An Air of Condescension: Why Working-Class Whites Don’t Go to Church

Grateful for this reflection by David Clay. In the 2016 film Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old […]

Mockingbird / 10.1.18

Grateful for this reflection by David Clay.

In the 2016 film Manchester by the Seasixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler loses his father to congestive heart failure and finds himself in the custody of his uncle Lee, a laconic and depressed Boston janitor. Neither Patrick nor Lee are very excited about the situation; much of the movie revolves around them semi-successfully learning how to take care of each other.

About halfway through, Patrick reconnects with his alcoholic mother, Elise, who had walked away from the family years before. After exchanging emails for a while, Elise invites Patrick to have lunch with her and her new fiancé, Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick). Lee, still nursing a fair amount of hatred for his ex-sister-in-law, reluctantly agrees to drop Patrick off at his mom’s place. We are then treated to a delicious scene lampooning the tendency for there to be, e.g., a Pine Street, a Pine Avenue, a Pine Circle, etc. all in the same town. (I was recently a half-hour late to a friend’s house due to this very issue.)

When they do finally arrive, Elise and Jeffrey are standing at the door to greet them. Jeffrey, clad in a sweater, is clean-cut, chipper and unfailingly polite even as the others remain visibly tense.

Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol in Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Lee excuses himself, but the remaining three sit down to meatloaf and say grace. Somehow it’s not surprising to find a portrait of Jesus hanging on the dining room wall. (“We’re not trying to recruit you,” Elise assures her son). Fitful attempts at small talk ensue; Elise and Patrick are both on edge, and it’s quickly apparent that one course of meatloaf isn’t going to fix years of emotional and physical abandonment, whether or not Elise has been born again.

The camera cuts to Lee and Patrick on the way back home. Lee asks what his nephew thought about “that guy.”

“He’s very Christian,” Patrick replies.

Lee is taken aback. After a pause he says, “You know we’re Christians too, right?”

“Yes, I know.”

“You are aware that Catholics are Christians, right?”

“I am aware of that,” snaps Patrick.

The film moves on and that snippet of dialogue is never referenced again. It’s essentially throwaway. But in a broader context, these few seconds speak volumes about how many blue-collar white people (a category fitting Patrick and especially Lee) think about the Christian faith.

Claire Folger/Amazon Studios, Roadside Attraction

It is a matter of course to Lee that he is a Christian, specifically a Catholic (the default setting for a guy from Boston, like being a Red Sox fan). He’s moderately offended by Patrick’s implication that since Jeffrey is “very Christian,” somehow they are not. And yet Lee never darkens the door of a church except at his brother’s memorial service. It apparently does not occur to him to talk to a priest about his deep-rooted emotional and spiritual struggles.

This attitude is in keeping with that of increasing numbers of working-class white Americans. Church attendance for both Protestants and Catholics in this demographic has been declining steeply for decades, but this isn’t due to a loss of faith per se. Blue-collar whites aren’t reading Richard Dawkins. Several years ago I worked for a church in a predominantly working-class neighborhood in the south part of Louisville, Kentucky. Almost every Caucasian I met there readily, even proudly, identified as Catholic. Follow up questions revealed that the vast majority hardly ever attended mass.

But if working-class whites still believe, why have they stopped going to church? At least part of the answer lies in what Patrick meant by his “very Christian” comment, which his uncle misunderstood to be a remark on Jeffrey’s professed religion. It wasn’t. It was a remark on the “vibe” the man gave off.

To be sure, there’s nothing glaringly wrong with Jeffrey. He seems genuinely nice. He isn’t proselytizing. No doubt he’s at least part of the reason Elise no longer drinks herself stupid every night.

But I knew what Patrick was talking about, and it wasn’t really the cheesy portrait of Christ. I recognized in Jeffrey an air of condescension (it was something about his unfailing smile, his tone — Broderick did a masterful job in his five minutes of screen time), just a hint of self-satisfaction. I recognized it in him because I recognize it in myself. My life is relatively “together” (by the usual standards), and when I interact with people whose lives aren’t, there is an undercurrent of secret self-congratulation.

Except it’s not so secret because people can generally sniff out condescension from about a mile away. “Everyone needs grace,” I imply, “but you need just a little more.” As if people with graduate degrees and without neck tattoos somehow require less of Jesus’ blood to save them.

A 2012 study by sociologists at Johns Hopkins University tracks the decline of church attendance among blue-collar whites. At the end of the paper, the authors speculate on the causes of this trend which, naturally, is complex and multifactorial. Nonetheless, they argue that the primary factor is the increasing difficulty this demographic faces in establishing financial and familial stability. If a church explicitly or implicitly requires this kind of stability as a condition to feel welcome within its walls, then people who find that lifestyle difficult or impossible to achieve simply aren’t going to attend.

In other words, the church’s message of God’s free grace through Christ is undercut by the law: “Jesus loves you, but you’re going to need to clean up your act a bit if you really want to be one of us.” That’s the vibe Patrick got from Jeffrey, and that’s the vibe way too many people get when they stumble into a church.

Claire Folger/Amazon Studios, Roadside Attraction

By contrast, the “working class” of first-century Palestine flocked to Jesus, to the never-ending consternation of the respectable, solidly middle-class Pharisees. As I reread the gospels, I’m realizing that I’m in real danger of assuming the role of Pharisee, imagining that there is something spiritually wrong with the unchurched masses, while in reality the problem is with me. The Pharisees looked down on working class folks, whom they deemed ignorant (John 7:49), but Jesus never did. Jesus patronized no one. He took everyone whom he came across with utmost seriousness. For him, it was the spiritual “haves” who were in danger, while the good news was for the spiritual (and economic) “have-nots.”

Then again, the good news is good news for everyone, precisely because everyone is a spiritual have-not. Accepting the good news means accepting that Jesus suffered on the cross every bit as much for my subtle displays of pride as he did for that other guy’s spending the family grocery money on a heroin binge. Grace isn’t one bit cheaper for folks with good jobs and nice families. Let that message take root, and I’m fairly confident that the condescension will (eventually) disappear from our expressions and voices — simply because we have no higher place to condescend from. And then, perhaps, our churches will again be welcoming to those Jesus specified as his target demographic (Matthew 11:5).

As I watched the above-mentioned scene and then rewound and watched it again, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Patrick had had lunch with Jesus. Probably he wouldn’t have gone away saying, “He was very Christian.” But he would have met someone who loved him without conditions, without sizing him up, without making excuses for his behavior or treating him like a project. May people like Patrick, Lee and Elise have those encounters with the risen Jesus in our (his) churches.