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Monday, July 27, 2020

When Organized Religion Helps


If you listen only to anti-theists, particularly the sycophantic followers of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, you'll be led to believe that the beginning and end of all of humanity's problems is with religion. While this is a simplification of what those 'four horsemen' of the New Atheism promote, it is generally the stance I see taken by self-described anti-theists. While it is very true that 'religion' can be a force for oppression and suffering, as demonstrated multiple times throughout the history of the world, it isn't the entire picture. Organized religion, at its best, can actually wear down bigotry and open hearts.

"When congregations fail to manage 'organized religion' well, they face two special risks. One is the temptation to secure support by pandering to people's fears and prejudices. Finding an enemy to organize against is the easiest and least responsible path of leadership in congregations. The long and bloody history of Christian anti-Semitism; the tragic wars of the Protestant Reformation; and in our own time the deep mutual suspicion among various types of Christians, Jews, and Muslims should alert us that the organizing of a religion is a high-stakes game. Preference for one's own group over others is a natural passion that religious zeal can make worse. A primary duty of  a congregation is to regulate religious bigotry by teaching the whole scope of its tradition — including the parts about caring for strangers and wayfarers — and by insisting on sound norms of ethical behavior for the congregation and its interactions with the world around it."1

Such was the observation made by Dan Hotchkiss in the 2nd edition of his excellent 'Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership' Hotchkiss has consulted for numerous congregations, from Protestants to Unitarian Universalists to Jews to Ethical Culture and beyond. More than 30 denominational groups. He's also a Unitarian Universalist minister himself. He knows what he has seen first-hand and heard second-hand. Good congregations are ones where members and other attendees learn to accept difference among themselves and out in the world. This edition of Hotchkiss' book was published in 2016, and just two years later a formal study bore witness to its truth among, of all places, evangelical Trump voters. 

To begin, here are the key findings from Emily Ekins' report entitled 'Religious Trump Voters:
How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity."
  • Donald Trump voters who attend church regularly are more likely than nonreligious Trump voters to have warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities, be more supportive of immigration and trade, and be more concerned about poverty.
  • Statistical tests indicate that Trump voters who attend church regularly are significantly more likely than nonreligious Trump voters to have favorable attitudes toward black people, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants, even while holding other demographic factors, such as education, constant.
  • Statistical tests find no significant difference in effects between Protestant and Catholic church attendance among Trump voters.
  • Religious Trump voters have higher levels of social capital: They are far more likely to volunteer, to be satisfied with their family relationships and neighborhood, and to believe the world is just and that people can be trusted.
  • Since 1992, record numbers of Americans are leaving organized religion with the share of nonreligious people quadrupling among all Americans and tripling among conservatives.
  • These data demonstrate how private institutions in civil society may have a positive impact on social conflict and reduce polarization.
How could it be that Christians, whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or evangelical, who voted for Donald Trump could have any good feelings towards people of color or immigrants? The history of Christianity is replete with egregious violations of human dignity and freedom. Evangelicalism among white people in particular is known to expect conformity from anyone who enters their fold, whether white, black, disabled, from another country, or whatever else the case may be. And that conformity is to a white evangelical standard of conduct and belief in the finest detail. How could these people 'have warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities"?

It's in their religious DNA. 

While we don't have a history written by an outsider to Christianity contemporary with its origins, that doesn't matter for what we're considering here. The narrative that became accepted by the orthodoxy that coalesced over the first few centuries of the Common Era is that which we find in the Book of Acts, in the New Testament. What we read here is how the eventual majority wanted to understand and explain the beginnings of their faith. Interestingly, it opens with a dramatic event that marks the birth of the church, one that is inclusive. 

"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!' Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, 'What does this mean?" — Acts 2:2-12

Often missed by casual readers is the fact that these were all Jewish people from all over the known world, not non-Jewish foreigners. They had gathered for a religious festival, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for it. What this passage is telling us is that Christianity was not just for Palestinian Jews, like Jesus and his apostles, but for Jews living in all nations. It could also be seen as a sign of the return from exile, but that's a topic for a different post. My point here is that by hearing the message of Jesus preached in multiple languages had the effect of affirming faith in him as Israel's messiah to be for all Jews. Not too long after these events, we are presented with another significant moment in the expansion of this new faith.

"When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." — Acts 8:14-17

As anyone who grew up attending Sunday School in a Christian church or attended Vacation Bible School should know, the Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Or at least, that's the picture that the Gospels paint for us. They were considered half-breeds, a mix of Israelites and others who were brought into the land after many of the Israelites and Judahites were taken into captivity. They had (and still have) their own version of the Torah as well as their own distinct rituals. The Gospel of John famously has Jesus shocking his disciples by speaking with a Samaritan woman (one of seeming ill-repute) and even requesting that she draw water from a well to drink. When the Samaritans began to be baptized and were then received by the apostles into the church, it was a very big deal. It meant that the faith of Jesus could reach not only Jews from every nation, but even the reviled Samaritans (thereby extending the return from exile to them as well). 

