Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am an Institutionalist

I've been pondering Peter Beinart's good article in the April edition of The Atlantic with the bi-line of "America's Empty-Church Problem." The piece looks at survey data on the decline of church attendance and the increase of secularism, intolerance, and more pessimistic outlooks among the un-churched, on both the Left and Right. Beinart is making the point that the increase in hostile division we see has come from a decline in civil institutions. Society crumbles into tribalism when there is less to bind us together to work for the common good and get to know our neighbors.

This piece helped give me a way to describe myself that I had been searching for: an Institutionalist. This is opposed to an "insurrectionist" (as Beinart gives the definition from Chris Hayes' book). More than ever I have respect for the institutions in America and value their importance. This includes churches but also the family. It includes civic and social groups like Rotary Club, the Special Olympics, Parent-Teacher Associations, anything requiring a voluntary commitment to maintaining the service. It also includes liberty, literacy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process, Congress, the Supreme Court, the State Department, etc. It includes being able to drive to work without fear of being pulled over for no reason, and going to a movie without fear of being shot.

I don't believe "we have to burn the village in order to save it," or that we need to "send someone to Washington/Frankfort to blow up the system." Some institutional traditions exist out of years of experience and adaptation. Institutional knowledge is valuable. When you put people in charge who have no institutional knowledge and have to make important decisions quickly, things go unintentionally awry. I saw this firsthand in my previous job in state government. Institutionalists believe in change and adaptation at the margins, with the basic underlying rule of law and respect for the game in place. Public servants swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution-- it's the underlying institution that must be respected, above the leaders who appointed them. And it is good and helpful to at least learn established policy and procedures, those are often not just burdensome "red tape," and might exist for good purpose.

Recent polling by Pew shows skepticism about institutions is on the rise. "(In 2014) the vast majority (of Americans) still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent." Beinart's article further demonstrates that church attendance correlates with which camp you fall into, and whether you supported Bernie and Trump or the establishment candidates.

During the primaries, Republicans who actually attended church services were much less likely to support Trump than those who didn't. But this group is less influential than in the past because, citing PRRI data, "(T)he percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990."

The trend is even more exagerrated on the Left:
"In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative nonattenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points."

Beinart notes that two of the more controversial politically-active movements in 2016-- Black Lives Matter and the alt-right movement both reject tenets of Christianity. While the public may confuse the alt-right movement with conservative evangelicals because of support for Trump, "alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil." Graeme Wood's piece from the June edition, on alt-right racist Richard Spencer, should dispel any misconceptions. Spencer is an atheist who sees Christianity as something that historically united white Europe, that's its only usefulness to his crowd.


While I find the psychoanalysis of how church attendance leads both Left and Right to be more tolerant somewhat campy, I think the basic point is close enough: Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, pray for our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us. He set an example of opposing the Jewish hierarchy and revealing Himself to racial and political enemies--Samaritans and Greeks. You are more likely to be exposed to people from different countries, incomes, races, cities, etc. in a church. It makes it easier to love your neighbor.

But, generally speaking, the decline of civic society goes beyond church attendance. Americans are less affiliated in other ways, and this is affecting political cohesion. Ironically, Hillary Clinton made this exact point in her 1996 book It Takes a Village (my review).

Clinton lamented that people didn't join social groups like bowling leagues and civic groups like the Girl Scouts as much anymore, much less attend church. She basically advocated a stronger civil society vis-a-vis church attendance and service:
"Religion is not just about one’s relationship with God, but about what values flow out of that relationship, how we follow them in our daily lives and especially in our treatment of our neighbors next door and all over the world. Preaching is a distant second to practicing when it comes to instilling values like compassion, courage, faith, fellowship, forgiveness, love, peace, hope, wisdom, prayer, and humility."

Sports arenas are about the only wholly-accepted income and racial-stratifying places left in real life (ie: offline) adult culture. Conversely, it also helps promote the tribalism. (America still not nearly as bad as soccer fans in Turkey and elsewhere where riots over sports are frequent.) Sports also don't do much for the fan in the stands than entertain, there is not a mile of highway adopted by "UK fans" who clean it, for example.

As I observe civic institutions today, be it Boy Scouts, a school drama club, a Sunday school class, a century-old Congressional baseball game, I think "Will they still be doing this in ten years? In five? Or will they be staying home?" And I have a greater appreciation for the people who have the spirit and desire to see that unifying service or tradition continue.

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