Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why Art Thou Secular, Ye Olde New England?

I mentioned yesterday that secularism in New England runs deep. Anyone who has ever worked for the church here knows the challenges that this region presents when trying to spread the Gospel. I can think of numerous individuals who have come here from afar, hoping to take this region by storm, only to retreat to a more receptive part of the country after a few years.

Naturally, one wonders why New Englanders are apparently so hostile to the Gospel and Christianity. And why, somewhat related to this, the region seems to be so liberal politically. One faithful reader wondered that very thing yesterday, in response to my post.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I would like to - very informally - offer a few reflections on why this might be the case. This is not exhaustive, of course, and it is nowhere close to being a scientific treatment of the issues. But, as someone who was born in New England, and has lived here my whole life (with a few hiatuses to Michigan and Scotland), I have been able to brood over this issue a bit over the years. And, hopefully, it will eventually help me turn the tide here in this wonderful region.

Another small caveat: my New England roots may not go back as far as some others. On my dad's side, his family was originally from New Brunswick, Canada, and they moved to Massachusetts when he was just a kid. Similarly, my maternal Grandfather was originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. His family eventually moved to Massachusetts as well. The furthest my roots go back in New England is my maternal Grandmother, who was born and raised on Cape Cod, Mass. Her mother is German, however, who, I believe, was born in the motherland. I am not sure where my great-grandfather was born, however, but it is probably safe to say that the longest line of New England heritage goes through him.

So my New England-ness may not be as deeply rooted as others, but, as at least a third generation New Englander (through my grandmother), I am at least somewhat "qualified" to speak on the subject!

And now, these are the issues that I believe contribute to the secular nature of New Englanders.

1. Independence. New Englanders have always been independently minded. The pilgrims came to this land because they wanted to get out from underneath the religious oppression that they were experiencing in Europe. Of course, the early New England Puritans then proceeded to set up their own oppressive religious climate, which ultimately led Roger Williams to establish Rhode Island - which, for the first time in America, promoted the separation of church and state.

Williams was extremely progressive religiously - maybe even more so than any other churchman in history. Although he established the first Baptist church in America, he soon split off from that group, saying that "God is too large to be housed under one roof."

Vermont is also a classic example of this independent thinking as well. Although there is some debate as to its political independence throughout history, Vermont first seemed to be a republic before it joined the union. Even today, there are many within the state who would like to make Vermont an independent republic again. Such people have banded together and called themselves "The Second Vermont Republic," describing themselves as "a nonviolent citizens' network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of Corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union."

Old time Vermonters can be very traditional, and yet they are very independent. They may be personally opposed to same-sex unions, for example, but they are not going to bug anyone else who chooses to pursue this lifestyle. And, consequently, what has happened is that the out-of-staters ("flatlanders," as they are called) have taken advantage of this independent thinking and flocked to Vermont, trying to set up their own "Utopian" society.

Thus, it is not necessarily true Vermonters who are pushing for same-sex unions, for "nudist" towns, for liberal politics. It is the "flatlanders" who have seen the vacuum in Vermont's government and moved to the state to set up their own liberal agenda. But, interestingly, there is now starting to be a backlash among old time Vermonters, who are getting frustrated with these flatlanders taking advantage of them, setting up their liberal agenda, buying all their property, privatizing their land (historically, hunters have had free reign over anyone's private land. But now flatlanders have bought up a lot of the land and posted "Private Property: No hunting" signs, and this has greatly frustrated the old timers). Because of all these issues, it was not uncommon a few years ago to see signs - whether painted on barns, or stuck beside the road - saying, "Take Back Vermont."

All this is to say that New Englanders are very independent thinkers. There is kind of this unspoken rule that says, "I'll stay out of your business, if you stay out of mine." New Hampshire's state motto is "Live Free or Die." Thus, we don't really like it when others cross the line into our private lives, supposing that they know how we should live, what we should think - at least not when it comes to religion.

2. Affluence. New England is a very affluent region. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire typically rank in the top five or ten of the wealthiest states in the country (this extends to other Northeastern states outside of New England to include New York and New Jersey). Closer to home for me, the community in which I minister was recently declared by Forbes to be "the least vulnerable town in America to the economic crisis," essentially declaring it to be "recession-proof."

Of course, everyone knows the challenges of wealth. If individuals in a community or region feel comfortable economically, there is little impetus to look outside oneself for anything else. And this is directly related to that "independent thinking" that I mentioned above. What need is there for God if all of my needs can be met by my own money, my own hard work, my own abilities?

3. Education. New England is really the epicenter of education in the United States, and maybe even the world. Four of the eight Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth) are in New England, and most of the "Little Ivies" (Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Tufts, Wesleyan, Williams), as well as places like MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, are all in this small region. There are over 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area alone! (This accounts for over 250,000 students in the cities of Boston and Cambridge themselves every year.) And New England is really the cradle of the "prep school" educational model as well.

