Poll on Class and Faith

The ongoing conversation on class/education and faith in the Quaker blogosphere makes me curious about WHY something like 9 out of 10 liberal Quakers have college degrees when only roughly 1 in four Americans in general has a college degree (I’m basing this on information from Jeanne’s blog).

Can you help me out by letting me know what you think?   

My questions are:

1. Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it more appealing to the kind of people who get college degrees? Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it unappealing to the kind of people who don’t get college degrees? If so, why?

2. Or is it something about current liberal Quaker culture? If so, why?

3. Or is it something to do with current liberal Quaker practice? If so, why?

4. Or do you think it is just a coincidence? If so, why?

5. Optional: Are you a college graduate? Do/es one or more of your parents have a college degree?

Needless to say, the purpose of asking these questions is to get ideas for what we can do in our liberal Quaker Meetings to make them more genuinely accessible. Stay tuned!

21 thoughts on “Poll on Class and Faith

  1. Alethea,
    I so appreciate the nuance you bring to this conversation. It really brings home to me that an either/or approach to privilege may not work too well. Even as I see more clearly the urgency of doing away with deprivation and poverty, it also gets harder and harder for me to talk about someone as “privileged” or “marginalized”, because increasingly what I see is “Child of God”, stuck in one way or another in systems of injustice. I find it more helpful to think about privilege as something we have more or less of in a given context, rather than something we are or aren’t.


  2. Nuts, I’ve been trying to edit this all afternoon.

    1. Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it more appealing to the kind of people who get college degrees? Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it unappealing to the kind of people who don’t get college degrees? If so, why? I’m not sure I have anything to add to this beyond what has already been said about comfort with ambiguity. I think the reverse can be true, too. I grew up in meeting and would be very uncomfortable with a more authoritarian and absolutist religion. I don’t know, though, how much of that is educational and how much is just my personality. I have neighbors who are nice but have declined all invitations to visit meeting–even for not-specifically-Quaker events–because they think our style of worship is dangerous. They believe that since we do not have a preacher to lead us we are open to being deceived by Satan. Most people don’t react quite that strongly but I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how skeptical people are of silent worship and lack of clergy. I don’t know if that’s a Southern thing or what, but I have no interest in criticizing their own style of worship so I’m really not sure how to bridge that beyond continuing the friendship without discussing religion.

    2. Or is it something about current liberal Quaker culture? If so, why? Probably both.

    3. Or is it something to do with current liberal Quaker practice? If so, why? If you mean practice, as in, form of worship . . . I would not be inclined to tamper too much with the form of worship. A church needs to have its identity. I would not join the Jehovah’s Witnesses and then ask them to stop going door-to-door. That’s what they do. If I cannot accept it, I’m probably in the wrong church.

    If you mean it in terms of outreach: Yes, probably that, too, and that is worth working to change. Like anything else, though, this needs to be approached constructively and persistently, without expectation of instant results.

    This struck me: Our dress, our overwhelming liberal political leanings, our obviously well-educated vocabulary, I think, could make many people feel like outsiders with no common point from which to enter. Isn’t this true of any church (club, bowling league, Girl Scout troop . . .) when you’re new? I feel like an outsider at my friend’s dressed-up Catholic church. I don’t understand the jargon, I don’t know the songs, I am unfamiliar with the rituals, etc. Our meeting has a Quaker 101 adult FDS to help newcomers; if people are being left in the dust, it needs to be addressed, but it won’t be if nobody realizes it’s a problem! Someone who sees this happening needs to start lobbying for support for new attenders.

    As for political leanings: It is not unheard of here for preachers to openly endorse political candidates to their congregations. I would not approve of hearing it during worship or FDS, but political homogeneity is definitely not a Quaker-specific “problem”. Religion and politics are so closely tied in the U.S.–inextricably, it seems, though I wish they were less so–that I would, frankly, be surprised if our political make-up were more mixed. The RSoF and the UU in Texas get the handfuls of us who are the most liberal. I do not advocate, of course, avoiding people who are more conservative, but I would not anticipate that a movement to “recruit” them would be terribly productive. There are too many other churches from which to choose.

