Modeling Paternalism

By Zach Oaster

“I just want to know if that [outreach] idea can be used effectively to target the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ like we’ve seen in movements in the UK?” asked an elder appointed to a Wesley Foundation (campus ministry) at a recent Methodist pastors’ conference I attended. I cringed. He was talking about me, and people like me, and it felt really gross.

I’m a “done.” I spent 15 years in full time ministry, and I’ve left the United Methodist Church, and Christendom for the most part, for very explicit reasons. I thought about it, and educated myself about it, and critically debated it with peers, and decided that my passions and talents were best deployed in other arenas. It was a well-founded decision based in both emotion and reason, and I am mostly settled with it. But no irreligious person can get away from Christendom in the U.S. It is everywhere, and though in decline in many places, it is still the single biggest religious power system in North America, and it still permeates the values and norms of everyone – even the irreligious.

But when I say that hearing “nones and dones” felt gross, I say so because it wasn’t just about my feelings and personal reaction, but the way that I knew that type of language has and will continue to shape the way in which children, teens, and adults will view their role in the world as a person of faith.

Most mainline protestant denominations tout their strong commitment to feminism – with women in the pulpit, serving as bishops, and now some denominations embracing gender-queer persons as bishop. In some of these churches and campus ministry groups one might even hear refreshing intersectional dialogues bringing together racial, ethnic, or immigrant concerns into the discussion about women’s role in society and the church’s commitment to social justice.

At the same time, likely resulting in fear of decline, denominations like the United Methodist Church might openly embrace the exceptionally paternalistic language of evangelism culture. After all, the denomination is grasping wildly trying to hold back the surge of young adults and social justice Christians who are utterly disgusted with their church’s bigoted stance against LGBTQIA persons. These young adults are fed up with the church’s apathy and complicity in racial and ethnic concerns flooding the news – e.g. immigration, refugees, and Black Lives Matter.

In the face of a former partner who now just wants to go, the church becomes like an abusive spouse – it wants people to stop leaving it. The former partner was done with the relationship, and the church probably had some cruel words to say when she left a few months ago. But, now that heads are clearer and a few dozen, or hundred, or thousand others have joined her, now the kind words come out. “There, there,” says the church, “you just didn’t know what you were doing. You got angry and misunderstood the truth. We still know what is right for you, so please, come on back and it will all be different.”

The church has adopted a catchy term for those people who dare to walk away – “dones.”

Similarly, the church has a term for people who have chosen irreligion – “nones” -- meaning those who have checked the “none” box on a survey when being asked about religious belief.

Like a clique of well-dressed Sunday attendees at coffee time, the church looks down at people who choose quite deliberately to be irreligious. The church peers across the fellowship hall at the irreligious person while voicing jabs amongst themselves about how “sad she is” and how “lonely and friendless she must be” since she only wears “that makeup” and “those shoes.”

Nones and dones are sad and lonely individuals. They are ignorant, and lost. They’ve been led astray by sex, or Satan, or… social justice. But whatever their reason is for leaving, or never darkening the church’s door in the first place, it is misguided. Why? Because the church has The Way, The Truth, and The Life, right? The church has the right way, the right truth, and without the church to tell you how to live, you have no life. The church is a parent who, like God “himself”, needs to set straight the kids who are fuckups and think they can go and do whatever they want. The church used to be powerful enough to spare no rod on unruly youth, like those “nones and dones.” But, like many controlling parents who learn the hard way when their kids grow up and never visit, the church has yet to realize that the problem was not the kid, but with the parent’s desire to control them and deny their growth as a person, as a fully realized human being. Plates of cookies and reassuring platitudes aren’t going to bring them back.

Paternalism is authority and control that is foisted upon another person without their consent, but with the explicit setting that the act is “for their own good.” Paternalism is rooted in patriarchy, and patriarchy is a system of domination where masculine ideals and practices are held up as superior to other groups decisions. Patriarchy prioritizes hierarchical control and order over equality, voluntary participation, and agency (one’s ability to make decisions for themselves and carry them out on their own terms). The Christian Church has long been an institution of patriarchy. As such, even in the most liberal of mainlines who espouse feminist principles, it is still common to see holdouts of implicit bias toward control. It is that ever gray line between stated ideals and praxis. They believe in equality, but they still also hold on to the lingering notion that “father [church] knows best.”

Yet, for a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, it seems unconscionable that it could espouse and tout feminism on one hand, and on the other hand deploy a membership recruitment method that is so overtly paternalistic and oppressive. Feminism embraces equality between parties, and seeks to subvert power imbalances. Feminism requires an ethic of consent, and rejects the notion that sage old white men know better than woman, queer folk, or any other group who may choose to live their lives on their own terms rather than those set forth by the system of patriarchal domination.

‘Dones’ have left the church because they’ve been there, and they’ve seen what there is to see. They were a part of the community, and yet their lived experience was so vividly negative that they chose to sever the relationship of community and deploy their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness elsewhere – or nowhere. But either way, it isn’t the church’s purview anymore. She’s withdrawn her consent. She’s left you. Drawing from the metaphor offered us by a popular web video about consent, don’t keep offering her tea after she has said, “no.” Don’t go chasing after her with your tea hoping to catch her at a vulnerable moment so you can pour the tea down her throat. She doesn’t want your goddamn tea.

