13 November 2012

What Churches Should Learn from Mitt Romney's Defeat

Posted in Culture, Emerging, Leadership, Church, Tagged with church culture leadership politics race

romneyA fundamental problem that led to the defeat of the Romney campaign, and Republican party more generally, in the 2012 election, is the same one that faces mainline congregations: mistakingly thinking that simply maximizing a coalition of aging white men is sufficient to win the future.

Much of the early analysis in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign has focused not on policy, ideology, or ads, but strategy: polling, turnout, and, specifically, demographics.

It turns out that the downfall of the Romney campaign was not appreciating the demographic shifts that had taken place in the country over the last four years. America and the electorate had become more diverse and urban - and the tone, resonant issues, language, and culture had shifted along with them.

In many ways, the mainline church now finds itself in the same position as the Republican party - scrambling to catch up to changes in country and culture. The Church must understand the lesson of the Romney defeat and pivot toward the culture that exists now rather than the one that used to be.

Shell Shocked

Going into election day, the Romney campaign, conservative pundits, and respected journalists, notably George Will, were very confident of a Romney win. They were reportedly shell-shocked when it didn’t happen. The decisive election results were met with incredulity. They had terribly misread the polls. They had misread the country.

This had its seeds in the last weeks before the election. Conservative pundits criticized pollsters that consistently showed a small but durable lead for Obama. They argued the polls were skewed, that the polls oversampled democratic affiliation. They said that electorate could not possibly look that way. As the founder of unskewedpolls.com now admits, they were wrong.

They thought a coalition of white voters, and specifically white men, was still enough to win the election. It wasn’t, but it used to be. Consider: when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the electorate was 89% white. That percentage has dropped to 72% in 2012. The other 28% is a combination of African-Americans at a consistent 13% Hispanics grew from 9% to 10%, other minority groups the remaining 5%. And note the young adult vote came in at a whopping 18%. (For a breakdown of the groups each candidate won, check out this New York Times report.)

My own tribe, the ELCA, is an aging white church. It is a shrinking coalition and claims a much smaller cultural footprint than it once did. Just like Republicans who could not win a national election by simply relying on winning whites at higher margins, we Lutherans cannot just rely on aging white folks. (Hey, I like aging white folks - I'll soon be one of them enough, but we won't be enough to carry the church into the future.)

It’s not just a question of getting more people of color in our congregations - which we do need to do. It is engaging with the world we actually live in, the one that surrounds our churches but is often unrepresented in them. In the words of conservative columnist David Frum, “Republicans have become estranged from modern America” and fixating on the old glory days is bogging down the party’s future. Sounds familiar.

Time Bombs and Tsunamis

America has long been on its way to reaching the moment when the combined minority groups make up the majority of people in the United States. Political commentators have called this as “demographic time bomb” - and on Tuesday night it went off earlier than people expected. This chart of the groups who voted for Romney and Obama clearly shows that the people who tend to show up in our churches now represent a minority position in the electorate.

Diversity is accelerating. Demographics are changing. Culture is shifting.

If that weren’t enough, Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, also warns churches about the coming “Death Tsumani.” He writes,

“The U.S. death rate is currently in a stable period that began in 2003 and continues until 2018. But what follows this plateau is a death wave in which there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since the widespread introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The total number of deaths each year will go up until 2050, and the majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two largest constituencies of mainline churches."

Increasing diversity. Cultural change. The death tsumani. Things have to change.

Burst the Bubble

The church should take a cue from the early Republican post-election regrouping:

  • We need to get out of the cultural bubble that gets perpetuated because we largely hail from a similar race, class, and ethnicity. Bring other cultures into your ministry - people, art, music, media. Get out of the bubble through global mission, get out in your community and in intentionally places you may not usually go.
  • We need to face reality. The demographics and the shifts they represent don’t lie. Big changes are coming in the church. Better to be out in front and engage them now than cling to a coalition of aging white men until there is nothing left of the church.
  • Use language, choose programming (or non-programming) that help shifts our language from majority white culture to a diversity of cultures, shift from agrarian culture to an urban one, from low-tech to high-tech.
  • Understand Millenial culture. Read the Pew Research material on Millenials and the Rise of the "Nones" for starters.
  • Listen. Get out in social media gathering places like Facebook and see what people are actually talking about. 

Are you experiencing this in your ministry? How? In what ways are you approaching it?

photo credit: Pat Williams

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