Rising racial conflict and the decline of church

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The Atlantic has a new article available online by contributing editor Peter Beinart titled “Breaking Faith” which argues that the decline in religious participation rather than leading to lessening of the “culture wars,” has instead made possible a much more vicious cultural struggle rooted in race and tribal affiliation with little common ground on which to build reconciliation and renewal.

 

Beinart begins by wondering why so many self-identified evangelicals could have supported a presidential candidate who so clearly had little understanding of Christianity and whose lifestyle and commentary exhibited almost the complete opposite of evangelical values.  What he found was that there was a significant gap in Trump support between evangelicals who regularly attended church and those who didn’t.  Drawing on other research, he also found that conservative evangelicals who disengage form church life tend to be more racist and xenophobic and that it was Trump’s blatantly racist rhetoric that they found most appealing.

“But non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.”

 

Why this should be isn’t completely understood by social scientists and is certainly counter to the narrative that it is religion itself that breeds intolerance.

“Although American churches are heavily segregated, it’s possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds. In their book, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.”

 

Beinart then also examines the change in religious participation among Democrats, where church attendance is declined even more precipitously and found that it also correlated with support of either Clinton or Sanders.

“Secularization is transforming the left, too. In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative non-attenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points.”

 

Their seems to be a clear correlation between one’s religious participation and one’s political perspective, whether conservative or liberal; what isn’t clear is which is the cause and which is the effect.

“Secularism may not be the cause of this dissatisfaction, of course: It’s possible that losing faith in America’s political and economic system leads one to lose faith in organized religion. But either way, in 2016, the least religiously affiliated white Democrats—like the least religiously affiliated white Republicans—were the ones most likely to back candidates promising revolutionary change.”

 

Beinart is also clear that this affect transcends race as well, noting that Black Lives Matter is not rooted in or led by the African-American church.  In some cases, the leaders of BLM have a largely negative view of church, seeing it as too complicit in African-American oppression.

“African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50. This shift is crucial to understanding Black Lives Matter, a Millennial-led protest movement whose activists often take a jaundiced view of established African American religious leaders. Brittney Cooper, who teaches women’s and gender studies as well as Africana studies at Rutgers, writes that the black Church “has been abandoned as the leadership model for this generation.” As Jamal Bryant, a minister at an AME church in Baltimore, told The Atlantic’s Emma Green, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.””

 

Beinart sees parallels between some on the alt-right who have taken up pre-Christian religious ideas and symbols and some in BLM who have also rejected Christianity in favor symbols and ideas drawn from African religions.

“In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, [Patrisse Cullors, one of the BLM movement’s founders] has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity—which, although profoundly implicated in America’s apartheid history, has provided some common vocabulary across the color line.”

In this embrace of tribal religiosity and identity, Beinart sees potential for a far greater conflict than any we’ve ever seen before in American history.

“Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.”

 

In essence it this retreat into identities without common language or perspectives that he sees as being the potential undoing of our civil society.  Whatever the failings of the Christian church in American history; its near hegemony did provide a common framework and language for cultural cooperation and reconciliation.  Clearly, thriving in this new multi-cultural and multi-religious world will require a new foundation for communal identity and conflict resolution.  Without it, we may face increasing conflict and strife.

“In his book Twilight of the Elites, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes divides American politics between “institutionalists,” who believe in preserving and adapting the political and economic system, and “insurrectionists,” who believe it’s rotten to the core. The 2016 election represents an extraordinary shift in power from the former to the latter. The loss of manufacturing jobs has made Americans more insurrectionist. So have the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and a black president’s inability to stop the police from killing unarmed African Americans. And so has disengagement from organized religion.

Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

image: Dutch Reformed Church of Second River in NJ damaged in hurricane Sandy, RNS

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4 Responses to "Rising racial conflict and the decline of church"
  1. This piece is a welcome and substantive foray into the cross-hairs of 21st century Christianity. This conversation goes to the heart of what must be unpacked, discerned and acted-upon if we expect to survive as a Church and as a society.