    I think Susanne is right that our tolerance for the eccentric may be off-putting to those looking for a more recognizably mainstream religion, but I don’t see this as a problem (as long as it counterculture-ness doesn’t become a “requirement”). It takes all kinds to make a world. We seem to have the full spectrum here, from Sunday best to cut-offs. I’ve never heard any comments on clothing as long as it wasn’t something really revealing (bare feet and holey jeans are fine; mega-cleavage will raise some eyebrows).

    4. Or do you think it is just a coincidence? If so, why? I don’t think it’s a coincidence, exactly, but I don’t think it’s intentional on the part of the RSoF.

    5. Optional: Are you a college graduate? Do/es one or more of your parents have a college degree? Parents both have graduate degrees. My father is the third generation with college or more. Mother is from a working-class family and was the first in her family to go to college. I have a B.A. Our family financial situation has, in my lifetime, gone from my father being able to feed us for only three weeks of the month to my parents being comfortable. I, personally, have a grunt job (office girl) and own nothing of significance except a cheap car (paid for myself). I rent a room in my parents’ house because I cannot afford city rent in any but the most dangerous neighborhoods. That’s a privilege, but it would be foolish of me, in terms of personal safety, not to take it. My mother has some health problems and my father is being transferred to Africa for three years so Mom wants me around to do the heavy housework, etc., that she cannot do.

    While I do not dispute that the body of liberal Quakerism is made up of educated white people, I feel there is a perception that we all eat organic, drive expensive hybrid or biodiesel cars, and send our kids into the world with a list of society contacts, a bolus of cash from Mom and Dad, and a cushy job. I would say that the financial make-up of our meeting is pretty mixed. We have a lot of young families, especially, who are trying to raise kids, pay off student loans, make progress at starter jobs, etc., and don’t have a lot of time or money to spare. Yes, they are privileged compared to many other countries, but raising kids at the “average” level of subsistence found in much of the world would hardly prepare them for life in the modern U.S.

    Many members of our meeting who have obligations that are not immediately obvious to the rest of the congregation (elderly or disabled family members to care for, etc.). Many have shared houses at various times with others or taken in people who needed help. I think we’ve done pretty well looking after non-relative f/Friends considering we’re scattered all over a huge metropolitan area.

    I am not saying we couldn’t do better, of course; only that there are a lot of us who are in between the two extremes. I guess I’m owning-class culturally, if that’s what my educational background means, and working-class financially. I work full-time; I need to go back to school so I can support myself (no inheritance, no spouse with a second income, no high-powered job); I leave the house at 6:30 a.m. and get home at 6:00 p.m. if the traffic is good. I’m stretched thin for all the same reasons many “working-class” people are; not enough time and not enough financial wiggle-room.

    * * * * * * *

    re: Allison’s take on the new wave of feminism–hear, hear! I think that’s exactly what it means, or should mean.


  3. I think the new wave of feminism means everyone woman can decide for herself what is best for her, that there is no universal ‘best’ for all women except equal opportunity. For example, a woman who wants to be able to have a safe abortion and a woman in poverty who wants to be able to raise her child with financial support are equals, and it’s not an “all women need to have abortions!” or “all women should be stay at home moms!” women fighting each other situation. To me it involves challenging one’s own beliefs, empowerment of the individual while acknowledging group support being necessary, and the end of domination in ALL forms. Instead of fighting for one slice of freedom pie, it would be expanding pie to everyone!


  4. Allison,
    I’d love to read your essay. Back at the University of Oslo I did a semester of interdisciplinary gender studies and wrote a short thesis on women’s struggle for equality within the anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress, to be more specific. Essentially, I questioned the predominantly male ANC leadership’s insistence that apartheid had to be dismantled before men could even think about treating women within the movement as equals. I had to give up gender studies, because I ended up in a near-perpetual state of rage that was unhealthy for me. As you say, a lot has happened since I did my stuff (that would have been, gulp, 1988) and I think a lot has happened in feminist thinking since then, and I’d be interested to learn more about the new wave(s). I think I could read about it now without doing the rage thing because I’m in a different place spiritually…


  5. Hi Susanne,

    On contercultural “weirdness” and non-shaving, tofu eaters. I wrote an essay comparing the changes in Quakerism that need to occur with 2nd v. 3rd wave feminism. 3rd wave feminists include more the experiences of women of color, and point at the differences in a theology of equality v. practice (equality only benefitting white women).

