At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and for the past few weeks we have published a series on evangelicals and their understanding of faith in the era of President Donald Trump. To read more our series on evangelicals, click here.
Today, we bring you an interview with Lyz Lenz, a writer and managing editor of The Rumpus. In November 2017, Lenz was a short-term Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute, where she worked on a book about the decline of the American church. Susan Sink interviewed Lenz less than a week after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and about a year after the election of Donald Trump — which has shaken up the world of evangelicalism. For Lenz, researching the book revealed a complex set of cultural and political identities that intertwine with evangelical religious identity. To read more of our weekly Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
You’re writing a book tentatively titled Death of The American Church in which you research the state of religious communities today in rural America. What are some of your findings, particularly in evangelical churches?
I’m actually looking for a new title for the book, and I am leaning toward God Land. I need a new title because I don’t really think the American Church is dead. Faith will always live in America, it’s just a question of how. I spent a lot of time defining for myself what I mean by the American Church. My book focuses on the Midwest because “the heartland” forms an ideal image of America. It’s also the part of America people need to understand, especially in the wake of the election.
How did you ultimately decide to define the American Church for your project?
Demographically, most Americans identify as evangelical, Catholic, and mainline Protestant, but that doesn’t mean most Americans attend church. Actually, there’s a general disconnect between church attendance and religious identity. We are still a country where 70-80% of people identify as Christian, yet in every denomination, and even now in evangelical churches, we’re witnessing dramatic declines in church attendance.
To complicate matters, church attendance has not historically been a part of Christian identity in America. In the 1940s, Dwight Eisenhower instructed people to go to church—any church—as a way of identifying ourselves as a Christian nation. It was a way to differentiate Americans from “godless Communists.” And it was a way to mark our “exceptionalism.” People are increasingly not attending church, but we still define ourselves as a Christian nation. And many Americans describe themselves as Christian, even though their religion is more civil than theological. More of an adherence to a certain code of conduct, and way of behaving, rather that a theological study.
So, to define the American Church is tricky, but for the book, I parsed it out both demographically by looking at the religions that had the largest followings in the Midwest, and civilly by examining the Christian ethics that inform everything from how we run our schools to which restaurants are open on Sundays. I also look at church as something bigger than just the buildings and the people inside them and even the theology that surrounds them. Church looks different in the internet age and I have a chapter on people seeking church in new places like apps. So, in sum, the church is wherever people gather to practice their faith, and sometimes that’s on Facebook, and sometimes that’s at a Baptist potluck.
After the shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, I had trouble listening to the townspeople’s responses in the media. In the first days, when church members and others gathered to mourn, they were speaking in clichés. I thought it was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful about grief and faith. How did you interpret the response?
I think two things are going on there. First, there’s a need in American evangelicalism to always put forward a positive face. “Always be strong and trust in God.” The language is: “We’re fine, we can do this, God will see us through,” and even “God is in this.” Faith provides a narrative of speaking even when we are too sad to speak. So sometimes we turn to cliché.
Second, there is a deep distrust of the media. People in small towns don’t want the outside world, and especially journalists, to know their business. They also knew they’d be asked about guns after the mass shooting. In rural America, guns are seen as tools for the job and identifiers of masculinity, which are crucial at a time when American masculinity feels under attack. The idea that the government, and liberals, want to take away their guns is central to their identity. So a shooting in a church is doubly hard to talk about.
And, of course, they don’t want to talk to the media because they fear they will be misunderstood. When I was researching my book I saw that all the time. I’d be having a conversation with a woman I knew from church and, when it came to something we didn’t agree about, suddenly things would turn and she would say, “Well, you’re a journalist.” Classifying me as a journalist explained why we didn’t agree. It was also a way of defining who was “in” and “out.” My views, as a journalist, even when I wasn’t speaking as a journalist at all and don’t consider what I am doing journalism, placed me outside the church community. Often journalists don’t understand, and that’s a tragedy. But even more often, they do and reflect back what is actually happening and that’s what people really fear, I think.
