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On Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life

I recently read Christian Smith’s new book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford University Press, Sacred Project2014).  Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame (and will be speaking for Spring Arbor’s Focus series in March). His work is well known in sociology of religion circles and he is one of the principal investigators on the National Survey on Youth and Religion.

Sacred Project is a different kind of book than his more empirical work. A footnote in the introduction spells out his strategy: “this book can be read as ‘a sociology-of-religion of sociology-as-discipline’ (p. x).” Smith is using Durkheim’s work in a very specific way, so it’s good for me to paint a quick picture before getting to the substance of his argument.

Emile Durkheim’s work in Elementary Forms focused on the beliefs and practices of Australian Aboriginal tribes (based on fieldwork by his nephew). It’s “elementary” because it is the most simple and primitive approach (at least according to Emile). It’s a clan organization with a divided sense of time: there is origin time and everyday time. The origin time in populated by spiritual beings/animals (which is why it’s called animism) who work out the creation narratives. Everything else in everyday time is a recreation of the origin time. The rituals the group engage in are representations of that time that is sacred, “that is, set apart and forbidden”. But Durkheim’s analysis concludes that the sacred realm is a reproduction of the group’s social order and that the outcome of the everyday rituals is to guarantee fealty to the group’s values. A related element is Durkheim’s work is that such tribal societies deal with deviance and rule-breaking by what he called repressive law — violators were excluded from the tribe.

It is in this narrow way that Christian Smith is talking about a Sacred Project in sociology. Like the origin time for the aboriginals, there is an overarching story that binds sociology and a system of ritual practice that reinforces that story on a regular basis. The actual sacred story is rarely if ever examined.

For sociology, Smith argues, the sacred vision is one of a particular form of society. It’s not just that sociologists use certain methods or introduce specific concepts in their sociologizing. It’s that they do so in service of the larger sacred goal. How he outlines that goal takes on different forms throughout the book. Sometimes, he is fairly objective in describing an unexamined vision of the world sociologists share:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (pp. 7-8, italics Smith’s)

I’m more comfortable with the first half of the formulation than with the second. Sociologists do share a vision that perhaps can best be stated as critique: we’re concerned about exploitation, about the contingencies of birth, about dynamics of social inequality. In short, the dynamics of structures and patterns within the larger society that unduly rob some of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a shared and unexamined notion that our ideal sociological world wouldn’t look like that.

But he also conceptualizes the Sacred Project in words that sound far more pejorative:

We might say that it stands in the modern-liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist “tradition” (p. 11, italics Smith’s).

He traces the development of American sociology from its Chicago days to its current state and seems to suggest not only that all of these descriptors are connected, but embraced by the discipline. Some of them are directly contrary. It is undoubtedly true that sociology has had a bias for those left behind within society — from Chicago’s Polish girls to contemporary issues around race and criminal justice.

Smith reviews recently published books at ASA meetings, themes in contemporary sociological journals, or major assumptions underlying conference themes. He spend a chapter doing a remarkable critique of the leading Intro to Soc textbook (Macionis), suggesting that the tripartite structure of theory groups (structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction) works to a) show conflict theory as preferable to order theories, and b) to legitimize the social constructivist assumptions of modern sociology. Another important critique is that research gets repeated that seems to match the default assumptions of the Sacred Project even when it’s been critiqued long in the past.

These patterns, it seems to me, have a great deal to say about the institutional structures of the sociological enterprise. How does one get to be an intro book author or reviser? Which books get reviewed by major publications? Perhaps to get a book noticed by an editor one has to pick up one of the victimization themes common to the book exhibit. What I’m suggesting is that the sociological analysis we’ve all gotten used to can be turned back on sociology.

Another layer to this is also evident in Smith’s argument. He recognizes that the patterns he describes don’t reflect the biases of most sociologists but do speak to elites. They also are represented within the major doctoral programs and promotion-tenure processes in competitive sociology departments.

