Tuesday, December 26, 2006

reasons to quit

The L.A. Times reported the other day on the response of evangelical church leaders to the recent spate of scandals involving megachurch pastors and same-sex activity. (Hat tip Hullabaloo.)

I think this piece is pretty well done. Isolation is a persistent problem for ministers, because of the nature of the work (embodying virtue and optimism, at least to their flock) and the type of people who go into it (demanding of themselves). The problem will play out in different ways in different kinds of church context. I strongly disagree that gay sex is a sin, but many people do believe that, and the Times reporter takes those people seriously and on their own terms. The story ends with the "ex-gay" minister and his strategies for how not to act on his same-sex desires, as if he were trying to give up cigarettes or trans fats. That gets right to the heart of the matter.

The best bit is right here:

In his 14 years at the helm of a conservative Baptist congregation in Colorado Springs, the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds found it almost impossible to have an honest conversation with his deacons. He set up a monthly "check-in," but everyone responded to his questions with a reflexive "I'm blessed."

"I wanted to say, 'Please! I feel like crap!' " Reynolds said. "I felt like I was not dealing with human beings."

Talking with members of the congregation was even harder, he said; they held him to such a high standard that he could set off a round of gossip just by running out for a carton of milk on a Saturday night — a time they expected him to be home in prayer, preparing for Sunday worship.

Reynolds, 45, struggled for years on his own with the realization he is gay.

That Stepford-like optimism that a lot of evangelicals have--I sure couldn't deal with it every day. Reynolds ended up coming out to his congregation, then resigning his position. I would like to know what he's doing now; the story doesn't say.

Monday, December 25, 2006


Remedial blogging, not especially appropriate to Christmas Day...

Via The Revealer, an article by Warren Goldstein in the Yale Alumni Magazine, about Yale Divinity School. I want to bookmark it. Note to self: update the link as necessary.

The article's Yale-centrism (which was intended, of course) is a little annoying as boosterism within the realm of American seminaries and denominations. But it's also noteworthy as an effort to validate Yale Divinity School's continued existence, to the realm of Yale alumni and the larger Yale community. Warren Goldstein argues that better days are ahead for liberal mainline Protestantism as a force in American society. All I can say is, from his lips to God's ears. Whether the optimism is well-founded or not, the diagnosis of what has happened to the liberal denominations since their peak in the 1960s, is well-stated. In its headline ("What the fuck would it take?") The Revealer highlights Goldstein's account of a 1980 debate, televised on the Phil Donahue Show, between William Sloan Coffin (longtime Yale chaplain, exemplar of theological liberalism) and Jerry Falwell. Falwell eats Coffin's lunch in the debate, largely because Coffin cannot take the Lynchburg upstart and his movement seriously, and perhaps doesn't take the Donahue Show seriously, either, as a public venue. We can read quite a bit about the last few decades in American religion from that encounter.

But there's other good stuff in here as well. William McKinney makes some great points:

Nearly everyone has a theory about what caused the mainline decline; it's the $64,000 question in the sociology of modern Protestantism. One theory emphasizes the mainline's discomfort with emotion in worship, a focus on social issues, and consequent neglect of personal faith. McKinney, of the Pacific School of Religion, cites sociologist Robert Booth Fowler in arguing that however much Americans may like liberalism, they find it "too cerebral" and "spiritually unsatisfying." (Anyone recognize a couple of recent Yale-educated Democratic presidential candidates?) "Americans like liberalism but they don't like liberal religion," he says. "They want it hot, passionate; they want to feel it."

In the sidebar to the story, Lillian Daniel does a great job of encapsulating the problem ministers have when they leave seminary and enter a local church:

"When I graduated I was confronted with hemorrhaging membership numbers. I was associate minister in a suburban church. They were saying, 'How do we grow?' And I had no idea. We never covered that in divinity school. 'How do we attract the kids? Oh, I missed that day. I can tell you about Saint Augustine. I had no idea you would want to grow the church.' It was a huge disservice.

