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Seeing the Big Picture

I watched Wednesday night’s horrific events at Emmanuel AME unfold on twitter. From 9PM to 1AM, I sat here trying to process what I was seeing as details emerged. Among a variety of voices, three seemed to be speaking to me the most: Austin Channing, Anthea Butler, and Joshua DuBois (twitter handles @austinchanning, @AntheaButler, @joshuadubois respectively).

What I read ran the gamut of emotions; anger, loss, betrayal, pain, disorientation. It was important for me to experience all of that as it unfolded without trying to put things into quick categories of cause and effect. As a white man, I needed to simply see these murders through the eyes of those struggling to process.

As it turns out, all three of them wrote very thoughtful and important pieces in the days that followed. Austin Channing shared her unedited reactions on her blog on Thursday morning. In the Washington Post, Anthea Butler asked why we struggled over using the word “terrorist” to describe the shooter (a question the Department of Justice picked up Friday afternoon). Joshua DuBois posted an excellent and important piece on Friday in The Daily Beast (after doing a fabulous job on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show).

One of the other consistent themes on my twitter feed was a critique of the media and pundits. Why wasn’t this breaking news on the cable stations from 9:00? When the coverage did start, why did commentators immediately go to mental illness and lone wolf? Why was there such an unwillingness to use the phrase Hate Crime?

Hate Crime showed up in air quotes in many publications. Even NPR used the phrase “what many are calling a Hate Crime” late Thursday afternoon. This in spite of the fact that the Charleston police started using the term Hate Crime in their briefings Wednesday night. (I’m not even going to address the ludicrous claim that it was an attack against people of faith in direct contradiction to the killer’s own words!)

This got me thinking about the power of narrative. Is there a larger story people are responding to or a series of isolated and perhaps unrelated events?

seurat-jatte-dots-microdetaConsider the picture on the left. Let’s suppose each dot represents an event related to issues of race in America in the past year. There was that one event that involved Michael Brown (let’s make that the green in the upper left). There was the Freddie Gray death (the pink spot). And so on.

Each event can be seen as independent of the rest and people can focus energies on what that particular officer did or how that teen behaved or why those people burned the CVS. We polarize our views on these questions and somehow consider the situation unresolvable because each group has their talking points.

But there was something else I noticed on the twitter feed Wednesday night and after. People were asking, “how can this happen again?” They weren’t looking at Charleston as a horrific one-time tragedy but as the next instance in a long series of tragedies.

They were wrestling against the broader narrative. The one we don’t like to talk about because it’s harder than pointing fingers at bad cops or black-on-black crime or the rest.

The picture on the right is my attempt to illustrate the difference.

It’s Suerat’s La Grand Jete (Sunday in the Park). If Sueratyou know your art history, you know this painting is famous for the introduction of pointillism: the creation of an image from a series of very small brush strokes.

Consider this simple listing of events since last August:

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.24.55 AM copy

To keep my metaphor going, the list above is just a summary of what’s happening in the foreground where the dog is. When I step back and look at the larger picture, a narrative become clear. These events happen on an ever more frequent basis and show signs of moving farther and farther away from direct threat situations. There is a context here that seems to clearly say: Blacks are seen as a threat by the broader society and they are aware of that precarious status.

The comments of the Emmanuel killer bear witness to that narrative: “you rape our women and are taking over our country“.

The story we should be discussing is this one of ongoing marginalization and degradation of Blacks in America.

The curious thing about our refusal to build these narratives is that we do it all the time in other circumstances. The “War on Christmas” narrative requires taking isolated events by individual actors and imagining some grand conspiracy fostered by those in the media who won’t call out the War or those in academe who ridicule people of faith. Never mind that these are also rare and disconnected.

Or the absolutely silly attempt to somehow connect Rachel Dolezal’s passing for black with Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender story. This is like suggesting that the images in Seurat’s Grande Jete are part of the same picture as Monet because they both have water lilies. Or that Seurat and Van Gogh are really pursuing the same style.

The truth is that cable news and the internet love narrative. They create them all the time.

They repeat statements (or don’t critique them) from politicians and pundits saying “who knows why the killer acted?”. But we do know – it’s part of the picture. Then just aren’t looking.

So why not tell the story of race in America? Why not look for the linkages between public policy, mass incarceration, economic disruption, law enforcement strategy, a “Southern strategy”, residential segregation, and educational discrimination?

The big picture is easy to see if we step back and look at it. It just takes some intentionality and a willingness to live in the midst of the realities expressed by our Black brothers and sisters.

It’s a matter of will.

Random Religion Reflections on a Wednesday

A number of things have caught my attention over the last few days. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tie them together in a nice coherent essay, but I can’t get there. So rather than spend a week crafting this post, I decided it was prudent to write some general reflections:

1. What role can congregations play in mitigating what Bill Bishop called The Big Sort?

One of the principle sociological processes of the 21st century is our tendency to stay in lifestyle enclaves. In suburban rings, these show up as gated communities (whether real or imagined). In inner-cities, they look like ghettos (in the technical and historical sense of the term). This separation has significant consequences for social policy.

