No cattail whips or hair shirts for us, instead we take our self-flagellation in logorrheic doses. We especially like statistics. Show us how bad we are in real numbers, via long pdf downloads.
I was reminded of this again today because of the release of the most recent study from the Pew Research Center, America's Changing Religious Landscape.
I probably am complicit in the self-loathing I'm outlining here. I apologize. I feel bad about it. And this post probably contributes to it. I feel even worse about that. I'm sorry.
These exhaustive, massive studies (35,000 congregations surveyed!), funded by four trusts of the children of that wealthy oil baron Presbyterian Joseph N. Pew, frequently seem to emphasize results centered around how mainline Protestants are performing (statistically) in our nation.
So, we only make up 14.7% of the population in 2014, down from 17.8% in 2007. In the meantime, unaffiliated folks have soared from 16.1 to 22.8% of the population. Evangelical Protestants remain on top (a group I'll come back around to in a bit).
We look at these numbers, and immediately begin to offer explanations. We hope to discover causation. Perhaps we are lukewarm, too liberal, not having enough babies, too inwardly focused, boring, irrelevant, too relevant, apostate, old, void of the Holy Spirit.
Then we wait for the prognosticators to emerge to help us understand these numbers better. Pew itself offers lots and lots of material for us to read, so we can feel even worse about ourselves than we already do.
So what's wrong with this picture?
Well, notice that to begin with, mainline Protestants only make up about 14.7% of the population. What about the other 85.3%? Should we pay any attention to them?
If we did, we'd find out how strangely Pew has lumped these groups. The evangelical Protestants include, if you can believe this:
Southern Baptist ConventionHas anyone informed Missouri synod folks and SBC folks that they are basically the same tradition? How about Churches of Christ and PCA?
Assemblies of God
Churches of Christ
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Presbyterian Church in America
All evangelical churches and many non-denominational ones
It almost makes you wonder if these faith traditions have been grouped based on what I'd like to call "mainline Protestant gaze." Mainline Protestant gaze© theory is, mutatis mutandi, like male gaze theory. Mainline Protestant gaze© happens when an article or study puts the readers in the perspective of a mainline Protestant person.
Who else other than mainline Protestants would assume that you can lump Churches of Christ with Southern Baptism Convention and Assemblies of God?
You'd think, at the very least, that pentecostals and charismatics would get their own category, given that according to other Pew studies, they make up about 23% of the United States population.
Further proof is the unaffiliated category. Once a religious group includes 56 million people, 22.8% of the population, it's time to come up with a taxonomically richer way of describing them, don't you think? Unless, of course, mainline Protestant gaze is at work, and all these folks are "religiously unaffiliated" because at some time, if we weren't so boring, irrelevant, lukewarm, spirit-less, liberal, and inwardly focused, heck, they might come join us and halt our decline.
Also, of incredible interest but seldom noticed, historically black churches have seen some growth during this same period, rather than decline. So why not more articles about stability in historically black Protestant traditions?
Having said all of this, admittedly written by reading the first copy that came to hand, the initial published results, I decided to burrow down into the actual full report from Pew. It was here that I discovered the Pew researchers are, as you might expect, savvy and forward thinking.
First of all, they're aware of the need for a richer and more subtle approach to the "unaffiliated" category.
Good to know! I promise, as a self-loathing mainline Protestant, I'll definitely read that report to learn where all our people are going, and what they're like!
Appendix B also intrigued me, so I scrolled to the bottom of the pdf to read it. It's kind of hard to find, so I paste it here:
Call outs on this. Notice that a couple of groups you'd think would clearly fall into one category get split in two, Pentecostals being the most notable. Also, notice that 38% of Protestants gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.
Well, that's kind of interesting all by itself, given that the denominational marker for many Christians in the United States would be Spirit-baptism rather than born-again-ness, and if 38% of Protestants gave a vague answer, it could have been fun to create a whole new category of religious affiliation for the study--Vaguers.
All of which is to illustrate how much more endlessly interesting the religious landscape in America is than we might surmise in our navel-gazing self-loathing. Mainline Protestant gaze© is, if my thesis is correct, at least one contributing factor.
The antidote is rather simple. We should heed Hamlet, and his words to a classmate in Wittenberg (of all places, speaking of Protestantism!):
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,It's a wild world out there, after all, far and away more fascinating than we are often aware. If you've made it this far in the blog, let me offer a prescription that might cure your/our self-loathing.
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
1. Stop letting pundits tell you why you're failing. Attempts at defining causation are notoriously problematic. Correlation is not causation, and false cause is false cause. The growth of "unaffiliated" is happening at basically every single demographic level, rich/poor, married/single, educated or not, ethnicities of all kinds. Blaming shifts in religious affiliation on [blank] in mainline Protestantism is a fairly obvious example of Mainline Protestant gaze©.
2. Do your own ethnographic research. All these statistics from Pew are great, I love to dig into them as much as the next person. But your neighbor across the street might teach you more about the shifting religious identity of Americans more than any study. You might find out, like I did, why being non-religious makes life far easier in many ways. You might meet a Zoroastrian. You might discover the layered complexity of pastiche spirituality. You might meet yourself.
3. Pick one main religious tradition in North America that isn't your own, and go meet it. For example, I knew almost nothing about Church of Christ before I moved to Arkansas. I still don't know as much as I could. Yet it is a large religious movement with a fascinating "indigenous" sensibility.
4. Read the Pew study and teach me something about it, point out something I didn't notice. This stuff is pretty fun. The folks who do this research are geeks of a very high order. Dig in.