Tag: Mechanical Solidarity

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.

Can State Universities Define Community Standards? Questions about Oklahoma

OklahomaAs most everyone knows, last weekend a video showed up in which members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon from the University of Oklahoma recited a racist pledge. With apparent pride, they argued that no black man would ever be a member of SAE. The University responded quickly. By Monday, the SAE chapter had been disbanded. On Tuesday, OU president David Boren expelled two members who were deemed to be instigators.

There were two quick and expected responses. First, there was general outrage at the video (albeit with some arguing “boys will be boys”). Second, there was a flurry of concerned comments about Freedom of Speech. If, they argued, we violated first amendment protections for harmful speech, which speech is the next to be limited? Speech restrictions are characterized as being some kind of liberal political correctness excess. It would lead, the critics argue, to enforced uniformity of thought reflecting the liberal bias of higher education.

I wound up thinking about the U of O case from the vantage point of a career in Christian residential liberal arts colleges. Each of the five schools I served has a defined set of lifestyle expectations. These include both positive elements of being a community member including treatment of others and encouragement to attend chapel (or face fines), and proscribed behaviors (premarital sex, alcohol and drug use, pornography, etc). These lifestyle expectations are seen as expressions of common identity. Students pledge to abide by the statements upon admission and they are binding throughout the students’ years at school. Violation of the expectations is met with sanctions of various levels, ranging from fines or counseling to expulsion.

The contrast between the state school and the Christian College was also on my mind because it’s the example I Durkheim DOLuse in one of my Emile Durkheim lectures in sociological theory class. In his doctoral dissertation, Durkheim reflected on the changing forms of social organization (which he called social solidarity). In short, it’s the glue that binds a group together. In Mechanical Solidarity, based on a principle of sameness, the group’s identity is protected by maintaining tight control on who’s in and who’s out. Violation of norms threatens the group and the violator must be removed. This, I argued, is represented by the Christian college’s focus on community standards.

Durkheim argued that increasing diversity in the society (which follows from growth) eventually yields a different form of social solidarity, Organic Solidarity. In this more modern form, the central feature is Interdependence. It is precisely because we aren’t all doing the same things that requires us to rely on others. The Division of Labor is not just an effective strategy for modern society — it’s what binds us together. Rather than focusing the Repressive Law that removes an offender, it is focused on Restitutive Law. The sanction is attached to improper behavior but the violator is not removed because of the norms of interdependence. In my class illustration, I argue that this is why the University of Michigan has very different standards of lifestyle expectations (regardless of the legal drinking age in Michigan).

When President Boren expelled the two students, he was attempting to say “being a Sooner means something and if you engage in these behaviors, you can’t be a Sooner”. This week I found the U of O “Student Rights and Responsibilities Code“. In the section on student responsibilities, it claims, “Enrollment in the University creates special obligations beyond those attendant upon membership in general society.” The first prohibition is against “Abusive Conduct”. Like most student handbook statements it is overly general with too many clauses and qualifiers. Still, it doesn’t take much reading in to place the SAE bus riders squarely in violation of the statement. Another problem with student handbooks is that both proscriptions and sanctions are itemized but not well connected to one another.

I’ve been haunted all week by my classroom example about Organic Solidarity. Is it possible for a diverse and pluralistic institution to set value statements around which its students, faculty, and staff are expected to operate? Or is it that we’ve so adopted the view of autonomous individualism arising from interdependence that nobody has the ability to dictate appropriate behavior? Is there any set of behaviors, attitudes, or positions that one could espouse that puts you outside the margins of acceptability?

In societies or organizations based on mechanical solidarity, we seem to be able to set agreed upon standards. At least standards that people tolerate within the period of their group membership.

But the absence of moral agreement seems to be a serious issue in twenty-first century America. For every attempt to call out racist comments and actions in Ferguson, MO, someone wants to know why we’re ignoring other infractions elsewhere. What about offensive comments made by those on the left?

I don’t have answers to these questions at this point. I’m just convinced that pluralism requires us to rethink our shared social space. We cannot operate in mechanical solidarity and hope to continually police our borders (which doesn’t work in any context). But we also cannot simply elevate every individual expression to equal footing by some vague appeal to personal expression.

Durkheim is right about the Division of Labor. The glue of modern society is interdependence. This is why continuing racial cleavage is problematic. It’s why residential, educational, and social segregation is so dangerous to human flourishing. We can’t escape those with whom we are interconnected. Somehow, we need to negotiate some agreed-upon norms that allow us to make that interdependence work.

I think that’s what President Boren was attempting. It’s possible that someone will eventually sue the University of Oklahoma and potentially win given the nature of first amendment jurisprudence. But Boren was trying to do something important and I want to celebrate the attempt even if it should wind up to be short-lived.