"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Vanity of Vanities

"If there when Grace dances, I should dance."  Still.  --W.H Auden

So this is, again, old news:

Over the course of a single generation, the country has gotten a lot less religious. As recently as the early 1990s, less than 10 percent of Americans lacked a formal religious affiliation, and liberals weren’t all that much likelier to be nonreligious than the public overall. Today, however, nearly one in four Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That includes almost 40 percent of liberals — up from 12 percent in 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey.1 The share of conservatives and moderates who have no religion, meanwhile, has risen less dramatically.

The article I first saw reference this Nate Silver article declared all such "unaffiliated" persons to be "atheists," which we know is a gross exaggeration.  Even Silver acknowledges that:

To be sure, religious belief and practice can still exist without a label. Many people who are religiously unaffiliated still believe in God, or slip back into the pews a few times a year. But liberals are also cutting ties with religious institutions — since 1990, the share of liberals who never attend religious services has tripled. And they’re less likely to believe in God: The percentage of liberals who say they know God exists fell from 53 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 2018.

And what does this shift really mean?  Have we really gotten a lot less religious, or Just a lot less interested in activities that involve strangers and getting off the couch?  Silver acknowledges "the shift is too large and too complex" to explain with one, unifying explanation.  However, the discussion persistently lends itself to either/or.  I would offer a few observations based on some of the material Silver presents, and the argument he makes that conservative Christians are driving others out of the churches or, more accurately, not back into them.

There are a lot of reasons for declining church attendance.  One is the simple shifts in society that churches simply haven't kept up with.  Sunday morning, especially immediately after WWII when returning soldiers and a society shifting from a war footing craved nothing so much as "normalcy," became the sacred hours all "good" people spent in the Church of Your Choice (there was actually a PSA campaign with that slogan.  Ah, yes, I remember it well.).  It was another factor of social conformity that started to come apart in the '50's (despite Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver) and began to really strain in the '60's.  It wasn't a straight line progression, of course.  TV evangelists came along, preaching to crowds to watch TV, not attend church (Billy Graham appealed to rally attendees to go to church, but I really don't think he had much to do with improving church memberships), and finally to just listen to the preacher and get rich to prove God loved you and you loved God. Now Sunday morning means brunch or complacencies of the peignoir, if not activities for the kids, and besides what's the incentive to sit in a pew with strangers for an hour?

Worship broke into either "contemporary" worship (as they called it in my youth; or the "folk mass" of Vatican II heritage) or regular worship.  One was not inspired enough to ever gain any traction (it depended too much on the skill of the worship leader), the other was deathly dull.  The exciting replacements favored of mega-churches are all heavy on entertainment, light on real worship (and here we could insert another discursive discussion on Karl Rahner, from a post I wish I'd found earlier.  But I need to read Rahner before I discuss him again.)  We could divert to a discussion on what worship is for, but I can't find the post on that I was looking for, and let's not, anyway.  There are more salient matters to attend too.

There were smaller trends, too, like the return of women to the workplace.  Pushed back home after the war, to lives of some quiet desperation in the suburbs (there is a great episode of "Mad Men" where Betty defrosts her refrigerator freezer because there is literally nothing else for her to do with her day).  Annie Dillard's memoir records how dull and isolating suburban life could be for women in the '60's.  Anyway, economic necessity as much as the "women's movement" forced women back to work (by and large) in the '70's and '80's, and suddenly life got busier.  Athletic events went from Johnny playing baseball or football or basketball, to Janie playing sports, and more sports (lacrosse, field hockey, soccer) being played, and more teams playing (not just school teams), and less time after school because curricula became more demanding to meet the "challenges" of a brave new world that had so many Asians in it (I don't speak disrespectfully, but the times were charged with fears of Confucian inspired cultures that took education seriously when we apparently didn't).  Suddenly even Sunday mornings couldn't be spared the enroachment of soccer games or other athletic activities Johnny and Janie had to be participating in in order to be "well-rounded" and have a resume that would impress the Ivy Leagues (if it wasn't athletics it was something that looked good on paper).  Sunday, in short, lost its sacred aura, and became another day of the week.

It had been for the working class for a long time, of course.  Women who could stay home shopped during the week, and spent weekends "with the family."  That dissolved and weekends became the time to do what couldn't be done after 5 o'clock on weeknights.  And the first thing to go was church, unless church was a good show with a rousing speaker and a reason to show up like "God Wants You To Be Rich!"