This weekend, my friend Scott Emery posted a Washington Post article by Emily Badger (If you care about urban policy at all, follow Emily on twitter at @emilymbadger). Her article, titled “How our cars, our neighborhoods, and our schools are pulling us apart” summarizes work done by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone as well as other works. The byproduct of such separation is a lessening in interaction even with those in our neighborhoods and a general sense of distrust of people in general.

I shared the piece on Facebook with this question: “What would it take for the local congregation to be one place that counters this trend?” What if our churches were the places where people interacted with those different than themselves, shared meals, and actually shared lives?

I was thinking of a research project I conducted in the early 90s. I had hypothesized that congregations played a key role in linking various voluntary associations within a community. I examined the social networks within three congregations as well as their associational memberships. I found limited support for my hypothesis, in part because I focused on bonding capital (friendship) instead of bridging capital (information flow and problem solving). I completely ignored Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” that I’ve written about.

If we put a priority on both bonding and bridging capital in the local congregation, we’d do a great deal to counter the dynamics we’re seeing in the news. Local churches could be key sources of revitalizing communities while living out the call as the Body of Christ.

Emily Badger wrote another story about how the gentrification of urban areas can be a good thing if it means expanding jobs and services to previously isolated inner cities.  If millennials are disproportionately moving to cities and inner suburbs, their local congregations might be key to transformation. That is, if they don’t all settle for non-church community.

2. Attendance Still Matters

This was a theme I explored a couple of weeks back when I analyzed the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape study. In that post, I argued that you cannot really understand what it happening in evangelical and mainline religion by looking at membership apart from attendance. There are lots of folks who claim religious identification who rarely go to church and they shouldn’t be part of our calculations of what’s changing (or not) in the religious world. For example, the data on “church switchers” needs to take into consideration that 1 in 5 of those claiming a childhood faith rarely if ever went to church.

With the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention happening this week, there was news of a continuing membership decline. The SBC has lost 800,000 members since 2003. Trevin Wax wrote a nice analysis for Religion News Service exploring factors contributing to this change. He identifies four issues: the rise of nondenominationalism, lower birthrates, changes in attendance, and lessened outreach. It’s the third one that got my attention:

Several years ago, Southern Baptists began a conversation on membership and church discipline. After a resolution was passed encouraging pastors to be more accurate in reporting, many churches cleaned up their rolls as a way of moving toward “meaningful membership.”

To put this another way, it’s not just mainline churches who had “cultural Christians” — people who claimed religious identification but didn’t attend. This is significant to the whole “church decline” argument. If what we’re seeing is a shift away from casual membership, this is good for congregations. But it also means that what we used to see as the dominance of religion in society may have been substantially overstated.

3. Belonging is Prior to Believing.

There are many who would argue this the other way around, that right belief is a condition for belonging. But I think that’s bad social psychology. We have a desire to be accepted for who we are and to work through our differences as a condition of remaining in a group. If we are not allowed to be ourselves and to ask legitimate questions we have, there are serious social costs that result which play out in a number of ways. I wonder how many church conflicts, power struggles, gossip sessions, and fights over music style are really about identity more than content.

David Hayward shared this cartoon yesterday. He explained that this venn diagram describes his relationship to the church. But I find it has a deeper meaning.

If the left circle is who I am, then a small slice of me is allowed at church. Conversely, much of the work of the church has little impact on how I live my life. I’d label the overlap (which he labels “complicated”) as authentic identity.

Consider the lessons shared in this piece from Leadership Journal yesterday. Oneya Fennel Okuwobi explained the steps involved in building a truly multi-ethnic congregation: 1) Take time to listen; 2) Empathize with Outsiders; and 3) Going beyond a veneer of peace. These aren’t just lessons for dealing with ethnic or racial diversity — they are the steps toward true community.

The desire for community is not simply a millennial preference (although they may be less likely to hang around in its absence). This was the dominant theme in Church Refugees — those Done With Church simply couldn’t find the resources to keep going in the face of such denial of identity.

4. Rethinking Congregational Life

This is the central theme I wanted to weave together but I realized that I really need help from people who are involved in ministry on a week to week basis. But it seems to me that if we wanted our congregations to be places that people invested in, that impacted their communities, and that made belonging central, we’d do some things differently.

Perhaps we need to recognize the small group ministries are an admission that people aren’t at home in the congregation. They go to church and they “do life” in their groups. Why is this? What would it look like for us to do life on Sunday (making Hayward’s overlap a little bigger)?

Two of the schools I’ve worked at have had cohort based degree programs for adults. When you go to commencement and hear people speak of their experience, you find that their loyalty resides with Group 23 and not with the institution. Have we done the same thing in the local church?