A key element of the book has to do with the way conservative sociologists have been treated in the discipline. He spends most of a chapter reviewing the Mark Regnerus saga from 2012 (Smith wrote a defense of Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education). There are very real issues of research being used for or against certain prescribed positions and sociology is not better off for such exclusion. This is where Durkheim’s repressive law comes in. Take a position outside the established view and risk exclusion — figurative at best, career destroying at worst.

This isn’t an isolated argument. Just today, I saw a report from a group of social psychologists describing the theoretical problems arising from a lack of political and ideological diversity. My friend George Yancey has regularly been researching issues of ideological discrimination within academe.

So I’m left agreeing with Smith in part and disagreeing in part. Sociology does seem to take default positions, evident in textbooks and research presentations, that there is only one idealized vision of how the world should work. Even though there is far more diversity among sociologists in general than there is within the elite echelons, those of us calling for a more complex position are somewhat deviant (this is especially true for the sociology of religion subset).

And yet I’m not as troubled by the various labels described in the second quote above. Sociologists, especially Christian sociologists, are rightly concerned with issues of inequality, of diminishment, or power abuse. Not because we blindly adopt an enlightenment rationalist vision. But because we’re pursuing a Kingdom vision. It is a sacred drive but it’s a different sacred project than Christian Smith describes. It’s one that takes God’s restoration of creation as its telos.

One more thing: he ends his book with an appendix describing what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. In this view, which I really want him to unpack further, he wants us to explore the complexity of causal forces in the social structure. More importantly, he wants not to focus on autonomous individuals but “persons”. Rather than drawing on Enlightenment images, he wants to draw on Aristotelian interconnectedness. This approach also is consistent with basic Christian theological assumptions.

In the end, while I certainly agree with much of Smith’s critique, I am more optimistic about the alternatives. There is a great deal for students to pursue even without the biases he’s worried about. It’s a Sacred Project truly worth pursuing.

Deconstructing Choice, Culture, and Structure: Campus Sexual Assault, Ferguson, and Staten Island

As I’ve followed the news over recent weeks and seen it dissected in social media, I’ve become aware of the way in which we continually shift our understandings of circumstances. Some people see everything as a matter of individual choice and want to mete out “just desserts” to the offender (for example, “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the police”). Others like to make cultural arguments that focus on a deficit of values as the driving force (for example, “it’s the absence of father figures in the black community that is to blame”). Still fewer want to couch the argument in terms of the more sociological structural dynamics of power and inequality (for example, “there has been a systematic school to prison pipeline that traps urban young men”).

Two observations arise from this. First, people in options one and three don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. I have seen countless Facebook treads where someone tries to articulate option three and a friend (hopefully still a friend) takes offense that we are either excusing individual behavior or calling the speaker a racist. Second, we’re not consistent in the application of the options across situations. I’ve seen social media posts from people blaming Ferguson on the cultural dynamics of inadequate socialization (fathers again) who simultaneously think the campus sexual assault is a matter of poor choices by isolated individuals (both the man and the woman) and that notion of a broader “rape culture” is a media creation (looking at you, George Will!).

The sociological reality is that these three levels of analysis are interdependent. I’m not a fan of Talcott Parsons, but this was the insight of his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1939). He attempted to show how voluntary choice was shaped by cultural values as well as by the structures of society (his later work focused only on the latter). Choosing to focus on one aspect of the broader system didn’t negate the impacts of the others.

There are individual level choices that distinguish between those who break the law and those who don’t. I was reminded Wes Mooreof this recently, when a Facebook friend commented on The Other Wes Moore. That book tells the story about two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in Baltimore. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. But change a couple of “inflection points” and their situations reverse. If the author hadn’t moved in with his aunt, he would have stayed on the street and bad things would likely result. If the “other Wes” had been able to stay with the job corps, he might not have fallen back in with his brother.

