Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Historical Perspective

That theologically conservative churches are growing and mainstream denominations shrinking is old news. The numbers quoted for a few key beliefs in the WaPo article  are interesting but not shocking. The tentative guesses as to why (though I suspect the author is not tentative and is keeping it simple for his audience) are also not original. But... Look at the attached video and hyperlinks between paragraphs that the Post puts in. Only the UMC one is kindasorta on topic, but even at that, it is focusing on the issues a subgroup think is essential, while others would put a dozen issues higher.

Early 1979 was when we last had a TV (16", on a rolling stand), and TV was constantly running in the day area at work. The days of three identical networks. I recall following the election of two popes in 1978, with the newscasters on every station, in every update, speculating whether the new pope could be expected to change the Catholic church's position on abortion and the ordination of women. Those were the only two issues mentioned, on and on. It was as if this was all they could understand. They couldn't imagine other issues being important.

They didn't even know what they didn't know. Recall that twenty years before that, in 1958, 96% of Americans identified with a house of worship, and that only 10 years before, nearly every child was kept in religious studies until confirmation, bar mitzvah, or the denominational equivalent.  Announcers on the 3 networks in 1978 had almost certainly grown up with eight years of religious training. It was onto this stage that the conservative preachers stormed in the late 70's. That they were both theologically conservative and politically conservative was not necessary, but neither was it accidental.  They railed that they were misunderstood, and that great swaths of the American people were now separate from the values of television.

Hands went up in horror insisting it wasn't true, and these fools, these bigots, these south/midwest/southwesterners were deceivers, oversimplifiers and liars. It all sounds rather familiar. If you enter that discussion today evidence will be marshalled against your claim of media bias. It will be dismissed as a cliche, a mountain being made out of a molehill. Look at how many conservative outlets there are now.  Ridiculous.

That same dismissiveness was on display then. Let's review some easily-researched facts about this. There were, as I noted, three networks.  Fox News Channel was not up and running until eighteen years later, and was tiny at first; Drudge was about the same time; it was 1988 that Rush Limbaugh came along with his insistence that the mainstream media was biased.  He didn't make that up.  He didn't talk people into some new-fangled idea.  The roaring preachers, and the Limbaughs, and Fox News only announced what was rather obviously true, though consistently derided. The emperor had no clothes. (And believe me, I was derided for claiming it.)

This.  This is the background against which denials of media bias are attacked now. Are there conservative outlets?  Sure, lots of 'em, things are better.  Have the Washington Post and New York Times changed, or the major news outlets?  Not a bit, from what I can see.  Now their excuse is that they are a counterbalance, a responsible other side to Breitbart and Fox and Drudge. Like the Japanese having difficulty even decades later admitting they did anything wrong in slaughtering millions in China or in attacking Pearl Harbor, the mainstream outlets still have only evasive acknowledgement that they did anything wrong. Does anyone doubt the historical evidence anymore?

You are learning where my biases come from.  That's fine.

Given all this as context, what did the mainstream denominations - at least in their official bodies and seminaries - do during those forty years?  Easy.  They had already started identifying with the culture the media told them were the righteous ones fifteen years earlier and more.  They sided with the media and condemned the theologically conservative churches, for the most part. In a thousand small ways they chose who they would stand with.  The didn't have to.  In fact, the New Testament is repeatedly specific that we should ally with each other and not the tribe that is this world. 

They don't like Trump.  I agree he is something of a whirlwind.  I wish they had not sown the wind. I was Congregationalist and then Lutheran in the years up to 1987, and in an only moderately conservative denomination thereafter. I count myself as an eyewitness. As a result I greet contemporary claims of evenhandedness and openmindedness with considerable suspicion. I am not naturally a nice guy or very tolerant myself, but I recognise an obligation to try and take you at your word and give you the benefit of the doubt.  Again. But I grow weary, and I'm not sure I am capable of this anymore.

Prove it. If you want me to believe that you are listening, openminded, and evenhanded, show your evidence.

Or conversely, show me the evidence that it has been the mainstream denominations meeting the wild zealots of the radical right at some half-way point all along, trying to find common ground rather than insisting that your original position is the common ground and being insulting.


james said...

