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Posts Tagged ‘church’

Church Social

Periodically, stories appear describing non-religious Americans trying to form secular versions of churches, even with Sunday ceremonies. Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann asks, “How do we understand this impulse to hold a ‘church’ service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith? Part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” I think she’s right and it serves to remind us that the role of the church in America–especially in its earliest days–was at least as much social as spiritual.

Churches serve many functions: They answer profound existential questions; tell human history; explain tragedy and injustice; instill morality and sometimes discipline immorality; define identity; organize collective action, including caring for the needy, mobilizing political partisans, and mounting missions to save souls; baptize and bury members; guide family life and sometimes commercial life; and–not the least of these–offer places for sociability.

While most discussion about the role of churches in modern life focuses on how well they sustain the first few of these functions, those involving faith, how well they provide the last, sociability, may be at least as important. Indeed, research suggests that churchgoers do better than church-avoiders precisely because of the social connections people find in church. Early in America, churches were one of the few public places that provided such social bonding. From then on they had to face considerable competition from other places.

It is amazing that American churches survived that competition so well.

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Holy-Day Exceptionalism

A visit to Old City of Jerusalem in the holiday season, where Christian pilgrims, Jewish Hanukkah revelers, and Muslim muezzins’ calls to prayer mix in very tight quarters, underlines again the atypical nature of religion in the United States. Many countries, including western ones such as Israel, explicitly join state and church. Many have a formal state religion — in much of the Islamic world, and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Finland. Government officials in other countries route tax money to support clergy and church institutions. Many nations establish separate public school systems by religion, for instance, in Northern Ireland, Fiji, and some Canadian provinces. Governments mandate religious training in, for example, Finland, or provide separate religious instruction, as in Germany. Most dramatically, police forces enforce Islamic cultural codes in, for example, Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, church and state are officially separated in the United States, although this has been an evolving practice. For example, reading the (Protestant) Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools was quite common for much of American history. That Protestantism was long the default religious culture of American public schools sparked strong resistance from Catholics and the construction of a private parochial system. Some would argue that tax deductions for church dues today breach the separation. Still, the U.S. remains relatively distinct in its formal blindness to religious affiliations. The key distinction, however, is the grass-roots, associational nature of church in America compared to the more “tribal” nature of church elsewhere.

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America’s Religious Market

America has long been the most religious of the affluent, western nations, having the most professing and practicing population. (A couple of the nearly 100% Catholic countries are close, but only Canada otherwise.) Explaining this aspect of American exceptionalism has preoccupied many scholars of religion. Part of the answer is that since the early 1800s the United States has had no established religion and has had instead a free “marketplace” of religion. Suppliers – that is, churches and ministers – emerged to meet nearly every religious “taste” people might have.

The early days of this market had all the features of an unsettled market free-for all, exacerbated by the unsettled features of American law. Today, our religious “market” is far more orderly, but we still shop around.

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Faith Endures

In 1907, a delegation of ministers from the New York City Federation of Churches visited President Theodore Roosevelt to ask his assistance in halting an alarming decline in the churches’ “hold on the people.” Roosevelt promised “to aid the cause in every way possible.” Ministers in the early 20th century frequently raised such alarms. They blamed scientists who taught evolution, congregants who spent Sunday mornings in their tin lizzies, and popular culture. “The modern novel . . . is responsible for our empty pews. . . . [It] has taken the place of the pulpit,” complained one priest – and that was before movies, radio, television, and the internet.

1943 (LC-USW3-024720-D)

Less than 50 years later, the popular reaction was quite different. The Methodist Council of Bishops proclaimed in 1954: “Our people are attending public worship in larger numbers than we have ever known . . . . A new spirit has fallen upon our people.” Commentators remarked on the boom in church building, the flocking of families to churches, the fascination with religion.

If we went by the common wisdom, the story should have been told in reverse, as a decline in religiosity from the 1900s to the 1950s, rather than an increase.  What happened then? What is happening now?
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