«SPEAKING OF FAITH: PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE AMONG RELIGION COMMUNICATORS IN THE UNITED STATES Committee: Dominic L. Lasorsa, Co-Supervisor Ronald ...»
The continuous sect-church cycle often prompted reforms and increased mission outreach in Christendom, Niebuhr observed. As such, the dynamic itself was not evil. But one product was: denominationalism. Denominations represented the moral failure of Christianity, Niebuhr said. They signaled the surrender of churches to secular forces of class, politics and power as faith groups responded to social influences. Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians—some of today’s mainline Protestant denominations—had all succumbed to social forces of moral relativism as they dealt with such issues as immigration, slavery, poor-relief and civil war during U.S. history (Niebuhr, 1929).
Other American sociologists—for example, Howard Becker (1932), J. Milton Yinger (1946, 1970), Bryan Wilson (1959, 1973), Paul Gustafson (1967, 1973, 1975), Roland Robertson (1970) and William H. Swatos Jr. (1979, 1981)—have used the church-sect dynamic in their scholarship. Benton Johnson (1963) offered the first social science operational definitions of church and sect: “A church is a religious group that accepts the social environment in which it exists. A sect is a religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists” (p. 543). This definition allowed comparative empirical analysis of faith groups beyond the ideal types that Weber, Troeltsch and Niebuhr had advanced. The single variable put a group on a continuum from complete acceptance to complete rejection of its society. The definition left the exact dividing line between church and sect up to the researcher. The decision could be based on other variables being considered.
The most striking fact about the American religious situation is that the vast majority of religious bodies seem to accept the dominant value system. … Most groups, therefore, should be placed toward the church end of the church-sect continuum. … Few would dispute that old-line Protestant denominations, such as the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Episcopalians, stand very near the church end.
Closely allied with these bodies are groups like the Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical United Brethren, and the Lutherans. These bodies, together with certain smaller denominations, are to be regarded as the most churchly of all American religious groups (Johnson, 1963, pp. 544-545).
By the last half of the 20th century, some social scientists had begun to question the secularization hypothesis. A growing body of research from the 1950s through 1970s showed that religion as a social/cultural force was not going away. Stark (1983, 1985) was one of the first sociologists to reject the secularization hypothesis. He said religious behavior reflected rational, not irrational, choices. Stark and Bainbridge (1979, 1980,
1985) combined rational choice with Johnson’s single-variable church-sect concept. They defined “religious movements” as “social movements that wish to cause or prevent change in a system of fact, belief, values, symbols, and practices concerned with providing supernaturally based general compensators” (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985, p. 23).
“Compensators” are beliefs “that a reward will be obtained in the distant future or in some other context that cannot be immediately verified” (p. 6).
Stark (1983, 1985) broke new theoretical ground by evaluating rational religious choices in economic terms. He said people made religious choices after comparing costs of religious commodities (worship, volunteer service, financial donations) to the expected rewards (emotional well-being, fellowship, salvation from eternal damnation, everlasting life). Some rewards were not observable in this world. Believers took that reality into consideration when making choices (Stark & Finke, 2000).
Furthermore, Stark and other sociologists in his school held that all faith groups competed in a general religious economy. Each began in a specific, relatively stable market niche. To move into a larger niche, a church or sect needed to attract more members. It did that by reducing tension with the host economy (culture). Over time, extreme sects tended to shed qualities that separated them from society. Thus, sects evolved into denominational expressions of religion that generally embraced temporal norms (Finke & Stark, 2001, 2005; Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, 2003; Stark & Bainbridge, 1980, 1985; Stark & Finke, 2000).
Finke and Stark (2001) and Stark and Finke (2000) noted that Niebuhr’s churchsect dynamic moved in only one direction—from sect to church. Stark and Finke (2000) hypothesized that religious groups could move in either direction. Specifically, they said (p.
+In an unregulated religious economy, where the survival of all religious groups rests on market processes, growth will facilitate the efforts of clergy to move a group into lower or higher tension.
+Initial shifts toward higher tension will primarily occur at the congregational level and will be reflected at the denominational level as a cumulative result of congregational shifts.
+The church-to-sect process is far more likely to occur in relatively unregulated religious economies where the survival of all religious groups rests on market processes than in regulated economies featuring subsidized denominations.
Finke and Stark (2001) used a bell-curve continuum to illustrate the social demand for services in a general, unregulated religious economy like the one in United States. Each end of the curve represented extreme tension with society (highest at right, lowest at left). Demand for religious services rose toward the center. Such demand reached its peak at the midpoint.
When applied to religious groups, this bell-shaped curve of religious demand helps explain the size of the market segment to which a group will appeal. When a group limits its appeal to either extreme of the continuum, it is confined to a small portion of the market. … As groups appeal to the center of the continuum, however, the size of the potential market rises.
Thus, most Americans are members of a congregation that falls somewhere between the two extremes. (Finke & Stark, 2001, p. 177) Research among United Methodists in California and Nevada supported Finke and Stark’s view that religious groups could move in either direction on the social continuum.
… [W]hen pastors of liberal denominations attempt to increase their congregation’s tension with society, they experience an increase in organizational vitality. Conversely, when pastors of liberal denominations attempt to further reduce their congregations’ tension with society, they continue to lose organizational vitality. … [W]hen religious groups move too far to either extreme, they are appealing to an increasingly smaller segment of the religious market. (Finke & Stark, 2001, p. 188) Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger and Gorsuch (2003) noted that religious organizations were constantly changing. Faith communities affected society as well as reacted to it.