There are also cultural factors in play. Certain tropes are held up in society as models of success, masculinity, or prestige.Die Hard For example, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that the “hard-boiled detective” was the prototypic character in American Rugged Individualism. Culture is much more complex than that, but it will serve as an indicator for now. If John McClane is an image of what it means to solve problems, it’s not hard to understand how this translates into militarized police strategy or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “torture”).

Finally, we have larger structural variables, primarily associated with issues of economics, power, and institutional control. In general, these structural inequities arise not from someone’s conspiratorial decisions but because of “natural” change over time. The patterns we see there are the result of actions taken and not taken over literally decades.

Consider for example this report the Pew Research Center FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2released yesterday on wealth inequality (wealth is a measure of total net worth — assets minus liabilities — and far more critical to inequality than simple income). The Pew folks were trying to show how racial/ethnic differences played out in post-financial crisis statistics. But what caught my attention was that the “most equitable” measure of white to black or hispanic net wealth favored whites by a factor of six. There are all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons for these differences: owning rather than renting, savings rates, retirement plans, incarceration rates, residential segregation, and so on. The fact is that the middle white household (that’s the median) is in a far better position than the middle black or hispanic household.

These three types of variables — individual, cultural, and structural — all come into play in our contemporary discussions. I’ll try to illustrate using campus sexual assault and the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island. One could make a similar argument around the release of the terrorism report, but I’ll save that for another day.

College Rape Culture: The last couple of weeks showed us something of the complexity of the issues involved in responding to issues of sexual assault. Rolling Stone published a harrowing first person account of how Jackie had been gang-raped by some fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The president of UVA (a sociologist, by the way) suspended all UVA fraternity events, because she wanted an exploration of the cultural dynamics that made such events possible. Over the last ten days, the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone’s reporting techniques (or lack thereof) that called the original story into question and caused RS to apologize. As a result, many have decided that Jackie must have made up her story (read her roommate’s statement that disputes that claim).

But to understand and respond to campus rape culture, we have to pay far more attention to variables beyond the individual level (here’s an excellent piece that appeared in Christianity Today this week). At the cultural level, the allure of a party culture is primary. One can find lots of concerned stories about binge drinking on college campuses, but our concerns can quickly be contrasted with our common social expectations. Let’s look again at media tropes to get a glimpseAnimal House of the value set that sets the context for an incident. Show the picture to the right to just about anyone over 15 and they’ll recognize the kingpin of Delta Tau Chi. Images of toga parties, hook-ups, and outrageous behavior will quickly come to mind. That’s not to suggest that all of Greek life looks like Animal House — I knew some guys at “Farm House” at Purdue and it was one of the most straight-laced, studious group of guys you could fine — but nobody makes movies about a group of fraternity brothers living together, pursuing their studies, and forming community.

It’s not just party expectations that are involved. The status of women in the broader society is another part of the story. The differential power structures that can result in male entitlement runs throughout our thinking about rape culture. First, the woman is at a disadvantage when going to the party. Second, how we respond to her story of assault is conditioned by assumptions of personal responsibility (for her, not for them). Third, we seem overly worried about men being “wrongfully accused” — why is it so hard to believe that an overly masculine social setting, fueled by alcohol and hormones, would be seriously vulnerable to abusive behavior?

The higher the patriarchy in the culture, the harder it is to respond to sexual assault. Consider the GRACE report on assault at Bob Jones University that was released on Thursday. One of the most telling pieces of the 300+ page report is in this graph (highlight is mine):

Bob Jones report

Over half the respondents in the sample felt “blamed and disparaged” after reporting their sexual assault with another quarter reporting an indifferent response. This is institutional in character, as the recommendations section of the report makes clear.

It’s true that campus sexual assault happens because of bad actors. But that’s an incomplete story without considering our cultural expectations of campus social life and the larger issues of sexism and access to power within the institution and the broader society.

