Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Waiting For God....

Although David French is sort of missing the point: If, indeed, this is valid data being validly read.

When I was in seminary in St. Louis, I had occassion once to pay a visit on the once high-state UCC church in St. Louis.

In it's heyday it was the church of the elite in a city that was at the crossroads of America. One of the more famous World's Fairs was in St. Louis, and this church regularly hosted the governor of Missouri (when he was in town), called the Mayor a member, and fed dignitaries and VIP's in a dining room with food supplied by a paid kitchen staff, served with silver utensils and flatware on china bearing the name of the church (which, frankly, eludes me now) and of a design unique to the church.  That church, in its day, was Kind Of A Big Deal.

Belonging to that church was a haven for everyone in Missouri, or at least St. Louis, who wasn't Catholic (St. Louis; the Cardinals; yeah, St. Louis has, as my Catholic priest Pastoral Care teacher put it, "more Catholics than you can shake a stick at.") but who had "done everything 'right.'"

The more things change....

Was that bad for democracy?  And religion?  Arguably democracy got a great boost when Martin Luther sparked the Reformation (not that he actually did; things were moving that way already.  Calvin and Zwingli, and others, were already looking for a break with Rome.  Luther lit the match, but the fuses and gunpowder had been laid down long before he raised his hammer to drive that nail at Wittenberg.).  The emphasis of the Reformation was on the individual (well, actually, on other leaders than bishops and Popes.  True individualism didn't come along until the Romantic movement in the 19th century, so you could just as well say the Industrial Revolution gave a boost to democracy, too.)  Religion thrived in the Middle Ages as Rome and Roman order collapsed and a new order slowly, painfully arose.  It was priests who taught knights the concept of chivalry and care for the poor, rather than playing brutal, petty warlords as they did, being the lowest rung on the feudal ladder but still, in armor and on horseback, far above the toiling peasants who fed the whole system but had no say of their own.  It was also religion that kept them oppressed, let's be honest.

But which was bad for religion?  The Pope's temporal powers, or Luther's tight connection (they kept him alive!) with German princes, who also weren't all that concerned with the poor.  Sure, you had monks like Francis; but the Pope was never a Franciscan until, unless I have it wrong, the current Bishop of Rome.

In Houston, now, the largest Baptist church in town reportedly has a lock on funerals for police officers.  I know that isn't quite true, but it's a stalwart rumor meant to reflect the political power (waning over the decades, actually) of that church.  In almost any smaller town, there is one church it is wisest to be seen belonging to, if you want to be sure to "do everything 'right.'"  I'm not saying that's right, per se; but it is the way it has been since Paul's house churches became Augustine's formal churches became cathedrals and, in the modern version, basketball arenas.

Their trend is just as unmistakable: those who are the most likely to attend services weekly are those with a graduate degree. The least likely to attend are those with a high school diploma or less. And these aren’t small differences, either. The last few years have seen nearly a ten-point gap in attendance from the bottom to the top of the education scale.

Less educated people work harder, longer hours, at more physical, if not flat manual, labor.  Time was when everything except sports events were closed on Sundays, and church was somewhere to go in the morning because, what else were you gonna do?  Read the Sunday Times?  Not outside NYC, you weren't (I remember the thrill of being able to buy the Times in Austin, because it was sent electronically via satellite to the local newspaper to print and distribute.  This was only 40 years ago.)  So some of that "spread" is about economic justice as much as it is about educational attainment.  But it doesn't disturb his basic point, just shifts its focus a bit.  Especially in light of the opening of his argument, appealing to the Gospel of Luke and the fundamentally Christian idea (truly fundamental, although it's almost never stressed) that the first shall be last and the last first.

But it isn't education that's driving religious affiliation or worship attendance. Indeed, the data points out that those with graduate degrees are most likely to attend worship regularly.  It's called "networking," something even my father recognized as an important part of church attendance (I remember him telling me about that fact of life when I was married and living in Austin and returning to church after decades away; that return led me to seminary, eventually).  It's also called "leisure time," something people with graduate degrees, who are usually paid commensurate with the value of their diplomas (doctors, lawyers, etc.), tend to have more time off than high school graduates.  If you're an auto mechanic at a car dealership, what do you need to network for? 

