Friday, July 31, 2020

Congregations as Civics Instructors?

The Ratification of the Treaty of M√ľnster, 15 May 1648, by Gerard ter Borch
Can religious congregations teach people how to participate productively in society, practicing empathy and tolerance? The Rev. Dan Hotchkiss seems to think so.

"By governing themselves well, congregations can teach civic skills. Congregations are among the few remaining settings where people of different ages, occupations, and political philosophies have a chance to mix and be in conversation. The religious roof affords just enough in the way of commonality to make serious conversation possible — but only a few congregations take advantage of this opportunity. No wonder that, when congregations can no longer avoid a difficult issue, they so often can respond only by separating the parties. As I write, the the most divisive conflicts in North American churches are about sexuality and worship style. I see plenty of division and debate about these issues but too little dialogue. Congregations in our time have an important opportunity for civic education. By daring to keep a few difficult questions on the table at all times and handling the discussion well, a congregation educates its members in the arts and practices of civic life. Society can only benefit."  Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, p 12

In my life I've gone from Catholic to conservative evangelical to fundamentalist restorationist to progressive evangelical to Unitarian Universalist. I know something about changing my mind, and also about self-selection into religious groups that correspond with my beliefs and sense of ethics. Still, I realize that Dan Hotchkiss is an expert consultant who works with all manner of congregations to improve their governance, and so his thoughts in that realm shouldn't simply be dismissed. I greatly enjoyed the book quoted above, have blogged and will blog more from it, and recommend it to anyone thinking about how congregations operate. At the same time, I have reservations about his take here on the role of churches as civics instructors.

As I've mentioned, self-selection has been key in my religious life. I left Roman Catholicism for reasons of faith, but with the advantage of years of reflection I suspect that if my parish had provided a healthy youth group and a generally more satisfying experience I might not so easily have departed. Then again, I didn't leave to seek out a youth group, but rather a greater sense of meaning for my life. I believed in evangelicalism as a sub-culture that was counter-culture, and which promised fellowship and purpose. The reality was far more complicated. I discovered the differences between mainline Protestants and evangelicals, and then within evangelicalism. As my understandings shifted so did my church alignment.

The seeds of fundamentalist restorationism were planted in Moberly, Missouri through my connection with the Bible college there, and then were fostered into full bloom while I was at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. It turns out that what I thought was 'the way' was a noxious weed that turned toxic on me over time, very nearly ending my Christian faith. In those times I was most in conversation with Church of Christ and independent Christian Church people and churches. 

As my faith recovered I was still tied in the 'real world' to conservative churches because of my marriage, but online and in conferences I attended I interacted with more progressive-minded evangelicals. When I came to the realization that there likely isn't any god like the one depicted in orthodox Christian belief, my faith evaporated for good, and I found myself radically re-aligned with Humanism and then also Unitarian Universalism.

Even if I still held to Nicene Christianity, I wouldn't be with any of the denominations I spent the most time with previously, because they would be inflexible on matters like the inspiration of scripture, social norms, anti-racism, and lgbtq+ inclusion. A lot of those folks, though by no means all, were probably Trump voters in the last presidential election. I would instead probably end up with the United Church of Christ. This is how it works with people in a free society. We either go with the flow of whatever our family and possibly friends do, or we strike out on our own. We either leave organized religion altogether, or we find a group that better aligns with where we are or who we aspire to be.

In such a scenario of self-selection into groups that appeal to us we are separating ourselves from society at large, in a sense. I'm not saying that as a negative at all. In my opinion, an important function of religious congregations in our time is to provide a respite from the culture wars, wherever we find ourselves in them, and situate ourselves among like-minded people. At the same time, this severely reduces the challenges to how we understand the world, and I would like it has to also weaken any effect that congregational life might make on our ability to manage differing views.

Two things to note about this, though.

First, not all churches are made equal. In any Roman Catholic parish there is a mix of 'true blue believers' who adhere to everything that the church officially states (I think this must be a minority) and those who hold to Catholic teaching to varying degrees. Attend a Catholic Mass and look around at the families. You won't see a lot of families these days with 5 children, even though the church teaches against family planning outside of the notoriously risky 'rhythm method.' Those good Catholics are on the pill or using condoms, despite church teaching. In highly liturgical churches the tendency is for what people believe to be considered important but treated in practice as a secondary or tertiary matter. What matters is outward conformity and participation in the rituals. Evangelical churches put a great deal of emphasis on beliefs and the sexual morality that creates purity culture. Mainline Protestants are just happy to have people coming through the doors. In most UU congregations a socially and politically conservative individual would likely feel antsy. 

The point here is that the extent to which people interact in churches, and the degree to which their beliefs and personal practices matter, varies widely. This makes a difference when we're thinking about people learning about good civic practices through their congregations.

Second, there are differences within seemingly homogeneous congregations. Within the UU congregation where I'm a member there are people who differ greatly on anti-racism, capitalism vs socialism (I'm a social market capitalist), the use and place of reason, and more. These differences come up, and we have to hold one another in covenant to keep from breaking apart. It's not a simple matter, and doesn't always go well. Thus there is truth to the idea, as I see it, that we can learn how to 'get along' in healthy congregational life. 

Essentially, I'm saying that the positive impact on civic skills gained from interacting with people in congregational life is softened by the tendency to self-select into like-minded groups. We should not overemphasize the value of church life in this regard.