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Denominations and Demographics

Posted by: John Schroeder at 07:27 am, January 8th 2013     —    3 Comments »

Jim Geraghty, in his newsletter yesterday  commenting on Matt Lewis:

The rallying cry in many corners of the Right since Election Night 2012 has been, “we need to win back the culture!”

As worthwhile as that sounds, permit me to ask . . . did we “lose” the culture? Heck, it’s not like we ever started arguing that strong families weren’t a good idea. It’s not like we forgot this. It’s not like we said, “Hey, young men, start impregnating young women and then don’t marry them.” We never said, “Don’t bother looking for a job and a career path, because public assistance is just as good.” We never said, “Dump your spouse once he bores you, and don’t worry about the kids after divorce; a child-support check is just as good as a dad in a child’s life.” And while we may have varying views of the War on Drugs, we’re certainly all wary of the specter of drug abuse and addiction and how that can quickly wreck a life.

Folks make these harmful choices because they are, as Yoda said of the Dark Side, “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And it’s not like the temptation to do these things ever didn’t exist — it’s just that there used to be a much stronger social stigma attached to those choices; that is, making such a choice meant encountering criticism from your peers everywhere you went. If you take away the social stigma of impregnating a woman and not taking care of the child, more young men will exercise that option. If you take away any social consequence from able-bodied people collecting public assistance, more people will exercise that option.

I don’t know you, dear reader, personally (well, most of you). Are you making bad choices? Are you neglecting your children? Failing to play a role in their lives? I feel pretty safe betting that you’re not. Sure, you make mistakes — you’re human — but you recognize that if you’re going to tout the value of individual responsibility, you have to at least try to practice it in your own life. (And in the unlikely chance you have unpaid child support or something like that, stop reading this newsletter and fix that right now! I’ll wait.)

I went through my social circles, and realized that the vast majority of my friends are married (surprise!), and most of them have children. I don’t know every detail of their lives, but as best as I can tell, they’re muddling through okay. I can tell you that if any of us had unpaid child support, hit their wives, abandoned their kids, etc. it would be hard to just look the other way. Mind you, maybe only half of these folks are self-identified Republicans or conservatives — but they live their lives in a very conservative (perhaps small-”c”) way.

Maybe what I’m describing Charles Murray articulates in Coming Apart:

Using a statistical construct he calls Fishtown — inspired by an actual white, blue-collar neighborhood of the same name in Philadelphia — Murray sorts through demographic data to present a startling picture. Women in Fishtown now routinely have children outside of marriage. Less than a third of its children grow up in households that include both biological parents. The men claim physical disability at astounding rates and are less likely to hold down jobs than in the past. Churchgoing among the white working class has declined, eroding the social capital that organized religion once provided.

… Murray constructs a fictional town for this new upper class as well, which he calls Belmont. While marriage did indeed decline among Belmont whites, the drop stabilized in the mid-1980s. In Belmont, births outside of marriage rose, but far more gradually than in Fishtown. The men — and many of the women — hold down jobs and work hard. Couples may have babies later in life, but they are meticulous about rearing them and obsessive about getting them into college.

“We lost the culture” — no, we didn’t, at least in our own lives. If those of us in Belmont could influence the choices of “Fishtown,” we would. The problem is that we in Belmont don’t interact much with the Fishtown types, and even if we did, we would have limited leverage to influence their behavior.

Interesting stuff, but here is the key question – did Belmont ever interact and influence Fishtown, and if so how?

I would answer that it did and the how was schools and churches.  Both institutions have changed over the years from something that sought to raise people up, to make them better to something that attempts to please them.  This cartoon which I have seen in several variations around the internet says it all about schools.  I am no expert on schools, but I know a thing or two about churches so that is where I want to focus right now.

We have discussed here before the radical changes that are happening in the Protestant world – the shift from denominations to independent congregations.  In one sense this is a move from being answerable to higher authority, the denomination, to be answerable only to yourself, or a smaller group of people just like you.

These independent congregations generally form around demographics and are geared to keep adding from that demographic.  Everything from race top income to educational level goes into careful choices of everything from music to architecture to preaching level  so that each independent church.  Subsequently, you can find churches for me and people just like me and in another neighborhood you can find a church just for liberal transsexual blacks.  It is not at all unlike what is happening on your cable or satellite TV where it seems like they are trying to develop a channel just for you.

This sociological change is, I believe, reflective of the “self-esteem” changes we looked at yesterday.  But this sociological change means that even if churches get back to the teachings I mentioned yesterday, the effects will not be that widespread.  There is still going to be someone that out there putting a church together without those constraints, and people will flock to it.  I could spend enormous amounts of time talking about how the denominations let this happen, pointing fingers and assigning blame, but the far more pressing question is can Christians hope to regain such influence?

Well, denominationalism is not going to come back anytime soon.  Nonetheless, if Christians hope to change, even aim, the culture there is going to have to be some unity, at least of that purpose.  In the denominational days geography, so-called “parishes,” prevented intra-denominational competition.  It still exists in the Catholic and Mormon churches.  A given Catholic church has a geographic parish which it is assigned to care for and that way any individual Catholic congregation is not competing with its neighbors.  Parishes are accountable to Bishoprics and they to Archbishops, and so it goes.  The Mormon system of Wards and Stakes is similar. It is not uncommon in this day an age to see four protestant congregation on a corner competing for congregants like gas stations compete for customers in price wars.  How can social/cultural cooperation be forged in such an environment?  I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon.

Can the mass marketplace be relied upon to define “winners?”  I am not so sure in this instance, it is such mass market forces that have brought us to this point.  The megachurch is starting to show signs of fading.  I do not see them growing into replacements for the denominations any time soon.  I think a more grassroots approach is needed.  If you recall all the stuff we looked at about Obama’s ground game in the last election, it was highly individualized.  Beyond micro-targeted, it was almost nano-targeted.  I think the church, in order to regain its social and cultural influence is going to have to consider an analogous approach.

Marketing gurus are all about hyper-targeted advertising via the internet now.  As TV transitions from broadcast or wider spectrum broadcast (cable) to directly delivered via the internet look for such advertising to move from the office and home office into the living room.  The church can do the same thing, but not with advertising, with people.

So, to return to Belmont and Fishtown.  People in Belmont are going to have to consciously get up and go to Fishtown and start talking to people.  For that to work they are going to have to get very serious about what they believe and how they act based on what they believe.  If they go into Fishtown all “have we got a deal for you,” they are going to get run out on a rail.  People in Fishtown already think they have a deal.  Nope the Belmont folks are going to have to demonstrate, slowly and by their lives, that Belmont is a better deal than Fishtown.  No short-term mission trip is going to cut it.

If we don’t get busy we will truly be a nation divided.

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