‘Nones’ are often considered by the church even more lucrative. Here the paternalism meets with the commodification of people to an extent even beyond the dones. Nones are an amorphous group who become dehumanized to only one aspect: whether or not they ‘believe’ (correctly). They’re seen as ignorant, misguided, and in need of someone to set them straight with the right words and the right music. The underlying assumption is that nones are uninformed, lacking any social ethic, and lacking any spiritual or emotional depth. They just don’t know anything. They just need to be convinced of the truth, and the church has it! These poor ignorant saps are lost, but when they are found it will be the church, and their belief, that will give their lives meaning and instill in them an ethic.

While many of us no longer beat our children “for their own good,” we still go to church on Sunday and hear messages from leaders about how important it is to seek out the misguided and lost souls, and set them straight. But they are a commodity. They have no worth to the church unless they accept the church’s message. Programming expenditures are only justified to donors and members when the church shows “membership growth and vitality.”

Drape it in all the spiritual language you want, but 15 years as ministry staff taught me that “vitality” is code for “active giving units” and “growth” is only really measured by the number of butts in seats. The church seeks “nones” saying that it is for their own good, but in reality, the nones represent a commodity – butts and bucks – and like a parent seeking emotional relief, the church continues to strike the nones for their choices without any regard for the nones’ agency. They are redefined as a “target demographic” where their human value is reduced to what they may add to the church’s growth and bottom line.

Nones, like dones, may very well have come upon their decision in a very informed and deliberate way. They may choose to believe or disbelieve for well-founded reasons – which is often the case among those who choose to believe alternatively in a society where there is a dominant religious paradigm. No doubt, most irreligious persons grew up in the church and are actually a “done.” If they have been irreligious all of their lives, they still have grown up in a society where the impact of the Christian religious culture has been ubiquitous. They aren’t ignorant of your will or your ways. Rather, the inverse is likely true. Christians are largely ignorant of the agency, beliefs, and practices of irreligious persons. Christians are raised in an environment of privilege that, like many forms of privilege, does not require them to think about people who are different from them except in the rare instance that they choose to place themselves in a heterogeneous environment. But in the same way that referencing your one black friend doesn’t make you “not racist,” referring to your one atheist facebook friend doesn’t make you “not paternalistic.”

The irreligious, or those who have chosen to reject your specific brand or culture of religious practice, are not “lost” nor are they in need of your help or “better” ways – unless they ask. Sure, you can engage in discussion if they are open to it, but they are people – with agency. They deserve respect and dignity. They deserve to have their consent respected. If they have left, let them leave. If they aren’t coming to your house, you can invite them. But, if they say, “No, thank you,” then as with tea and sex, you must respect that. People are more than their beliefs about your God or your Sunday clique.

Church leaders cannot separate themselves from the systems of domination that they stand on behalf of. Leaders need to realize that not all rejection is about them, but rather about the injustice and bigotry that the denomination and religion bring along as baggage to all interactions, regardless of the content of the interaction. Some just can’t stomach that, and making it about you (personally) only makes you into an instrument of coercion and oppression.

Further, church leaders must realize the role they have in shaping generations of persons culturally. If Christianity is the dominant religious paradigm in the United States, then the Sunday pulpit, the weekly Wesley Foundation gathering, and the youth group are all places where persons’ have their norms and values shaped in ways that impact the whole of their lives, not just their spiritual lives. You cannot preach equality for people across the gender spectrum on one Sunday, and then preach evangelism to those “lost nones and dones” on the next without placing your ideological blind spots on full view.

Equality and fairness aren’t about whether or not a woman is in the pulpit (a notion that I hear frequently touted as the epitome of gender equality in churches). Rather, it is about whether or not a woman (or a person of any gender expression), can be recognized as a full human being, receiving all dignity, wholeness, and respect for their agency. If her free exercise of agency takes her on a path away from your church, then grabbing her arm and coercing her back is not feminism. Even the thought that you have the right to second guess her choice is paternalistic and antithetical to the mainline message of gender equality.

In the same way, respecting the agency and dignity of people who choose the minority position of irreligion, or rejection of your religion, is the only way that you can embody the ideals of consent and respect for agency taught to us by feminism and the principles of human rights. Jerking them back by the arm, however ‘gentle,’ can only be rooted in this paternalistic notion that it is “for their own good,” and keeps the wheels of domination and oppression turning.

Leaders must connect the dots between the social principles that they preach and attempt to embody, and the evangelistic principles that they choose to embrace. One simply cannot preach a social ethic like that found in the United Methodist Social Principles and yet so fragrantly disregard the meaning and intent behind the church’s labeling and targeting of people who have chosen actively to disassociate with the church. One cannot run after the “nones and dones” with a full boiling cup of tea in hand and expect that to come across as anything except a threat. One cannot teach on one Sunday an ideology that respects wholeness, choice, consent, and diversity, and on the next a message that reduces some people to their incorrect belief, their presumed ignorance, and their audacity to challenge your ‘maybe flawed but not THAT flawed’ system of power.

Mainlines like the UMC might believe strongly in the notion of grace, but grace is belief in the unmerited favor of God, not the conditional favor of a church rejected, snidely offered to people who just want to be left alone. There is no grace in labeling people as “nones and dones” and there is no grace in the pursuit of relationship without consent. That is just called “stalking,” and it is super gross.

Zach Oaster is a public sociologist, shepherd, and artisan. He is a full-time graduate student of sociology at Western Michigan University as well as a longtime performer of music and organizer around social justice issues. Fifteen years working in non-profits and churches, seven years in radio, six years on television, and a handful of years in bakeries and kitchens have equipped Zach to be a skilled multi-disciplinary artisan. With his partner Lindsay, they shepherd sheep and engage in local food initiatives. Find out more about Zach at www.FatToaster.com, or on Facebook.com/ZachOaster

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