Ferguson and Staten Island: Much has been written about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I’ll skim the surface a little bit. From the individual level, we can think about how Brown and Garner got into the situation they were in. They bear personal responsibility for their choices but the choices weren’t unusual — it was the response that was unusual. Other teens shoplift. Other adults traffic in black market goods. It doesn’t result in death. They aren’t seen as threatening figures that must be subdued by authorities. If we stay at the individual level we are left with unanswerable questions, why were these men different? What was in the minds of the officers who respond? We’re left to build post-hoc explanations of what they were thinking or what actions potentially meant.

The cultural level informs the individual choices. Consider the two pictures to the left. One of these is Gangstersfrom the film Menace II Society and shows a young gang of black men. The other is Denzell Washington in American Gangster (the story of a heroin kingpin). I’d argue that law enforcement would think very differently about the guys on the left than the guy on the right. It’s intriguing to think about how a Denzell figure might be more of a “menace to society” but we’ll approve of his fine clothes and family values. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how John McClane would respond to the young toughs — because our movies and television are full of those images.

The drug connection takes us to the societal level. The economic instability mentioned above makes the underground drug industry a rational response to lack of opportunity. This was one of the primary insights of Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, which arose out of Parson’s analysis.

The “other” Wes Moore starts as a drug lookout at a young age because it allowed him access to a nice stereo and good shoes when there were few other opportunities (and his brother was already connected). For all of those who question “what about black on black crime?”, we should be asking “why is the drug trade a major avenue to economic advancement, even though it is fraught with intergroup violence?” and “what can we do to develop real economic opportunities in the inner city?”

Context

The answer to these questions is tied up in the history of segregation, denial of opportunity, school inequality, social policy, and a host of other issues at the structural level. We can talk all day about the individual motivations or cultural expectations but until we begin to address the structural concerns we will continue to be frustrated as a society.

Evangelism in Post-Christian Culture

MLCLast weekend I drove to the Chicago area to participate in the Missio Alliance Missional Learning Commons in Westmont, IL. The theme this year was on evangelism and brought together pastors, parachurch leaders, theologians, and ministry professors. I’m pretty sure I was the only sociologist in attendance. I was curious to see how the nature of evangelism might be shifting in the context of a post-Christendom culture and whether my ideas about Identity Evangelicalism would resonate at all.

While it’s tempting to explore the differing rhetorical and analytical styles between pastors, theologians, and sociologists, I’ll leave that one alone (feel free to write me for my comments!). I’m really most interested in aligning what I heard with what we think we know about coming to faith and sustaining it within an ambivalent culture.

Friday night’s session featured James Chambers from InterVarsity. His perspective was closest to what I would consider as classical evangelism: the need to show the Gospel in word, deed, and signs. He was quick to admit that the culture is not receptive to the message but still called for confident action on the part of believers to share their faith wherever possible. Saturday morning opened with David Fitch (theologian at Northern Seminary), who suggested that our post-secular culture has shifted power dynamics. David’s focus was on the importance of Presence, Proclamation, and Power (the order is very important). It is when we are present with others that we can share the claims of the Gospel and then rely on the Spirit’s power to make change. Rick Richardson, professor of evangelism at Wheaton, did a great job of summarizing the sociological literature on millennials and faith (while dampening some of the extremist language). He said that we often over-react to previous models of ministry and we need to be careful not to jump ship “just because”. Still, he affirmed that belonging seems to be preceding believing so that it’s important to hear other people’s story in the midst of actual engagement. Rather than seeing evangelism as being about individual we look to build connections with “people of peace” and allow the Spirit to work through them. Jason Smith is a Vineyard pastor from Ohio and told of the ways in which he has found opportunity to engage others in the everyday work of the life of the church. His premise is that asking to pray for others while expecting the movement of the spirit is what brings about life change. Tim Catchim of the V3 Movement spoke last. He constructed a two dimensional model: the horizontal axis contrasted  process change (Road to Emmaus) with crisis change (Road to Damascus)  while the vertical access moved up from Presence to Proclamation. He suggested that our traditional model of evangelism could be found most often in the upper right corner (Crisis Proclamation) but that many other options exist that often get ignored.

