We never thought we would find ourselves stocking a pantry in Arizona. But now that Phoenix is our winter base, there we were, on line at the deli counter of a supermarket located in one of the ubiquitous strip malls that we love because they are home to thrusting small businesses as well as huge anchor tenants like the store we were in. After waiting awhile, we realized we were in a take-a-number queue. We remedied the oversight and got number 61. We both remember it because of what followed. When a customer who’d arrived after us, but taken a number promptly, was called, she nodded toward us and told the clerk, “These people were here before me. They just forgot to take a number. So serve them first.”
This prompted remembrance of things past. Some four decades before, Irwin took his son, Adam, then about 10 years old, with him on a business trip to Phoenix. His ever-gracious clients provided a pair of tickets to a Suns basketball game, during which Adam, by then a veteran of Madison Square Garden, went to buy a hot dog. He returned in a state of amazement: “No one pushed me!”
All of which set us to thinking. The driver in the family had noticed that when entering Highway 101 (Phoenix’s Beltway, only without road rage), she was waved on by drivers of fast-moving oncoming vehicles. The non-driver, exiting a Starbucks, passed a woman who said, “Have a nice day.” He stopped her, told her he was a newcomer, and asked her why she had done that. “Because it’s a nice thing to do, I suppose.”
We decided to satisfy our curiosity by eating at a Chick-fil-A—the originally southern fast-food chain that was fiercely attacked a few years back for its owners’ support for groups promoting old-fashioned marriage. As soon as we walked in, we spotted an area set aside for little kids to play with toys rather than grow restless while their parents lingered over lunch. Nice again. Nicer still, we watched a boy of about 6 hold the door for a little girl maybe 4 when they were both going into the play area. He wasn’t born courteous, so something was happening at home.
And the longer we stayed in the area, the more often we encountered not just “Have a nice day” but “Have a blessed day,” offered by shop clerks and waitresses. There was something inexplicably warming about it. What was going on?
Disconcerting as it was to us East Coast types, we decided that what we were encountering was civility, and we were noticing it because we were accustomed to its absence in Washington, a place we had recently fled. Phoenix is a town where you don’t need a permit to carry a gun, where Hispanics, legal and otherwise, make up a large part of the workforce, and where the heat should surely cause personal temperatures to boil at the slightest microaggression—so why here? Our answer: the large number of church-going, family-valuing, socially conservative members of the population.
Don’t get us wrong. Arizona is not the overwhelmingly rock-ribbed conservative, evangelical community it might once have been. Still, when we joined 1,000 others at a Phoenix dinner featuring a talk by our friend Charles Krauthammer, we expected to be uncomfortable as clergymen invoked blessings from Jesus Christ and the audience cheered speakers who attacked gay marriage (“Since when are conservatives against marriage?” Irving Kristol once asked at one of our Sunday breakfasts) and other causes in what everyone present except us understood to be a still-winnable culture war. Uncomfortable? We felt fine.
In fact, we were moved by the pledge of allegiance to our flag, “one nation under God” included; the polite reception to some of Charles’s provocations, including praise of Franklin Roosevelt—and the realization that these people were not the cause of the many problems that beset our society. These were people who could disagree without being disagreeable; who displayed good manners (remember them?) all around—not a bad thing, especially since we suspected that several members of the audience were legally carrying concealed weapons. Out there, patriotism was a virtue, not an embarrassment. God, country, family: What’s not to like, especially when it produces personal courtesies that are increasingly rare in everyday American life?
Long ago, Irving Kristol warned Jews not to be hostile to evangelical Christians. Understanding them, he said, was essential if “American life is to retain some semblance of civility.” Spending so much time among so many of them, we realized, and not to our surprise, that once again, Irving was right.