I’ve been looking over some recent books by disaffected millennials. In seeing where they struggled with congregational life, we might gain insights into the questions we need to pursue (even if I’m not ready for answers yet). In Erin Lane’s excellent Lessons in Belonging, she shares some concrete ideas.

a. Identify peoples’ gifts (my edit: not in terms of what the church needs done but what gives them fulfillment — it’s called Asset Based Community Development)

b. Create safe space for sharing one’s life, maybe by limiting conversation to just a few minutes without judgment

c. Have everyone wear name tags at church (and make enough time for real conversation and not just a handshake)

d. Have set aside times where people share their faith journey

e. Be genuinely interested in those with views different than our own (including those outside the church).

I’d love to see these ideas blended into the actual worship service and not simply things around the edges. What if the sermon was in two parts — a presentation by the pastor, a reflection from a member, and a response from the pastor? What if people’s journeys were a regular part of conversation? (I have gone to church with people for years and not known what they did for a living before they retired or how many kids they have.)

We could have congregations that filled the void in our communities small and large. But to do so requires us to question our practices for this post-Christian society.

I saw a story today about a speech Nadia Bolz-Weber gave to the UCC in Massachusetts. Here’s an excerpt:

Bolz-Weber said people shouldn’t take the Pew Research Center surveys showing fewer people are attending church to mean that they don’t care about Christianity anymore.

That would be like saying because there are no phone booths, no one cares about talking on the phone anymore, or because there are no more Blockbuster stores, no one cares about being able to watch movies at home, she said.

So what does it mean for local congregations like mine to rethink how we do what we do in the same way cellphones and Netflix have changed their respective dynamics? I don’t have answers worked out but I think I’m headed toward some possible answers.

Christian Universities After the Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriage



Three disclaimers before I dive in: 1) This blog has always been my own thinking and in no way represents the positions or policies of any of the institutions I’ve served; 2) I am not arguing for or against same-sex marriage from religious grounds; 3) my attempts here are simply to explore the political and ethical responses Christian Universities may need to consider if the Supreme Court expands same-sex marriage rights nationally.

Sometime in the next three weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a key decision on marriage in America. There are actually four separate cases being considered, organized around two questions:

Issue: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? (http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/obergefell-v-hodges/)

The first question involves the Michigan definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The plaintiffs argue that this violates the 14th amendment rights of equal treatment because they are gay. The second question stems from Tennessee’s position that they wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages authorized in other states.

I listened to the oral arguments in April (available here and here). None of the attorneys arguing made an airtight case and faced significant questioning and some skepticism from the Justices, especially on issue one. It seems to me that the Justices correctly wrestled with what I’d call the “legacy question” — can the court simply adopt a new definition of marriage when, as many argued, such an idea as same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized by any governmental authority prior to this century. They rejected attempts to tie marriage to procreation or to link same-sex rights to civil rights 50 years earlier. But it seemed like the legacy issue remained — they did not want to be known as the Court that changed marriage forever.

The second question, the one about recognition, seemed easier for the Justices to see their way through. There is a long history of jurisprudence on recognizing state sovereignty as it affects those who move from one state to another. Key questions to me involved how states accept varying definitions of the age of marriage and don’t differentiate just because the woman was “underage” according to the new state. Since 1823, the Court has consistently held the right of free movement and limited the ability of states to supersede the rights of their neighboring states.

This is a long introduction, but it’s important to set the stage for what I think is going to happen. After hearing the arguments, it suddenly dawned on me that the Court’s most pragmatic solution is to side with Michigan on question one (affirming the vote of the people) while siding with the plaintiffs in Tennessee (requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states). The practical impact of this would be to enable same-sex couples to marry in affirming states and then move back to their home state to live. In essence, the second question nullifies the first until such time that states with same-sex marriage bans vote to overturn them (which, if polling data is correct, is likely to happen within a couple of elections).

So if I’m right (and I’m pretty sure about question two), Christian Universities will find themselves struggling to know how to respond.

One option is to claim a religious exemption by demonstrating that support of one-man, one-woman marriage is central to their operation. I’m not sure that will survive legal challenge, especially as many Christian institutions have made space for divorce and remarriage. Besides, this is an argument about employees more than about students. Making the “essential” argument would be difficult, force the institution into dogmatic language inconsistent with its key ethos, and open the door to claims of hypocrisy or homophobia.

If Christian Universities take the chance to seriously engage the question, what are the issues that need attention?

1. I think the key issue is to draw a bright line around marriage. When it comes to student behavior, there should be clear proscriptions against premarital sex. There is no need to separate same-sex behavior as a special class of activity. If a student is married, sexual behavior is permitted — otherwise not. Yes, this raises the possibility that a same-sex couple attending the university is engaging in sexual behavior but we can allow state law to take precedence in this matter. On a pragmatic note, with the number of commuters and non-traditional students in our institutions, it’s impossible to even know who is in a same-sex marriage. (Unless we were to make that a question on the admission application, which would face significant legal challenge.)