As I listened to the presentations, I found myself thinking a lot about John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s model of conversion. This work, based on studies of the Unification Church before it was famous, provides a model of how people convert to deviant religious groups. But it also applies to non-deviant groups. In fact, James’ presentation Friday night had a slide remarkably similar to the Lofland/Stark model (I took a bad picture or I’d share).

Here’s what Lofland came up with in analyzing the Moonies:

Lofland

 

 

The model begins with persons feeling a sense of tension in daily life. Lots of people sense tension but don’t move further than counseling. But those with a religious problem solving perspective turn toward spirituality in search of solutions for the tensions. If they feel comfortable beyond just dabbling, they adopt a form of seekership, which makes them open to new ideas or worldviews. Following a sense of crisis, they turn more seriously toward the religious group. The religious group embraces the new initiate with what Lofland called “love bombing” — massive interaction at a retreat far away. Over time, the new group becomes the “in-group” while family and friends represent a past way of life. Once the member is inside, the intensive interaction continues, keeping the new group member committed.

The Lofland/Stark model faces some challenges in contemporary society.

First, people aren’t really sensing existential tension. Given the general nature of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in society, a generalized belief in being “a good person” dilutes a sense of potential crisis.

Second, in post-Christendom society, people may be much less likely to be looking to religious worldviews for solutions. The old “if you were to die tonight, do you know you’d go to Heaven?” question works if people believe that there is a heaven and that there is a serious risk that they wouldn’t be going there. The nature of apologetics becomes problematic because it may be providing answers to questions that people don’t have.

And yet, it still makes sense to look at the model.

I’d suggest that we start with Lofland’s third step. We have people in the midst of challenge. And in the midst of that challenge, other people come alongside that represent support that is not dependent upon first solving the challenge. This is what David Fitch means by “presence”. It’s why Rick Richardson goes to Burning Man (one of the stereotype-exploding facts of the weekend!). It’s why Jason Smith lets the homeless guy down the block mow his grass. Out of the engagement within challenge, the person senses that someone actually cares. That belonging is real.

Such a modified model of evangelism leads us back to the presence and process model described by Tim Catchim. As he says, it’s not that there aren’t people impacted by other strategies. But evangelism in a post-Christendom, post-modern, complex culture may take on a very different form. We’d still want converts to maintain past connections as long as they are still involved in the discipling process that comes with ongoing meaningful interactions.

Belonging lies at the heart of the post-modern search and will open the door through which the Holy Spirit will do his work.

Dismantling Rape Culture on College Campuses

This past Friday (9/19), the White House rolled out a new pubic service campaign designed to reduce the incidence of rape on college campuses.

Called “It’s On Us“, it encourages all students but especially males to take responsibility for their peers. Encouraging people to report suspicious behavior, to watch alcohol consumption, to intervene if a situation looks predatory, and to never blame the victim. You can spread awareness by watching the celebrity videos or by buying the pictured t-shirt.

This, of course, is but the latest in a string of stories involving universities, even Christian ones, who have done a remarkably poor job of investigating cultures of abuse and exploitations on their campuses. For example, this (very long) story summarizes the protest of Columbia University student Emma Sulkowitz (she carries her mattress around campus) regarding the university’s lax treatment of her case. Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand introduced legislation raising stiff penalties for institutions that do not properly investigate rape accusations or take pro-active steps to clarify expectations of safe behavior.

Last month, California became the first state to officially adopt a “yes means yes” law. It changes the legal rape threshold from requiring the victim to have clearly stated “no” to requiring someone to give affirmation before consensual sex is assumed. Other college campuses have adopted similar standards on their own.

