December 14, 2005

The Derb on the Religion Gap

Commentators frequently bring up the "religion gap" between the US and Britain. John Derbyshire, writing in National Review Online, makes the point that this gap is not nearly as large as generally imaginged. The difference is more of the atttitude toward the institution of the Church, or churches -- England and Scotland having established churches, they do not depend on active participation of the congregaton to the extent American non-established churches do, and thus they do not go to the lengths American churches do to assure attendance. My own observation is that many Brits tend to view their church more as a public utility -- they want it there and fuctioning when they need it, such as for weddings, christenings, and funerals, and not to have to pay too much attention to it at other times.

This is not too different from the attitude that the first-generation Italian-American men had that I grew up around -- church was for Christmas, Easter, and special events. Although it must be remembered, when people had big families and all one's relatives lived close by, just attending weddings, funerals, christenings, first communions, and other such events of extended family and neighbors kept people in churches almost as frequently as weekly attendance.

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 14, 2005 11:15 AM

A public utility - that is very apt.

Another factor is the lack of a market model among denominations in Britain. Do churches run TV ads in Britain the way they do in the US?

And yet another factor is the way that religion is an identifier in the US. Being Anglican was not quite the identifier that being Methodist or Presbyterian versus Baptist is/has been. Mormons are basically a separate ethnicity in the Western states. In Britain you have football hooliganism for that.

Posted by: Jim at December 14, 2005 11:38 AM

My stepfather, who had been in the Royal Marines during WWII, described the bosun's instructions to ship's crews when sorting out church service parties on Sunday mornings -- "C of E's (Church of England) on the right, RC's (Roman Catholics) on the left, fancy buggers in the middle".

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 14, 2005 11:42 AM

You could test your proposition by comparing with Wales and N.I., neither of which have an Established Church.

Posted by: dearieme at December 14, 2005 04:03 PM

Oops: "neither of which has". Bugger! Sorry.

Posted by: dearieme at December 14, 2005 08:01 PM

A split decision. Northern Ireland is by far the most overtly religious part of the UK -- it's the UK's "red state". Wales had a high degree of participation in its non-established churches for generations, but these days is as nonobservant as England or Scotland.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 14, 2005 09:40 PM

James Bennett's comment about church as culture is well-taken as regards first generation immigrants. My parents and siblings were refugees from the Greek civil war and the church was, and still is, an important center of gravity. However, the religious culture that Protestant Christians have in common is vastly different from the statist model of the UK church or the cultural model of US ethnic churches. As in the discussion on Australia, it's a case of being multi-racial vs. multi-culti. The Protestant churches, the conservative ones anyway, are composed of a high percentage of born-again believers from every creed and race. My parents' church is still Greek Orthodox, as in 99% of the members are Greek. Such a culture is brittle and inflexible. Add to such a model the fanaticism of Wahabist theology, and you get an aggressive variety of separatism whose object is not to assimilate but to establish permanent enclaves. We Greeks have a "Greek town" in most major cities, we have Greek churches and Greek elementary schools, we have Greek funeral parlors and pastry shops. Why shouldn't Muslims? The difference is that Greeks aren't ideologically opposed to assimilation and do not live in a hostile tolerance with the host culture. My siblings children have poor Greek language skills and their children almost none. That's the familiar American model, unlike the Urdu speakers in the UK that David Gillies referred to and which is becoming increasingly common in the US as well.

Posted by: mk at December 16, 2005 09:22 AM

The big difference 'on the ground' is that vicars in the UK are bureaucrats, (poorly) paid by the state. The way they have responded (since I was born there in the 1950's) is exactly what we get from bureaucrats everywhere... "they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work". They for the most part just go through the motions, without any real commitment or enthusiasm. Young people can spot this 'bad faith' a mile away, and so decade after decade successive cohorts have just never connected with the church. The vicars' response was to... let it happen.

This is why churches in the US are different - their personnel are paid by their congregations and the sort of service you get from the a Third World Post Office has not been tolerated.

Posted by: ZF at December 16, 2005 11:24 AM

This also relates to popular delusions in the US that the Constitution calls for an utter seperation of church and state. We have been away from an established church for so long that nobody understands the meaning of the establishment clause.

Posted by: triticale at December 16, 2005 01:08 PM

Yes, America had established churches on the state level until the 1830s.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 16, 2005 04:57 PM
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