Religion is about finding one’s place in humanity, and sociology is about taking a step back from humanity to observe it from the outside. On Monday, Steven M. Tipton transcended the two disparate spheres to offer insight on the state of American religion today.
Speaking from the Hall of Philosophy, Tipton — professor of the sociology of religion and former director of the graduate division at Emory University — broke his lecture up into two threads: the state of America today and the state of religion today. He highlighted the discord between the two.
Due to their current disparities, he said the two must realign for democracy to function.
“Segregation of class and race threatens to tilt our deliberation and divide our decision-making to a mistrust and withdrawal from public participation,” Tipton said. “This holds true, in particular, if ordinary citizens find themselves in a society so unequal that no matter how hard they work and pray, they can’t make ends meet.”
Tipton began by discussing America today. He said there is not only a growing divide in income, wealth and opportunity, but an increasing amount of self-segregation along racial and economic lines.
According to his figures, 44 percent of Americans today live in middle-income neighborhoods, down from 66 percent in 1970. Likewise, 33 percent of Americans today live in economically segregated areas (i.e. gated communities, ghettos).
Besides economic inequality, Tipton found striking gaps in educational equality and, by extension, social mobility. Certain metro areas are becoming concentrated with college graduates at rates much higher than 30 years ago, he said. In these more concentrated areas, bottom-tier students have extremely high rates of social mobility compared to similar-performing students in less educated cities who have much less mobility.
“Doctors marry doctors instead of nurses,” Tipton said to explain the economic clusters.
These trends are antithetical to principles of debate and discourse within a democratic society, he said.
“Citizens need not be equal in income and education to engage in self-governance, but democratic citizens of different backgrounds, unequal resources and diverse social positions must share a common life and some common prayers to decide how they want and need to live together,” Tipton said.
While the church once was a balancing force against these sociological trends, Tipton said, America’s youth are becoming disillusioned because they believe the church is becoming politicized and catering to the powerful.
“Churches are — quote — ‘Too concerned with money and power and not enough with real people and meeting their real spiritual needs,’ ” Tipton said. “That’s what two-thirds of the young churchgoers reply in a series of polls done over the past decade.”
He said these same young former churchgoers find churches to be too political, too judgmental, too harsh and too hypocritical.
Pointing out different churches’ tendencies to follow demographic trends, Tipton said due to the increasing rates of immigration in this country and the way our country treats immigrants, religious groups will either need to help curb trends of inequality or descend into irrelevance.
“So either we will find our biblical neighbors and our fellow citizens in those who look and sound different, and we will educate and embrace them to hold together and to shape the destiny we share,” Tipton said. “Or, we will fail to recognize them, and we will lose ourselves as well.”
Instead of churches finding new members, they need to find new disciples who have a say in the direction of churches, as opposed to feeling alienated as churches’ values further skew from their own, he said.
In closing, Tipton shared a prayer with the crowd of the human need for help — both given and received — to get everyone through life.
“For it is the hands of others that lift us from the womb and lower us to the grave that bring us aid in our labor, joy in our affection, and consolation in our sorrow,” Tipton said.