“What empirically distinguishes churches and sects,” they said, “is the degree to which their host cultures seek to control and minimize the influence of particular religious groups” (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger & Gorsuch, 2003, p. 381). Rank and file church members appeared to notice this give and take with the secular culture. In other research among United Methodists, Cannon (2007) found that church members in Texas were concerned about worldly influences on their church. Texas United Methodists—all laypeople—listed “secularity/worldliness” as the second most import issue facing their mainline denomination in 2004. They thought their church was too involved in secular politics, was too worldly and did not take conservative moral positions.
‘Liberal’ Means Mainline Denominations Stark and Finke (2001) used “liberal denomination” as an alternative label for “mainline.” That was the term Niebuhr (1929) and Johnson (1963) used. Lakoff (2004,
2007) included mainline denominations in “progressive Christianity.” Progressive Christian denominations see God as a “nurturant parent” offering grace and forgiveness to all who ask. That view of God differs from the one of conservative Christian denominations. They see God a “strict father” preparing to punish all sinners and demanding disciplined lifestyles from those saved through Christ. “In a nurturant form of religion, your spiritual experience has to do with your connection to other people and the world, and your spiritual practice has to do with your service to others and to the community” (Lakoff, 2004, p. 103).
Carroll and Roof (1993), McKinney (1998), Michaelsen and Roof (1986), and Roof and McKinney (1987) all agreed “mainline” was a vague term. They said “mainline” generally described a group of Protestant institutions with some common theological understandings, established organizational structures, ecumenical involvements, similar socioeconomic characteristics and parallel senses of historic religious status in the United States.
By “mainline” denominations, we refer essentially to those groups— Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists (now United Church of Christ), United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, American Baptists, Lutherans and the Reformed Church in America—that have functioned as an unofficial religious and cultural establishment within America and within American Protestantism. The first three were the established colonial religions; the others were later additions. We also include as mainline several of the historic African American denominations that grew out of the Baptist and Methodist traditions. (Carroll & Roof, 1993, pp. 11-12) The Association of Religious Data Archives at Pennsylvania State University listed 24 of the 188 faith groups in its online database (www.thearda.com) as “Mainline Protestant Denominations.” The association did not specifically define “Mainline Protestant Denominations.” But the list included those groups named by Carroll and Roof (1993).
The Religious Landscape Survey (Miller, 2008a, 2008b), sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, cited the Religion Newswriters Association’s
definition of “mainline Protestant denominations” for the way it categorized faith groups:
This term refers to a group of moderate-to-liberal Protestant denominations: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Predominantly African-American Methodist denominations are also sometimes associated with this grouping: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The term “mainline” harks back to a time when this mostly white group was tied to the political and cultural establishment. Since the 1960s, membership in most mainline denominations has fallen precipitously, as has their influence. (Connolly, 2006, p.45) Twitchell (2007) said only obscure doctrinal issues and “razor-thin” theological content separated mainline denominations (p, 113). “There is little if any product differentiation,” he said. (p. 148). Most 21st century religion consumers see mainline denominations as interchangeable. They offer “services so similar that only an expert, if blindfolded, could tell which was which,” Twitchell observed after visiting congregations representing various mainline groups (p. 181). Mainline congregations generally offered “lukewarm” worship experiences compared to “hot” sensations in more evangelical groups (p. 21).
Old-line religions got stuck with old-time religion: forgiveness now, salvation later. … While their focus was on the world coming up, the real battle was in the here and now. The mainline denominations were providing a quiet place to go on Sunday with your consumption community surrounding you. But they were not delivering the sensation.
They were not delivering excitement. They were not providing forgiveness now, salvation now. (Twitchell, 2007, p. 55) While denominational membership was associated with social class at the start of the 20th century, that was no longer the case a century later. Social status was too fluid.
Mainline Christians were generally older than the general population. Couples from mainline denominations averaged fewer than two births each. Consequently, they were not reproducing themselves (Twitchell, 2007).
Finke and Stark (2005), Roof and McKinney (1987) and Wuthnow (1988) all reported that the dynamic of growing upstart sects and declining mainline denominations had been part of the American religion scene since colonial times. Aggressive faith groups committed to vivid otherworldliness spread religion across North America. As faith groups replaced doctrines about an active supernatural realm with abstractions about goodness and virtue, accommodated social values, and ceased to make serious demands on followers, they ceased to prosper (Finke & Stark, 2005). As faith groups downplayed characteristics that distinguished adherents from the general society, members found switching churches or leaving altogether easier (Wuthnow, 1988). Increased competition from more vital faith groups often fostered doctrinal, philosophical or other divisions within mainline memberships. As a result, membership and participation in mainline denominations steadily declined during the 20th century (Stark & Finke, 2001, 2005;
Roof & McKinney, 1987; Wuthnow, 1988).
If churches practice two-way symmetrical public relations, the capstone of Excellence Theory (see Chapter 3), their leaders—both communicators and top executives—should logically be trying to identify and accommodate values in secular society. Such accommodation would, according to Excellence Theory, help churches build better long-term relationships with various publics. Mainline Protestant denominations, according to Church-Sect Theory, have accommodated secular values. Mainline clergy leaders push to reduce tension with social values as one way to attract more worshipers, promote congregational growth (a sign of success within the faith group), boost their status within the community and denomination, and earn higher salaries (Stark & Finke, 2000).