These attempts, as commendable as they are, seem such a minor challenge to a culture that sees hooking up as a natural part of the college experience. Where Rush Limbaugh can say “no means yes when you know how to spot it“. Where we have national outrage at athletes who beat their fiancees or children. Where alcohol is the major source of entertainment (check out the retrograde Miller Lite commercials now showing on your favorite football game).

Christian colleges deal with these situations as well. Thankfully, they are more rare but are just as challenging to respond to. The institution needs to act quickly to deal with the victim’s situation while protecting the due process rights and reputation of the accused. It’s hard to find the right balance when we’re responding after the fact and trying to maintain a sense of belonging within the community.

Trying to deal with rape culture without dealing with the underlying dynamics of relationships, sex, and alcohol is likely to fail. It’s equivalent to trying to eradicate drunk driving by primarily focusing on enforcement or well-meaning “designated driver” campaigns.

We need to change the culture of relationships.

That’s why I’ve been encouraged by a series of blog posts that Dan Brennan has been crafting. Stemming from his book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, Dan has been exploring the nature of cross-gender friendship. In a recent post, Dan wrote the following:

One of the deepest attractions toward God’s presence in what I am calling a differentiated openness is the call for men and women to share the fullness of relational life in deep, resilient, authentic connection yet remain their distinct individual selves.

Differentiation does not diminish the full dignity, uniqueness, and responsibility of each individual; nor does it diminish the profound togetherness of significant and important people who are closest to us. That’s precisely why a differentiated openness provides such hope and deep healing in a big picture kind of way for friendship beyond sexual attraction.

One of the critical dynamics of university life is the development of personal relationships. Not for utilitarian reasons or even discovering potential mates, but to build true community.

Christian colleges have their own challenges on this front. There are too many conversations, even if light-hearted, about finding one’s mate during freshman orientation, about MRS degrees, about pairing up (which is tough with 60 females for every 40 males). This isn’t just something from years long ago, as this piece about “Dateship” illustrates.

Add to this the lingering effects of purity/modesty culture within the evangelical church. There are many excellent reflections by bloggers describing the way these teachings can actually raise the focus on sexuality (this piece by Rachel Marie Stone as a good example.). By trying to protect our young people from sexual temptation, we may inadvertently be raising relationship building to a higher level than necessary.

Somehow, the culture of Christian colleges needs to mirror what Dan Brennan is calling for and avoid settling for a toned down version of the hook up dynamics of popular culture.

And so I was encouraged this month to read the Welcome Freshmen issue of the Spring Arbor Pulse (the student paper). In an article of good guidelines written by Tania Parsons (who had been a freshman student in my Intro to Soc class), freshmen were encouraged NOT TO DATE during the freshman year. Why? In order to actually get to know classmates as real people not as potential mates. To learn to treat each other as God’s creations who are pursuing a particular path of obedience to God’s leading. Here’s what she wrote:

This is your time to get to know people and make friends, not concentrate on finding your soulmate. You’re starting off on your own. Get to know yourself and your interests, passions and needs before you get to know another person. And no, you are not the exception.

As I wrote back in June, seeing ourselves as part of another person’s story prevents us from seeing them as a potential conquest or even a lifelong mate. We’d see them first as fellow members of the community.

Rape culture cannot survive in a community committed to seeing all individuals pursue God’s full vision for their future.

 

 

My Proposal for a Bigot Moratorium

It’s been six weeks since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. The intervening weeks have told us much about issues of race in America, little of it good. Media coverage of the protests were mixed at best and not able to get to real grievances (perhaps because the media wound up in the middle of the story for awhile). Autopsies were performed, eyewitness testimony was reviewed, and a grand jury has been established. For a variety of reasons common to situations like Ferguson, it’s fairly unlikely that there will be any outcome that will satisfy those following the story.

