I am presently writing a book about US history over the past two decades or so, basically the 21st century. The overwhelming point that is emerging for me about the last twenty years has been not just the scale of change – social, economic, and above all technological – but also its extraordinary speed. Matters of race, gender, and sexuality have of course been in constant flux. This sets off many thoughts about extrapolating those changes to the near future, and particularly some religious implications.
As often in life, I look to The Simpsons as an illustration. Early in its career, in 1990, the show introduced a fictionalized Indian (Bengali) character with an unpronounceable name, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Fitting precisely into national stereotypes, Apu is an immigrant who runs a convenience store, and his voice is supplied – in exaggerated and parodied form – by a white American actor. Although The Simpsons presents highly liberal and progressive attitudes, its writers in the 1990s had no compunction about what many today regard as a mocking ethnic stereotype. Yet far from taking offense, some informed Indian commentators were happy to welcome Apu as showing that the United States was beginning to take account of its emerging South Asian presence: Apu proved that Indians had arrived. Recently, though, powerful new sensibilities have emerged, so that Apu is widely denounced as a racist assault, much as minstrel shows were once used to stereotype and denigrate black Americans. That is a radical change.
In many other areas too, a modern audience must look with astonishment at media depictions of just a quarter century past, and that gulf of comprehension indicates the speed of changes in this era. Besides ethnic themes, revolutionary new attitudes to sexual behavior make it difficult for contemporary younger audiences to watch films or television programs of a few decades back without defining the interactions depicted as harassment, stalking, or worse. In the 1990s, popular television series like Friends and Seinfeld appealed to young audiences of liberal disposition, but today those series’ attitudes to issues of sexism and homophobia make them extremely problematic for many. So does their very un-diverse casting. Such a sea change forces us to ask what aspects of contemporary life will baffle and appall audiences in twenty years time.
We can reasonably make some predictions about the US of the 2040s, in terms of its ethnic balance, or its majority-minority composition, but such social currents and grievances are quite beyond us. We can reasonably project that transgender concerns, and matters of gender fluidity, will be a likely focus of broad social evolution, but other trends will yet surprise us.
Recent experience suggests that one critical arena of future change will be the American past, or rather our constructions of that past, based on evolving forms of racial and ethnic consciousness. It would be illuminating to see how Americans of 2040 will retell the national story, how they identify its great episodes, its heroes and villains. How especially will the Founding Fathers endure, especially the slave-owners? How will those new perceptions be reflected in something as basic as the names given to cities and states? Literally, what will the map of the United States look like by that time?
As the saying had it in the old Soviet Union: the future is quite fixed, but the past changes day by day.
In terms of churches, some of those concerns stand out especially. Shifts in gender roles and attitudes have of course transformed matters over the past forty years or so, but now get ready for that transgender shift. Expect furious new debates over language, in liturgies and hymns, and maybe revisions of theology. I quote from a recent description of pressing issues in Prayer Book revision, as discussed at the Episcopal General Convention meeting in Austin:
Besides adding gender-neutral language concerning God, some advocates also want other revisions including, a Christian’s duty to the Earth’s conservation, adding same-sex marriage ceremonies to the liturgy, (since the church has been performing homosexual weddings for years) and even adding a ceremony to celebrate a transgender person’s adoption of a new name.
More generally, expect ever-expanding generational clashes. The world is changing so fast, and that science fiction future is arriving far faster than anyone ever expected.
On a sobering note, do recall that the new undergraduates entering colleges this coming Fall were born in 2000, and they don’t recall a world without smartphones and social media. For them, the US has always been at perpetual war in at least one Muslim nation. For them, same sex marriage has always been the law of the land; Confederate flags have always been the symbol of hard core racist lunatics; and transgender issues have always been at the forefront of civil rights. Churches that fail at least to acknowledge and debate these fundamental realities – if not to agree with them on every point – just do not speak their language.