2. Students will want an institutional space for conversations about sexual orientation. One of the interesting developments over the weekend involved the Madeleine L’Engle’s family foundation giving $5,000 to OneWheaton, an unofficial group of current and former Wheaton students who are gay or gay allied. The money will be used to offset costs of a conference this fall. Of particular note, however, is that the gift was unsolicited. This was an attempt by an outside group (well connected within evangelical circles) to have an impact. In his story for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt quoted L’Engle’s grandaughter who chairs the foundation:

My grandmother had a long and deep relationship with Wheaton College and its English Department, and she was enriched by some of the vigorous debates she had with faculty and students there. I believe that the kinds of conversations OneWheaton is seeking to have reflect where she would be if she were still here.

I fully expect other groups to follow the L’Engle foundation’s lead in years to come. Such action will strengthen the voice of the One college groups. Rather than see these as competing yet unofficial voices within the institution, Christian Universities will be well suited to find ways of making them official parts of their student organization universe.

This will lead to a third issue.

3. Christian Universities will need to affirm that there are legitimate differences of opinion within the Christians making up their community. This includes faculty, staff, students, trustees, parents, and alumni. This doesn’t mean that Christian Universities have to abandon their commitment to biblical authority. But it does require them to acknowledge that there are community members who are in complete agreement with institutional mission, confess as Christians, and see loving others (regardless of their position on same-sex marriage) as an expression of both. We will need to avoid the temptation to “explain away” the difference of opinion on sexuality by casting those who are affirming same-sex orientation and relationship (or, at least, not condemning) as somehow “not Christian”. This was what drew WorldVision to their short-lived action last year.

This week’s news of Tony Campolo and David Neff is an illustration in point. They both said that it was time for the evangelical church to move toward affirming same-sex relationships. On the one hand, Campolo’s move wasn’t surprising — he’s been heading this direction for years with help from his wife Peggy. Neff, the former editor of Christianity Today, seemed to catch more people by surprise; so much so that the current editor wrote a response that included the following:

We at CT are sorry when fellow evangelicals modify their views to accord with the current secular thinking on this matter. And we’ll continue to be sorry, because over the next many years, there will be other evangelicals who similarly reverse themselves on sexual ethics (emphasis mine).

This notion that evangelicals don’t reach difficult positions on their own is going to be hard to sustain. Far better to engage the serious discussion among colleagues in Christ. The implication given here is that “real evangelicals” know where they stand yet folks like Campolo and Neff have only been interested in aligning with secular thinking.

The diversity of thought on this issue is real. As the Public Religion Research Institute found last year, 43% of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage. When we consider the correlation between educational level and support of same-sex marriage, I’d imagine the data for Christian University students to be closer to 50% in favor and 50% opposed. This is a legitimate starting place for our conversations. Data has also consistently shown that an unwillingness to address these questions is one of the prime factors in millennial drain from the church. Consider this quote from the PRRI study:

“There are significant generational divisions among some religious groups regarding the effect church stances on gay and lesbian issues have on young people. A majority (55%) of white evangelical Protestant Millennials believe religious groups are turning off young people because they are being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.“

I would argue that it’s not judgmentalism that is the challenge but the inability to have real conversations.

4. We need to have a real conversation about same-sex marriages

Not in the abstract but in the specific. Given the limitations of human resource law on what one can ask in an interview about a candidate’s family situation, it is quite likely that a Christian University will find out that the top candidate for that vacancy, a committed Christian with an excellent teaching and scholarly record and a love for students, happens to be legally married to another man. In fact, I think such a discovery is right around the corner.

Or, as another colleague pointed out, those two single friends on the staff will go off and get married one weekend. This is not a potential situation but one that is quite likely for a number of reasons.

There are serious EEOC legal issues here. I believe the Christian Universities can make a positive affirmation about why heterosexual marriages are the only ones they support in hiring but much more work is needed to make that case. Certainly something more robust than “we don’t believe in that”. There is likely a clear educational case that makes such a hiring distinction essential to the ability of the institution to accomplish its goals but that must be clearly specified. Otherwise, the governmental intrusion on religious institutions that many evangelicals fear may actually come about.

My thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by the work of John Inazu. John is a law professor at Washington University Saint Louis. He has a book coming out on his topic of Confident Pluralism. Here is an extended excerpt from the introduction he shared on twitter:

Confident Pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of politics. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence misses the reality of people. It ignores or trivializes our stark differences for the sake of feigned agreement and false unity. Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. We can embrace pluralism precisely because we are confident in our own beliefs, and in the groups and institutions that sustain them.