I keep following the stories. They are heartbreaking on many levels. They’ve also provided excellent teaching material. I opened my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class two weeks ago reflecting on Ferguson. I divided the story into three levels: the shooting, the protests, and the larger structural backdrop.

Freedom RidersThis past week we celebrated Constitution Day at Spring Arbor by showing the documentary Freedom Riders (you can watch the whole thing on the PBS website here). It’s the story of a group of students: black and white, male and female, who decided to ride interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways) into the deep south in 1961. My American History colleague Mark Edwards debriefed the film and talked about the significance of the 14th amendment extending the bill of rights to the state (as well as guaranteeing due process) regardless of race, gender, or religion. I talked about the Bill of Rights and how aspects of the Ferguson situation appeared to infringe on at least half of those 10 amendments (first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth).

But the movie underscored something I’ve been pondering for awhile: our focus on individual racism continually distracts us from institutional racism.

The Riders were going in to the South specifically to engage in civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws. At the time, bus station waiting areas were segregated with clear signage stipulating white waiting areas from colored waiting areas. A Supreme Court decision declared segregated buses unconstitutional but the decision had been ignored in the south. The riders would also sit in restaurants with blacks and whites at the same table. Their task was to expose the institutional racism that was rampant in the deep South.

When they get to Anniston, AL, one of the buses is surrounded by an angry mob who then firebomb the bus. The other bus gets to Birmingham and there is a violent attack with men and women beaten with fists, bats, and chains. The anger and racial animosity from the attackers is overwhelming. The media is outraged (there’s a remarkable newsreel from Russia condemning America complicity) and the Kennedy administration reluctantly gets involved.

After the violence, the original bus riders return home. But they are replaced by a new group from Nashville. Their story is even more fascinating as they are first trapped in a church in Montgomery, and then are arrested in Jackson, MS and immediately put into prison. More and more people come to Jackson just to be arrested and imprisoned to point out the lack of legal recourse and thereby force change.

The most vivid images are those of angry bigots and self-serving political figures “protecting their culture”. It’s harder to see the legal system that was bent to protect their interests.

Which brings me back to Ferguson. As I have written, we seem to fixate on the motives of individuals. Was Officer Wilson reasonably responding or singling out Michael Brown? Was Brown a thug who didn’t respect authority? Can you trust the eyewitnesses? Are the prosecutor’s motives in question?

This is also the dynamic when we interact about Ferguson on social media. Share the Facebook post raising questions about the distance between Wilson and Brown or the video of the construction workers, and there’s a chance your grandmother will post on your wall that Wilson acted honorably and you should be ashamed of suggesting he was a racist.

Then you get the standard meme of someone misquoting Martin Luther King’s Dream speech by suggesting that we should all just judge people on the content of their character. Or the person who asks the inevitable black-on-black crime question. Or the one who starts talking about challenges in black families.

Point out that these are the wrong questions and the speaker will act like you’ve called them a bigot. They will get defensive and shift blame to something else. And if you push back, you’ll get a response that they aren’t racist but simply refuse to be politically correct.

So I have a proposal. Nobody is a racist or a bigot for the next five years.

Ask any question you want. Make any statement you want. I will not raise doubts about your commitment to racial harmony. I won’t police your language or tell you that I don’t appreciate your joke. Have at it.

You aren’t a racist — at least until 2019.

But it’s not a completely free pass…

For the next five years we will only talk about institutional racism.

We will talk about the kinds of structural inequities that Ta-Nehisi Coates described in The Case For Reparations. We will talk about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the impact of non-representative incarceration. We will talk about the issues of educational quality raised in the sociological study The Long Shadow (that I just started) which shows the barriers to advancement experienced by a sample of school children in Baltimore as they grow to adulthood. We will talk of political representation and equal opportunity to cast ballots in elections. We will talk about differential enforcement of laws and police departments treating neighborhoods as militarized zones. We will talk about a shifting economy that leaves behind segments of the population. We will talk about the linkages between suburbanization and urban decline. We will talk about government programs that do harm to black communities in the guise of providing assistance. We will talk about gangs and drugs and the challenge of local neighborhoods.