I'm not being severe about this. My grandfather had, at best, a high school diploma (if that) and worked as a manual laborer or heavy equipment operator until he retired in his '60's (and died before he reached 70, as most people did at the time).  He was a lay preacher and regularly attended a Primitive Baptist congregation.  But times have changed, economically and socially.  That's the trend that is truly unmistakeable.

"Networking" points to a fact about church attendance:  it's about the people far more than it's about the "religiosity" of the attendants.

That gap persists all the way through the life course, too. Even among sixty-year-olds it’s still there. About 30% are married retired folks are in churches, it’s just 20% of those who are not married. Marriage leads to much higher levels of religiosity - at any age. 

He's talking there about married couples attending worship, v. divorced or non-married couples.  But his conclusion is that "Marriage leads to much higher levels of religiosity."  Or it leads to greater seeking of a community of like minded people you enjoy spending time with.  When I married the Lovely Wife we didn't seek out a church because neither of us were exactly comfortable looking for one.  We finally did a few years before the Golden Child was born, or almost 15 years into our marriage.  We made friends there, enjoyed the people there, threw ourselves into it.  There was a couple our age pregnant with their first child about the same time we were, and their child was born around the same time ours was. It was a community. And it ended when we move to St. Louis and I entered seminary.

And after some perfectly miserable experiences in parish ministry, and equally rough times in churches we attended as lay members, we left church again.  I have three graduate degrees, including my M.Div., but I haven't regularly attended church in almost 20 years.  I suppose I'm an outlier.  But mostly, I was teaching English and didn't need to "network," and the people I found in congregations were, to put it kindly, not people I really wanted to spend time with.  I'll take the blame for that in Groucho's famous phrase that I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member.  Not anymore, anyway.

Does the data explain me as lacking "religiosity"?  Or is the problem in applying that term, and using the data to flatten everyone out into one-size-fits-all explanations?

The clear outlier here is folks who are married with children. Among those who fit both criteria and are under the age of thirty, 37% are attending weekly. That does begin to decline as the age category moves up. I am guessing that’s because folks who have children later in life tend to be less religious, but that’s just a hunch.

Except when the Golden Child was born I was six weeks shy of being 37.  And from seminary onward, we attended church weekly; well, until we stopped, and no one in the family disagreed with the cessation. I know, I know, a patch of ice doth not a winter make, nor a single swallow summer.  But I'm no less religious than I was; I'm just no more interested in worshipping among people than I was.  Me and Groucho, is my explanation.

These results are hard to ignore and should sound some major alarms for any person of faith who is concerned about the large state of American society. Increasingly religion has become the enclave for those who have lived a “proper” life. College degree, middle class income, married with children. If you check all those boxes, the likelihood of you regularly attending church is about double the rate of folks who don’t.

This is also troublesome for American democracy, as well. Religion, at it’s best, is a place where people from a variety of economic, social, racial, and political backgrounds can find common ground around a shared faith. It’s place to build bridges to folks who are different than you. Unfortunately, it looks like American religion is not at its best.

Yeah, bullshit.  Working stiffs like my Grandfather were not likely attending that St. Louis UCC church in its heyday for late 19th and early 20th century glitterati.  I never saw anyone with a college degree attend my grandparents Primitive Baptist church, though they'd have been more welcome there than my grandparents would have been at the "high churches" of many American cities.

Church attendance after WWII was all about the "proper" life.  If you weren't dressed properly, you weren't welcome at all.  The little country church I pastored in Southern Illinois, two of the happiest years of my ministry, was sometimes visited by the town crank. What to call her?  In NYC she'd be a "bag lady," except she had a home of her own, and fierce Midwestern independence. I don't think she was mentally ill; she just lived according to her lights.  She was her own woman, and once in a while she'd wander in to the church service.  It was a tiny room, you couldn't miss a newcomer if you tried.  But the town (of about 150, IIRC) all knew her and all accepted her, and so welcomed her if she showed up.  That whole congregation was more "religious" in the way Mr. Burge seems to mean the term than any I've known outside my grandparents' church.  And there was precious little concern with being "proper" in either congregation.