This confidence in our own convictions reinforces our differences and increases the risk of friction. For this reason, Confident Pluralism differs from a number of other proposals that seek consensus across difference, including various strands of Rawlsian liberalism and, before that, mid-twentieth century liberalism. It comes much closer to law professor Abner Greene’s claim that consensus proposals seek a “false solace” in attempting to overcome difference and “we do better by recognizing difference as something we can’t get past.” Confident Pluralism does not suppress or ignore conflict—it invites it.

At the same time, Confident Pluralism recognizes that we have better and worse ways to live out our own confidence and to negotiate the pluralism around us. Confident Pluralism should not be misread as the rejection of any consensus at all—it is not an invitation to anarchy. Like any serious proposal of how to live together in society, it draws upon certain shared resources and aspirations. We retain some modest unity in our diversity (emphasis his).

Whatever the Supreme Court determines in the next few weeks, we in Christian Universities will need to work our way through what it means to exhibit Confident Pluralism. We will regularly interact with those who do not share our values (including some in our own institutions).

But we need to do the hard work of really focusing on key issues, explaining those issues to any interested parties, and distinguishing the essential elements from those that are simply differences.

The future of Christian Higher education depends on our ability to engage this task.

On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.

Church Refugees: Examining the Dones

One of the measures of the maturity of the sociology of religion as a subdiscipline is how well it deals with specificity in its theoretical and methodological approaches. It was 60 years ago that Will Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew, as if the distinctions between these three religious families were definitive. We subsequently learned that ethnicity matters greatly in Catholicism (today, Hispanic immigration has buttressed an otherwise sagging Anglo Catholic population.), that there were great differences between Orthodox and Reformed Jews, and that there were vast differences in Protestant churches.

The 1960s showed us how survey research could illuminate denominational differences, which became very important during the “are conservative churches growing” phase of the 1970s. There were congregational studies and denominational research organizations that sought to explore religion in a local context using data based on attendance, membership, finances, and baptisms/conversions.

All of these methods persist today, as the recent spate of articles on the Pew Religious Landscape data illustrates. There are those who want to write off certain segments of protestantism (e.g., Mainlines) or to talk about who believes the “right things” in survey responses (e.g., Real Christians).

But these rough measures still feel like Herberg’s basic analysis — we assume some demographic or denominational differences and then presume meaning from those. In research design class we call this an ecological error (assuming individual behavior from collective data).

What we need to do is to get closer to the ground where people actually practice their faith. This has resulted in a range of more qualitative studies (see Christian Smith et. al., David Kinnaman, Nancy Ammerman). Research like this must exchange depth for breadth. It’s simply too time consuming and labor intensive to collect Pew-style data from actual congregants.

It is also necessary to maintain a strong sociological imagination when studying religion. Rather than looking at individual deficit models (e.g., “they want an non-demanding faith” or “they have authoritarian personalities”), we have to look at the cultural, structural, and organizational dynamics within which faith is practiced (or not).



That’s why I was excited to finally receive this book by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. It is a sociological report on The Dones: people who have been active in church life but have removed themselves from the institutional church.

I first became aware of this phenomenon two years ago thanks to some blog posts by Michelle Van Loon reporting on church decline among those over 40. I returned to the topic the beginning of this year when I became aware of some preliminary data from Josh.

Using a combination of sampling methods, Josh and Ashley were able to collect detailed qualitative data on over 100 individuals. He told me in an e-mail that sometimes all he had to do was say “hello” and the stories would pour out.

The Dones shared a number of characteristics. They had all been heavily involved in church life, some in official staff positions. They loved the church enough to be committed to seeing it become all it had the potential of being. But the costs of keeping up that energy against institutional structures eventually become too high.

There are several shared characteristics that cut across their stories.

High on the list is a desire for community. The Dones (which they also call the Dechurched) wanted their churches to be places where people connected in meaningful ways. This was more than just small group programs with defined curriculum but was the place where people actually connected. That community was important is evidenced by the ways they tried to reconstruct community in non-church settings after they were Done.

Related to this is a commitment to authenticity. They wanted to be themselves and make their questions and differences the raw material of their community rather than feeling that they had to demonstrate allegiance to the party line to avoid implicit or explicit judgments being made about them.

A third key is that the Dones had a bias toward action both inside and outside the church. They want faith to matter, not just in doctrinal adherence but in making a difference in people’s lives. But their desire for action and mission were often blocked by congregational priorities. In their view, the church was interested in program when it aided the growth and support of the church. Respondents were discouraged from actions with poor children because their gospel presentation wasn’t clear. In addition, this bias toward action was often met with bureaucratic obstacles as programs needed approval from committees and boards or were only done by people already responsible (with no guidance on how to get involved).

Those who left church were not likely to do so because of theological differences but because they weren’t allowed a safe place to discuss differences. This is an important distinction. It’s not that they didn’t believe Christian doctrine but wanted to explore its ramifications rather than being preached at.

