Thursday, October 4, 2007

Quakers and class: A response to Jeanne's post

What interests me, and always has, is the way that social class, education level, and political perspective relate to religious orientation/denominational loyalty. It is interesting that those very groups that you mention as being among the wealthiest, the Quakers and UU's, are also among the most progressive. Such people are wary of religious hierarchy and dogma. The Unitarians, Universalists, and Quakers were a refuge for suffragists and abolitionists in the nineteenth-century. Likewise, today those who are drawn toward liberal politics are also drawn toward higher education and heterodox spirituality. This is, as you suggest, in part a product of their middle-class and owning class upbringing which emphasizes individuality and leadership skills and which promotes a sense of entitlement in the child.

Also, I would be interested to find out what percentage of UU congregants and Friends are convinced or "recovering" from other religious communities. I imagine that in the last thirty years, that number is increasing as the mainline Protestant Church begins to lose its appeal with liberals disenchanted with Protestantism's rightward swing. If that is the case, we may be looking at a phenomenon in which well-educated liberals are fleeing toward spiritual communities that provide refuge from fundamentalism and its encroachment upon the formerly liberal seminaries and congregations.

I grew up as a PK with a very liberal, feminist preacher Dad who has since fled the church to become an atheist. He and I went to the same seminary twenty years apart. In that short time, the Protestant seminary's emphasis on intellectual rigor and social justice was replaced by a creeping fundamentalism and intolerance.Well-educated folks have a difficult time tolerating that perspective. I know that I found it unbearable enough that it necessitated withdrawal from seminary and from the faith of my childhood. I'm a Neo-Pagan and attend a Quaker meeting. I also attend a UU church. Most everyone I know there came from some other denomination that let them down.

I don't deny that I'm also irritated with unconscious privilege among (white), well-to-do Friends. However, I feel that we should further explore the issue of wealth and education among Friends to determine exactly what's going on here. Is there a difference between convinced and birthright Friends related to this issue? Are we intentionally excluding working people without advanced degrees or are we failing to attract them? Why don't we appeal to working people? (I ask the same question as an educator, a feminist, and a person).I think for me the issue remains with the question of ignorance and how the wealthy manipulate it consciously and unconsciously. As an educator, I believe that a liberal education that exposes the individual to the complexity and diversity of her/his brothers and sisters is critical to the process of empowerment. Education is, in many ways, the opposite of indoctrination. Fundamentalist, Mainline, and Charismatic congregations are full of working class folks which the leadership manipulate easily and often cruelly. Watching these congregations and studying their theology also leads me to conclude that they are growing in power in numbers because we have a dangerous anti-intellectual bias in this nation among working people. This bias is not accidental and its development can be traced as a historical phenomenon. Likewise, Quakers and UU's have long been associated with the middle-classes, especially the well-educated middle-classes. They also have a long tradition within the United States of being the greatest advocates of social justice.


Jeanne said...

I don't disagree with you, Hystery. I believe in a strong liberal arts education as the only way to change the world.

But hasn't it been true that throughout history leftists have always been elitists until forced to work with others (and have only been successful when combining their efforts with those outside their elite circles)?

I'm thinking of the suffragist movement and its racist and classist attitudes. And how they weren't successful staying in their elite social circles.

If you get a chance, take George Lakey's workshop on class and Quakers. His passion is educating Friends about working across class lines because we're not currently doing such a good job of doing so.

Want to know more about why we're not doing such a good job at doing so? Read this article on Inessential Weirdness. It's sure to push a lot of Friendly buttons.

And to answer your question about why we're not appealing to working people, we are! But our collective and individual classism gets in the way of working people staying. Our appeal isn't our liberalism or our class status but our way of worship. Without Quakers and silent worship I feel adrift but with them I'm an alien. And I'm not the only person who feels this way.

By the way, I married into wealth and now operate with financial privilege. But none of that money erased this feeling. So when you make blanket statements about the 'wealthy', you're talking about me.

I'm glad my posts are making you think some more about class in Quakerism.



HysteryWitch said...

