Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mainline Self-Loathing | mainlinedecline | Mainline Protestant gaze©

Thesis: Mainline Protestants as a group have terribly low self-esteem, verging on self-loathing. Our self-regard is so low that we actually enjoy reading article after article about what Martin Marty has taught us to call mainlinedecline.

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 Convention
Assemblies of God
Churches of Christ
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Presbyterian Church in America
All evangelical churches and many non-denominational ones
Has anyone informed Missouri synod folks and SBC folks that they are basically the same tradition? How about Churches of Christ and PCA?

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,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
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.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting theory, I'm inclined to agree. As a pastor and member of a denomination The Evangelical Covenant Church that is classed as Evangelical (though our roots are in predecessor of the ELCA) and the way we often tell our own story is that we have sought to live in both the Mainline and Evangelical worlds (or bridge the modernist/fundamentalist split).
    Some further thoughts that probably reinforce your theory: 1) It is just as odd to me that ELCA PCUSA United Methodists, The Episcopal Church and UCC (and at times Disciples of Christ) are all lumped together as Mainline. It seems to me that in reality and in the pew (no pun intended) while there are certain similarities (mainly in terms of response to the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy of the 20th century) the mainline is equally diverse as those grouped in the "Evangelical" Category. 2) I'm friends with an Aof G pastor couple, and oddly enough they too are puzzled by their being grouped with Southern Baptists, yet it is their leadership that so associates and identifies, partly for political reasons which has lead the A of G to downplay its traditionally pacifists stance among other distinctive of the denomination. 3) The Charismatics I know tend to see themselves as evangelicals, even though they disagree with many evangelicals about Spirit Baptism and speaking in tongues.
    So the "mainline gaze" has its effect beyond the Mainline's own navel gazing.
    I have another theory about all this hand wringing and self-loathing (the hand-wringing though not the self-loathing is taking place among Evangelicals) is that we are still trying to live as if Christendom is still a thing. Whatever our affiliation our American Christian institutions and their members by in large all wish to recapture the apex or our influence and power that came just as Christendom was coming to an end.
    In some sense then our categories and our inability to look at what our cultural and religious landscape really is like is that we are attempting to recreate the cultural and political climate of a time that has passed. "Mainline" is a useless lable in our current context, (One scholar has recommended the term Ecumenical Protestant, but I think like your insight into the problematic grouping "evangelical" the grouping itself is the problem not the name). the grouping and term mainline had to do with political power and cultural power of the denominations so grouped (and the perceived victory of the Modernist over the Fundamentalist which we now know wasn't a victory at all.) I'd venture to say no Christian group has such power and sway in American culture today except in certain pockets.
    In that sense Christians (whatever their category) need to accept that their cultural dominance. We all seem to in various ways wish to in someway preserve the Cultural and political power and influence Christendom (even as it was crumbling around us) afforded us. I suspect until we let it go and grieve that loss, we will continue in the self-loathing and the hand wringing.
    And I agree with you what we actually have is far more fascinating and alive than what we have lost and what we keep trying to re-establish through our prognostication. Yes, there's nothing to fix, and what we have idolized was a problem to begin with. We should be glad it is past. I love you encouragement to embrace what is right there in front of us in our contexts and let Pew studies help us do that as long as we recognize the limitations of their categories.