This circles back to issues of authentic community. When this is missing, when people can’t find expression for their missional passions, when church leadership engages in oversimplification or hypocrisy, the costs of remaining become far too great. In reading the book, I was struck with the notion that the denial of authenticity may have exponential cost structures — each infraction magnifies the ones that have gone before. Every squelching of community creates a deeper longing for that one community that meant so much.

I want to underscore that the respondents in Church Refugees bear absolutely no resemblance to the characterizations so easily made by bloggers (not me) about people who want an easy faith and simply drift away because postmodernity is easier. These folks struggled. They had a vision of what the church could and should be and worked hard to make that happen.

In the final instance, they simply determined that the escalating costs were too great to bear.

It’s important also to recognize that once they left the institutional church, they found new ways of being in authentic community, of allowing conversations around important theological topics, of sharing life together, and of impacting the world around them. In that sense, they are remarkably entrepreneurial. If only they could have found an organizational openness to their creativity they might not only still be in church but would be bringing new vitality to the congregation through their efforts.

As I finished the book, I found myself pondering a key question: Why am I not a refugee? I’ve been looking for authentic community, honest dialogue, and meaningful mission my entire adult life. I think there are several reasons. First, I’ve been fortunate to be close enough to “the powers that be” in my congregations to feel some openness to new ideas. Second, and more important, I’m a stubborn idealist who thinks that someone will certainly value my sociological insights if I stay persistent. Third, I work in an environment that allows dialogue around issues of faith and life so church isn’t my only venue for such conversations.

But I understand those who have found the costs too great. One of my takeaways from the book is to ponder how many “near Refugees” exist in local congregations. How many people in the congregation are “one more thing” from making the decision to disinvest? For all of the bloggers’ suppositions about “casual Christians”, the resources for strengthening the local congregation, and therefore the impact of religion on society, may be right under our noses.

Research like Josh and Ashleigh have done is the next frontier of understanding the sociology of religion. As we get a better handle on the beliefs and behaviors of real people in real conversations, we’ll have a more robust sense of how faith works in this postmodern, complex, society. It’s quite likely that such research, rather than simply giving interpretations to shifting demographic patterns, will allow us to grasp the resilience of God’s work in a changing society. 

The Myth of “Institutional Authority”

Thirty years ago this summer I was finally finishing my dissertation. I had been working for several years considering a little examined phenomenon: the attending non-member.

At the time, most of the research in the sociology of religion was conducted 1) by examining denominational differences present in national surveys or 2) by sampling the official membership lists of a local congregation. I was interested in examining those who regularly attend church (at least once on month), had done so for a substantial period of time (at least six months), and yet who were not members. My hypothesis was that people would feel significant pressure to join or leave, so their transitional status would be worth examining.

Along the way, I struggled with two critical questions that have remained with me for three decades:

Which was more significant to the life of faith, attendance or membership? Several pastors, when asked if they’d participate in my project, wanted to know if I could tell them about people who were on the books but never came. As my post about the Pew Religion Data illustrated, I settled on attendance as being critical.

Why do people feel compelled to abide by organizational expectations? Part of my argument was that attending nonmembers would feel somehow unable to meet the expectations placed upon them and would find a way to negotiate their continuation. But why should they feel compelled at all? What does it mean for a church as a voluntary organization to attempt to maintain uniformity within its membership?

It’s not like the protestant churches I was studying were going to excommunicate those who didn’t fit in. Those folks would leave and find a church where they would feel comfortable. It would be difficult to break ties, especially if friends and family are involved, but it wasn’t impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the second question since the weekend. When Ireland’s voters overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage, the media and commentariate responded with concern about “the authority of the Catholic Church”. This was suggested in spite of the fact that Ireland remains one of the most Catholic countries on the planet (with attendance patterns to prove it).

A series of articles in Religion News Service illustrates how this argument requires much more nuance. Art Farnsley couches the “lessened power” of the Catholic Church as an example of a particular form of secularization, where the individualism predominant within modernity makes religious institutions more peripheral. Kim Hjelmgaard (in a reprint from USA Today) discusses the vote as a shift in relations between the church and the society. He quotes the Irish archbishop saying that the Catholic Church “needs a reality check”. Father Paul Morrissey (in another USA Today reprint) argued that Ireland made this historic vote because of “their faith in God, which is bigger and deeper than the Catholic Church.” Mark Silk goes farther, arguing that elements of Catholic identity actually set the stage for the vote:

Catholicism, understood as a religious culture rather than as a set of official doctrines, is far more amenable to same-sex marriage than is generally thought. Unlike Protestantism, it never valorized the nuclear family as the church in miniature. Catholics have, by contrast, exercised their analogical imaginations in understanding nuns as married to Jesus and bishops to their dioceses.