As for religion being a place where a variety of backgrounds come together:  in what church?  Dr. King, I think it was, called Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America.  It still is.  Most churches are white or black; or now gay, or not.  I think some of the "gay" churches are also more multi-racial than I'm used to, and good on them.  But I attended two black church services; one in seminary, one where I preached as the guest at a black UCC church in Lake Charles, Louisiana; and I can tell you in both churches I was more welcomed by the congregation than any one of their members would have been in the white churches I knew. Oh, there was no overt racism; but the segregation of the hour was still a profound cultural reality.

I suspect, despite the exceptions, that they still prove that rule.

No, church in America (and yes, we mean "Christian church, don't we?  Not synagogue or mosque or anything else; just Christian) is not the democratic American melting pot, then or now.  It's not, nor was it ever, egalitarian, class-blind, race-blind, or gender-blind.  Besides, I don't meet Muslims, Jews, or Sikhs in my church, and Muslims don't meet me in their mosque nor Jews in their synagogue.  The idea that church attendance is, or once was, reflective of America as a whole and so an instrument of democracy, is laughable.

Democracy as whole in America has led on the issues of inclusion and acceptance of genders, races, and religious beliefs, far more than church in America ever has.  In fact, all this data tells me is that the beat goes on.

And that should be of concern for church and religion in America.  But, as Fehrlengetti once wrote:  "I am waiting for someone to really discover America.  And wail."  He meant that, or at least I think he did, in the '50's American jazz sense of sing with unalloyed joy for what had finally been found.

I'm with the poet.  I'm still waiting. 


  1. Sincere golf clap..

  2. I spent a few minutes poking around the twitter links and the related materials. I'm still scratching my head how the author came to the conclusion that rising non-religiousosity is a danger to democracy.

    Looking at the results, I think it's just as valid to draw the conclusion that rising atheist/agnostic/nothing-in-particular (avoiding the question that nothing-in-particular could also apply to spiritual but not religious) is happening across all groups, regardless of educational attainment. The question then is why it is rising faster among those with less educational attainment over those with more. I'll layer this over the fact that congregational educational attainment varies quite a bit by denomination. I don't have the time to go dig up the data (but this would be a place to start looking https://www.thearda.com/ ), but my recollection is one of the denominations with the highest academic achievement is Episcopalian, while others like the Southern Baptist and Catholic are lower. These variations are tied to cultural, how recently immigrant, etc. So these declines in associating with a particular religion or denomination also have a denominational aspect. A very quick look at the website above for the county in which I live shows a steady decline of affiliation with the collection of mainline protestant denominations, eyeballing it at 50%, but an even larger decline with the Catholic Church.

    Also there are important cultural factors. The rate of marriage is declining across lower economic brackets (and with less educational attainment, I'll use them interchangeably, although they are not exactly the same). Is that because religious adherence is declining in that group, or is it because the economic opportunities of particularly men to financially contribute to the family have declined and so women are less interested in marrying someone with poor economic prospects? (I'll assume that same sex marriage rates are low enough to not have a substantial impact on this conclusion) There have been innumerable articles and studies on this question. The author above I suspect has reversed the cart and horse, it may well be that it isn't the lack of religion leading to less marriage, it may be the decline in marriage rates are leading to the decline in religious affiliation.

    I find the above data interesting, but it leads to more questions than answers, and certainly not the pat conclusions the author has divined. I'm also aware that the pandemic drove down church attendance and associated affiliation with a church. Attendance has recovered but no way near the pre-pandemic level, and even below the levels trend lines would have predicted from 4 years ago. A lot of pre-pandemic marginal congregations that were just hanging on financially and by participation, are in the process of going under now. I suspect there will be a wave of closures and mergers in the next 5 years as congregations use up the last of their resources. These closures will also drive the decline in overall affiliation. People are less likely to switch to a new congregation, less likely to travel farther to reach a new place of worship and so on.

    As I said, just more questions.