Lately I've been reading American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. It is a detailed and very readable analysis of the latest statistics about the sociology of religious affiliation in America. It's essential reading for anyone who is interested in the trends among and within religious traditions in this country. The overarching conclusion of the book is that America's main religious fault line is between a significant minority consisting of strongly affiliated, highly observant religious people who have very conservative social views, and everybody else, whether religious or not. Opposition to homosexuality and premarital sex, more than anything else, attracts people to conservative congregations and repels others from religion altogether. Progressive church leaders, take note: make public your openness and acceptance toward gay and lesbian people, and you may have some hope of attracting those who have become disaffected from Christianity!
The book explores the trend of American religion away from engagement with social and political action. "In sum, by most measures, highly religious Americans today are somewhat less supportive than the general population of public policies to address poverty and inequality; and they prefer private provision to public action. They have not worked to stem the growth of inequality, unlike past religious people, who, as we have seen, often campaigned passionately for greater equality and social justice." (p 257-8) This withdrawal from social change advocacy is seen across the political spectrum. "Young Americans came to view religion, according to one survey, as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political." The statistics are striking: according to the Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who felt strongly that religious leaders should not try to exert influence on how people vote rose from 30% in 1991 to 45% in 2008. (p 121) Progressive church leaders, take note: our efforts to preach economic justice and lobby for progressive legislation may empty the pews, particularly of young people who feel that churches have become too politicized.
How do we stay true to our calling to put faith into action for progressive social change, without depopulating our churches?
I think it will take gentle, careful, long-term work to educate congregations about the role of faith in addressing social issues. We have to start with the basics.
I have learned this the hard way. In the last church I served, I started my ministry with the assumption that the congregation was overwhelmingly progressive, both theologically and politically. In a way, this was true. A number of the members were active in progressive electoral campaigns. And only one or two had anything close to conservative religious beliefs. So it was a great surprise to me when I got a strong negative reaction to my sermons that called for social and economic justice. Not all members objected, but many, across the political spectrum, were upset. The handful of conservatives said politics had no place in the pulpit. The liberals didn't want the handful of conservatives to be offended and withdraw their pledges. And most of the members, regardless of their political persuasions, simply saw no real connection between their spirituality and the way they voted. They were accustomed to preaching that was disengaged from social concerns. From then on, I had to preach about why social action is essential to the practice of faith before I could address the social issues themselves. But even that was an uphill challenge. The mere mention of the subject, even without taking stands, was enough to rub raw nerves.
The terrible carnage in Tucson illustrates what has become of political discourse in this country. The conservative movement has spent over 30 years in a concerted campaign to demonize the government. Along with it, they've demonized politics itself. On one end of the spectrum, it is expressed in rageful gun worship. "As Joan Burbick, author of the 2006 book, 'Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy', has observed, 'The act of buying a gun can mimic political action. It makes people feel as if they are engaging in politics of political protest.' She quotes one gun enthusiast: 'Whenever I get mad at the government, I go out and buy a gun.' Jobless and overwhelmed by bills? Hunker down in the basement and polish your Glock." (from "Armed and Angry" by Barbara Ehrenreich, LA Times, 1/26/2010) But this demonization of the public sector has affected everyone, even the gunless. Many liberal-minded folks are disgusted with politics and politicians, and withdraw from activism and from the polls. They're demoralized from believing that the eviscerated public sector can be effective in addressing social needs. Church is the last place they want to hear about it. Meanwhile, the demonizers of government keep showing up to vote to eliminate the government. It's a cycle of hopelessness that feeds on itself: government-haters slowly dismantle the government, it becomes less effective, people stop believing government can be effective, more people hate the government.
Religion plays a big part. Both conservative and progressive churches are to blame for reducing social concerns to the level of feel-good charitable projects. They behave as if religious institutions were in a position to meet the needs of the poor and unemployed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ponder these illustrative facts:
Federal Food Stamp (SNAP) program budget, 2007: $33.2 billion
Pounds of food donated through the Food Bank system in the US, 2008: 2 billion pounds ($1 - 4 billion value?)
U.S. Federal HUD Sec. 8 housing vouchers (30% of income paid as rent, rest of rent subsidized), 2007: about 2,000,000 units
Habitat for Humanity: units total in the US since 1978: 30,000 units
Churches, temples and mosques in America will never be able to end poverty or even alleviate it significantly without advocating for public policy change. And this is no news. Even evangelical Christians used to get it: "Any remedy worthy of consideration must be on a scale commensurate with the evil with which it proposes to deal. It is no use trying to bail out the ocean with a pint pot." (William Booth, founder, the Salvation Army, 1889) "We must have justice - more justice.... To right the social wrong by charity is like bailing the ocean with a thimble... we must adjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also owners of wealth." (Ballington Booth, officer, Salvation Army, and son of William Booth)
Religion's role is to conscientize people into recognizing that drastic income inequality is a spiritual problem which prayer and charity can't fix. It is an indignity against God, in whose image all of us were made. "How dare you crush my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?" (Isaiah 3:15) "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern." (Proverbs 29:7) Preachers must share hope and faith that things can be different, if we work and vote together for change. This is still an enormously rich country which can well afford a fairer distribution of opportunity and wealth. If the very rich pay a lot more in taxes, they'll still be very rich. And the rich will get richer if there are more people who can participate meaningfully in the market economy. Government intervention can make this country healthier, wealthier, and more humane.
As Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, put it: "Wall Street's banditry was the proximate cause of the Great Recession, not its underlying cause.... the structural reason for the Great Recession still haunts America. That reason is America's surging inequality. Consider: in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation's total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America's total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total." (quoted in The Nation, 6/10/2010)
Prosperity-theology preaching is not going to bring economic recovery to the American people. Rather, major public policy change will be required to reverse the catastrophic shift of wealth from the middle class to the hyper-rich in this country over the last few decades. Faith communities have a pivotal role to play. We can lay the theological groundwork for a new Great Awakening in America: that prayer and political action are equally essential expressions of our faith.