Sunday, July 20, 2014

I can see clearly now....

I've just ordered a new pair of glasses, in a style that match almost exactly the glasses I wore in the first grade.  Of course, to people my daughter's age, this is the "new style" and all the rage.  I hate to tell them it isn't new at all, that while I like them, I'm glad all my elementary school pictures are safely locked away from public view.  All I need now is the crew cut I sported then.....

I mention that because I don't disagree with this Amanda Marcotte post as much as I thought I did, now that I've read it.  But I don't think it's all that insightful, either.

For one thing, church attendance has been falling for 50 years, if not longer. It peaked at an abnormal height in the post-war era, at least among Protestants, and it's been going down since.  To notice it now and claim you've discovered something new under the sun, is simply false.  Which doesn't mean fundamentalists aren't reacting to a decline in their stature; except that stature only really stretches back as far as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.

You want to really see the fundamentalist/evangelical crowd lose its political punch, look to the candidacy of Pat Robertson, if you're old enough to remember it.  We don't even call Robertson a "former Presidential candidate" anymore, though he was for one brief, silly season.  And he got about as far as John Connolly (if you remember his bid) or Rudy Giuliani.  It seems his popularity and notoriety made him about as electable as Bill O'Reilly would be; or as Rick Perry proved to be.

Falwell actually persuaded fundamentalists and evangelicals that they should engage the world, rather than stand apart from it (you could look it up; and frankly, Marcotte should have).  Maybe the roots of that rage are in the anti-school prayer decisions, or in the grassroots turn against abortion (many on-line articles have noted lately that being against abortion was a Roman Catholic concern long before Protestants evangelicals and fundamentalists decided it was part of what we know call the "culture wars."  Again, you could look it up.)  But the rage didn't provoke any response until Ronald Reagan was replaced by George W. Bush (even though Reagan hardly darkened the door of a church, unlike Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter), and then Bill Clinton was elected and tout le monde of the American right wing went mad.

Not that they hadn't gone made before, but the last time, it was personal.  As Karen Armstrong has noted, the Scopes monkey trial so embarrassed and humiliated fundamentalists (thanks, Mencken!), although the trial wasn't really about them, that they reacted by turning on the world they had been happy to leave alone up to that time.  When the movie version of the play threw kerosene on the fire (completely falsely),  it only got worse.  JFK, a Catholic, winning the presidency, was about as popular in some sections of the country as Barack Obama is today, and for similar reasons.  But again, Reagan's marriage of sunny optimism with a 1950's throwback attitude ("Morning in America" was all about starting the day over in Ozzie and Harriet land) prompted TV evangelicals who were enjoying a hey-day (soon to end) on TV, to decide they should remake the country in their own image.

And so began the "Moral Majority," a reference to Nixon's "Silent Majority," and in both cases, a matter of false advertising and mislabeling.

And now, unsurprisingly, some of the reaction to changes in culture (a black family in the White House; gay marriages, the declining attendance at churches across the spectrum, although a small Catholic church near me seems to be growing enough to double the size of its worship space) are prompting rabid reactions from pockets of the country (the districts that elect Louie Gohmert, Michelle Bachmann, Marsha Blackburn) fearful of change because they are either white, or old (both being groups who see themselves as diminishing in political/social power), or both.  This, too, was entirely predictable, and the people pointing out the coming demographic changes (which are no longer coming, but are here) predicted this situation a few decades ago.

I'm guessing, but my guess is Ms. Marcotte was too young to be aware of that at the time.

I don't agree with Marcotte's dichotomy: that some grow more fundamentalist as others grow more secular.  For one thing, pastors have spoken for decades of pews filled with "baptized heathens," people are claim affiliation to a church, but agree with almost nothing the church actually preaches.  And I don't think many people actually agree with Gretchen Carlson that secularism is destroying our religious practices.  Most of what Carlson cites in her complaint are secular matters anyway:  Christmas trees are not Christian, any more than Santa Claus is.   A creche may be Christian, but there are more than a few Christians who consider such items idolatrous, rather than a special exception to Protestant rejection of plaster images of religious figures.  I agree with Marcotte that such items have no real place in the public square, and would point out they weren't really common until the '50's, which means they are hardly rooted in 1st Amendment jurisprudence back to the early 19th century.