When I work through all of these articles, I realize that our previous assumptions about the power of the Catholic Church to guarantee compliance have been wildly overstated. Even in Monty Python’s classic “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” skit, nobody was really afraid of the church’s power. Vatican II and other Councils were really about support of faithful individuals over against the dominance of an institutional church. Look at birth control practices among American Catholics to get a sense of how people can be Catholic and exercise individual discretion. It’s no surprise that the percentage of American Catholics who report being in favor of same-sex marriage is 60%; roughly the level of the yes vote in Ireland.

Another illustration of institutional power is seen in recent reactions to a situation at The Village Church, where Matt Chandler is the pastor. You can read more in these posts by Ed Cyzewski, Matthew Paul Turner, and John Pavlovitz. The short version is that the church leadership refused to annul a marriage in which the husband was regularly viewing child pornography. The wife, understandably, was looking for a way to get out of the broken relationship. But the church holds a very high view of institutional authority, relying on “covenant agreements” that feel more like ironclad contracts that protect their views of church and family.

I’m sure I could find people who will defend Chandler and TVC. There are some in the Acts 29 network who see this strong power approach to leadership as being institutionally sound. But the visceral reaction to a situation where the church requires a woman to stay with her husband in order to maintain the institution illustrates what happens with the institutional authority myth is shown to be the fiction that it is.

One of the lasting concepts in my sociological theory class this year was Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. The students regularly returned to this idea throughout the semester. Mechanical solidarity is a form of social organization based on sameness and control of any deviation from expected values. It operates on what Durkheim labeled repressive law. Organic solidarity finds it basis for organization in diversity and interdependence. It’s why he cared about the Division on Labor; if we are interdependent we must find ways of keeping relationships vital. It operates on restitutive law: where the purpose is to restore broken ties.

Last week, Fox debuted their new drama Wayward Pines. I won’t give too much plot away, but it’s enough to say Wayward Pinesthat this is an Idaho town with some strange goings-on. The hero, a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon, has come to find out what happened to two colleagues. Everyone in the town is very much aware of a set of rules by which they must live. Violation of these rules is not only not tolerated, but will result in the dramatic intervention of the local sheriff (played by Terrance Howard, pictured at right looking like a good old boy eating his ever present ice cream cone).

We watch shows like Wayward Pines to root for the Matt Dillon character. We want him to solve the mystery, outwit the power structures, and find a life of freedom with his wife and son. We fear a society where mysterious powers are at work (which is why folks are sure Obama caused Texas flooding to ease the move to martial law).

So it’s curious that in the religious realm we want to celebrate strong institutions that are supposed to control an individual’s every behavior. It’s not just that such images of institutional authority run counter to modernist sensibilities. It’s that somehow we know intuitively that this is not how spirit-filled Christians are supposed to live.

The disciples were certainly a rag-tag bunch who weren’t good at conformity. Yet, when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, Jesus tells him “upon this rock I will build my church”. There is no reference to Peter whipping everyone into shape to protect the witness of the church. Affirmation seems to be the key not conformity to covenant agreements.

Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hell will not prevail against such a church. I don’t think there were asterisks in that verse exempting Christians who ask tough questions. I don’t think Jesus said “the gates of Hell won’t prevail but if Ireland approves same-sex marriage all bets are off”.

Maybe if Christians relied more on trusting the Holy Spirit and being the Body of Christ, we wouldn’t need to make claims of institutional authority and the church would be the prophetic voice is was called to be.

The Pew Religious Landscape Report: Complications and Questions

Last Tuesday, the good folks at the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s Religious Landscape. Predictably, the internet went crazy. Some argued that the growth in the nonaffiliated marked the end of Christianity. Others argued that this was actually good news for evangelicals because they didn’t suffer losses are great as other religious groups. Still others used the data to continue the never-ending saga of “mainline hemorrhage”.

I watched all this from a bit of a remove because it was finals week and I had a pile of grading. But I submitted grades for my last class this morning, which freed me to explore these questions for myself. I don’t have access to the 2014 Pew data (if someone wants to give me access, I’d be thrilled!), so I played around with the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape data to test some assumptions.

What I’ve explored below are the key questions we ought to be asking before writing opinion pieces that simply read a narrative into the data. When I do get access to the 2014 data, I’ll repeat the analysis I did today.

1. The Problem with Pie Charts

Pew Religious Landscape

One of the first things I did was examine various “religious families” across the two survey periods. This comparison has been the basis of many of the blog posts about the 2014 data. The percentage of respondents who are nonaffiliated jumped from 16% to 23% while other groups took small losses. It is true that the mainline took a bigger hit than evangelicals, reflecting an actual loss of population over time.

But this kind of analysis is what happens when we rely on percentages. The pie charts have to add to 100%, so if the percentage of nonaffiliated goes up, other percentages must go down. It’s not religion; it’s just math.

An alternative interpretation that relies less on parsing changes to pie slices would look at the percentage of respondents who represent the four primary Christian families. In 2007, those families made up 75% of the total, which fell to 66% in 2014. However we look at this, dropping from 3 of 4 Christians to 2 of 3 Christians doesn’t mean Christianity is dying by any stretch.

