Why Are Congregations So Divided?

published on July 17, 2020

Martin Luther King jr once said that 11:00 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America now I want to be clear that he said this during a very different historical context the civil rights era when the United States was wrestling with its

Bleak history of anti black racism in a fight to enforce the constitutional rights of black Americans but here in the 21st century this remains a simple statement of fact most religious congregations in the United States are

Comprised of one racial group some 85% of all religious congregations have a membership that's at least 80 percent of the same race now sociologists use this 80/20 split to differentiate between mono racial and multiracial

Congregations a multiracial congregation has a second racial group making up about 20% of their membership sociologists use this ratio for a couple of reasons number one once you reach about 20% representation you have much

More influence on what goes on in that congregation and number two you're just simply much more mathematically likely to come across and befriend people of a second racial group but it turns out that most religious groups are not

Multiracial by this definition just 12% of Protestant congregations are racially mixed in some 25% of Catholic parishes I wanted to see evidence of this on the ground so I flew to the Bible Belt USA to Knoxville Tennessee to visit dr

Tricia Bruce an expert on the sociology of religion congregations and the changing landscape of religion in the United States all cut to clips of this interview throughout this video but you should check out the full interview on

My second channel we drove around Knoxville on a typical Sunday morning to see evidence of congregations divided along racial ethnic and economic lines we saw a Vietnamese Catholic Church a congregation almost entirely comprised

Of Vietnamese families with services conducted in Vietnamese we then discovered an Assemblies of God Church in a strip mall a congregation comprised mostly of Hispanic immigrants and the lower and working classes with services

All conducted in Spanish driving down a single road in Knoxville we passed seventh-day adventists a Jewish synagogue and Eastern Orthodox Church and some religious buildings I couldn't even I

Anta Phi but Knoxville is still pretty segregated both racially and geographically driving to the east side of town we passed a dozen predominantly black churches all within a few square miles including a big church built into

An old warehouse now we know that all religious congregations differ in name and doctrine you have mosques for Muslims gurdwaras for six synagogues for Jews words for latter-day saints but on the single

Drive around Knoxville we can see that religious congregations are divided more than just by doctrine but why is this why are religious groups so divided these racial divisions reflect what sociologists call social boundaries

Those us-and-them groups that we create by hanging out with people similar to us whether driven by how much money you make how much education you have or your racial group another way to describe gathering on the basis of similarity is

Homophony the homophily principle states that the connections that we make with other people whether around friendship or marriage or religion are frequently structured by similarity we befriend people similar to us we marry people

Similar to us and there's a few explanations for the homophily principle reason number one the religious marketplace of the United States dr Trisha Bruce argues that the context of the United States enables this flocking

Together you know congregations run the gamut in the us religious landscape and we know that the context of the United States with regard to religious freedom means that congregations of all types can thrive right so one of the

Reasons that scholars point to is the fact that this this context of freedom that allows so many congregations to flourish means that there are lots to choose from all right so I may even call this a religious marketplace so if you

Have a marketplace of options then it might be that your look you look for a place that has others like me so this is one of the factors right you look at the landscape and say what church do I want to go to what congregation looks right

For me and you might look for one hey there's there are others who look like me there so this is one of the reasons it's almost like supply-side economics we can think of religious adherence as consumers with specific expectations and

Preferences and the marketplace of options in the United dates responds to meet that demand enabling a flourishing of niche groups religious freedom policy in the us creates that level playing field where

Niche groups can proliferate she writes in her book parish in place that American religion reacts responsively to the particular and changing needs of its consumers and we saw this on our drive around Knoxville if you are a Vietnamese

Catholic family that speaks Vietnamese in the household you might much more prefer to drive 45 minutes to the Vietnamese Catholic parish rather than drive 5 minutes down the road to the predominantly white and

English-speaking Catholic parish in your own town because there's a marketplace of options in the United States people can choose based on their own preferences so even though this word divided has a very negative connotation

In some respects the homily principle seems to be based on choice I asked dr Bruce about this what I'm interested in is these terms divided and segregated they have kind of a negative valence to them especially with the history of the

United States with the segregation and the civil rights movement stuff like that but what I hear you saying is these people are self selecting in some respect they're choosing yet to drive 40 minutes to go to their

Vietnamese parish because they want to be with you know they want to be in a congregation that speaks their language or their native native language so can you speak to this idea of the the religious marketplace where people are

Choosing to self-select into these congregations yeah people are choosing and in fact the whole idea of a congregation is again especially within the context of religious freedom it relies on voluntary Association all

Right so it means that people are choosing a place that feels like home to them so this is not prescriptive this is not force but it does you know the ways in which people choose reflect these sort of internal boundaries that people

Draw between us and them and you know there are some I think differences too along denominational lines and the extent to which one is is allowed to choose or expected to choose or not I mean even you know I study a lot about

Catholics and technically in the Catholic Church it's based on the territorial parish system that that actually does draw geographic boundaries that says okay all the Catholics in this neighborhood belong to this parish but