All of this lends itself to a very "liberal" landscape. And, as you are well aware, college campuses are the hot bead for "progressive" and "ivory tower" thinking, and knowledge has to the tendency to "puff up" (1 Cor 8:1). There is a natural arrogance that accompanies the acquisition of knowledge, and such people often feel little need for God.

4. Catholic "backlash." As I mentioned yesterday, a large percentage of those who are religious are Catholic (besides English, the predominant ancestries in New England are Irish, Italian, and French). This has affected the religious landscape in a number of ways. First, many of those Catholics are "nominal" Catholics, and, though they do not attend Mass regularly, or have a great deal of interest in their religious heritage, would never, ever consider being anything else but Catholic. The phrase, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic" most definitely applies.

On the other hand, there are many others who were raised in a Catholic environment, but have now become hostile towards religion because of Catholicism's abuses - both religiously and politically. There are many people who are bitter because of the sex abuse scandals, the church's views on homosexuality, divorce, and contraception, and other theological issues. As a result, these people want nothing to do with God or religion. (Admittedly, if my understanding of God was that He would burn people in hell forever, I would be turned off towards religion as well).

I just happened to pick up a book yesterday at Borders that spoke to this point beautifully. It is called, Being Catholic Now, and it was written/edited by Kerry Kennedy - one of Robert Kennedy's 11 children! She interviews 37 individuals with Catholic backgrounds (from Bill O'Reilly, to Bill Maher, to Frank McCourt, to Doris Kearns Goodwin, to Nancy Pelosi), and reveals their perspective on the present climate of the Catholic church. I was able to read some of it, and a lot of it was quite enlightening.

I think this Catholic component has a huge influence on New Englander's openness to religion and God.

Conclusion. All of these components, plus others, lend themselves to the reality that New England is a very secular and politically liberal region. In many ways, I cannot blame New Englanders for their animosity towards God and religion. If I believed some of the things they have been taught about God, I would be very hostile towards Him as well.

That's why He has called some of us here! Hopefully, by His grace, we can overcome some of these challenges and see the message spread with vigor in this part of the world. This is where the early Advent message began, and I believe, before His return, that message will return with power to this place.


Andrew said...

"because its following merry olde england"

(tongue firmly in cheek!

-although there is some truth in the fact that New England does bare some resemblance to the old continent of Europe, especially as far as secularism goes)

Marty said...


This is one of the best essays on why New England fights religion I've ever read. As someone who's come in from the outside, but been here for 10 years, I can relate to and attest to everything you've said here.
I think anyone coming into this area to minister or start a church should read this. Thanks for it.

Charles said...

Shawn - wow! Your answers were clear and concise. I had no idea of the climate, but I was aware of New Hampshire's motto, so it makes perfect sense.

Here's an interesting question: Are all those beautifully picturesque white, steepled and post-card-perfect churches empty?

Corey said...

I do agree with your first point about independence and wanting the government to stay out of people's business. But the irony is that isn't that the exact opposite of being a liberal politically? A liberal typically is for the government taking taxpayers money and using it as they will - - although they would never word it as such. If someone truly wants independence, it seems to me that they would want to limit the roll of government as much as possible...which would be going conservative.

nelson moore said...

I wonder also if sociological factors don't play a major role.

I have spent much of the past two years in Germany, where perhaps 30% of the people have any kind of belief in God, much less a traditional orthodox belief. (And the postcard-perfect cathedrals cannot even draw flies.) When I encounter people here and they learn that I am studying religion, they are often taken aback. You're studying religion? It is as though it never occurred to them that religion could be relevant enough to merit study.

I think it reflects the fact that all people are deeply affected by the cultural conditioning around them. So if you grow up in Kansas or South Carolina, you see all of your role models going to church. The banker, the barber, the next door neighbor. Your parents, your aunt and uncle. It's just obvious that God is real and the Bible is true. And even if your immediate family doesn’t embrace the faith, there are so many other role models. But if you grow up in Stuttgart, Germany or in Springfield, MA, you just don’t encounter many people for whom religion is central.

My comments don’t explain how New England got that way, but rather why it stays that way. And I also suspect that your comments about wealth are very pertinent. (It’s certainly more of a Bible-based answer.)

Kyle Baldwin said...


I think that you've laid out some very good points about what causes secularism to be so prevalent in New England. I would like to add a comment to your first point about the "independent" thinking of New Englanders. I think Corey was on to something. I think the term independent may be misleading because it is difficult to determine how they are independent. New Englanders are certainly not independent from government or academia. They also cannot be defined as truly individualistic because of the aforementioned affinity for more government. I think that if they are independent at all it simply means in the current context that they are independent from each other.

Andrew said...

I know this might be going off on a tangent, however your observations (and those of others in New England and here in Europe) about secularism leads me to question the training of future ministers. How well are ministers being equipped for the challenging realities of ministry in certain parts of the states (and the world, i.e. northwest Europe and Australasia)

In the eighties there was push to standardize Adventist ministerial training across the world, based on the Andrews/SDA Seminary model. This was rejected by many other world divisions as they argued that such standardized training would not necessarily reflect the culture the future ministers would work in (and there was also the worry that this was a power-grab on the part of the SDA Seminary).

