We live in a time when cultural segregation results in a fragmentation that is detrimental to the social fabric necessary for the cohesion of communities.
What is cultural segregation? It involves groups of people with different values from those held by other members of the community. When one hears the word “segregation”, many immediately think of racial segregation, and indeed racial segregation is a form of cultural segregation. However, there are many other forms of cultural segregation, including segregation by age, segregation that breaks down by education, and segregation based on life experiences, such as those who served in the army, compared to those who did not.
Cultural segregation, as the term is used here, is not necessarily bad. For example, there is nothing wrong with groups of veterans, like the one I am part of, coming together to support each other and enjoy each other’s company. Camaraderie is often a key factor in these experiences.
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It has been said that churches are the most segregated institutions in America today (compared to the military, which is the most integrated institution in contemporary American society). There is a considerable amount of data that supports this.
Segregation in churches, which often breaks down along racial lines, is best understood as a voluntary form of cultural segregation, with different churches having different styles of worship – different styles that appeal to different groups of people.
For example, at Second Baptist Church on Rock Island, a predominantly African-American congregation where I have had the pleasure of attending services on several occasions, there is a delightful degree of spontaneity that contrasts with the style of worship of the Lutheran church of which I am a member. When the choir sings in Second Baptist, members of the congregation will stand and clap as they sing along with the choir. Lutherans don’t do that sort of thing (although there is reason to think that perhaps Lutherans should relax a bit and clap and sing with the choir once in a while – in recent years Lutherans have innovated clapping after the choir sang.)
In short, cultural segregation, as long as it is voluntary, is not necessarily bad. The problem, however, is that we all tend to live in our own little world, paying little, if any, attention to those with other cultural values. It is what frays the social fabric that must unite us if we want to be a community, rather than a simple amalgam of isolated individuals.
Are there ways to bring people together, while respecting the cultural traditions that form the mosaic of our community? Yes, there are — if we are ready to build the bridges that bring people together.
For example, I would like to see the Lutheran church of which I am a member and the Second Baptist Church organize a joint Thanksgiving service, incorporating the musical traditions of both churches into this joint service. Maybe it could be at Second Baptist one year and then at our church the next.
(Because I’m not on our church board or in any position of authority in our church – I’m just a guy who sits in one of the back rows, which is prime real estate in Lutheran churches – I take the liberty of offering the Common Thanksgiving service here in hopes that it will come to fruition. If there is not enough time to implement it this year, maybe it could be on next year’s agenda.)
In the following columns, I will discuss other forms of cultural segregation, such as age-based cultural segregation, and share some thoughts on ways to build bridges that bring people together, while recognizing and respecting cultural differences that often divide us as people.
Dan Lee, a regular columnist, is the Marian Taft Cannon Professor of Humanities at Augustana; [email protected].