    That being said, I am still probably considered counter-culture “weird” myself!


  6. Mariah,
    That is an excellent question. I have no definite answers, but here’s my hunch: I think liberal Quaker culture exhibits more countercultural “weirdnesses”, such as women who don’t shave their legs, abundance of tofu, and others. Read more about this in an excellent article by Betsy Leondar-Wright. Much as I appreciate the freedom to be countercultural in liberal Quakerism, I suspect it is offputting to people who are in pursuit of the more traditional “American dream”. What do you think?


  7. And why is it there there are more working class Mennonites? I always feel like the Mennonites and Brethren are our closest religious cousins, but they don’t seem to have this problem.


  8. Pam,
    Your answer brought a smile to my face, I could have written the exact same answers to ALL 5 questions – yes, even including having a stepmother and disliking big words when small words will do! I could add that, despite being a college grad, I’ve never been able to get interested in gathering knowledge for its own sake, which is probably why I went for the more active engagement of chaplaincy and spiritual direction.

    I also completely agree that we shouldn’t be asking “SHOULD we change liberal Quaker culture?” To me it’s a foregone conclusion that we need to change, and many of my posts in recent months have been precisely about the need for change. I wasn’t aware that anyone had posed or even implied THAT particular question.

    I’ve already written my first introductory blog on what we can do to change things for the better, and at this point I’m guessing my suggestions will make for 4-5 blog posts, which will include some of the suggestions commenters have made. Stay tuned, and please feel free to join in with your own suggestions.


  9. 1. Not in its true form. I think it’s “contaminated” by surrounding culture, so it can come off as only available to intellectuals.

    2. Yes, culture. current liberal quaker culture I would dare to say is so overlapped and intertwined with current educated wasp-heritage culture as to be almost the same thing (in practice)

    3. practice, again, as it plays out, but not in its ideal form. Waiting worship should be available to all, worship full of messages that sound like college lectures, isn’t.

    4. NOT a coincidence. Not intentional maybe, at least not consciously so

    5. Yes, I’m a college graduate, as are both my parents (and my stepmother) but I can’t really stand big words where small ones will do.

    I love Jeanne’s response to this on her blog:

    “The questions really should be: What is it about liberal Quaker culture is keeping poor and working class people away? AND how do we change that culture? (Not SHOULD we)”

    It seems to me that early quakers had a unifying passion about Christ that modern liberal Friends don’t. Christ as a symbol and cultural Icon was recognizable and accesable to everyone in that country at that time. As a non-christian, I can’t say that I hope we go back to finding unity in Christ, but I do think that we’ve substituted other more wordly things. As if we expect to be unified by Sierra Club membership or cultural “norms”

    As a nontheist/universalist Friend I’d like to see us find that Fire again. I don’t believe it needs to be named Christ, but I think we may have lost our connection to what connects us in spirit, so that we can’t see across any cultural divides


  10. Mary Linda,
    Your observation that the Divine fire has died down to a small ember in our Meetings is a powerful observation that has a lot to do with the experience of privilege as a barrier, I think. If the power of God to transform our lives, our Meetings, and society in general were at the center of our Meetings, then we could expect social differences to matter less to how we see each other and relate to each other. And if we truly opened ourselves to being transformed, then God would melt away the oppressive nature of any of those differences, too.


  11. There is nothing in Quaker theology, since God is available to everyone. We don’t need an intermediary, not even an education. It may be culture. I’m an extreme introvert, so I don’t understand people, but here are some guesses:

    1) When you receive a messege, run it through your mind a few times. Can you use a simpler word? Can you drop, or at least quickly explain, an obscure reference? Would a child understand it? Or at least a teenager?

    2) During coffee hour, introduce yourself to someone you don’t know, esp. if they are new. You can be friendly, reguardless of education and wealth levels.

