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The Church and the Poor

Good Douthat column this weekend criticizing recent statements by both President Obama and the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, in which they blamed American churches for abandoning the poor in favor of fighting the culture war. Douthat calls b.s. on that:

As Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard pointed out, “Even the most generous estimates of the resources devoted to pro-life causes and organizations defending traditional marriage are just a few hundred million dollars.” Whereas the budgets of American religious charities and schools and hospitals and other nonprofits are tabulated in the tens of billions. (Indeed, as Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle noted, some of that money — from Catholic sources — paid Obama’s first community-organizer salary.)

This reality is reflected in the atmosphere of most churches and the public statements of their leaders. Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude; you can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result. The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.

That’s really true. As I’ve said here before, it was shocking to me to enter the Catholic Church back in the 1990s and find that it was nothing at all like the media had prepared me to believe it was. Thirteen years as a practicing Catholic, and I never heard a single pro-life sermon, and only heard one sermon proclaiming the church’s teaching on sexual morality (hetero, not homo). The only two sermons I ever heard about homosexuality were from a Fort Lauderdale priest who criticized his own church’s teaching on the matter. That’s it. And having spent the last nine years in Orthodoxy, another church that’s officially conservative, I have heard exactly zero homilies on culture war topics. Not one.

I’m quite sure that some churches do focus more often on the culture war, both for better and for worse, but I strongly agree with Douthat that the idea that pastors are standing in the pulpit grinding out angry jeremiads against liberals and secularists is mostly fantasy. More Douthat:

Is there a version of the Obama-Putnam critique that makes any sense? Maybe they just meant to criticize religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts. But even this critique essentially erases black and Latino churches (who reliably support social programs), ignores decades worth of pro-welfare-state talk from Catholic bishops, and treats the liberal Protestant mainline as dead already.

It also conveniently absolves liberalism of any responsibility for pushing churchgoing Americans toward the small-government G.O.P. That’s an absolution that the Obama White House, with its pro-choice maximalismand attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits, particularly needs.

He goes on to talk about the most meaningful way in which the churches are failing the poor, and that’s in failing to attract and keep them in the pews. It has long since been established by social scientists that religion in America is largely a middle-class phenomenon, particularly among whites. Douthat:

From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O.

But even from a secular perspective it’s a problem, because (as Putnam’s work stresses) the social benefits of religion are stronger further down the socioeconomic ladder, and these benefits are delivered through community, practice, and belonging. So churches that spend or lobby effectively for the poor but are stratified come Sunday morning offer less to the common good than if they won a more diverse array of souls.

Read the whole thing.

I have a few thoughts about this. First, I see that some of Douthat’s commenters at the NYT say that the churches don’t care about the poor because the poor have no money to support those churches. That strikes me as a conclusion arrived at to support a preconception. This is just speculation — I am confident that Charles Featherstone will shed some practical light on this, informed by experience — but I think it is probably more true that the leadership class in most churches today don’t know how to reach the poor. They don’t share their lives, don’t share their experiences, and don’t know how to preach to them in an effective way.

Mind you, in my experience most (but certainly not all!) pastors don’t know how to preach, period — Evangelical readers, I trust, have a much more positive experience on this front — and satisfy themselves with saying little to challenge or to inspire their congregations. Contemporary homilies seem designed to mostly to avoid giving offense. I’m not sure we can entirely blame that on the priests. Back in the 1990s, a Catholic priest I knew who was personally quite orthodox, and who served in a fairly conservative diocese, told me that if he actually preached the Gospel full bore to his prosperous middle class parishioners, they would have him run out of his pulpit within a month.

The point is, it’s hard enough to relate to this kind of preaching as a middle-class person; I’ve often thought that someone who is poor, and who is struggling with the problems typically facing an impoverished person in this society, would walk into many American churches and wonder what the hell that preacher was talking about. Twenty or so years ago, I reviewed a memoir a young Episcopal priest wrote of her years in Manhattan seminary. In one telling anecdote, she wrote about doing ministry among prisoners, and telling them the good news that they didn’t have to take Genesis so seriously, that there were all kinds of ways to nuance one’s interpretation of what the Bible said. She reported that the convicts didn’t understand what she was saying. Then a Muslim convert prisoner in the back of the room piped up to tell the others that if they wanted a religion that told them clearly what to do, they should come to Islam. The priest was so puzzled by this, and why it seemed attractive to the inmates in her care.

That right there is the problem. She was raised among the upper middle class (her father is a Supreme Court justice), and simply could not relate to poor people whose chaotic lives had landed them in prison. She thought it was liberating to them to tell them that Scripture was not black and white, but grey, because this is the prejudice of her class. In fact, to the poor, this is a different kind of prison. This blog’s reader Another Matt has talked often about how his family came out of abject poverty, and embraced a harsh, unforgiving form of Christian fundamentalism (this is why Matt, as an adult, no longer believes in God). It sounds horrible, and it is horrible. But it is at least understandable. People who live close to the margins of economic ruin, and amid a society of chaos that sometimes may seem like a war of all against all, would understandably have little use for a religion that seems designed to comfort the middle classes.