I exaggerate, but only slightly.  And the cultural shift of the '60's carried into the children of the Boomers.  The 19th century (and earlier, but mostly from that century) hymns that fed the church experience of many a Protestant child, were just too old to appeal to their children (except as "Christmas carols", a special season of nostalgia).  Sitting and listening, or reciting the same words every Sunday, in a world rapidly offering more and more distraction (and emphasizing less and less transcendence, the loss of the individual in the whole), became less and less attractive. Churches that weren't pushing the "prosperity gospel" were largely peddling some form of nostalgia (if they weren't peddling left-over '60's activism and social justice concerns) for a past that never existed. And worship, leitourgia which should be the work if the people, the community, the church, became another source of "What's in it for me?" Church has always had a janus-like quality:  looking backwards to the past and traditions that connect believers to the clouds of witness; and trying to look forward so the service is in the living language of the people, and I don't just mean in English v. Latin.  That tension became greatest as the revolutions of the 19th century (mostly the cultural ones:  the Industrial and Romantic revolutions, the yin/yang, still, of our age) finally caught up with Christianity. And it seems it finally broke.

Over the course of a single generation, the country has gotten a lot less religious. As recently as the early 1990s, less than 10 percent of Americans lacked a formal religious affiliation, and liberals weren’t all that much likelier to be nonreligious than the public overall. Today, however, nearly one in four Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That includes almost 40 percent of liberals — up from 12 percent in 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey.  The share of conservatives and moderates who have no religion, meanwhile, has risen less dramatically.

"No religion" and "no religious affiliation" are indistinct terms. As I said, this conversation lends itself to the bifurcation of eiter/or.  I've presided over whole churches with arguably "no religion."  I still remember discussing problems of my first parish with a church member, and she muttered "Unchurched!" as if it were the foulest word in the language.  She was referring to other members of the church, such as one who told me I made too many references to the Bible on Sunday morning, that he had read it years ago, and really didn't need to hear about it any more now.  (You can't make this stuff up.)  But that's a point for sociologists of religion and the powers-that-be of church hierarchies.  I wouldn't say, though, that America is "less religious" than once it was.  Say, rather, as I've said before, that America is moving back to what is probably the trough of the wave of American religion culture, as it declines from the explosion in church attendance following WWII, a wave that peaked somewhere in the '90's, and has been in decline since.

Is that decline tied to political positions?  It appears to be:

The result is that today, most people’s political ideology is more tightly tethered to their religious identity. The overlap is far from complete — there are still some secular conservatives and even more religious liberals. In fact, the majority of Democratic voters are religiously affiliated. But the more liberal you are, the less likely you are to belong to a faith; whereas if you’re conservative, you’re more likely to say you’re religious.
I can still remember the post-war heyday of American Christianity, and denominations were practically markers of political party or even a conservative to liberal spectrum.  There is perhaps a difference today, but today it is more socially acceptable to be even non-religious.  Silver thinks the explanation for this is that conservative Christianity has become so identified with politics that liberals have rejected all of Christianity, because the publicly advanced face of it, is politically conservative preachers who, today, vocally and openly support Donald Trump.  I think it's a valid point so far as it goes, and Trump is just the apotheosis of something that's been going on for a long time (as he is in so many cultural and political matters).  The simple fact is, the media in America doesn't cover religion unless it's tied to power.  The Bishop of Rome gets attention because he's a world figure, presumably commanding the Roman Catholics around the world (Pope Francis' embattled position, with Bishops openly demanding he step down from the papacy, would seem to belie that image, but the narrative is entrenched and won't be set aside soon).  Most of the "religious leaders" in America today are not even pastors:  Dobson of "Focus on the Family;" Franklin Graham; Jerry Falwell, Jr., don't even lead congregations, yet their words are regarded as representing, if not guiding, the faithful.  Why?  Because they have money, or political clout, or both.  Billy Graham was noted as much for his connections to Nixon as for the crowds he could amass (the latter is something Trump still thinks should prove his power).  Rick Warren was famous and regarded because he wrote a best-seller.  On the strength of that fame he hosted a discussion with McCain and Obama during their electoral campaign.  Whither Rick Warren now?  He hasn't sold another book, so who cares what he says to his church?  Is the media at fault for this conflation of religion and power, this idea that conservative Christianity requires conservative politics?  Not entirely; the church has always been a conservative place, culturally.  Look at the problems the Pope is stirring trying to get his church to practice the gospel as he understands it (and the Pope is not a radical theologian by any stretch).  Much of what he advocates goes against the cultural grain of other church leaders, who don't want to make common cause with Muslims nor really put the poor first ("the first shall be last, and the last first," in the basiliea tou theou.  I suppose you can interpret that to mean something other than concern for the poor as the primary concern of the believer, but which is more "conservative" a position?).  And, of course, concern for the poor doesn't create political controversy unless you mean to use government to express that concern.  Conservative Christians who want political power, want to use government to express their concerns about abortion, or gay marriage, or transgender access to public bathrooms, or....  You get the idea.