As I’ve written before, King’s Dream speech has a tremendous laundry list of institutional wrongs. It was only as those were addressed that we get to the children holding hands and singing Free at Last.

Like the Freedom Riders, we need to pay attention to the important things: legal structures, legitimated practices, economic incentives and disincentives. Maybe if we pay attention to these issues for five years we can begin to make some change without seeking to charge people with prejudice or bigotry. Maybe, just maybe, if those folks really understand the difference institutional racism makes, they will be less likely to hold on to their judgmental attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

A Kaleidoscopic Deity: Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big American God

Yesterday I finished Matthew Paul Turner’s new book, Our Great Big American God. It purports to be a biography of God in America. Through most of the book, one gets the idea that God is a taken-for-granted character supporting those around whom the story revolves. The character that seems to be behind everything but always interpreted by others, like Nick Fury to the Avengers.kaleidoscope

So in reality, God is only visible in the book through the explanations of the main characters, who themselves only got a quick glimpse  of God that fit their understanding of their world at the time. It’s like looking though the kaleidoscope I had as a child. You look through the tube and see an interesting design. A simple turn of the little lens at the end shifted the image and gave rise to an entirely different design. There is little coherence between one and another. So it appears to be with America’s understanding of God.

Turner picks up astutely on the ways in which Americans from William Bradford to Walter Rauschenbusch to Jerry Falwell read God into their work. It’s not that they were using God, exactly. They just only saw one pattern. And that pattern seemed to remarkably fit where their own interests lie. Abraham Lincoln’s caution that we should try to find ourselves on God’s side rather than wanting God on our side was lost on many American religious leaders throughout history.

OGBAGThe Puritans had a harsh God that was impossible to please, which was okay as long as you were one of the elect in spite of your depravity. The kaleidoscope shifts and we begin to focus on a God that speaks directly to people (even women!). Then a great awakening comes to America and Jesus moves to the forefront. Methodism likes the kaleidoscope pattern that best relates to westward expansion and circuit riding preachers. There are different patterns in North and South during the civil war (and for decades afterward). The Fundamentalists tried to hold their pattern in place against a shifting civil society. The Pentecostals brought a new patterns, introducing spectacle and celebrity. The political evangelicalism of the of the 1980s through recent years read a pattern that called for them to act because God needed their help.

There is great history in the book. If you read the endnotes, you’ll find citations from some of the best religious historians around: George Marsden, Thomas Kidd, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero. In the last year I’ve read Robert McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (on the rise of evangelicalism), and Randall Balmer’s biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. All of these books, plus others I’ve read tell similar stories to what Turner shares in this little book. In other words, his history is solid even if understandably abbreviated.

The writing style is a combination of Sarah Vowell and Kurt Vonnegut; wry, slightly irreverent, managing social commentary while quietly admiring the intent of the actors in the story (for the most part). It made me miss the days when I faithfully read The Wittenberg Door.

What’s surprising about the book is that it’s more than a funny read of issues in American religion. Pay attention and you find a deep analysis of the dangers of syncretism and civil religion. It’s what happens when we pay more attention to ourselves and our own religious systems that we do to the God who is acting in our midst.

The book also provides something of an atlas to the contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. The kaleidoscope patterns that defined early groups can still be found in today’s expression. While Turner helps connect those dots along the way, it’s pretty easy to see how the varied strands of religious expression continue to take shape.

Yes, the book is a light-hearted look at the way we think about God in America. But more than that, it’s about how people wrestle to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. It calls out those who would reduce that God to a product to be managed (which he characterizes as GOD®) and requires us to maintain an appropriate intellectual humility.

Maybe then we can understand the story that God is actually writing rather than the patterns we think we see.

 

 

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