In writing this, I am reminded of the most working-class church I ever visited. It was back in the 1980s, and I was an LSU undergraduate working at the campus newspaper. Word got out that there was going to be something big going on that Sunday morning at the megachurch pastored by the fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart. I dragged my hung over self out of bed, got dressed, and drove out to Swaggart’s church. It turned out to have been his infamous “I have sinned” sermon, in which he wept and confessed to the congregation that he had been consorting with prostitutes. Back then, I couldn’t stand Swaggart and what he stood for, and I had a sneering undergraduate’s view of his kind of religion. But I remember standing there listening to that, expecting to feel some sort of vindication of my prejudices against fundagelical Christianity, but instead feeling a weird sort of shame. Why? Because the worshipers standing around me were pretty clearly working-class people, people who looked like they bought their Sunday best off the rack at Walmart. And these men and women were crying over the shock of their pastor’s disgrace. I felt so bad for them, truly.

I went to the Swaggart church that day expecting my prejudices to be confirmed, and left having had them challenged — just not in the way I expected. You could have gone to any number of Baton Rouge churches that morning and immersed yourself in a form of Christianity far more congenial to bourgeois sensibilities. But if you wanted to see the working class at prayer in south Baton Rouge, you would have needed to go to Jimmy Swaggart’s, or, I imagine, a church in that vein.

That said, is it really fair to assume that the failure of the church to attracted and keep the poor is entirely the fault of the church? I some ways, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. In the newspaper world, consumer research has shown that those who buy the newspaper today tend to be white, middle-aged to elderly, and middle class to wealthy. Yet the overwhelming bias within the newspaper industry is to try to grow the market among the young and minorities. And this is understandable; you want to reach the unreached.

But no matter what strategies they try, those demographics desired by newsroom leaders — young people, African Americans, and Hispanics — aren’t taking up newspaper reading. They either don’t care about the news, or are getting the news they want from some other source, or sources. To be clear, newspaper readership has been declining equally over all demographic segments. The point is that there’s something going on culturally with changing media habits that defies the analysis that many newsroom leaders prefer.

I can tell you anecdotally that in some cases, the efforts of media institutions to draw in those demographic segments who don’t really want what newspapers are selling in the first place are alienating those loyal customers who do. This happened to me all the time in Dallas. I would meet former subscribers to my newspaper — conservative suburban white people — who would tell me that they finally quit subscribing because they concluded from the paper’s coverage that the people putting out the paper didn’t care about people like them. Fair or not, this was their perception, and they could all cite reasons. You might say that these people were narcissistic, or lacked a sense of the common good, or whatever. But the fact is, they perceived that the things they lived with day to day, and the things they cared about, weren’t the same things that the writers and editors of their newspaper cared about. So they quit buying us.

But the newspaper industry’s leaders continue their obsession with diversity, and believe devoutly that if they hire more racial minorities in newsrooms, this will result in greater minority readership. It never seems to occur to them that perhaps newspapers are something that these minority markets simply don’t want. I’m not saying that this is true; I’m saying that this hypothesis never seems to occur to those running newspapers.

Think about this in terms of the church. The unspoken bias within the church is that everybody would want to be a Christian if only they knew what was good for them. I’m a Christian, and I too believe that everyone should want to be a Christian. Christianity is a universal religion. But it must be conceded that in a secular culture — secular in the Charles Taylor sense, which is to say, a culture in which religion is seen as an option — there will be a large number of people who simply don’t want what religion has to offer. Or at least don’t want it badly enough to bother showing up at church. Would it do poor people some good to affiliate with a church, to commit to it, to become part of that community? No doubt it would, for reasons that have as much to do with psychology and sociology as with theology. But what if they simply do not want what religion is selling, in the same way more and more people don’t want what newspapers are selling? I believe it would do people good to subscribe to newspapers, but you cannot make people do what they don’t want to do.

To be sure, Christianity is not a product, like a newspaper. And a Christianity that ceases to be of and for the poor is not Christianity. There may be good market reasons for newspapers to cease trying to be all things to all people, and focus on the core readership, but there will never be a good reason for Christianity to give up on the poor, and never be a good reason for Christianity to stop evangelizing. And yet, I would like to see some thought given to the mindset of the poor and working classes regarding religion, to see them not as a passive population to be acted on (e.g., if they’re not going to church, it must be the church’s fault), and instead to see them as in some sense responsible for their choice to refuse organized religion.

I live in the rural South, and almost none of the working class white folks I know go to church. It just wouldn’t occur to them. It’s not part of their culture. It’s remarkable when you think of it, but it’s true. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, but rather that they don’t see churchgoing as having anything to do with it. Is this the fault of the church? I have been to most of the local churches, and none of them are unwelcoming, at least not in my experience. The church must never stop trying to reach these people — reach all people — but I’m simply saying that at some point, you’ve got to realize that you are up against some powerful cultural forces that simply are not within your power to counter.

It’s like this. I am a Christian, but if there were no Orthodox liturgies or Catholic masses in this area, I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday. It’s not that I think badly of my Protestant brethren or think that they are in some sense un-Christian or morally unworthy. Not at all! but only that the theology I hold in my head, and the way I have become acculturated to worship, means that Protestant modes of theologizing and worshiping leave me cold. I just don’t get them. I wish them well, and truly consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ, but the possibility of being part of their Sunday worship is just too alien to me, even though I grew up in the Protestant mainline. In fact, I find it hard to imagine what these churches might do to attract people like me. I am positively disposed toward them as a general matter, and genuinely wish them well. But for reasons of theology, practice, and culture, I literally could not imagine being part of their worshiping community.

Reflecting on that, it’s not hard for me to understand why poor and working class people would find the experience of church — any church — simply too alien to them to take seriously the idea of joining. This is a problem for the church, and from a Christian point of view, it is a problem for these lost sheep too, whether they realize it or not. My point here is simply to recognize that it’s too simplistic to blame the churches entirely for the falling-away of the poor and the working classes.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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