2. The Challenge of Self-Identification

The Pew Survey asks people about their religious group identification (in denominational terms) and then collapses those into the religious families shown above (a variable they call RELTRAD). In doing my analysis today, I only focused on the primary four families: Evangelicals, Mainlines, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

Pew also asked whether respondents claimed to be “born again”. As commenters on the 2014 data have reported, a substantial percentage of respondents identify with the label.

In my analysis of the 2007 data, slightly less than half (46%) are born again. Most of these are Evangelicals. But four in ten of those “born agains” come from the other three families, with 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines agreeing. If over one in four Mainline respondents say they’re born again, the “mainline doesn’t stand for anything” narrative might need to go.

This may suggest that there are certain cultural dynamics related to labels that evangelicals like to claim as their own. This cultural identification may be consistent with those other surveys that show attitudes toward the historicity of the virgin birth. It may simply be that “that’s what we say” in certain situations. What people mean by born again will need much more analysis.

3. The Problem of Attendance

Things get more complicated when we look at attendance patterns. Since the Mainline Hemorrhage thesis depends on a simple cultural identification that now isn’t needed, it’s important to see what’s really happening in congregations. If one needed to go to church in the past to prove you’re a good community member and religious non-affiliation is now more accepted, we’d expect a lot of members on paper but not in real life.

There is some truth to this, but it cuts across religious families. I broke the attendance data into two sets; those who attended once a month or more and those who attended less than once a month (I used the “once a month” cutoff in my dissertation research as the minimum level of engagement in the congregation). Here are the percentages of each by religious family.

Attend Not Attend
Evangelical 75 25
Mainline 57 43
Black 77 22
Catholic 67 33

If the “Cultural Christian” thesis holds then we’d get data like we see for Mainlines. But that narrative fails to account for the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Mainline respondents are active in their congregations. Nor can it explain the 1 in 4 Evangelicals who rarely attend church.

A related story told in commentary involves the aging of the Mainline church. We can call that the “Blue Hair Thesis”. If that were to be supported, we’d see a gradual pattern of an aging population that fails to generate sufficient replacement populations to handle losses through death. Related to this pattern is the differential birthrates by religious family (which limits replacement in some traditions).

I was able to examine attendance patterns using the four age cohorts that Pew used in reporting the 2014 data: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 plus. It is true that the senior category has a higher attendance percentage than other groups, but what surprised me was the relative stability of the 18-64 groups.

Evangelical Mainline Black Catholic
18-29 75 56 76 58
30-45 73 52 72 60
50-64 74 54 82 61
65+ 77 64 82 74

Again, the data from the 2007 Religious Landscape study raises questions about our preferred narratives. While it’s true that attendance patterns run higher among Evangelicals and Black Protestants, every age cohort within every religious family shows a majority attending church at least once a month.

Working out my logic this morning, I played with a Baylor Religion Survey, also done in 2007 (thanks to the folks at The Association of Religion Data Archives). Attendance may also be a necessary qualifier in making sense of “switching data”. Those questions (which are in Pew) compare childhood religious family with current religious family. But the Baylor survey also asks about attendance at age 12. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents didn’t make the once a month attendance threshold (a pattern with surprisingly little variation by tradition). To treat infrequent attenders as “switchers” seem like a distortion of the data.

In the Pew data, I was able to compare the “born again” data to the attendance data without separating the four religious families. I found 20% claiming to be born again and attending church less than once a month. Not everything is as we so easily suspect.

4. Religion is Important

Another of the popular narratives is that religion is become increasingly irrelevant to modern society. This may be true in the sense of lessened hegemony over cultural dynamics but it doesn’t show up in the data for those who regularly attend church. (And data on the non-affiliates show some curious patterns in reporting religion is important.)

As the earlier data showed, there are differences across the four religious traditions but these differences pale in light of the importance of religion to those who attend.

Attend Not Attend
Very Somewhat Very Somewhat
Important Important Important Important
Evangelical 89 10 54 35
Mainline 74 24 29 46
Black 91 8 66 28
Catholic 73 25 31 47

If we take the “very” and “somewhat” options together, the patterns on religious importance for those who regularly attend range from 98% to 99%. On the other hand, the nonattenders show the cultural dynamic of arguing that religion is very important in spite of their non-attendance. (This isn’t an artifact of seniors who simply can’t get out; it cuts across age categories.)

Sometimes it seems that the sociology of religion moves very slowly. It hasn’t been that long ago that we stopped dividing everything into Will Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew. We understand that there are larger dynamics of religious tradition in play.

But these patterns are clearly mitigated by attendance. We would do far better in understanding the role of religion in postmodern society if we paid more attention to the legitimate faith of those who regularly attend church instead of perpetuating our favorite version of why our particular tribe is better.


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