A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City

A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City

by N. J. Demerath, Nicholas Jay Demerath

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Homelessness, black neighborhood development, problems of abortion and sex education--how does religion affect the politics of an American city confronting these and other concerns? And what differences have "church and state" issues made in these struggles? In answering such questions, A Bridging of Faiths conveys a feeling of the urgent social theater of

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Homelessness, black neighborhood development, problems of abortion and sex education--how does religion affect the politics of an American city confronting these and other concerns? And what differences have "church and state" issues made in these struggles? In answering such questions, A Bridging of Faiths conveys a feeling of the urgent social theater of Springfield, Massachusetts, and provides both a contemporary and historical sense of how power shapes and is shaped by the civic culture. Recalling the immediacy and provocativeness of classic community studies like Middletown and Yankee City, the work draws on the voices of Springfielders themselves, while it exposes tendencies that prevail throughout contemporary America. This is a tale of two establishments: Protestant for three centuries, Springfield has been for the last fifty years a Catholic city. In looking at its emerging demographic, political, and economic patterns, the book shows how church and state interact at the local level, where lives are actually lived, as opposed to how the law and public opinion say they ought to interact at the more abstract federal level. While religion is more politically influential than some social scientists might have expected, it does not possess the kind of power feared by many constitutionalists. Politicians are seeking to redefine themselves in relation to religion and in other ways, and religion as a whole faces subtle crises of mobility, authority, and secularization. From these complexities, new patterns of cultural and political authority have emerged in Springfield, similar to those now affecting other American communities and the nation.

Originally published in 1992.

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A Bridging of Faiths

Religion and Politics in a New England City

By Nicholas Jay Demerath III, Rhys H. Williams


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07413-9



In 1986, Springfield, Massachusetts, celebrated its 350th birthday. Still a youngster by European standards, it is a municipal Methuselah for the United States. Celebratory events dotted the annual calendar, as the anniversary gave added legitimacy to any city occasion for good food, good music, good fond-raising, and good civic piety. Finally, the year climaxed with a solemn ceremony held not in the city's own auditorium—its Symphony Hall—nor in the place of all previous birthday gatherings—Old First (Congregational) Church on Court Square; this time the city's past, present, and future were consecrated by the mayor, the bishop, and attending dignitaries in St. Michael s, the cathedral of Springfield's Catholic diocese.

Clearly, much had changed over the city's three-and-a-half-century history. Never quite a Puritan "city on a hill"—so extolled by Governor Winthrop—it was in fact founded in a swamp on the banks of the Connecticut River. While growing from twelve original families to a city population of more than 150,000 at the hub of a metropolitan area of some half-million, it has also undergone massive changes in every sphere of civic life.

This study focuses particularly on twentieth-century developments in two of these spheres: religion and politics. And yet it can hardly avoid other aspects of the city, and indeed is part of a long but recently lapsed tradition of "community studies" in the social sciences. This tradition has spawned such distinguished works as those of Robert and Helen Lynd on "Middletown"—Muncie, Indiana (1929 and 1937); W. Lloyd Warner on "Yankee City"—Newburyport, Massachusetts (1963); Liston Pope on "Millhands and Preachers" in Gastonia, North Carolina (1942); Floyd Hunter on the "Community Power Structure" of Atlanta, Georgia (1953); Robert Dahl on "Who Governs?" in New Haven, Connecticut (1961); and Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman on "Small Town in Mass Society"—"Springdale," of upper New York State (1968).

And yet our interest was not in the genre for its own sake, and our approach to cities and to Springfield was more oblique. Like most contemporary scholars and many citizens, we tend to think of issues in national and sometimes cross-national terms. With the exception of the country's major metropolitan leviathans, American cities and towns have receded into the backwaters of our social consciousness and compel little attention for their own sake. In fact, we had driven by Springfield countless times without even considering it as a possible research site until we became involved with a problem for which it offered a case study. It quickly became more than that. Like all cities, Springfield offered a sense of urgent social theater. Once we began to understand its plot lines and its cast of characters, we became a rapt audience for its serial drama.

This chapter is an introduction in several senses. First, we shall introduce the problem that led us to Springfield in the first place. Second, we shall introduce Springfield itself in somewhat more detail. Third, we shall introduce the research procedure, noting both aspirations and disclaimers, and describing its several methods and sources of information. Finally, we shall introduce the book itself by previewing the chapters to follow and commenting briefly on the volume's title and its multiple meanings.

