Righting America

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Institutional Religion: A Protestant Story | Righting America

by Margaret Bendroth

Photo of the entrance of the Supreme Court House that is blocked off by traffic cones and a security guard standing on the chairs.

Supreme Court on a cloudy day with a security guard on the stairs blocking the entrance as the doors are being renovated. ” width=”5952″ height=”3968″> “US Supreme Court” by Roman Boed

One thing that the #MeToo movement and the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings have made blindingly clear is that sexual harassment/abuse is not simply or even primarily a matter of abusive individuals. Instead, it is very much about institutions – be they elite prep schools, the Catholic church, evangelical megachurches, or the U.S. Congress – that coddle abusers while refusing to hear or even acknowledge those who have endured abuse.  But as Peggy Bendroth reminds us, the problem is not with institutions, per se – in fact, we need institutions. Healthy institutions.

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).

Nobody really likes institutional religion. In fact it’s hard to think of anything drearier than the juxtaposition of those two words, “institution” and “religion.” They bring to mind cinder-block office buildings full of boring bureaucrats sidling up and down rows of cubicles, urgent memos in hand.  If Martin Luther, John Wesley, or even Jesus Christ himself walked through the door, they’d die of boredom.

Not only that, we’re used to thinking of institutional religion as the enemy, small-minded pencil-pushers out to quash anything that looks rebellious or fun or perhaps led by the Holy Spirit, unless it comes with a budget request and an invoice number.

And it’s particularly disheartening when, in the Southern Baptist case Emily McGowin and Elesha Coffman and I (among others) have detailed here at rightingamerica, the wagons of denominational machinery are circled against change, drowning out legitimate grievances of women who have been abused, and protecting the abuser.

I don’t think institutions themselves are the problem, though, weird as this may sound. I was on the faculty at Calvin College when the first buildings went up named after big donors (Elsa Prince and the DeVos family, of Amway fame and, well, you probably recognize the name so I need not digress). Before that, every dorm and classroom building bore the consonant-rich name of a Dutch domine or a denominational hero of some kind—Noordewier, Beets, Broene, VanderWerp, Eldersveld. As odd and parochial as those names appear (and who even remembers why they were famous in the first place?) they were a buffer from big money. Behind them was a solid constituency of Christian Reformed churches, all giving regularly to “our school” (onze school), as well as generations of parents who wrote “Calvin College” on their children’s birth certificates—and if all went according to plan, on marriage licenses too. Those churches and parents depended in turn on an army of people who ran Calvin College like a hardware store (as I once heard George Marsden describe it)—money in, money out, budgets and class schedules all proceeding decently and in order.

It’s a story that other denominational colleges could also tell. Old loyalties to Christian Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian schools have declined, probably in proportion to the rising numbers of non-denominational megachurches named after suburban landscape features, and all those startups without any fixed address, just urls designed to evoke religiously nonspecific yet positive associations.

The unpleasant truth, especially for anti-institutional baby boomers like me, is that institutions matter and it’s important to know how to take care of them. All those byzantine bylaws and org-charts, the budget spreadsheets and committee minutes—they protect people. We’ve come to see them as the enemy (thanks, George Orwell?), but it’s not the institutions themselves, the daily hum of paper shuffled and stamped—it’s the institution weakened enough to allow outsize influence to big money, Big Brother.

One of the reasons I’m saying things that, to be honest, surprise me to no end is my experience, lo these past fifteen years, trying to bring an old and creaky Yankee institution back to life. My job at the Congregational Library has been rewarding in the long run, but a lot of the time it’s fairly dull and frustrating work, sometimes frustrating beyond belief.  I do not come to administrative work naturally—I hate meetings and my desk is a mess—but I have learned how to do it, and to understand why it’s necessary. I’ve had to hold responsibility for all kinds of things I’d prefer to ignore, and at some cost. I no longer take any institution for granted—I know how much time and guts and skill it takes, not just to care for them but to slowly and patiently induce them to change.

These are skills most of us, especially academics, I think, aren’t taught, or taught to value.  But one of the many takeaways from the Southern Baptist case is that we ignore them at our peril.