No surprise, then, they get the media attention, or that Christianity gets associated with their particular (and to this Christian, peculiar) cultural opinions.  Then again, I grew up with it, and grew up against from almost as far back as I can remember.  My earliest political experience was the day after the election in 1964, when I asked my father how the elections went.  "The goddamned Democrats won everything!," he snarled.  I stood thinking, but not saying:  "I though WE were the "goddamned Democrats."  I've been one ever since, and grow more liberal as I get older, or at least more attentive to people than to ideas or things (well, I try to.  My success rate is not high, but that's a valuable lesson in Christian humility.).  And no surprise politically liberal people don't want to associate with that, or people like that.

There is, indeed, a deeper problem at work here, and that's the dissociation from community of American society.  I'm not a sociologist nor a scholar in the field, which is to say I have no data beyond my own experience to rely on.  Robert Wuthnow, for one, is a sociologist on matters of religion in America worth his salt, but he may be the exception in sociology that proves the rule (he also offers a great deal more wisdom on this subject than Mr. Silver does).  No matter, my point is that my knowledge is largely experiential, not looking into the information available by questioning large numbers of people and assessing the results.  Still, America is no longer the land of the Elks Lodge and the Optimist Club and the Order of Odd Fellow, or even the Woodmen of the World, all groups extant in my youth and vanished like summer smoke long, long ago.  Labor unions have fallen off as we look to ourselves to save us, or friends we select to be with us.  Church is a place you elect to go, but you can't elect who else goes there.  More and more of us, it seems, elect not to be a member of a club who would have such members (no, not us; those other people!) in it.  That may have nothing to do with political persuasion; in fact, it probably doesn't.  We have to be careful here not to see everything through the prism of one lens, not to be the person with the hammer who now sees nothing but nails.

Silver points to the work of two sociologists to explain how the backlash to religion among liberals began in the '90's:

It was a simple but compelling explanation. For one thing, the timing made sense. In the 1990s, white evangelical Protestants were becoming more politically powerful and visible within conservative politics. As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left. Hout and Fischer argued that the Christian right hadn’t just roused religious voters from their political slumber — left-leaning people with weaker religious ties also started opting out of religion because they disliked Christian conservatives’ social agenda.

I would, again, point out that it was in the '90's that church attendance peaked, and when it began falling off.  Because of the political activism of church leaders, leaders as identified by the media?  I don't doubt it; never really have.  But there's causation, and there's correlation:  the decline was due about that time, and the rise to power of conservative Christians was more the blush on the cheek of the dying age, than a renaissance of conservative politics and conservative religious culture.  Recent reports have it that children now coming up in conservative churches are much more liberal on cultural matters (and so some political ones) than their parents, and aren't as interested in declaring Democrats "godless" because they can't claim an evangelical leader among their number (and if they did, the evangelical would be considered apostate, because conservative Christianity is, in the most public circles, tightly wound round conservative politics).  This was something that could have been predicted, even expected, by looking at the trends of religious affiliation in American history.

Silver ends on what he probably thinks is a sage note, but it strikes me as naive and revisionist in the extreme, looking back to an idealized past that really wasn't that idyllic:

The political implications of this shift are already evident. As more liberals become nonreligious, the Democratic Party’s base is growing more secular, complicating the party’s efforts at reaching more religious voters. But what it means for religion is less clear. Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison College, said that the impact might be blunted by the fact that the people who are becoming nonreligious mostly weren’t that involved in religion to begin with.

But Campbell warned that this shift is already reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together and break down partisan barriers. That, in his view, threatens to further undermine trust in religious groups and make our politics more and more divisive. “We have very few institutions left in the country where people who have different political views come together,” he said. “Worship was one of those — and without it, the list is smaller and smaller.”
The "diverse array" of people may have occurred in the Roman Catholic churches, but never in the Protestant ones.  My last parish told the story of deciding to re-carpet the sanctuary; some were for it, some against.  The ones who thought it a waste of money split, went down the street a few blocks, and started their own church.  The church I grew up in shed members every time a new pastor was called, largely because he (never a she! This was the 'old days') was not their first choice.  Bringing diverse political opinions together, breaking down "barriers"?  How many pastors in southern churches lost their pulpits for standing with the civil rights marchers, with the blacks who marched in those streets demanding equal justice under law?  Re-read King's "Letter", please.  If people with different political views came together in the churches I attended, or pastored, they were careful to keep it to themselves (as I did.  My liberalism in politics was deeply hidden, because one thing I found conservatives could not tolerate, was disagreement on politics.).

I've been down this road once or twice before, and my original position still stands.  When we get to the point that 59% of the population reports "no affiliation," wake me up.  We'll be back to 1906.  As I said, waves and troughs.

It's at least one way to look at it.  And there is indeed nothing new under the sun; that's another, slightly more traditional, viewpoint.


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