To take one more example, Marcotte says:

Take, for instance, the way that weddings have quietly changed in this country. It used to be that you had a wedding in a church, and only people who were eloping got married by someone other than a minister. Now, outside of very religious circles, it’s more common to see weddings on beaches or at country clubs, and very often officiated by friends of the couple rather than clergy.
Except my parents, both church goers who raised me in a church, got married in the '40's in my aunt's living room.  That was quite common, especially since Protestants about 500 years ago decided the state should marry people (license the marriage), and the church need say nothing about it.  The purpose was largely to reject the Catholic notion of marriage as a sacrament, but it became so ingrained in America that church weddings again only became common in the '50's, and nowadays I've been to several "church weddings" (and conducted more than a few when I was in parish ministry) where the church was used for the photos and the ambience, not for the religious significance (if any) of it.

Everything old is new again.

But I reject the idea of a dichotomy because this isn't an either/or of fundamentalist bible-thumpers v. radical bible burners, with "liberal" Christians somewhere in the middle futilely wringing their hands.   Marcotte says:  And caught in between are a group of liberal Christians that are culturally aligned with secularists and are increasingly and dismayingly seeing the concept of “faith” aligned with a narrow and conservative political worldview."  I wonder if she's ever heard of the UCC, or knows their office for press relations, or even remembers them from the infamous "ejector seat" ads of a few years back.  Every mainline denomination has a press office which releases information on what the denomination is doing; and every news outlet, down to Alternet, ignores those releases and focusses on who has a radio program or a TV show.  Jim Wallis gets more attention than the entire UCC because he works the media better; that doesn't mean Jim Wallis speaks for anyone other than Jim Wallis.  And he may or may not be concerned about the concept of faith being aligned with a particular political view, but I don't know too many Christians in the pews who give a wet snap what Bryan Fischer said last week.

This isn't really a split over religion v. secularism; it's a power struggle.  That's why most Christians in most church pews don't pay attention to the fight, and really just don't care.  They aren't interested in the power struggle, either as citizens, or as Christians.   Christianity, as I've said over and over, is about powerlessness, not about power.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. I Corinthians 1:20-25

I don't like dropping scriptures in like some kind of quote bomb, but I use Paul's words here to support my thesis on the power of powerlessness, and for no other reason.  While there are certainly groups who use religion to assert a right to power, I reject the legitimacy of such claims in general, and in the name of Christ, specifically.  Power is not the end of a Christian life; love is.  And the latter is much harder to attain than the former.

Which is as it should be.


  1. a couple of questions: you mention that church attendance peaked at an abnormal height back in the immediate post-war period- could that have been a sort of side-effect of the various horrors of world war 2? and on a similar line: judging by the old photos, pre-war weddings in my part of the world were relatively simple affairs as well. it seems to me the epic nature of weddings came about as part of the relatively affluent, consumer-oriented nature of the times more than any need to make a *religious* statement

  2. I think the boomlet in church attendance was a response to the horrors of war, and a need for comfort that pervaded the '50's. Probably, also, a reaction to "godless Communism."

    Weddings with bridesmaids and groomsmen abundant can be traced to a royal wedding early in the 20th century. The idea slowly caught on in America, and people decided they had to have weddings in churches which would make lovely backdrops for it all. Probably, also, a touch of sanctification of the marriage by the "church," even among Protestants.

    But I remember "alternate" weddings on beaches and forests in the '70's, and I played the piano for a cousin's wedding in her husband's family's backyard. So the idea of "abandoning" church is not linked to where people are getting married, at all.

  3. The Pat Robertson candidacy is not an accurate measure of the political power of fundamentalists. Their capture of the Republican primaries is so complete it is probably more useful to list the Republican moderates. No Republican candidate in a red state, especially a Republican safe district, dares cross the christian right on any issue. I contest your assertion that the mainline protestant churches are simply ignored by the media. Certainly the right has deep funding, even their own 24 hour televised propaganda organ. But are the 'liberal' denominations fighting back? Let's see.
    Starting with my old outfit, this is a decent, if bland, news site. News, as in dispassionate, just the facts reporting. Stories about the Detroit water crisis, Gaza, Same sex weddings to be performed in a red state. There is a blog page, but even those appeared informative, non editorial writing. Using the site search I get no results for Hobby Lobby, no actual matches for Focus on the Family of American Family Association. No matches for Supreme Court that pertain to the McCullen or Hoby Lobby cases.
    Let's see what the Lutherans are up to. This is where my wife takes our daughter. This is a Missouri synod site, but I think her church is too. Anyway... The Lutherans have much more about Lutheran theology, a good thing for their flock. They also have dry news, and editorials. The editorial position seems to be a Minnesota Nice affirmation of the christian right. Moving on...
    There's a scene in The Cannonball Run where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr are drinking in a bar while dressed as Catholic priests and trying to seduce women. Their disguises foil their attempts, and Dean (I believe, it's been awhile) says "We should have been Methodists!" The script was purportedly written by 'Car & Driver' staffer Brock Yates. Let's check his theological math... Okay, news that might look like advocacy if I squinted hard enough. The blog page has a post advocating anti-colonialism. The Frank Schaefer affair gets covered (he is a Methodist). Hobby Lobby reporting looks truly 'fair and balanced'. Not bad.

