Friday, September 30, 2016

What's Church For? A Catholic, Evangelical, and New Atheist Perspective in Today's News Commentary

It's interesting to see today, as I scan news commentary sites, a number of articles all commenting on the decisive exodus of younger people from churches in the U.S. right now. Though none of these articles is really addressing the other, as I read them, I see points of connection, and I think it would be helpful to put them in dialogue with each other regarding the question I asked again yesterday: "What on earth is church for?" if so many white Christian voters are choosing Donald Trump this election cycle.

What good does church do, if this is what it accomplishes? And as Kaya Oakes asks in a statement about Nones I discussed a few days back, why wouldn't younger people be walking away from the churches, given what many churches are currently offering them?

1. The first article discussing these issues that caught my eye this morning is a statement by Francis DeBernardo at Bondings 2.0 commenting on the recent PRRI report about Nones that shows some 40% of Catholic Nones reporting that the anti-gay teachings and behavior of the Catholic church were primary in their choice to leave. As Francis notes, the same PRRI report shows that Catholics have the highest disaffilation rate among all American religious groups. 

The conclusion he reaches: drive younger people from the church, and you won't have a church in the future. We have abundant evidence that younger Americans are being driven from the churches — and, in the case of Catholics, who have the highest disaffiliation rate of all, they're stating as they leave that they're doing so due to the attacks on gay folks. But at the same time, we see zero pastoral response to this development on the part of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have engineered the attacks on the gay community. And we see an outright refusal of the kind of (white heterosexual) "liberal" Catholics who imagine they define Catholic identity for the rest of us even to talk about the issue.

What kind of future will a religious community that behaves this way have? Particularly a religious community that claims as a foundational aspect of its identity and mission the obligation to proclaim good news to everyone . . . . Not a bright one, I think one has to conclude. 

2. At Alternet, Don Hazen interviews Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America (see here, here, and here), about why some 80% of white evangelicals (highly concentrated in the states of the old Confederacy) want Donald Trump elected. Jones says, 

Trump's real appeal to white evangelicals—how they hear "Make America Great Again"—is his promise to turn back the clock and restore their power.


What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who are now saying they're voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It's pre-civil rights, it's pre-women's rights, and it's before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it's a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority.

Jones (who has the data at his fingertips, as head of PRRI) also tells Hazen that part of the reason for the demographic decline of white Protestants is that "young whites are disaffiliating from Christian churches." The anxiety of white Christians is heightened by their awareness that they are losing a generation of believers — losing the future of the church — due to the mass exodus of younger people from the churches.

But what's being done about that fact? Is choosing to support an outright racist, misogynist, a xenophobic know-nothing in a presidential race a way to rebuild confidence in the white evangelical church? Or is this political response, instead, an unholy lusting of Christian people after an idealized neverland, an imaginary past in which we and our kind sat on top of the world and kept everyone else in the places we assigned to them?

Is this not quite precisely what the bible condemns as idolatry? Religious people who engage in this kind of toxic idolization of an imaginary past, while they do not face the future honestly and hopefully, are guilty of idolatry, and they pay a big price for their idolatry — in this case, the loss of an entire generation of believers and of the future of the church.

It's impossible to imagine that the alienation of younger churched voters won't grow deeper after this election cycle. If you doubt that, tune in for a moment to the Twitter threads at #WhiteChurchQuiet and #WhiteEvangelicalBible. You'll hear an earful as you do so. Telling younger people that they're unjustifiably angry about the idolatrous relationship of many churches to the Republican party, about the sexism, white supremacist racism, attacks on minority groups, and betrayal of the gospel fueling many white Christians' response to the moral challenge this election represents is not going to bring these disaffected people back to the churches.

Nor should it.

3. And then there's Donald McCarthy's statement at Alternet this morning, arguing that the New Atheist movement has blown an historic opportunity to make a constructive, transformative contribution to the necessary cultural dialogue all of these challenges have elicited. Because, in response to religious groups, the New Atheist movement has chosen to mimic the very fundamentalism — the rigid, exclusivist, angry orthodoxy — of the religious groups it critques . . . .

That critique of religion is necessary. It has the potential to make a valuable — a necessary — contribution to American culture and other cultures. But it is not making that contribution, McCarthy argues (and I think he's absolutely correct about this) because, instead of choosing to engage those it critiques in constructive, respectful dialogue, it has ended up mimicking the very fundamentalisms it is critiquing.

As I said yesterday on Facebook as I was thinking through these issues, 

Angry militant Catholics turn me off. 
So do angry militant evangelicals. 
But I feel the same way about angry militant atheists. 
I had enough being bossed around during my childhood. 
Why would I settle for the same thing as an adult, when either religionists or anti-religionists try it with me? 
And do angry militant atheists truly not see that they are as dogmatic and anti-intellectual as angry militant believers are? 
They're every bit as much true believers as the folks they oppose are. 
Life is not so simple.

Hier stehe ich. This is how it seems to me, from where I stand — and if people respect me as a human being, they're obligated to respect where I stand, where my own unique history, formation, and intellectual inclinations have placed me, making me a unique human being who is not a clone of themselves. I'd like to see movements that are raising very valid and important critiques of religious faith offering a viable alternative to Nones who are leaving the churches behind. God knows, the churches Nones are walking away from are not offering such viable alternatives.

But the presentation of an anti-religious option being offered by adherents of the New Atheist movement is, in my view, every bit as morally repugnant and as inhumane as what these younger people are leaving behind as they exit the churches. It does not and cannot attract people seeking a more humane future for the human community, since it is grounded in the same kind of self-righteous, smug anger and lack of respect for nuance, complexity, and even old-fashioned good humor exhibited by the very religious fundamentalisms it is rightly rejecting.

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