Approaching the Problem

Few topics are more characteristically "American" than the relations between church and state. Indeed, the shibboleth concerning the "separation of church and state" is for many Americans probably one of the most familiar parts of the U.S. Constitution, notwithstanding the fact that it nowhere appears in that document but comes instead from a private letter of 1802 in which Thomas Jefferson referred to a desirable "wall of separation" between the two domains. The error is understandable. After all the Constitution is our political Bible, and it is seen as the probable source for many high-flown social principles. Recently 23 percent of a national sample even saw it as the source of "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs"— Karl Marx's formula for communism. The original Constitution mentions religion only once, in Article VI, which stipulates that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under [the authority of] the United States." But of course, the subsequent First Amendment includes the sometimes nettlesome nub of the matter in its statement that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The second clause concerning free exercise seems clear enough as a general principle, and it may be worth noting that now some 90 percent of the world's nation-states make similar provisions (Van Moorseven and Van der Tan 1978). It is the first clause concerning "establishment" that has proved more elusive. Whatever it may mean, a "wall of separation" is no more accurate as a historical fact than a constitutional citation. For the nation's first one hundred and fifty years, it endured more as an article of faith than as a statement of reality. The Protestants' domination of the country's political and cultural life was always implicit and sometimes explicit. But since roughly World War II, the topic has become increasingly contested as religion has been implicated in a widening range of social issues and as various new religious groups have vied for influence. No longer just a cue for superficial self-congratulation, our church-state legacy has become a source of burgeoning controversy and litigation.

Whether the specifics involve prayer in the public schools, aid to parochial schools, abortion rights, or tax exemption for religious groups, frequent murmurs occasionally give way to raucous dins.

Through all of this, scholars have hardly been idle, as the voluminous literature on church-state issues attests. And yet Winnifred Sullivan (1987) deplores two characteristics of this work in her recent bibliographic assessment:

[Scholarship concerning] questions of religion and the law since 1870 have been increasingly dominated by the Supreme Court. The result has been both a nationalization and a constitutionalization of the issues, (p. 339)

By "nationalization," Sullivan means a tendency to confront the issue at the federal rather than the local level, with an overwhelming emphasis on events in Washington rather than in the provinces. Scholars have been far more attentive to opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court than to decisions elsewhere in the federal judiciary, let alone state, county, and municipal courts. They have been much more compelled by the actions of the U.S. Congress than those of state legislatures, city councils, or town meetings.

This is certainly understandable within a federal system. However, while there is much at the local level that reflects the national, the emulation is by no means slavish, even with respect to the law. Although American cities and towns share at least an abstract reverence for the nation's legal system and founding documents, a good deal is lost in local translation. Dolbeare and Hammond (1971) provide important illustration in their analysis of the poor compliance of Wisconsin communities to the Supreme Court's school prayer decisions of the early 1960s. This is less a matter of willful nose-thumbing than a combination of ignorance, diffidence, and allegiance to local priorities. In many communities, even formally prohibited practices may endure in the absence of some messianic misanthrope with the resolve and the resources to challenge the consensus and make an issue of them. Finally, quite apart from the letter of church-state law, its spirit is also haunting. A wide range of customs and developments lurk around the edges of civic politics and religion like ghosts from the past and harbingers of the future. Finding them requires a search that goes beyond the law books themselves.

This leads back to Sullivan's second point concerning the "constitutionalization" of the matter. Sometimes the mere mention of church and state among scholars prompts a stuffy emulation of the prose and postures of the great jurists of the courts and their current heirs. The rhetoric alternates between the lofty language of rights and the sometimes specious precision of legalese. The Constitution is invoked as Holy Writ on the basic premise that this document and its judicial interpretations have had a dominating impact on the nation at large. Of course, much of our status as a democratic society depends upon this assumption. But it is not merely academic pedantry or sheer cantankerousness to insert some qualifications.

For example, consider the phrase "Ours is a government of laws, not men." Few refrains are more common in times of political crisis, and the chorus crescendoed in the aftermath of both Watergate and Irangate. As a motto of American constitutionalism, it has been clutched to the bosom of "constructionists" everywhere; in suggesting that the rule of law ultimately transcends our human foibles, it offers warm reassurance in chilling circumstances. However, as a theorem of social behavior, it is likely to set any social scientist's teeth on edge—not to mention its offense against women. The point is not that the law is idle or that the Constitution and Bill of Rights should be consigned to the archives as historical curiosa. But as important and prophetic as the law may be, its effects are inevitably filtered through other institutions. The shibboleth's distinction between laws and men not only sets up a false dichotomy but, if anything, also places its faith on the wrong party. From the First Amendment forward, church-state law and judicial decisions have been unevenly implemented, and their effects have been blunted or distorted by other considerations.

John F. Wilson (1987) makes the point more eloquently in introducing the first of two recently edited volumes of church-state bibliography:

behind and beyond the narrow institutions denominated "church" and "state" lurk enduring questions such as where authority within a culture is to be found, and what form it takes.... How does religious power establish its authority against governmental claims to legitimacy? And how much scope do governments permit to actions taken in the name of religion? Understood in terms of this wider definition, the concept of church and state has a continuing relevance to American social experience. But it is a relevance obscured by beguiling metaphors ("the wall") that substitute for thought, or constraining doctrines ("strict separation") that fail to take account for social variety and change, (pp. viii–ix)

Wilson points toward a different approach to the "church-state problem," one that goes beyond a narrowly legalistic framework to a broader range of interactions with a broader set of causes and consequences. A concern over church and state must be placed within an expanded perspective on religion and politics.