"I liken Yale Divinity School to a liberal arts education. You don't cover the professional and technical skills; the idea is that you will be grounded in the tradition and in learning and reading critically, and the other stuff you'll pick up on the job. The problem with that model, where it breaks down, is that the mainline church is in crisis. There aren't that many healthy, vibrant ministers and congregations to teach you."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Schaller and Perlstein

Two current political writers whose books I've been meaning to pick up are Rick Perlstein and Tom Schaller. Here’s a lazy man’s way out: why not read a short article BY Rick Perlstein ABOUT Tom Schaller?

Schaller’s thesis, crudely stated, is that the Democrats’ surest path to winning national elections is to direct resources everywhere except the South. Perlstein boils Schaller’s insight down to this: Compare white Northern voters to white Southern voters, then look for the factor that explains why the Southerners vote Republican at higher rates. Identifying as a conservative doesn’t explain it. Pro-life or pro-choice? Hawk or dove? These items don’t explain it. What explains it is racial prejudice: whether the respondent believes the proposition that black Americans face systemic inequality.

Tom Schaller is a hot topic among Democrats right now. Greater blogs than mine, like Ed Kilgore and Lawyers Guns and Money and Matthew Yglesias, are batting this around. (Here is Ed Kilgore's Salon review of Schaller's book "Whistling Past Dixie.")

A Southern Democrat like me is naturally somewhat resistant to Schaller's argument. I guess the nub of the matter is that it feels, or would feel, a little pathetic to be attached to a political movement that doesn't consider me worth having as a full member on account of geography. But the argument based on survey data appeals to the amateur sociologist in me. Also, in trying to find a voice for this blog, and figure out where to direct my writerly resources, it would be nice to steer clear of hair-splitting arguments, or matters of semantics and tone. Religion and region are two subjects where I find myself being hyperdefensive, when the fact is I don't so much object to what the secular-liberal consensus says, as to the way it says it. I don't get paid to fight those battles.

(Some people do get paid to fight those battles. Ed Kilgore writes on his blog, "We think the progressive message, presented with sensitivity to regional variations, can create a long-term Democratic majority." I can get behind that statement, and it's interesting that "we" includes Howard Dean. But Kilgore appends a final clause, "and that anything less will likely squander that opportunity." Maybe he's right, I don't know, but that's the statement of a Democratic consultant trying to defend his turf.)


Since the Perlstein piece will retreat into TNR's archives soon, I am going to cut and paste a part from near the end. This is less specifically pertinent to Schaller, but an interesting forensic note about what's wrong with political journalism in the U.S.:

After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the top news executives sent a wire to Mayor Richard J. Daley protesting the way their employees "were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten." Such was their presumption of cultural authority they couldn't imagine how anyone could disagree. Then Mayor Daley went on Walter Cronkite's show and shocked the media establishment by refusing to apologize to the beaten reporters: "Many of them are hippies themselves. They're part of this movement." Polls revealed 60 percent of Americans agreed with Daley. For the press, it triggered a dark night of the soul. In an enormously influential column, the pundit Joseph Kraft, shaken, wrote, "Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communication field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans--in Middle America."

That air of alienation--that helpless feeling that we have no idea what's going on out there--has structured elite discourse about the rest of the country ever since. A set of constructs about what "the great mass of ordinary Americans" supposedly believes--much more conservative things than any media elitist would believe, basically--became reified. Pundits like Kraft--a social class that spends much of their time among people like themselves, inside the Beltway--learned to bend over backward to be fair, lest they advertise their own alienation from everyone else. On subjects that chafed them--say, the relevance of certain ugly folkways of the South in electoral politics--they just had to bend harder. Or ignore the matter altogether.

It can produce in today's TV talking head a twisted kind of neurosis: an instinctual distrust of the political appeal of anything that can be categorized as liberal, even in defiance of the actual data; and an inability to call a spade a spade--say, that people shouldn't have been beaten indiscriminately in the streets of Chicago in 1968.

(To finish Perlstein's thought, calling a spade a spade means accepting that in the near term, the Democratic platform won't win in the South.)

I actually did check Schaller's book out of the library, so maybe I'll have something more substantive to say about it at some point.