    Alpha not exceeded, we fail to reject the null hypothesis. Please trash my research and prove me wrong. That's why I included the links.

    It's quite telling that initiatives like the NALT project and Blog Against Theocracy are the work of the laity. The leadership knows that every congregation has one, or many (or all), who want everything kept the way it always was until they die, who are still bitching about the 'new' Book of Common Prayer, and who put the money in the plate every Sunday. And these tend to be people with a certain sense of entitlement or ownership. People who made their money in the old economy and have more to spend than young people raising children.

  4. You don't give me any evidence that the press releases made by, say, the UCC, are given any attention at all.

    Over at Thought Criminal, several posts noted actions by UCC churches, especially in response to the current "immigration crisis." I haven't heard anything about that on NPR, or MSNBC, or CNN, or in the NYTimes. It doesn't even get to Huffington Post.

    I'm quite familiar with the press releases made by the UCC (since I'm a UCC pastor), but they never get further than the UCC webpage. Why not? Yet any fatheaded thing Bryan Fischer says gets covered on a wealth of internet sites. Why? The UCC may be a small denomination among the mainlines, but it is invisible and James Dobson, once upon a time (and no minister at all), was ubiquitous.

    Even Joel Osteen got a lot of attention, as well as Rick Warren. But they stopped writing best-sellers, so nobody cares anymore. But they cared a lot more about Warren's opinions than about those of any mainline denomination.

    Unless, of course, those denominations are ordaining women, or gays and lesbians. Things the UCC did decades before anybody else did, but again, the UCC remains invisible (except for that "ejector seat" ad, and they couldn't even get that on the air).

    and I'd say your final paragraph is the problem with churches today: they are run by those who feel "entitled" to them (I know the type well) because they have the age and the money and the time to spend making sure everything is run to their satisfaction.

    But that's a different problem.

    Anyway, the problem is not coverage by denominations, but coverage of denominations. They get no attention, no matter what they say, while every utterance of a Rick Warren is considered world news.

    Or was. We're waiting breathlessly for the next Rick Warren to write a best-seller and so seal his bona fides as a Christian To Be Reckoned With (I still hear more about Mars Hill than ever I heard about Jeremiah Wright's church, one of the largest in Chicago. But black, mostly, and UCC, and who even cared when Wright was notorious? All they cared about was how outrageous they could make Wright appear.)

  5. Adding: I must admit I don't check up on the social justice or theological statements of other mainline denominations. If your examples prove that's because those denominations don't even bother to make any, then the state of affairs is even sadder than I imagined.

  6. Rmj,
    I just popped over to and I was impressed by what I found there. I expected at least a half measure from the Episcopalians. They lost most of their right wingers to the Anglicans over Eugene Robinson. Oh well. I also read of the terribly rude and arrogant disruption of a UCC service in New Orleans by Operation Rescue. Assholes. Including the standard "I thought you liberals were tolerant." cherry on top. The UCC is clearly doing what it can. I only spent an hour or so, but it doesn't look like the other three I checked on are in the fight. And I left out the Presbyterians. They do gay weddings now, so there is that.

  7. A local PCUSA church just tried to vote to leave that denomination, over the gay marriage issue.

    I know about it because it is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the state, and one of the oldest, so it made local news.

    But what they covered was the controversy, not the issue. It was all about the process and the vote to leave the denomination (which failed). It wasn't about the stance of the PCUSA on gay marriage, except as that issue was divisive in this particular congregation. Indeed, I learned more about the PCUSA's position on that issue from the dissenting church's website than from news accounts.

    The information is out there; but you have to look for it yourself. It's a regular thing to find op-eds in the Guardian and other British papers from Church of England clergy. In the US, it's rare to find anything not written by some evangelical or fundamentalist who doesn't already have a best seller, a TV show, or a radio show, behind them. Comments from clergy, especially about church teachings?

    Well, maybe a Catholic Bishop.....