In the last blog, I tried to show the relationship between denominationalism and the functionalist (which I previously defined, so please see that definition) account of religiosity. The importance of drawing out this relationship was described in the final paragraph, namely, that when a functionalist understanding of the church breaks-down, so too does the denominational understanding. The two are intrinsically connected with one another.
That the denominational-functionalist account of religiosity is dying is not terribly difficult to show. This point can be made from either end of the spectrum…that functionalistic understandings of religiosity are losing sway or that mainline churches are currently shrinking. In terms of the first hyperlink, I want to point out that the important part of my argument, which I will not draw out at length, is found in the third paragraph of this piece. There is a higher correlation of older persons going to church than younger persons, precisely because older persons tend to equate going to church with community (remember, the functionalist holds that church is necessary for establishing communal value-structures), whereas for younger people it usually means nothing of the sort. My wife and I just ran into this problem, in fact. We were asked to come into a church meeting on a Saturday during a time when we’d usually spend time with friends, and we initially declined. The church, as I later reflected to myself, simply does not form the sole or even main aspect of my communal belonging. Contrast that with those who are part of the generations above the baby-boomers. They tend to think that church is either a necessary moral endeavor, or at least a place of important communal interaction; and this to such a degree that you’ll most certainly find agnostics going to church in that group, if not avowed atheists.
Based on these initial statements, in order to make my argument, the important point in this blog is to show that American denominationalism is an offshoot of the older state churches, who held that religiosity was the necessary glue for holding the people of the state in one moral accord, including pledging allegiance to the crown; further, I have to show that secularization broke down this functionalist-denominationalist account of being religious. The first argument I have to make, then, is not terribly easy because the U.S. (and I’m only trying to deal with the emergent church in the U.S.) has a very long and proud history of a legal separation between church and state. But I think that this point is the important first point to make. The only real point to which American churches must adhere is that they understand that they have no legal authority. What the churches in the U.S. say cannot be taken as legally binding. However, the church in the U.S. has certainly held what might be called moral sway.
So, Protestants have, for the most part, been the leaders of our nation, not because Protestants were ever afforded a legal right to such positions (that was only afforded to the White Anglo-Saxon part of the WASP equation; and manhood, don’t forget the manhood), but because it was seen as a moral necessity. Moreover, in decades past, pastors were afforded high spots in the public limelight, given a moral say in the public discourse on the trajectory of the motion of the U.S. for no other reasons than that they were pastors; for God’s sake, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote about the awesomeness of Reinhold Niebuhr in the New York Times 4 years ago! Thus, while the legal understandings of functionalist religiosity never held sway in our country…or at least lost the battles over the legal status of the church…there was a functionalism still at work, based on the belief that to be moral and a valuable part of the community was to be a member of the Protestant church.
To get on with this argument, American Denominationalism became the expression of America’s peculiar understanding of what it meant to have a state church or, in other words, what it meant for the church to work in a functionalist manner. There was no one legal church that anyone was bound to join, but there was the Protestant Church, the many denominations of which, upon joining, demonstrated one’s moral standing as a good individual, dedicated to God and country. Of course, not all churches were considered equal (my own denomination, the Episcopal church, has always had a place of preeminence with the highbrow of the country); but, generally speaking, most churches were acceptable.
Thus, American denominationalism took the role of state churches for the U.S. It follows that the key point to clinch my argument logically speaking (not evidentially) is that secularizing forces brought down the denominations by undermining functionalist understandings of religiosity. For that account I will direct the audience to the Introduction of Christian Smith’s book the Secular Revolution whereby he links the fall of religiosity in the United States to a committed group of secular intellectual elites. (But, I’m really tired of making this argument, so I’m gonna let you go ahead and read that one). Without wasting any more precious pixels by telling this story, what matters is that the secular elite were correct, at least to a degree. We, in fact, ended up not needing to define ourselves in terms of a relationship to the Protestant church, or any church at all. Rather, these institutions became burdensome to the ideal self-expression made famous in the 60’s. The churches became symbols of what was perceived to be the West’s imperialistic nature, and we came to understand ourselves, more than ever, as not needing any sort of spiritual grounding, at least for the “higher classes” and intellectual elites. Or even if the need for spiritual-moral grounding wasn’t broken, the thought that one had to find it within the walls of a church denomination came to seem absurd precisely because we were shown by secular activists that our country could function just fine–rather, better–without these institutions.
There’s not a lot more to say on this issue (at least what can be written about here). What I’m unfolding, here, is relatively simple. Because American functionalist accounts of the Church and denominations broke down on account of secularizing trends, room has been created for new expressions of the Christian faith, many of which are now found in the emergent church movements. In what may seem to be a strange turn of events, the emergent church owes at least some of its life to the rise of secularity, a point that I don’t believe can be lost on those who consider themselves emergent or mainline persons. In other words, perhaps one of the main insights of emergent Christianity is found in the general acknowledgement that the church in some ways is indeed not needed, but important nonetheless. But that’s a different story, and hopefully one that’s not so long and complicated (I wasn’t expecting to have to write either this much stuff or stuff this dense)