    3) Instead of being obsessed with peace marches and such, what does your community actually need? Child care? Eduction/ tutoring/ after school activities for children? A place for AA to meet? A house painting party for those who can’t afford it? Showing you are welcoming is more convincing than saying you are welcoming. And let the local newspapers know about the good works you are doing. Then people who want to help can find you.

    Neither of my parents are college grads. My dad was carrier enlisted Navy; my mom was a homemaker. I’m the first person in my family to go to college and grad school.


  12. 1. Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it more appealing to the kind of people who get college degrees? Is there something about Quaker theology that makes it unappealing to the kind of people who don’t get college degrees? If so, why?
    – Early Quakerism (Religious Society of Friends of Truth) was more socially diverse and was full of miracles. From what I’ve read and learned, it seems to me that early Friends experienced an immediacy with Spirit, a Divine Fire, that seems to have cooled to a comfortably warm ember for us. We expect miracles, but only modest, quiet ones, not the big, messy, loud kind. They also suffered under tremendous persecution while many of us rest on the laurels of our history, not putting ourselves on any kind of line. There’s not much strong emotion in our Meetings for Worship, no danger. Our Spirit given messages are subtle (sometimes prefaced with, “I heard an article on NPR…”). How can new folks know God is moving among us when our messages are given so politely? A newcomer, one completely unfamiliar with the Quaker practice of waiting, may not be able to overcome their initial discomfort with the strangeness of our method of worship to feel the WORSHIP or the still/movement of Spirit.

    I think Quakerism requires a lot of personal responsibility and most people don’t know how to take responsibility for something that’s always been dictated to them and I don’t think modern Friends Meetings are “on fire” enough to help some people feel the POWER of God in them.

    I was reading a magazine by and about graffiti artists, last night. It was kind of interesting, but I didn’t really “get it”. I mean, I know there is an enthusiasm and energy there, but the language and the culture are so foreign to me that I can’t really figure out what they are saying, although I was trying hard to understand. I think maybe, Quakerism is like that for people who have no history with it.

    2. Or is it something about current liberal Quaker culture? If so, why?
    -When I first came to Friends Meeting, I was delighted by the lack of overtly Christian jargon. It was a breath of fresh air to not hear about being “saved by the blood of the Lamb” or “Christian soldiers” and (especially) nothing about the Second Coming. Now that I’ve been around for more than a decade, I do see that we have a ton of our own jargon which might seem very foreign and unwelcomingly exclusionary to a newcomer. Our dress, our overwhelming liberal political leanings, our obviously well-educated vocabulary, I think, could make many people feel like outsiders with no common point from which to enter.

    3. Or is it something to do with current liberal Quaker practice? If so, why?

    4. Or do you think it is just a coincidence? If so, why?

    5. Optional: Are you a college graduate? Do/es one or more of your parents have a college degree?
    -I have never been to college. I have a job with a univerity and am an autodidact, so I “pass” as well educated. My husband dropped out after 2 years to play music in a rock band (he is now a book buyer). My father served 4 years in the Navy and has an associates degree from a correspondence school. My mother barely made it through high school.


  13. Liz,
    I am mulling over your comments, especially the quote encouraging us to look at how diverse our lives are. That is a good query for us all to ponder. (If you’re curious about me, the immediate answer to that is to be found in my three previous blog posts on class and faith.)

    Another question that arises is that there may be a difference between what who we are and what we’re perceived to be. In terms of liberal Quakerism being welcoming, perceptions matter. If a working class person thinks a Quaker Meeting looks 90% middle/owning class, I’d expect that not to feel inviting, and justifiably so.

    Except the truth about the Meeting may be more complicated. For example, most people quickly presume that I am educated middle class, and that wouldn’t be wrong about who I am now. I’m sure some people would take one quick look and turn their backs on me. But for two years of my Botswana childhood, I lived in a house where the only running water was in the kitchen, and the water was cold. There was no flush toilet. For six months I didn’t go to school at all, rather than be forced to be the (White) prefect of my class of 45 kids, every one of whom was Black. Every weekend my family went for a drive along the train tracks to pick up coal that had fallen off the trains, and then we’d burn the coal in the stove that warmed our shower water for the weekly outdoor shower. We had electricity, but no phone or TV. I grew up listening to radio. The biggest treat for my brother and me was Wednesdays, when we’d go to the Farmer’s Brigade to get a pint of fresh, cold milk each that we’d gulp down on the spot! What a luxury that was! The worst part is that, despite this, we were the privileged ones in our neighborhood!