Even with my limited knowledge of the states I know that the religious landscape of say the mid-west and New England are different, as is the UK (where I am based and only 7-9% of the population attends any church regularly) and the rest Northern Europe compared to the Philippines.

Why is this important? Because I know people from largely secular Northwestern Europe who are studying in the Philippines because it’s cheaper than any of the European Adventist colleges. The result is that both the colleges (their numbers drop and they struggle to survive) and the churches suffer as they get ministers who are not trained to minister to their context.

I know that some colleges are trying to meet this need- throughout my training it was emphasized that this was preparing me for a European context, however others don’t (some European friends of mine went to Andrews and now wish that they’d stayed in Europe as their training is not really relevent!).

Charles said...

As a member of the laity, I often get cracked up at traditional SDA focus when it comes to church. Sure, the "Body" in Acts met EVERY day, but then the body went out and brought people in. It eventually became "lost focused".

As I see it currently, "Church" is basically designed to fulfill the teaching and tradition of "the faithful". Otherwise, church as it is played out, is basically for those who go to church. As a whole, I see very little outreach, in SDAism. We cloister ourselves in our comfortable pews to nod our heads in agreement.

Granted, it might not be the case for all churches or parishes. But I have yet to see it. Pastors in our denomination get stuck with 2 or 3 and in some cases 6 churches. By the time they deal with all the board meetings, business meetings, Elders meetings, Worship committees, and so on and so forth, there is very little time to get to know the communities in which you live.

I hate to refer to a novel about a fictional Episcopal Priest, but I think the idea is ideal. The pastor becomes a pivotal member of a community - eating breakfast at the local diner, having chats with the local barber, involving him/herself in the minutia of a community.

If we had that example in SDAism, I think it would inspire the laity, such as myself, to become more involved in the daily grind of our communities, like the local fire department breakfasts, local high-school activities, fundraisers, neighbors helping neighbors.

So why art thou secular, oh community? The pastor and the church is too busy with the internal business of the church to get involved to make a difference.

For even a more radical approach, what if we, in effort to get to know our communities, randomly went to our brethren churches on Sunday? Another good way to get to know people and to show that we care about the people that we so rarely come in contact with, because "we have the truth".

BTW, Shawn, I finally listened to one of your sermons. I love the fact that you are going around and praying for anyone and everyone in your community, whether or not they are your church member or not. AWESOME!!!!

Shawn Brace said...

Hello all!

A lot to respond to. I've been away for Thanksgiving, so I apologize for my tardiness. Let me respond to each person, as best I can.

Andrew: you are right about the similarities between New England and Europe. I meant to point that out. This was definitely evident to me when I was in Scotland during that year. I also overheard someone from Northern Ireland a couple weeks ago, at the N.T. Wright lecture, comment to someone else that living in New England is probably the most similar to his experience in Northern Ireland.

I also think your comments about Seminary are very appropriate. When I was at Andrews, I felt terrible that there were so many from other continents that were being bombarded with North American methods, etc. There are certain classes that are required only for NAD students, but, still, classes that are relevant for Asians, Africans, South Americans, etc., are lacking.

Marty: thanks for your comments as well! Glad that you were edified by the post. Please feel free to direct others to it!!

Charles: Yes! All of the beautiful white churches are essentially empty. In a church that holds 200-300, there may be 60 or 70, I would guess. Of course, I have not been to many of them, and the one I did attend was quite full, but this would be my guess.

It's probably not as bad as Europe where, on any given Sunday, there will be far more tourists walking around with their cameras, than church attendees.

Corey: I agree with your observation, and I made sure to say that people in New England are independent when it comes to religion. Politically, there seems to be a socialistic mindset. And yet, I would say that, to some degree, this is because the old-timers are so independent minded, that they have allowed the "outsiders" to come in and take advantage of them. Thus, it seems to me that "true" New Englanders are not liberal democrats who want to take away your rights, but they are so "independent" that others have come in and made New England such. Both New Hampshire and Vermont are good examples of this. Both states have been traditionally Republican/Libertarian over the years, but in the last 20 years or so, Democrats have come in and taken over.

Nelson: I definitely think there is a sociological element that is involved. People are definitely influenced by the culture in which they live. But, as you said, this speaks more to what this problem perpetuates, rather than how it started in the first place.

And Kyle: I think my answer to Corey somewhat addressed your points! Thanks for the clarification.

I also think that there is a paradox when it comes to New England politically. New Englanders have historically been fairly progressive politically, but not as much personally. As an example, even though Boston has always been at the forefront of the civil rights movement, everyone knows that there has been a gigantic racial divide in the city for centuries. Until recently, black sports stars have been very hesitant to play here for this reason. This is just one example.

Because, the reality is, I think we like to control and impose upon others, so long as we are not imposed upon ourselves. So, while I may be publicly and politically for civil rights, I may be very racist in my personal interactions with those from another race. It is a very puzzling paradox.

I hope I've addressed everyone's points! Thanks for sharing.