Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Two kinds of people

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe the world is divided into two kinds of people, and those who don't.

OK, now that we've gotten that joke out of the way...

This is just a warm-up for a post that's been bouncing around in my head for months. So I'm categorizing it as an 'Idea Oven' item. (Check the first post in this category for a definition.)

But I think that one way one can categorize people is along lines of whether they prefer the Mainstream or the Fringe. I'm not intending either of those terms to be either pejorative or whatever the opposite of pejorative is. They're just convenient labels.

Mainstream people prefer institutions that are well-recognized, familiar, large. Fringe people are willing to take part in small, idiosyncratic, and unfamiliar institutions, if they feel those institutions speak more directly to their needs. And the thing is, you can find within each category people who may actually be fairly similar in their outlook on the particular subject at hand -- but what differentiates them is the particular modality (Mainstream or Fringe) that they prefer.

I think of them in three different contexts, and many more are possible. So: In terms of media, there's Mainstream (NY Times, NPR, your local daily newspaper or TV broadcast, probably CNN) and Fringe (blogs, the Daily Worker, Spotlight [does that far-right organ still exist? I think so]). Something like the Utne Reader or Harper's magazine might occupy a 'Mainstream' or a 'Fringe' slot depending on what it's being compared with. Andrew Sullivan used to be Fringe, but in some ways now he's more Mainstream.

In politics, there's Mainstream (Democratic Party, GOP) and Fringe (Green? Libertarian? and so on).

In religion, in the U.S. Mainstream is any of the Mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic church, any of the three principal branches of Judaism, and the larger Evangelical Christian churches. Islam is moving into the mainstream. Buddhism, too, and Hinduism.

Fringe is any one of the scores, probably hundreds, of small sects that occupy the entire range of belief, from small Universalist groups to millenarian fundamentalist Christian sects.

I would actually argue that UUs are much closer to Mainstream than Fringe, as an institution, but some of that depends on the context, and perhaps the cultural style in a particular UU church in a particular place.

Now, some caveats. There are of course degrees of Mainstream and Fringe, and as I already noted, a single institution can be either Mainstream or Fringe, relative to that with which it is being compared. And a person might be Mainstream in one arena of his or her life and Fringe in another -- say, Mainstream in politics but Fringe in musical tastes. Or vice versa.

Also, I'm not saying one or the other, Mainstream or Fringe, is better. And finally, over time, one can become the other: Fringe can become Mainstream, and Mainstream Fringe.

So what?

I got to thinking about this when I stumbled across the existence of a particular liberal Christian denomination that I had not heard of before. I'm not going to name it for this discussion, for a lot of reasons. And in what I say I truly mean no disrespect.

If I were looking for a Christian church, this particular denomination would theoretically be an option for me. I certainly find myself in sympathy with its basic principals and outlook as advertised on its website. I admire its embrace of diversity and its welcoming ethic.

But in all likelihood, in the course of this hypothetical search for a church [And it is just hypothetical], if I also was aware of the church that DairyStateMom happens to attend, I'd almost certainly opt for that rather than this other Christian church.


Basically I'm a fairly Mainstream guy. I feel at least slightly more at home in Mainstream settings -- which is why I'm a UU rather than having joined some more obscure but equally pluralistic/liberal faith. Or, to put it another way, UU is as "Fringe" as I'm comfortable going.

DSM's church is a well-established institution with a great deal of heritage both in the community and in terms of its denomination. Yes, the denomination's rules about ordination are not as welcoming as we would wish them to be, but I also know the senior pastor of DSM's church is at the forefront of the fight to change those rules. There is something more comforting for me about the idea of being a part of that kind of heritage. Maybe I even feel safety in numbers.

Obviously, there are other people for whom that Mainstream attribute isn't important. And I salute such courage -- or such liberation, if you will.


  1. You may enjoy reading Daniel O'Keefes (sp?)book STOLEN LIGHTNING. It is primarily about sociological aspects of magic and he points out that magic preserves the individual whereas religion preserves a society (some parallels to your comments here beteen the mainstream and the fringe).

  2. I'm inherently pretty mainstream in my approach and my husband if very fringe. It leads to fascinating discussions.



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