David Clay: Many Working-Class Whites Don’t Go to Church Because of the Air of Condescension

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.

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.

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.

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Source: Christian Post