No, this isn’t a quote from 1950s small-town America or from the movie “Steel Magnolias,” in which the goings on at church was the town’s social epicenter. This is from a present day phone conversation in which my mom was regaling me with tales from her Florida retirement town. Church is a big deal there — who goes, who doesn’t, who wears what (“She had the gall to wear pants!”), and of course who is of what religion.
Sure, in cases like the interfaith dating soap opera, apparently bored retirees are using religion to judge each other. But at least they know more about their friends than what’s posted on their Facebook page. Instead of hanging out in Farmville and liking each other’s photos and status updates, this generation is gathering at church potluck suppers and volunteer activities, sharing their beliefs and celebrating their faith shoulder to shoulder in a real, nonvirtual church.
How much do we — that is, younger generations — know about the friends we’re regaling with happy holidays wishes on social media pages? How deep are the beliefs and values that bind us together in friendship now, versus 50 years ago?
Even just 20 years ago, my church was an enormous part of my life — vacation bible school, teaching Sunday school, choir, music groups, church camp, being an acolyte — church was the anchor for everything else that was happening. I don’t recall the topic of “religion” as a political issue or something to divide friends. We went to church, we had fun, made friends and somehow it wasn’t a cable news headline.
I don’t remember when it happened (perhaps when I moved to L.A. from my small New England town?) but there was a moment when, speaking with a new friend, I said something about being Lutheran. There was a moment of silence as my friend looked at me in wonderment as if I was a Puritan girl, magically transported from another century who still believed in this wacky idea of “God” and “church.” I learned from that experience, “OK, so friendship these days is based on where you like to hang out and favorite movies. Better keep my mouth shut.”
It’s ironic that our elders still seem to be able to speak so freely about hot-button issues like religion and politics, especially since I was taught growing up “no politics or religion among friends.” In reality, they may regard this as a rule meant to be broken in exchange for an active social life among like-minded peers and deeper, long-lasting friendships.
However, while they are making goodies for church bake sales and taking communion together, the subject of religion is pushing we youngsters further and further apart. Is there a war on religion that keeps us from talking about it? Members of a Wisconsin group called Freedom from Religion seems intent on surrounding themselves in a nonreligious bubble within a country that celebrates many religions. When did the constitutional freedom of religion that our country was founded upon become the enemy of the people? If a church bulletin board with a nativity scene on it somehow screws up your day, you may want to do some reading on how and why the country that is so graciously granting you the freedom to get pissed off exists in the first place.
Yes, my mom and her group might be the last, “Oh my, did you see who wore white shoes after Labor Day?” generation. But maybe we should take a cue from their efforts to really become close to their friends, find out what they believe in and find some common ground to develop a real, nonvirtual friendship. The other option, of course, would be to create a “church” app on Facebook where we could all log in and sing virtual hymns, take virtual communion and download the sermon onto our Kindle.
As for the interfaith couple wreaking havoc among my mom’s church friends, I’m sure no wars will be started or political groups founded so that Catholic man and Baptist woman can share in their beliefs and even attend a potluck supper together. And chances are they’ll keep their other friendships intact in the process because bonds based on core beliefs are too strong to be broken by clicking the “unfriend” button on Facebook.
Christine Whitmarsh is the owner of local writing firm Christine, Ink. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.