I suppose one could be generous and say that the theologically liberal denominations (one can trace the departure from orthodoxy back more than a century) focused on the collective and physical aspects of the faith. Israel was sometimes punished because of the sins of the nation as a whole, and therefore the nation as a whole needed to be guided into paths of righteousness. Couple this with the emphasis on good works, and it becomes clear that the nation needs to be guided into collective good works. Given a task like that, with the inevitable compromises it entails, it would take quite a strong saint to keep her eyes on eternal things and personal sanctification as well. There's so much lobbying to do.

You have to hang out with some non-orthodox people to accomplish your goals, and after a while they rub off on you. That's a problem all around the spectrum, of course. In the slave South it was sometimes forbidden to preach to the slaves at all--but a compromise could be reached in which you could preach provided you preached that slavery was part of God's natural order and that slaves had to obey their masters. I should try to learn what happened to the groups that agreed: I know many denominations changed to support slavery. Just like so many mainlines changed to support abortion. It would make a useful, if unhappy, history.

DOuglas2 said...

Somewhat disappointing that what they meant by the labels "conservative" and "liberal" were not defined in the WaPo article with anything more specific than "more vs less literal view of the Bible" -- one can safely say from reading the text of the study's journal article that this interpretation is a oversimplification. I'm not sure most readers would grok enough to separate that from their preexisting concepts of those terms in politics.

But it took only two mouse clicks from the WaPo article about the study to the actual text of the study from the journal it was published in -- a record in my memory for WaPo science articles.

Without dissing the study, which was a lot of work and undoubtedly took a lot of very effective persuasion to make-happen, it is somewhat disappointing that we are rally only looking at data from 9 growing church congregations and 14 shrinking ones. The numbers of congregants make the stats look great on the surface, but they are not really independent, and a substitution of a few different congregations might make the results look quite different.

I note that among the best p-values were use of projection equipment in worship services, and the use of electric and bass guitars.

Authors never quite made the link that the churches that did not put much emphasis on youth programs also did not have many congregants of an age likely to have children who would participate in such.

Sam L. said...

The cognoscenti and the "elites" know what they know and know not of everything else, not do they want to, other than to denigrate. The NYT, WaPo, Alphabets, likewise.

Laura said...

@james: Maybe a little off-topic, but here in Virginia, there's a Civil War reenactment group that calls themselves "Black Confederates"-- they're all black men, and wear Confederate gray uniforms. Their expressed purpose is to honor and perpetuate the memory of Stonewall Jackson, who would teach both slaves and free blacks to read and write, and who established a Sunday school for them to teach them the (Presbyterian) faith. This was illegal in Virginia at the time.

He believed that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible and thus permitted by God. However, he was outspoken in insisting that masters treat their slaves well and opposing some practices (like separating families by sale), which was very unusual for the time/place. (Reportedly, two slaves actually asked him to purchase them, because he would treat them better and allow them to earn money to pay for their freedom.)

I suspect that most Christians of the time were in a similar predicament: the clear teaching of St. Paul made it difficult or impossible to argue for slavery to be outright banned, but also they could clearly see that slaves were in fact being treated inhumanely, far from what St. Paul called on masters to do. Most of them had no answers, so they tried to think about something else.

Denominations took one of two paths: 1) They had wild arguments about slave-owning, and ultimately split into an abolitionist group and a group which considered the matter an issue of personal conscience and Christian liberty. Southern Baptists are "southern" because they split from the Northern (now American) Baptists like this. 2) They had wild arguments about inclusion between blacks and whites, and as a result an "African" denomination split off and took the issue off their hands. Then did their level best to ignore each other, the race issue, entirely. This is the source of most of the historic black churches. The Catholics mostly treated this like just another "ethnic" parish, complete with black priests, black schools, black convents, etc., which day-to-day operated essentially independently of their white co-religionists (although under the authority of the same local bishop).

In terms of orthodoxy: my own view is, orthodoxy is, as a historical fact, a necessity for Christianity to exist for more than one or two generations. Christians who give up on the main beliefs laid out in the Creeds (the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection, etc.) will, within 50 or so years, cease to exist as a functioning group. That's just as true of Arians when the Muslim invaders arrived (99% apostasy rate within a generation, compared to over a millenium of endurance for the orthodox Christians), through today's disintegration of the religious left. If you don't hold to the Creeds, you don't persist through even minor opposition.