There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”

In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.

But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.

By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.

None of this tells us which of these groups is superior in its doctrinal claims (and these numbers do not tell us, of course, how diverse they are at the congregational level). But they can perhaps help us ask why some faith traditions struggle less than others with inclusivity. I attribute Catholicism’s ability to exhibit real diversity—while its foes accuse it of exclusivity—to two things: its authority structure and the parish system. Neither is necessarily exclusive to Catholicism, but the Church is the one in which each is today most notable and present.

A fixed hierarchical authority system is not as prone to the manifold number of freighted decisions around diversity that face many congregations. Who will preach? (The priest or deacon.) What songs will we sing? (Mostly awful ones.) How will power and authority be shared among church leadership? (In a hierarchical manner.) What will be read? (The lectionary.) What will be the focus of the Mass this Sunday? (The Eucharist, as always.) These are fixed by the authority structure of the Church.

All this may sound like a recipe for stifling uniformity, but I’ve found the reality to be otherwise. The long line of parishioners slowly making their way forward to receive the Eucharist in congregations around the U.S. confirms this. “Here comes everybody,” the saying goes. The wealthiest banker in the congregation will receive communion—and absolution for his sins—from the greenest transplanted priest from Africa or India who acts in persona Christi. The same goes for the plumber. The two may not share life together—I very much doubt they do—but a community of friends is not the point of Catholic parishes in the same way that it seems to be everywhere else.

An emphasis on a community of friends, a staple of many congregations, is a double-edged sword. Friendships, of course, are fabulous—one of life’s genuine joys and a source of social support (and occasional social control, I hope). But they’re also the stuff of homophily—birds of a feather tend to flock together. The Catholic parish system—in which congregations are located by geography and population density above all other considerations—is largely oblivious to existing communities of friends. The Church cannot afford homophily, so it doesn’t tacitly encourage it. The parish system—organized geographically—unwittingly fosters diversity by deemphasizing (without discouraging) the social aspects of parish life.

This explanation cannot, however, explain the genuine diversity of Pentecostalism, which decidedly does not operate on a parish system. A charismatic authority structure may nevertheless function in ways comparable to a hierarchical role system. But congregational democracies, where all voices count, tend to stumble here, perhaps because the voluntaristic nature of democracies and their tendency toward homophily is just too strong.

In the end, tread cautiously around proclaimed quests for diversity and inclusivity, because—ironically—they’re often a front for the pursuit of sameness. We’re told that though we may look different, act different, and want different things, we’re somehow the same. Gender is ephemeral, or malleable. Biology is the organs you’ve been assigned to work with, or around. Men and women are interchangeable—in the boardroom, the bedroom, even the battlefield. Call it the Great Flattening.

But the Christian Church, as she so long has, continues to recognize the goodness that genuine cultural diversity represents across the globe, in America, often in a solitary zip code. It’s worth admiring and worth remembering how it can happen. 

Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments