Sunday, July 01, 2018

The Suburbanization of Liberal Religion

Once upon a time, Unitarianism was an urban religion. Our most prominent and successful churches were in the cities, embedded in the urban culture and community where they were.

Yes, there are many exceptions of rural or small-town Unitarian, and Universalist, churches.

But in 1940, there weren't a lot of suburban Unitarian or Universalist churches, because there weren't a lot of suburbs.

Suburbanization and Housing Segregation are the same process, and could be the most important transformation of the society in the last century. We now know that it was a process driven by powerful financial and governmental policies. The white urban working class was offered the chance to buy new homes in the suburbs with subsidized and guaranteed credit, which allowed them to begin accumulating family wealth. The black working class in the city was denied this opportunity, and whole sections of cities were denied credit for new or improved housing. Vast profits were made in housing industry, the financial industry, much of which was directed back to the suburbs as local government revenue.

Some urban Unitarian churches followed their people to the suburbs. Some did not. My opinion is that it did not matter; a church located in the city, but with a suburban congregation is a suburban church with less parking.

Suburbanization affected the theology and the ecclesiology of liberal religion.  For the most part, current Unitarian Universalism is liberal religion customized for suburbanites.

Suburbanization atomizes community and demolishes culture.

The old urban church was embedded in the urban community. Its minister was a recognized leader in the city's life. Congregants not only belonged to the church, but also to many other civic organizations. They belonged to the Y and participated in local politics. Political leaders knew how many votes could be moved by an appearance at a particular church. There was even a time when a provocative sermon would be reported in the local newspaper.

[A member of the church in Worcester, who was deeply connected the civic life of the community thought it odd that he should invite a friend to come to church. He knew lots of people and he assumed that they either had a church, or chose not to go to church. Church was part of people's private, personal life, quite apart from the network of public relationships in which he lived.]

When the people of the church moved to the suburbs, they were moving from a place of rich and thick cultural connection into a place of much thinner community. There were fewer community organizations and cultural institutions. Homogenous developments and sub-developments replaced heterogenous neighborhoods. Politics were often non-partisan and obscure; elections were off-schedule, discouraging participation.

Life in the suburbs changed the role that the church played in people's lives. The church, over time, became, for many people, their primary community. In many cases, people know more people in the congregation than in their neighborhood, or through any other non-work connection. And even those connections through the congregation are weaker, because congregational friends live in other suburbs and their kids go to other schools.

Theologically, in liberal religion, the ultimate values becomes "relationship" and "community." Ecclesiologically, in liberal religion the most important purpose of the congregation becomes to create and sustain "community." In terms of public theology, the suburban church blends into the de-politicized landscape of the suburbs. Public witness becomes going into the city to participate in witness actions there.

Whereas in the past, the church was united by its general message to the community in which it was embedded, now the goal of the church was to be the community.

[Some of the elders in the church I served in Worcester were surprised that other people wanted to know everyone in the congregation. They thought that just because some other people agreed with the message of Unitarianism didn't mean that they were meant to be friends. These elders had their friends and they assumed that the others had theirs, as well.]

The suburbanized church tends to elevate the values of suburbia: focus on appearance, cultural similarity, the aspiration of a completely safe environment, convenience, good customer service, self-containment. The model is a shopping mall.

And finally, whiteness. Suburbanization, at the ground level, is white people moving away from black people. That is the practical effect of government and financial policies and it occurs without conscious racist thought. You want to buy a home in a more prosperous suburb, chances are it will be a whiter suburb. As white people move away from black people in the suburbanization process, the very presence of black people signals potential danger and downward mobility. The predominantly white suburban church will inevitably view black visitors and potential members with suspicion.

Families Belong Together: A story

There was confusion about whether the June 30 rally against family separation at the Rhode Island Statehouse was going to happen. It had been on MoveOn's list, and then it was off the list, and then an email come from MoveOn said it was cancelled. Some people thought the email was fake.

About 300 people showed up. No platform, no sound system, no infrastructure, no police presence, no official leaders.

But a couple of women took on the responsibility of leadership. They held the space, spoke to the moment of the rally's unorthodox status. They called in everybody to be close so we could hear people through a megaphone, made of a rolled up piece of ordinary paper. A speaker's line was organized: anyone who wanted to speak.

People spoke. Amazingly, speeches were shorter, more direct, and less grandiloquent than the speeches at any rally I have been.

There was some ideological struggle, when a speaker said something to the effect that "everybody has a vote." An undocumented person corrected the speaker that not everyone had a vote and that he had presumed that everyone at the rally was a citizen.

Everybody learned something from the exchange.

There was some singing.

There was a Lieutenant Governor candidate who spoke. Religious leaders, too.

One of the women facilitating the rally led us in chants that she read off the signs that people had brought.

After the line of speakers dwindled, and the crowd started to drift away, the facilitator said that she thought most rallies went on too long, and the demonstration started to wind down. It had lasted over an hour.

When I got there, I had, at first thought that it was a bust. Why stay? I mean, if I take the time to go to a demonstration, aren't the organizers obligated to hold up their end of the deal, and provide me with a shady spot, a good sound system for interesting speakers, and some tasty musical interludes?

And just around the corner, DSW was advertising a 70% off sale.

Maybe in another time and place, many of us would have gone home with new shoes.

But protest is not a picnic, or an outdoor concert, or a block party. It is people, acting on their own, to press their anger, outrage, and demand for justice on the government. It is supposed to be a bit wild, and out of control, and ours, even if it as peaceful as a church picnic.

But 300 people came to protest at their State Capitol, and they did. People are fired up.