Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Evangelical Church and Racism

Ever so slowly I'm working my way through Robert Putnam’s "American Grace", in which he examines the nature of religious life and its interaction with politics throughout the last one hundred years. Putnam’s work is filled with survey data, demographic trends and basic observations which gives one much food for thought. The work articulates in a coherent manner volumes of data confirms various of my observations and conclusions...one of which is that the evangelical church entering a period of significant decline. Also the book is making numerous new connections such as the correlation between religious attendence declines in young adults and the level of politically activity the evangelical church.

Putnam demonstrates that following WWII religious life in North America across all denominations underwent a dramatic increase. Soldiers returning from the horrors of war attended all churches at a much higher rate than prior generations. The mainline churches plateaued and then started to decline in the late 1960s, a decline that has only slowed in the last decade.

As mainline churches went into decline the evangelical and fundamentalist church grew (the two groups though similar are not identical). Interestingly the Canadian churches saw some of the same patterns as their American brother and sisters, but not to the same degree. The Canadian fundamentalist churches did not increase as much as the evangelical churches and the Canadians growth came in three surge waves versus the four and larger surges experienced by their American counterparts.

As the mainline church suffered dramatic declines that corresponded with each growth surge experienced by the evangelical church, the evangelical surge was primarily transfer growth. Hence, the evangelical surges were for the most part movement of existing church attenders than the “conversions” of unchurched “heathens.”

Putnam demonstrates that the surges in the American evangelical and fundamental churches corresponded with four sociological-political events; the birth control pill and sexual liberation, ERA/feminist movement of the mid to late 70s, civil rights movement, and the Roe v. Wade ruling. As mainline churches being less judgmental about the use of the pill and sexual liberation, they suffered lost of people and the more dogmatic evangelical and fundamentalist churches gained. Roe v. Wade and mainline churches talking about empowering women to become business and church leaders (an female ordination), drove another group of conservative leaning families out of the mainline churches to evangelical and fundamentalist churches that provided clear directives and kept the issues simple.

If one looked at it from a marketing perspective, a perspective evangelicals would reject, evangelical churches captured these families by shaping their message to appeal to those who need less equivication and more rigid frameworks. The evangelicals distinguished themselves by speaking against each of issues (ie: contraception is contrary to divine law, a woman’s place was in the home raising the family, women in the military on the front lines blurs the distinction between men and women, sex must be saved for one’s marital partner, etc.). Though the language and postions on various issues has changed, the evangelical buzz from that age continues to be part of its core language is that they stand for “traditional family” values and preach only the Bible.

Putnam’s data clearly indicates civil rights with the integration of schools and the office was also a major cause for the shift. While mainline churches marched with Dr. King and other civil rights activists, encouraged their members to support integration, evangelical leaders for the most part took a contrary postion. They not only shied away from advocated for civil rights but it was not uncommon to hear pastors and evangelical leaders speaking openly against civil rights or quietly despairingly of integration and reinforcing stereotypes. For the Canadian reader, this is the one element which was for the most part missing from the Canadian scene.

Evangelicals would argue that their different message was not a marketing decision but as being faithful to the preaching of the Word. I concur that it was not a marketing choice. Yet as on all but abortion the evangelical church has changed its message significantly on each of the three areas, faithful preaching of the Word rests on shaky ground. Even on abortion the mainline church membership and pastors have as diverse positions just like the evangelical members and pastors. Rather than marketing and faithfulness to the Word as being the cause, the root is that evangelicals (and fundamentalists) are naturally disposed to being more politically conservative and that in the two decades of significant social shifting, the more conservative elements in the mainline churches found greater identification with their more conservative evangelical friends. Hence, in turbulant times the strength of bent of one's politics tended to determine where one worshipped.

As noted, the Canadian scene was different regarding civil rights. Not only did I not experience despairing comments about race relations in my evangelical congregation, its leadership spoke that equality between races was a biblical principal. Our congregation was not alone as high school friends in other evangelical churches were hearing the same message. Hence subtle despairing comments I heard in my Kentucky dorm and heard at the college from my peers, and some faculty, was perplexing. Though the college leadership acknowledged that integration must happen, its steps were measured least they offend their more conservative alumni and funders.

Today I understand the issues more fully than I did then, that racism was part of the American evangelical and fundamentist scene throughout the 60s, 70s and early 80s. It was more blatant in the 60s and more subtle later, and though rarely as blatant or as widespread, thirty years later it still exists in a subtle manner. Though the majority of the criticism and caricatures of President Obama does not involve racism, one has to be void of sight and intelligence not to understand that some caricatures and criticism are racist in nature and motivation, and that too many of those individuals fill leadership positions in a fundamentalist or evangelical church on Sunday.

As remanents of racism continues to linger as a part of the evangelical church I was not surprised by this story about an evangelical church voting to ban an interracial couple from membership and participating in a worship service… http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-03/church-interracial-ban/51607194/1

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