    I think Peter Beinart's research lays bare some of our challenges. What I surmise from his report is this: Republicans who stray from "the fold" become more reactionary; Democrats who stray from the fold become more progressive. Chicken and egg? I'll be darned, but perhaps the truth is not quite so linear.

    What's implied in Beinart's piece is that the Church message, in each case, is a traditional one, founded on "Love thy neighbor" and the Baptismal Covenant. Seen in the broadest of terms, it could be that the Republicans who leave the Church, don't find their 'reactionary theologies' reinforced and fed sufficiently. As a consequence, these theologies do get reinforcement outside the Church. Conversely, those who choose to remain with a church experience, are provided a counter to reactionary sentiments.

    For Democrats, the challenge is somewhat different: Those who stay are "traditionalists"; they want to see change effected in traditional ways. They don't want to rock the boat. On the other hand, Democrats who leave the Church, believe that traditional means are no longer sufficient. (Dr.King, in his time, believed this also and went on to radicalize churches throughout the nation. He didn't leave the Baptist Church; he changed it.)

    So we could say that one group thinks the Church is doing "too much" to proffer Christian values in our society while the other group thinks the Church isn't doing enough. Who's right? They are both subjectively correct: for those who choose to leave, neither group is getting what they believe they need from the Church. A question for the Church and Christianity is, which flock is in greatest need of what the Church currently offers? The easy answer for me is---the Republicans who have chosen to leave; they have departed the flock because it's "too Christian".

    However, another conclusion might be---those Democrats who leave, and leave because their churches remain too traditional; they are not feeding them what they feel they need to make Christianity relevant for them in the 21st century.

    I am reluctant to buy into ideology and doctrine that promises a better world, first, because nothing's promised and secondly, because even the most progressive doctrines are easily co-oped for someone's personal gain. I've come to rely on the ethos of Christianity which, if applied broadly, leaves no one behind.

    The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is a minister and the president of the North Carolina NAACP. He is among our most prophetic voices and serves ably as Dr. King's theological and substantive heir. His most recent book---"The Third Reconstruction'--- can serve as a road map for Christianity's transition into the 21st America. In it, Dr. Barber challenges us, as Christians and non-Christians, to dive-deeply into our human Moral Center.

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  2. It seems to me that the problem with these views is that they are overly simplistic. We are either Republicans or Democrats. Left wing or right wing. Evangelical or Progressive. "Conservative" or "liberal." Reality is more complicated. There are more of us than you might suspect who reject all of those labels.

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  3. What I said in response to a friend's posting of the original article on Facebook I'll share here:
    I've been warning about the dangers of secularizing conservatism for some time now but something about this article niggles a bit. Religious nones were the second most likely to vote for Clinton, only beat by people of Jewish faith. So, while the margins are interesting, it remains true that those responsible for the current culture war on the Trump side (for lack of better shorthand) are largely white Christians. I suppose it's fair to say the current conflict is "more" secular but a narrative that this is a secular coalition of people of different faiths and races on the one hand, and a more monolithic coalition based in white Christianity (though slightly more secular thus Christendom if the author prefers) on the other, seems more accurate.

    I think maybe what my issue is is that the article tends more towards "people being unchurched become distrustful of institutions" than "people have become distrustful of institutions, which includes becoming unchurched, because institutions including the church have failed them". Both are probably true but the root problem IMO is more the latter than the former. For example, people flock to Bernie because he offers a vision of a useful government that helps people, not because he wants to tear everything down.

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  4. A fascinating and important article. "Non-church-going (perhaps "non-institutional" is an acceptable abbreviation?) Evangelicals" is group worth of more study.

    "Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do": forgive me if I immediately thought "My gay hairdresser!"

    But even though the aphorism has long been said "11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America", apparently for these non-church goers, life is even MORE segregated (at least in terms of opportunity for QUALITY interactions w/ people of other races/ethnicities/faiths, where actual conversations can occur).

    I'm definitely going to dig into the full article by Beinart.

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