I mentioned yesterday that secularism in New England runs deep. Anyone who has ever worked for the church here knows the challenges that this region presents when trying to spread the Gospel. I can think of numerous individuals who have come here from afar, hoping to take this region by storm, only to retreat to a more receptive part of the country after a few years.
Naturally, one wonders why New Englanders are apparently so hostile to the Gospel and Christianity. And why, somewhat related to this, the region seems to be so liberal politically. One faithful reader wondered that very thing yesterday, in response to my post.
I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I would like to – very informally – offer a few reflections on why this might be the case. This is not exhaustive, of course, and it is nowhere close to being a scientific treatment of the issues. But, as someone who was born in New England, and has lived here my whole life (with a few hiatuses to Michigan and Scotland), I have been able to brood over this issue a bit over the years. And, hopefully, it will eventually help me turn the tide here in this wonderful region.
Another small caveat: my New England roots may not go back as far as some others. On my dad’s side, his family was originally from New Brunswick, Canada, and they moved to Massachusetts when he was just a kid. Similarly, my maternal Grandfather was originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. His family eventually moved to Massachusetts as well. The furthest my roots go back in New England is my maternal Grandmother, who was born and raised on Cape Cod, Mass. Her mother is German, however, who, I believe, was born in the motherland. I am not sure where my great-grandfather was born, however, but it is probably safe to say that the longest line of New England heritage goes through him.
So my New England-ness may not be as deeply rooted as others, but, as at least a third generation New Englander (through my grandmother), I am at least somewhat “qualified” to speak on the subject!
And now, these are the issues that I believe contribute to the secular nature of New Englanders.
1. Independence. New Englanders have always been independently minded. The pilgrims came to this land because they wanted to get out from underneath the religious oppression that they were experiencing in Europe. Of course, the early New England Puritans then proceeded to set up their own oppressive religious climate, which ultimately led Roger Williams to establish Rhode Island – which, for the first time in America, promoted the separation of church and state.
Williams was extremely progressive religiously – maybe even more so than any other churchman in history. Although he established the first Baptist church in America, he soon split off from that group, saying that “God is too large to be housed under one roof.”
Vermont is also a classic example of this independent thinking as well. Although there is some debate as to its political independence throughout history, Vermont first seemed to be a republic before it joined the union. Even today, there are many within the state who would like to make Vermont an independent republic again. Such people have banded together and called themselves “The Second Vermont Republic,” describing themselves as “a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of Corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union.”
Old time Vermonters can be very traditional, and yet they are very independent. They may be personally opposed to same-sex unions, for example, but they are not going to bug anyone else who chooses to pursue this lifestyle. And, consequently, what has happened is that the out-of-staters (“flatlanders,” as they are called) have taken advantage of this independent thinking and flocked to Vermont, trying to set up their own “Utopian” society.
Thus, it is not necessarily true Vermonters who are pushing for same-sex unions, for “nudist” towns, for liberal politics. It is the “flatlanders” who have seen the vacuum in Vermont’s government and moved to the state to set up their own liberal agenda. But, interestingly, there is now starting to be a backlash among old time Vermonters, who are getting frustrated with these flatlanders taking advantage of them, setting up their liberal agenda, buying all their property, privatizing their land (historically, hunters have had free reign over anyone’s private land. But now flatlanders have bought up a lot of the land and posted “Private Property: No hunting” signs, and this has greatly frustrated the old timers). Because of all these issues, it was not uncommon a few years ago to see signs – whether painted on barns, or stuck beside the road – saying, “Take Back Vermont.”
All this is to say that New Englanders are very independent thinkers. There is kind of this unspoken rule that says, “I’ll stay out of your business, if you stay out of mine.” New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die.” Thus, we don’t really like it when others cross the line into our private lives, supposing that they know how we should live, what we should think – at least not when it comes to religion.
2. Affluence. New England is a very affluent region. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire typically rank in the top five or ten of the wealthiest states in the country (this extends to other Northeastern states outside of New England to include New York and New Jersey). Closer to home for me, the community in which I minister was recently declared by Forbes to be “the least vulnerable town in America to the economic crisis,” essentially declaring it to be “recession-proof.”
Of course, everyone knows the challenges of wealth. If individuals in a community or region feel comfortable economically, there is little impetus to look outside oneself for anything else. And this is directly related to that “independent thinking” that I mentioned above. What need is there for God if all of my needs can be met by my own money, my own hard work, my own abilities?
3. Education. New England is really the epicenter of education in the United States, and maybe even the world. Four of the eight Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth) are in New England, and most of the “Little Ivies” (Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Tufts, Wesleyan, Williams), as well as places like MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, are all in this small region. There are over 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area alone! (This accounts for over 250,000 students in the cities of Boston and Cambridge themselves every year.) And New England is really the cradle of the “prep school” educational model as well.
All of this lends itself to a very “liberal” landscape. And, as you are well aware, college campuses are the hot bead for “progressive” and “ivory tower” thinking, and knowledge has to the tendency to “puff up” (1 Cor 8:1). There is a natural arrogance that accompanies the acquisition of knowledge, and such people often feel little need for God.
4. Catholic “backlash.” As I mentioned yesterday, a large percentage of those who are religious are Catholic (besides English, the predominant ancestries in New England are Irish, Italian, and French). This has affected the religious landscape in a number of ways. First, many of those Catholics are “nominal” Catholics, and, though they do not attend Mass regularly, or have a great deal of interest in their religious heritage, would never, ever consider being anything else but Catholic. The phrase, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” most definitely applies.
On the other hand, there are many others who were raised in a Catholic environment, but have now become hostile towards religion because of Catholicism’s abuses – both religiously and politically. There are many people who are bitter because of the sex abuse scandals, the church’s views on homosexuality, divorce, and contraception, and other theological issues. As a result, these people want nothing to do with God or religion. (Admittedly, if my understanding of God was that He would burn people in hell forever, I would be turned off towards religion as well).
I just happened to pick up a book yesterday at Borders that spoke to this point beautifully. It is called, Being Catholic Now, and it was written/edited by Kerry Kennedy – one of Robert Kennedy’s 11 children! She interviews 37 individuals with Catholic backgrounds (from Bill O’Reilly, to Bill Maher, to Frank McCourt, to Doris Kearns Goodwin, to Nancy Pelosi), and reveals their perspective on the present climate of the Catholic church. I was able to read some of it, and a lot of it was quite enlightening.
I think this Catholic component has a huge influence on New Englander’s openness to religion and God.
Conclusion. All of these components, plus others, lend themselves to the reality that New England is a very secular and politically liberal region. In many ways, I cannot blame New Englanders for their animosity towards God and religion. If I believed some of the things they have been taught about God, I would be very hostile towards Him as well.
That’s why He has called some of us here! Hopefully, by His grace, we can overcome some of these challenges and see the message spread with vigor in this part of the world. This is where the early Advent message began, and I believe, before His return, that message will return with power to this place.