We have tried to bring this perspective to a single city in order to cross the grain of both nationalization and constitutionalization. Rather than attempt another recapitulation of the national experience, we have focused instead on the local level, as represented by Springfield, Massachusetts. Rather than a courtside view of how church and state ought to interact, we have asked the citizens and leaders of this midsized city for their judgments. And rather than concentrate primarily on the world of "ought," we have aimed for a more empirical assessment of how church and state actually relate and how these relations have evolved historically. Indeed, rather than restrict our attention to only those church-state relations mentioned in constitutional legacy, we have sought out broader issues not only of religion and politics but of culture and power.

In fact, the book may be seen as an answer to a basic question that attends the reversal of a fundamental power relationship in Springfield. For almost three hundred years, the city was dominated by its Yankee and largely Congregationalist elders. For the first one hundred and fifty years, this dominance involved the virtual exclusion of outsiders; for the last one hundred and fifty years, it was fundamentally a matter of keeping the newcomers in their place. While the newcomers represented a variety of religious faiths and denominations, it was primarily Catholics who were cast in the familiar drama of immigrants mired in the hostile muck of class and ethnicity as well as religion. But especially over the past half-century, this has changed dramatically. Catholics have undergone a major transformation from the victims of power to its wielders. This began demographically as a matter of sheer numbers; it then moved into the arena of municipal politics, only to culminate much more recently with developments in the civic economy.

Without suggesting that the city's Yankee Protestants have been relegated to the miserable lot of the nineteenth-century Catholics, there is no question that where power is concerned, the Catholics have considerably more than the Protestants. But what are the consequences? Actually, several possible scenarios suggest themselves. A first might entail consolidating dominance by making today's Springfield as thoroughly Catholic as yesterday's was Protestant—a new form of religious establishment. A second might involve redressing grievances as contemporary Catholics "stick it to" the Protestants as retaliation for past oppression—a new set of restraints on religious free exercise.

In fact, neither of these scenarios is accurate, and much of the book is devoted to explaining why. In assessing Springfield from a constitutional standpoint, not surprisingly we have confronted a wider set of social, political, and cultural forces. Issues of both establishment and free exercise bleed into other questions, including how civic policy is made and influenced in the first place, how various religious groups can affect the process, and how all of this has changed over the city's history. These all relate to still broader matters such as religious pluralism and secularization; cultural versus structural power; the impact of size, differentiation, and de-differentiation in an urban setting; and the place of religion within the warp of class, race, and ethnicity.

Approaching the City

For most visitors, Springfield is glimpsed first from the south as the Connecticut River, Interstate 91, and the Amtrak lines all swing wide to the east before resuming their northward line on the city's west flank. The city's skyline is dominated by the conspicuous successes of its recent downtown development—though not as spectacularly as Hartford some thirty miles downriver. As one draws closer, the new Basketball Hall of Fame passes in a blur of fast-breaking multicolored panels on the left; to the right, the steeple of the First Congregational Church and the classical campanile of the municipal complex seem hunkered at the feet of the hotel and business high rises just beyond.

The distinct neighborhoods of this "city of homes" (a label the city applied to itself in the 1890s) occupy the hills rising away from the river and the former swampland now straddled by the city's power center. The central uphill sweep to the east moves from the municipal Court Square up through a museum and library complex and the Catholic diocesan cathedral to a national park on the site of the decommissioned Springfield Armory. For almost one hundred and fifty years, this armory was the chief source of American military arms and the hub of the city's long-standing economic concentration of machine industry. Since World War II, however, this has largely given way to insurance and finance. At the same time, the city's population declined from a high of 174,473 in the 1960 U.S. census to 163,905 by 1970 and 152,319 in 1980, although the preliminary 1990 count shows a slight rise again to 154,528. Meanwhile, suburbanization has grown apace. While the "larger Springfield area" population now approaches three quarters of a million, its formal size as a "standard metropolitan statistical area" stood at 523,000 in 1988.

We would like to report that Springfield's selection as our research site was the result of an exhaustive national search. Alas, we cannot. The visitor who goes twenty miles farther upriver will come upon our own base of operations at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Proximity was clearly a chief criterion in the site selection. And yet the choice does have some redeeming characteristics.

The largest of the forty-nine "Springfields" across the nation, this one is a fair demographic representative of the country's "middle-sized cities." Nor is this a trifling category. Although we tend to equate "urban America" with giant centers such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, smaller cities account for almost as large a population segment in the aggregate.


Excerpted from A Bridging of Faiths by Nicholas Jay Demerath III, Rhys H. Williams. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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