    So I don’t wear a sign around my neck proclaiming that I know what it is like to be poor or that I have racial awareness. If I did, you’d be right to distrust me. But if a working class person were to presume that I’m just another White privileged middle class person with whom they would have little in common, he or she would be wrong. And I don’t think I’m unique – I have a hunch that most privileged White middle class people probably have their own areas of awareness of what it’s like not to be privileged.

    What I’m getting at is that perceptions matter, and justifiably so. At the same time, perceptions can be very misleading. What do we do about that? That may well end up being the topic of one of the blog posts I write when I start to address what we liberal Quakers might do to be more welcoming. In the meantime, everyone, keep the comments coming, because I trust we’re all getting wiser as we listen and talk.


  14. Susanne –

    I do want to push back on the idea that there is nothing in Quaker theology itself that makes it challenging for the uneducated. Learning theorists often point out that one of the hallmarks of those with an advanced education is an ability to deal with ambiguity. (The more you know the more you know about what you don’t know.) One of the hallmarks of Quaker theology (as I understand it) is the ability to live in the moment and the Presence, even if that means dealing with the tensions of not having answers or not knowing. Most educatiors would say that living in such ambiguity is a sophisticated place developmentally.

    I come from a working class family. Both (there were just two) of my parents began college but did not complete it. Growing up, we attended Baptist, Nazarene and other evangelical Protestant churches that focused on a more black and white, right and wrong Christian theology. I don’t think that that is or was a coincidence.

    I don’t think that Quaker theology is the primary thing that separates out those with less educational privilege from our meetings, but I do think it is at least a small portion of it. We need to find ways to meet those people where they’re at . . . and to recognize ourselves in them.

    Just my $.02 worth.


  15. I don’t normally lay out my own beliefs this early on in a poll on my blog because I fear it may have the unfortunate effect of steering the conversation in a particular direction. However, since Jeanne suggests that these questions are indicative of a bias on my part and you may well have come to my page because of her statements, I probably ought to let you know what my opinions are. I learn a lot from hearing what others have to say, whether they agree with me or not, so I hope that hearing my opinions won’t keep you from feeling welcome to express yours! (The only expectation I have is that comments are made in a respectful manner and are somewhat related to the topic.)

    1. No, I don’t think there is anything in Quaker theology that makes it inherently more appealing to one group than another.
    2. Yes, I think the issue is primarily one of culture, and I think liberal Quaker culture has gone astray.
    3. I think it’s a matter of practice to the extent that our process sometimes devolves into talking at great length in an atmosphere of hopelessness. But I think that’s a function of some strands of current liberal theology (not something inherent in Quakerism), and it doesn’t have to be this way.
    4. No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
    5. All three parental figures in my life are college graduates, and I’m a graduate myself. But that doesn’t make me as unaware of privilege as it might appear at first blush: My foster sister in Botswana came to live with us after almost dying from a hunger strike she went on because her parents couldn’t afford to buy the school uniform she would need in order to go to school. Also, I’m a foreigner and encounter prejudice because of it (less among Quakers than elsewhere). American liberal Quaker culture isn’t very comfortable for me. Then again, since I grew up between three cultures and now live in a fourth, there is NO culture I feel comfortable in. As a non-citizen I have no legal rights in this country, which makes an activist like me somewhat vulnerable. So despite my educational privilege, I have quarrels with what I perceive to be a fairly homogeneous and self-satisfied culture among liberal Quakers.

    Additional comment: Having grown up in what was one of the poorest countries in the world at the time, my perspective on privilege is this: Since I have enough food, adequate shelter, adequate health for myself and my family, and sufficient resources to lead a productive life, I am tremendously privileged! Dear reader, since you can be presumed to have at least access to a computer and internet, I’m guessing you’re in that category, too! And I rejoice in the fact that you have what you need. I only wish everyone had as much as you and I do!

