May 21, 2012
Whites in the Minority
— Martin E. Marty
On May 17 the New York Time's headline read "Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.; Tipping Point Reached; Implications for Politics, the Economy and a Nation's Identity." On the same day The Wall Street Journal underscored this "birth" theme: "Minority Births Are New Majority." Insert the word "Religion" next to "Politics," "Economy," and "Identity" in the Times headline and you will have the mix which excites, troubles, and provides new agendas.
Why "Religion?" In an academic Presidential Address forty years ago I spoke about the overlooked but obvious, that "ethnicity" is "the skeleton of religion in America." Since then ethnicity has become so preoccupying that it could be seen as the exoskeleton, the external element which gives shape to it all.
There is no place to hide. The Journal study spoke of change in Schuyler and Columbus, Nebraska. Schuyler, the last time I looked, as recently as 1990, was four percent Hispanic. By 2000 it was 41 percent, and the town survives because of Mexican residents. Births in Columbus, says the same source, are between 50 percent and 60 percent Hispanic. This caught my eye, because Columbus was home to the Marty (and in-laws) immigrants 150 years ago, and they, Swiss and Germans, kept learning about "peoplehood" in their counties. As a child in the 1930s I was pointed to "Polander" hill, where Polish immigrants farmed, or heard of "Bohemian Bands" which played at weddings. But blacks and all but a few Jews were miles away in Omaha and Mexicans, to say nothing of Asians, were far, far away. Now these "ethnicities" leave "our kind" in the minority.
People with demographic interests and knowledge contribute to both therapy and strategy among older-stock churches. Therapy, because they see their natural old-line European stock dwindling and that dwindling makes them aware that this contributes to some of the decline of "the mainline" of Protestantism. Also, of the non-Hispanic (still) two-thirds of American Catholics, whose membership and attendance numbers dwindle as well. Note: demography is not the sole agent of relative decline. Failure to be able to attract younger generations; pop-culture denigration of serious faith; the taking for granted of habitual members by aging participants, wearying conflicts within denominations, which turn people off—all these contribute to morale problems. Awareness of the contribution of the shifts in ethnic populations can be therapeutic among those who, as self-accusers, think that all decline or hard times must be their fault.
Strategy also plays in here. Congregations and larger units in denominations and non-denominations who use the knowledge that comes with recognition of the "new minority" status are, at their best, busy adapting. They know that vast numbers of the parents of the newborn are indifferent, non-affiliated, or "ex-members" who do not find the institutions of the faith speaking to their needs. Some leaders use the signals to engage in reform and reformulation of worship, evangelism, and social service. Some take lessons from "poor world" Christianity on other continents, where the numbers of the faithful grow rapidly. Overcoming ethnic prejudices, reaching out hospitably, relying on the drama of the messages which were effective in other generations, no matter what the ethnic boundaries, will keep the aware folk busy, whether in the minority or not.
Sabrina Tavernnise, "Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S." New York Times, May 17, 2012.
Timothy Matovina, Latino Catholicism: Transformation of America's Largest Church (Princeton University Press, 2012).
Martin E. Marty's presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1971 can be found here.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.