We know again based on that especially that penchant for choice is that a lot of Catholics like a lot of other religious here ins adherence will say well I'm gonna drive by the congregation that is closest to me because I want to

Go somewhere else right so it is it is choice within this broader structure of how religious organizations work how polity works and how we think about lines between ourselves and others so the marketplace of options in the United

States context is one of the drivers of this phenomenon but personal choice is not boundless there are systemic factors that shape who we associate with and one of those major factors is socioeconomic class religious congregations often

Reflect their own neighborhoods and neighborhoods are still segregated based along economic and racial lines of course in the in the context of Knoxville as we saw on our drive around town we see this around the country

Neighborhoods are still pretty segregated along racial and economic lines so some of this is changing but you you see embedded in cities the kinds of social boundaries that emerge from you know choosing one's neighborhood or

Sometimes it comes across as choosing a school or choosing an area that feels comfortable well oftentimes that place that feels comfortable that it is accessible or affordable is going to mirror those same same kind of divisions

And if congregations are nestled into neighborhoods then those congregations are going to reflect that kind of segregation that's already happening in neighborhoods and in fact some of the scholarship shows that congregations are

Even more divided than their neighborhood meaning that that sometimes they express an even higher level of segregation than than the neighborhood that's surrounding but you're the residents the the ecology of the

Neighborhood is going to matter a lot for what the congregation looks like you can still see this sort of division reflected among religious groups today the general social survey shows us that religious groups

Can be ranked in order of social class liberal Protestants and Jews for example are more likely to describe themselves as members of the middle and upper classes while black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics are much more likely

To describe themselves as members of the lower and working classes so to put it simply the explanation for the homophily principle is way more complicated than personal choice there are a lot of other social factors that constrain the

Marketplace of options so what's the big deal the thing about the homophony principle is that it has a lot of influence on society and sometimes it has positive and negative effects on the one hand

Homophony can play an important role in affirming our personal identities building networks and empowering social movements it can generate access to other kinds of social goods and social capital by surrounding yourself with the

People you want to be around so for example think about the important role of black churches in the history of the United States on the other hand us-and-them social boundaries can very easily become us-versus-them social

Boundaries homophony can limit our imagination it can prevent us from meeting people that are different from us if we only hang out with people that share our economic standing or our same politics and might be very difficult to

Empathize with other people and to make decisions that go beyond our narrow slice of the world these are important considerations for the United States being as religiously pluralistic as it is I mean the reality is that these

Experiences have real ramifications for how we vote for how we think of ourselves as civically engaged citizens for the ways that we think about who belongs and who doesn't and so religion is a has always been a powerful force in

That and and the question is is how right and what does that look like and what are the the potential strengths or limitations of religion in if you want to say overcoming certain boundaries or exacerbating certain boundaries versus

Amplifying them like dr Bruce says religion remains a powerful social force to this day in the us there are more religious congregations then there are franchises at the top ten fast food restaurants there are more religious

Congregations than every McDonald's subway Pizza Hut or Dunkin Donuts combined that adds up to some three hundred eighty four thousand religious congregations across the us roughly 36 percent of Americans attend weekly

Services remember this next time someone says that religion will be losing influence in the 21st century I don't know what's gonna happen a hundred years from now I'll admit that but at least for the next five to ten years religious

Congregations will remain very important sites for political and cultural dynamism but what can we expect what can we expect from the next five ten to fifteen years well I pitched the same question to dr

Bruce so this research speaks to our current political moment here in the United States but it also speaks to the next 5 10 15 years like as as the demographics of the United States change so what what does the future look like

With this with this research yeah you know local religious organizations are a great place to look as a signal of what's to come and what's changing and what's not changing in terms of attitudes or demographic composition or

Otherwise with regard to the racial composition of congregations an increasing number of congregations are multiracial and an increasing number of people who attend congregations are attending places that are multiracial

Which means sometimes that means a super large congregation which is going to be more likely potentially to have diversity on a variety of fronts and sociologists have been measuring this for some time and in fact in measures

Even as recent as 10 years ago versus now there are a higher and higher number of congregations that are reflecting internal diversity so multiracial congregations so this is changing over time and I think we'll continue to move

That direction the United States is becoming increasingly religiously pluralistic and those religious congregations are becoming more multiracial so here's where I make the pitch that we need more religious

Literacy education for the Americans in the audience it sounds like we'll need to be more religiously literate if we want to deal with these possible negative effects of the homophily principle but if you want to dig

/ into this research you should watch the full interview between me and dr Bruce on my second channel I also want to say special thanks to sacred rites an initiative at Northeastern University that's supporting scholars of religion

To reach a broader audience I wouldn't have been able to travel to Knoxville for example without their help and also thanks to our patrons on patreon that support the show as always thanks for watching and I'll see you next time yeah

Wow that old gas this is an old grocery store something that had a gas station and a sword and shield active signage I don't know I don't know if it's even active eternal life a harvest center I don't know what that is

Guess it sounds Christian right yeah it's a good guess around here yeah oh yeah but good still has the fast gas sign on the side

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