A sentence often heard in American churches is “Sunday at 11 a.m. begins the most segregated hour in America.” It is of course meant as a reproach. In that sense it was used by Martin Luther King in a speech in 1963. Holy Communion (a.k.a. the Eucharist or the “Lord’s Table”) has from the time of the Apostles been a central Christian ritual. It is described as a meal shared by the congregants and somehow presided over by Jesus Christ (different churches differ on what this means). Over the centuries there have been different views on who is to be invited to this celebration: only members of a particular church, such members who have not violated certain rules, only baptized Christians, or just anybody—as in the formula often heard today in many liberal Protestant churches, “All are invited to the Lord’s Table.”
Quite some years ago I gave a lecture in Dublin. I forget what it was about (probably on modernization). When the time for questions came, a feisty old gentleman said in a thick Irish brogue: “I want to ask—What is sociology good for?” I was flustered, and I can’t recall what I replied. What I should have said is “Because it makes you see things that you had not noticed before.” I fully agree that using an individual’s skin color to (literally) ex-communicate him is morally odious. But, as a sociologist, I would add one word to the above-quoted sentence—“the hour most segregated by race or class.” I’m not sure that this would lessen the reproach. But it would be rather different.
In the September 2016 issue of Christianity Today, the banner Evangelical periodical, there are two stories involving religion and class. The first story, from Washington, DC touches on a new phenomenon—“black flight” from urban areas that used to be inhabited by lower-income African Americans and that are now being invaded by mostly younger middle-income whites. This is an old problem stood on its head in terms of the interplay of race and class: It used to be poor blacks who invaded white areas, whose older inhabitants fled to the suburbs. Many of the old black residents have made it into the middle class and in their turn have fled to the suburbs, “integrating” them in terms of race. The new white residents are a force of gentrification, hardly integrating racially. Left behind is the traditionally black Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. Its old members have increasingly abandoned Douglas Memorial—the long commute into the city, and the scarcity of parking spaces near the church (ironically, one reason is the demand for a bike lane by the newcomers—you can visualize them—young, fit, non-smoking, feeding on tofu…). The church, or those left to it, could of course have joined the exodus to the suburbs. When Helen Fleming, a new pastor, arrived there in 2005 there were only 19 members left. She decided to stay put and bring in some of the bike-‘n’-tofu crowd. She partnered with a new church called The Table, formed by hip whites. Their motto is “Two Churches, one Mission.” Another originally black church nearby, Florida Avenue Baptist, is following a similar course. Unfortunately the article gives few details of how the left-behind churches try to “make themselves more attractive.” Block parties and concerts are mentioned. If I lived in DC, I’d be tempted to go (not on a bicycle) and check out the music at the concerts and the goings on at the block parties…
The second story is more confessional. The author, Tish Harrison Warren, expresses guilt for not having perceived the suffering (economic, physical, and spiritual) of low-income whites, especially in abandoned rural areas—until she tried to understand the people who vote for Trump. (She calls herself an Evangelical, but is also identified as a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. I don’t quite get this. This Anglican group separated from the Episcopal Church, among other reasons for its opposition to the ordination of women. All hybrids are possible. Long live the First Amendment!) Warren urges urban Evangelicals to partner with forgotten rural communities, to help create blue-collar businesses and provide low-cost professional services. She puts it eloquently: “Faced with class and cultural differences, I want my first instinct to be interest in the story behind the political conviction. But to hear the hurt and to see the concerns beneath what I might have deemed irrational anger or misguided patriotism, I’ve had to repent of my own latent smugness.” Once again, there are not many details of these partnerships across divisions of class and mutual contempt.
A very simple sociological point: Informal sociability across class lines is very difficult. This is not only because there is always resentment and envy on the one side, and on the other side the suspicion of being taken advantage of. There are also deep cultural cleavages. I once had a student from a working-class background who attended an emphatically non-elite Catholic college located near an Ivy League university. Someone had the no-doubt well-intentioned idea of organizing a freshmen mixer from the two institutions. My student told me how one of these upper-class Wasps wanted to be friendly and came over to talk with her. He seemed to ask her a question she didn’t understand—she first thought that he was a foreign student with little command of English. He asked her: “Where does your family summer?”
American Protestantism, because of an important combination of three factors—pluralism, geographically scattered communities, and religious freedom—has created a close correlation between religion and class. If they have a chance, people feel more comfortable having informal relations with those of similar class background. Thus there arises a tension between the theological definition of Holy Communion and the social reality of church picnics. This profoundly free-church Protestantism has affected most other religions in the United States— Catholic parishes, Jewish synagogues, even (I’ve been told) Buddhist temples. A prototypical American Jewish joke: This guy was stranded on a desert island. He built for himself two synagogues—one where he goes to pray, and one in which he doesn’t want to be found dead.
This is not the place to discuss the different theological conceptions of Holy Communion—as a mirror of present-day social reality, or an anticipation of the Kingdom of God yet to come. In other words, must there be congruity between the Table of the Lord and the tables at the church picnic? The dilemma of historically black churches in America, once interracial mingling was possible both legally and socially, became very clear: Sociability across racial lines is much easier if people on both sides are roughly of the same class. By the way, the same proposition holds dramatically in South Africa, where the still recent collapse of apartheid has led to the rapid growth of a black middle class. Its more affluent members have invaded the formerly white-only suburbs. Whatever tensions there may be in other areas, white and black middle-class suburbanites get along well, socialize over a braii (the traditional Afrikaans barbecue), have the same gripes, and (as happened in the recent municipal elections) are beginning to vote for opposition parties. In other words, a relatively open class system is bad for racism. Given this fact, I think that guilt is not quite the right response to being reluctant to have a barbecue with Trump voters.
This curiously American relation between religion and class is not a law of nature. Its global diffusion (where allowed by the state) is not due to the influence of American culture or ideology, but to the increasing spread of the three causal factors I mentioned before. It is useful to look at situations in which the established religion is territorially organized in parishes and available to all like a public utility (as put by the British sociologist Grace Davie). Imagine Sunday worship in a traditional village in Anglican England, Catholic Italy, or Lutheran Sweden. The gentry from the mansion and the peasantry attended the same service (though probably seated separately), quite possibly with genuine piety. I’m not suggesting at all that they were one happy family or that they felt deep loyalty toward each other. They may even have hated or despised each other. But they didn’t have to go to parties together!