Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Some Thoughts on the ELCA and Social Issues

With Iowa's Supreme Court unanimously ruling that a 12 year old anti-marriage equality law violated the state's constitution followed quickly by the Democratic leadership in the Iowa Assembly quickly and firmly shooting down a knee jerk attempt by some Republicans to amend the Constitution, there may be questions about the important cultural features of the upper midwest and how they may relate to this.

First, what is the upper midwest.  Really, I'm talking about Minnesota and the states that border it (Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota).  Nebraska is a kind of border area.  The Missouri River valley upstream from Omaha Midwestern but the further west you go in Nebraska the more western you get.  Really, the same can be said of the Dakotas too.  These states have large populations of Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns mixed in with a population dominated by Germans.  It is interesting to note that people in this part of the country not only come from non-English speaking cultures but they are still aware that they aren't Anglo-Saxons in the strict sense of the word.  You won't find many people in this region self-identifying as "American" when asked about their ethnic heritage.  Scandinavian languages can still be heard in the smaller towns' nursing homes.  Churches in this part of the world still gave sermons in languages other than English well into the 1970s and 80s.  These characteristics differentiate this region from other parts of the country and even other parts of the midwest such as Illinois, Michigan, Kansas or Missouri.  

I'm not going to talk about some vague historical or cultural connection between Scandinavian Americans and their famously progressive cousins back in the old country.  Rather I am going to talk about one of the most important social institutions in the upper midwest, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or ELCA.  The ELCA was formed in the 1980s when a handful of organizations based on the old immigrant churches combined.  ELCA predecessor churches had their roots mainly in Scandinavian churches in America but also included many German churches.  The ECLA is currently in "full communion" with the Episcopal Church.  So right off the bat you get the impression that it is part of the progressive branch of Christianity.  

Churches that are now in the ELCA have been ordaining women since the 1970s - about the same time as Episcopal Churches started doing it.  The ELCA has Bishops who lead "synods" and about 10% of the Bishops are now women.  

With regard to Gay rights and marriage equality, ELCA official doctrine is that gay Christians are welcome to join the community but that Gay Pastors are expected to be celibate.  However, the ELCA has officially stopped disciplining any pastors that violate this rule and the rule is due to be revisited this year.  Their cousins back in Sweden and Denmark already recognize gay marriages (although Swedish and Danish laws do not go beyond civil unions).  I'm not a practicing Lutheran so I don't know how much contact there is between the American and Scandinavian churches but I know from talking to my Grandmother's generation that if I were to say "they say it's OK in the Danish Church", they would give that some serious thought.  

Most Scandinavian Americans in the upper midwest were raised in ELCA churches if they aren't currently members.  This is important because although Scandinavian Americans make up a declining share of the populations of these states, they still make up a disproportionate share of the local elites.  Mayors, city council reps, Assembly reps, local business leaders are more likely to have Scandinavian names than those ethnicities share of the population would justify.  And these people have been going to churches that have been among the most progressive churches in the country.  What's more, ELCA churches in this region have expanded their membership beyond the Scandinavian communities.  

So we are talking about a region of the midwest where going to church every week doesn't mean the same thing that it means down in Kansas.  In most cases, I'm of the opinion that churches are forces for backwardness and intolerance.  But there are some notable exceptions.  The American Episcopal churches are one.  Unitarians are another, as are Quakers and Lutherans.  

Sure there are Lutherans down south.  But they don't run the place.  Up here Lutherans are like the Episcopalian elites are in New England.  


The Law Talking Guy said...

New England is not run by Episcopal elites. This is a misconception that derives in part from the fact the New York has the vestiges of an Episcopal elite from earlier in the last century.

While there is an elite Episcopalian cadre of sorts - or at least many wealthy people there are Episcopalians - they are not dominant politically or culturally. The famous private schools (Exeter, Choate, etc.) are largely non-denominational or puritan/congregationalist in origin (although St. Paul's in Concord, a dead givewaway, is affiliated with the Episcopal church). The Anglicans were a minority in a dissenter-majority community of New England. As they were often Tories, their numbers dropped after the revolution.

The main puritan-descended church is the Congregationalist church or the UCC. Harvard is not Anglican, nor is Yale. Both were Puritan/Congregationalist. Yale ended its affiliation with the UCC formally in 2005.

Culturally and politically, New England is Puritan and Catholic. Massachussets, Rhode Island, and to some extent Connecticut are politically dominated by Catholic (Irish/Italian/Portuguese) politics. See the Kennedys.

Note this is different from Hispano-Catholic politics, in that it is less likely to be conservative. It is also not the midwestern or mid-Atlantic German-Catholic or Slavic-Catholic (Polish, Czech) working class groups.

Vermont, Maine, and NH have much smaller RC populations, and a larger percentage of those, esp. in Maine, are French Canadian. Those smaller states tend to be UCC or Congregationalist rather than Anglican. Methodists also have a significant presence there because, after the Revolution, "Church of England" had a nasty ring to it.

I'm keying off that final line because I'm hoping, but not sure, that RBR's analysis of the religious/cultural background of the upper midwest is better than his offhand remark about New England.

I also want to add that I am not sure how progressive the ECLA is in the rural midwest. The Episcopal church has very liberal urban churches and some very liberal suburban and rural churches, but the bulk of the church is tolerant-but-not-progressive. And there are conservative elements, particularly in the South. The Episcopal clergy and leadership - self-selected by and large - is more progressive than the laity in the "heartland" areas of the country (in the South, they are more likely to be conservative too). So while they're not preaching Baptist hellfire crap (you know, God-is-gonna-get-you as opposed to God loves you), they are nonetheless not particularly progressive Christians in social areas.

Raised By Republicans said...

Good point LTG on New England. My perceptions of the New England Anglican elite is based mainly on my old history books about Boston Brahmins etc.

But anyway, I've been to some services at a small town ELCA church and they weren't giving off a conservative vibe to me and I'm pretty sensitive to religious conservatism. It was mostly innocuous "God is Love" stuff be tolerant of people who are different. My grandmother is a lay leader in that congregation and to the extent that she is representative of the over 65 (heck, over 95) opinion on these things, she's pretty laid back on a lot of social issues such as her gay daughter and "gal pastors" and stuff.

I'll conclude by saying that "tolerant-but-not-progressive" is good enough in the case of Iowa where the status quo is currently on the progressive side because of the court ruling. If local elites in Iowa are influenced by such a "tolerant-but-not-progressive" attitude in their local ELCA churches, they may be less receptive to reactionary movements targeting marriage equality.