    And of course the only reason I’m asking these questions is to see if we can learn anything that will help us make liberal Quaker groups more welcoming and more joyfully engaged in the world.


  16. Susan,

    It’s taken me a while to get engaged in this conversation, for reasons I won’t go into.

    Your questions intrigue me, and before I started reading Allison’s comments, I had begun formulating VERY similar responses to hers:

    1. Quaker theology and its appeal to those who have or don’t have college degrees: If we didn’t have our own personal religious baggage to overcome, about who Jesus was or wasn’t (Savior or historical figure, e.g.), I’d say the theology itself would be accessible to many seekers (but this is only in theory, since I myself am not working class or poor):

    “God can be accessed directly when you pray. God speaks to all of us. God’s message to us can be tested within a community because the message, the Light, the Truth does not change.”

    But by the time working class/degreeless adults walk through our meetingroom doors, they’ve likely been exposed to the more black-and-white thinking all their life that somehow works for them as adults. And without an education or role-modeling that teaches them to think beyond short-term, tangible results, won’t they be lost in the abstract critical thinking and philosphizing that goes on during fellowship hour?

    2. …something about current liberal Quaker culture?

    Culture, beliefs, and language are intricately connected. And behavior is an outgrowth of these things too. I have to look at myself very carefully:

    I’m an educated white owning class woman. I have to stretch myself to join a conversation with people who talk about the trouble they’re having making ends meet.

    I can think of a recent interaction with one worshipper, and I have to struggle to stay present to him as he talks about how he hopes he gets to move into a house that’s in a better neighborhood than where he currently is–and “better” is defined for him as having fewer shootings and drug deals in the area.

    These are folks who are connected to Meeting yet they often are left standing in the corner after worship–literally. Many educated, socially liberal Friends stay comfortable in the norms of modern-day American culture, and we don’t know how to leave that culture at the doorstep. We forget that our everyday norms are not everyone’s norms.

    3. …something to do with current liberal Quaker practice?

    Liberal Quaker practice in America seems to be impacted by what I think of as America’s media-and-consumer culture: Think primarily of yourself first–a car, a cell phone, a computer for each person. Then your family: a house for you and your kids, but not for your extended family.

    It’s a very me, me, me oriented lifestyle, and liberal Friends have swung away from the corporate nature of our tradition.

    4. …just a coincidence?

    I don’t think folks intentionally keep out or bar people who are socially, educationally, or financially different from themselves. I think it’s more about the process of coming to terms with our differences.

    It’s about understanding the nature of identity development, and what happens when stereotypes are unknowingly maintained, or are broken down by intentional personal work, or are transcended as the result of having real relationships with people of backgrounds different from your own.

    I recall one Friend in particular, who said: Look at your life. How diverse is it? If you want your meetings to change, you have to look at your life and make different choices there.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up


  17. Thanks for your input, Allison. Very helpful.
    And thanks for opening up the category on question 5 – as someone who has three parents myself, I can’t believe I wrote “both” in my original question…..


  18. PS – 2. The main problem is that most people don’t see this as a problem. If no one makes it a priority to be more inclusive, it’s never gonna happen.


  19. 1. Theology that everyone can seek for themselves is pretty open to everyone I think. Now the way current Quakers actually talk about their faith is very unappealing. It is ironically heady and cold for people who are so-called Children of the Light.

    2. Yes. I think this is largely the problem. In looking for inward guidance, Quakers forget to factor in the fact that in translating their experiences comes through a lens of a WASP culture. And the haughty idea that “Quakers are the only real [fill in the blank].” I feel that Quaker activism is like a good-intentioned White Man’s Burden that doesn’t have a place in the modern multi-lens world we live in. And the feeling that people forget why we are activists in the first place – because life can be joyful. So we shouldn’t be afraid of joy or expressions of joy, however they come out.

    3. Maybe. Seems that as MLK said, Quakers value a “negative peace” that hushes people up before they even begin to talk.

    4. Not a coincidence at all. That’s like men in a men’s club saying, “gee, we wonder why no women come in here, must be because women just don’t like men’s clubs.”

    5. I have four parents. Two yes, two no.


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