Earlier, you said that American churches engage in “virtue signaling.” What did you mean by that?
That’s what was happening with those interviews from Texas. Virtual signaling is language that lets you know you are “in” because you share values. It is actually not about virtue at all, but often about attitudes toward politics veiled in Christian language. It’s what we do and don’t believe, and what we do and don’t find acceptable, and who has the correct values. Those values are more and more simply the opposite of political correctness.
One example of this comes from a very small town in Iowa I visited when I was researching my book. People from the church kept telling me about this great man in town. For them, one of the primary things that made him great was that when he built his house he attached it to his business, so that his machine shop was 70% of the square footage of his home. Consequently, he could deduct the mortgage on his house in his taxes. That he had figured out a way to get around his taxes was seen as virtuous and smart. And the language used to speak about his virtue was very much couched in religious language; people called him “moral” and “trustworthy,” a “god-fearing man.” But he was doing his best to beat the system. Since distrust in government is deep, this man’s ability to outsmart the government counts as a positive and acceptable virtue any insider would recognize.
The seemingly cliched language that you asked about is like this—it is a code, a way of talking that signals to the world who they are and what they believe. If you get it, you are “in” if you don’t get it, then you must be “out.”
The other thing to understand is that most of these communities depend on what Jennifer Sherman calls “moral capital.” In her excellent book Those Who Work and Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America she follows the decline of a California logging town in the 1990s and shows how, as people lose actual capital—lose jobs and high wages—moral capital becomes increasingly important as a way of maintaining status and dignity. Even people who are poor begin to draw lines between themselves and “welfare mothers,” immigrants, and those from different racial backgrounds—those who are “other” and can therefore be seen as less morally good.
Are you saying that “Christian” or “evangelical” are becoming the labels of a political or even tribal identity rather than a purely religious one?
They aren’t becoming a tribal identity—they’ve been one for years. It just took the election of 2016 for people to understand how deeply ingrained this reality was in our society.
How have recent developments in the evangelical church impacted you personally?
In the past year, since the election, I’ve felt very alienated in church because of my political views. If I’m to stay and maintain relationships in the evangelical church, I’m required to be silent when I think I should be speaking. At a particular church, we’d always hear from the pulpit when a police officer was shot somewhere in the country, but our pastor didn’t say a word about Charlottesville or even about the people killed in the church in Charleston. I live in a white community in the Midwest and in that church in particular, which is very popular in town, it was hard to get people to care about whether or not a pastor spoke out against racism from the pulpit. But in that silence something is being signaled about what’s worth talking about and what isn’t. And so just by silence, hate thrives.
Attending this evangelical church required a moral compromise on my part that I’m not comfortable with. As a result, I’ve had to leave. And I’ve found a wonderful home in the ELCA Lutheran tradition. But leaving that church cost me my marriage. So the personal stakes were very high.
At the start of this interview, you said that faith will always live in America in some form. What made this ELCA church a healthy new spiritual community for you? Have you found that other former evangelicals are joining mainline churches after the election?
This church has been good for me because they practice radical acceptance. When they say all are welcome, they mean all are welcome. There are no barriers to participation. And they actively seek new ways to be inclusive–whether it’s participating in the Pride parade or partnering with the local mosque to gather supplies for the homeless shelter. The first Sunday I brought my kids to the ELCA church with me, they were offered communion. And my children accepted without compunction, without fear and with so much joy. And I began to cry, because I truly believe that’s what God’s table should look like. But that hasn’t been my experience.
I do know that for many of my friends, and the people I’ve met while researching this book who are looking for ways to be faithful outside the evangelical church, this does include joining mainline churches. I’ve seen some articles arguing that there could be a mass exodus from evangelicalism and that there will be a resurgence of mainline churches. I’m not holding my breath. But faith and what it means and how it is practiced is about more than just numbers.