Jeanne, I love the points you make. This is good stuff to explore. My purpose here is not to just argue in an irritating fashion. Goodness knows that your points are valid and important. My thing is merely that they are just a bit too confident. I'm all about standpoint and my standpoint rebels at some of your absolute statements. Because I believe so deeply in the truth of multiple perspectives, I'm excited by your perspective which strikes me as powerful, creative and challenging. I cannot help think that our backgrounds, current status and even our regions (mine is very much a working, rural region with very, very people and very few weird liberals like me) makes it tough to play with these ideas together. There is a limitation in blogging. Meaning is lost in written words that is illuminated by the expression of the eyes and the inflection of voice.

I don't believe that leftists have always been elitists until forced to work with others. I don't deny that this is often and even usually the case, but it is not universally true. I can think of multiple examples of how the "elites" have worked toward breaking down class barrers. Many of those examples come from Central and western NY where Friends pioneered radical human rights work in the nineteenth century with working women and people of color as partners. The racist and classist attitude you accurately describe in the suffragist movement developed over time. The beginning of that movement was much more radical but Susan B. Anthony's leadership unfortunately made it less so as she worked to secure suffrage by appealing to wealthy, white, evangelical Christian women. Unfortunately, since Anthony also literally edited the history of the movement, we must continue to reclaim the more radically egalitarian history of the earlier movement that women like Mott and Wright inspired.

Thank you for the link to an interesting article but as a vegan, non-smoking, leftist Pagan f(F)riend, I also found that it is offensive to think that my life is weird. My working class family (wealthier by far than I am) and my communities have rejected these values. At times, they have rejected me as a person. That hurt but I am not tempted to stand down from my ethical and spiritual perspectives to make anyone else comfortable. I'm not trying to out-alternative anyone since in my community, apart from a few friends and my immediate family, I stand alone. I am painfully, painfully aware that other working people find me offensive. It is hard to see myself as one of the cultural elites when in my community the guys with the money and power are those with the so-called "working class attitude". Our family has been threatened with violence and my husband has lost work because of our views as feminists and vegetarians. I know what it is like to cry in fear when hearing that my husband's fellow heavy equipment operators threatened him with violence because they found he was eating tofu. I'm trying to imagine a room full of smug liberals disdainful of the little people. I don't spend much time in those rooms. For those of us with "elitist" values but itty bitty budgets, the game is played differently. I just know that I must worship the God who speaks to me and I must follow the rules S/He sets before me.

Is this a middle-class attitude? Does tofu mark me? What keeps working people from recognizing the need for environmental, feminist or pacifist activism? Don't war and the degradation of the planet affect working and poor people more immediately than they do the rich? And don't women and children share the greatest burden of pollution, war, and poverty? Why does my weirdness offend such people? I've never been able to figure that out. What's so weird and elitist about my life?

Which leads me to the question? What is working class? What is middle class? And what the heck am I? You see, I'm not sure where I fit into this mix. I am the child of liberal professionals of low income who were the children of working people... and I am now an academic with a low income married to a working class man who is the son of a social worker who is the daughter of a well-to-do family. Lots of people have difficulties establishing class identity. What do the labels mean? Are we talking primarily about wealth or about education too? Does my financially comfortable plumber uncle count as middle class? Does my college-educated mailcarrier grandpa count as working class? I'm poor as a church mouse relying on my husband's working class job for income but have advanced degrees and sit on a board of directors. What am I?

When you say that you have a working class background, what do you mean? What values do you think working people share? I know working people who are wary of education and what that article calls "weirdness" and I know working people who see compassionate and creative lifestyles as a means by which we challenge dehumanizing power structures that oppress all of us.

I'm not comfortable with an effort to appeal to working people (who we are assuming can't handle diversity and intellectualism)by hiding our most compassionate, ethical, and "weird" values. History tells me that ideas change the world. If working people are afraid of new ideas like vegetarianism and pacifist activism, then they are removed from the tools for change.

History also tells me that working people have led in the world of ideas. The great leaders for of the labor, Civil Rights, environementalist and peace movements are often working people. Only an elitist history can deny that. Quaker abolitionists were, in their time, about as weird as it got. They also generated a force for good disproportionate to their small numbers as they reached out to the poor and working people, indigenous and African Americans. Perhaps we need to reconnect with that history.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...