).

The whole idea, of course, is that this is where people bump into other people who are different and they have nice, friendly, red-on-blue conversations in which divergent points of view are discussed and no one ever gets bent out of shape. This is where closed minds have a chance to become open minds. You got it? Think "Cheers."

Stripling quotes Ray Oldenburg, author of "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community" as saying that third places should be:

* Cheap or free

* Close to home or work so you go there regularly

* Amenable to conversation

* A second home for old and new friends, even if it's just the bartender

* Playful

You can probably figure out where I am going with this. The article is on to something, of course. Modern mass media and zoning laws have killed true neighborhood bars and greasy spoons, even in many American small towns. I have heard rumors that the very red-zone city of Fort Worth still has lots of neighborhood bars and, I would assume, Seattle remains the national capital of coffee sanctuaries.

But something is missing from this article, something major -- religious institutions. Anyone who has ever lived in the heart of the Bible Belt knows that there is a Baptist church on every other corner and the Methodists are on every third corner. For many, many people these are third places. Maybe churches fill this role for a different class of people than those featured in this Seattle story. Then again, perhaps coffee is the only remaining sacrament in the Pacific Northwest.

It is also clear that these third places are somewhat idealized, for Stripling and the people she quotes. They may even be anti-churches. Note these comments by Seattle University professor Mara Adelman:

Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University's Department of Communication. She's studied the benefits of "weak ties" -- the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.

The "strong ties" in our lives -- family, friends, workmates -- tend to be "birds of a feather," Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we'll think or behave. The "weak ties" provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas -- "and then you get to say good night and go home."

Without third places, she says, "you can't get into the gray areas and complexity."

Now, it is true that churches -- blue churches and red churches -- have become some of the most birds-of-a-feather institutions in American life. But somehow I suspect that they still play a major role in public life for millions of normal Americans. Last time I checked, coffee shops and bars are not protected in the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting that churches play no role in the Seattle article at all. Zip. Nada. Look it up.

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