So far, so good. Everyone involved up to this point had a connection to the Abrahamic faith, whether Jews, converts to Judaism, or Samaritans. Then something else happened. Gentiles (non-Jewish people) who had not converted to Judaism suddenly heard the good news through divine arrangement, and experienced a sudden religious fervor attributed to the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter (it had to be him for the story to work, since Paul's involvement would have cast doubt on God's endorsement) was awestruck. 

"Then Peter began to speak: 'I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.'" — Acts 10:34-35

These passages and their lessons are not at the forefront of every Christian's mind when they think about tolerance and inclusion. However, church-going Christians are exposed to these passages naturally and often enough to condition their thinking. Additionally, the imperative to 'make disciples of all nations' leaves them with little room exclude. They certainly do it anyway, as did the 19th century Protestants in the United States who baptized black people but excluded them from leadership in mixed-race congregations. Still, embedded in the tradition since the canon was formed, the stories and lessons remain to remind Christians of who they are supposed to be.

Emily Ekins continues here report with this:

The positive relationship between religious service attendance and tolerance examined in this report is simply a correlation. We don’t know for sure if attending religious services causes people to become more tolerant and accepting of others with different backgrounds. But we can test whether some other demographic variable — like education, income, gender, or age — might be confounding these results. For instance, perhaps more-educated conservatives are more likely to participate in civic institutions (such as churches) and also are more likely to take more moderate positions on some culture war issues. If this were true, we might draw the conclusion that education drives these results more so than religious participation.

To examine this potential, we ran a statistical test (regression analysis) using church attendance as a predictor of attitudes toward racial and religious minorities while also taking into account education, income, race, gender, and age. Even when accounting for these demographic factors, increased church attendance remains a significant predictor of more favorable attitudes toward black people, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and Muslims (Appendix A). The statistical models predict increasingly favorable attitudes toward these populations as Trump voters attend religious services more often, while holding other demographic factors constant (Figure 21).
It was entirely possible that this was mere correlation with no direct causation. Ms. Ekins did her work though, and helped rule that out. It appears that congregational life can indeed shape a person's way of thinking to be a bit kinder. She cites three reasons, the first of which calls back to what I've said here already.

"First, many religious teachings specifically call for compassion and kindness. Given that 93 percent of religiously observant Trump voters identify as Christian, it is relevant to note Biblical teachings, such as those in John 15:12: 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.'"

Another reason has to do with the experience of life in a congregation. People feel less isolated, and more connect with others. They are able to participate in events, services, meetings, study groups, and the like with a sense of belonging. They are seen and heard, unlike many non-church goers. 

"Second, perhaps religious participation instills in churchgoers a sense of personal agency and a belief in a just world. By extension, they may feel less inclined to blame “out-groups” for the challenges they face. Indeed, the survey shows that churchgoers are less likely to believe they live in a dog-eat-dog world and more likely to believe that the system is fair. For instance, the more frequently Trump voters attend church the more likely they are to believe they have a say in politics, to believe the economic system is fair, and to believe that most people try to be helpful rather than look out for themselves or take advantage of others. If churchgoers are less likely to feel as though they are victims, perhaps they are also less likely to blame external sources for the challenges they face in their lives."

Finally, as we have seen with the Book of Acts, there is an expectation that churches will welcome all kinds of people. They don't always, of course, but the example is set in scripture and so churches will often make some effort to oblige, however faltering. In my own experience I've seen people from all-white Christian churches welcome missionaries of color, hosting them in their homes, and listening attentively as they speak to the congregation. While white supremacy culture may remain, white people are exposed to others unlike themselves and can observe that we all share a common humanity. 

Third, religious institutions provide communities that people can belong to that are not based upon their race or nationality. Thus, members do not need to rely on immutable traits such as race, ethnicity, or nation of birth to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Research shows that conservatives place greater emphasis on being loyal to a community than do liberals. And so, feeling disconnected from a meaningful community may lead some conservatives to seek belonging on the basis of their race or the nation. Doing so increases exclusivity and divisiveness, and it exacerbates racial and nativist tensions.

This opening effect of congregational life isn't exclusive to Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals, by any means. For example, while most Unitarian Universalist congregations don't rely on the Bible as a source text (at least not exclusively), they have a common commitment to understanding, inclusion, and affirmation that is codified in their denominational covenant. Speaking from my own experience, life in UU circles has been invaluable for me in deconstructing from evangelicalism, and in understanding the reality of white supremacy in not only our world, but also and especially within Unitarian Universalism and myself. The lessons I'm learning come not just through reading and sermons, but also through hearing the testimony of people of color who have lived with systemic oppression all their lives, and learning from women their terrible experiences with purity culture. 

Religion can most certainly be organized for harm, weaponized to hate and hurt others. It can also be a vibrant source of life and broadened horizons for members of congregations. The problem, after all, isn't with religion itself. It's with people. 

*All Bible quotations in this post are taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.