Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Religious Climate in Washington DC: Living in Rome

Bird's Eye View of the National Cathedral

When my husband and I moved to DC a year and a half ago, we were astounded by the people. They were so young, so beautiful, so thin, so wealthy. Coming from Georgia this was a shock.  I don't mean to say people in Georgia are ugly, but the obesity rate is much higher, and so is the poverty rate, since these things go together. DC is the center of today's Roman empire, and just like the old one it looks so good on the surface, but there are many hurting people underneath the glimmer. 

1. Where I Live: Northern Virginia, otherwise known as NOVA. They really should just make a state called "metro DC" though, because southern Maryland and NOVA have more to do with each other than with the rest of their respective states. So for statistical reasons I'll use DC/ Maryland data. 

2. Church Attendance: here is a map that shows data for Maryland and DC concerning religious affiliation. You will notice that the largest category is Catholic, closely followed by unaffiliated. I would hazard a guess that if Baltimore were removed from the polling, that unaffiliated would far and away surpass Catholicism as the highest affiliation. There is a high percentage of historically Black Protestant churches in DC, and there are a fair number of evangelical and mainline churches, but nothing like what you would see in "The Bible Belt." I was unable to find stats strictly on Washington DC church attendance as opposed to affiliation, but it's always a much smaller number. 

3. How appropriate would it be if a person were to acknowledge in casual conversation that he or she is a believing Christian: I live in two worlds - the world of the Episcopal seminary where my husband attends, together with my parish community, vs the work-a-day world. In the church world, of course it would be no-biggie. I have had a fellow parishioner suddenly hold my hand after a service and tell me that she needed to pray for me, and I have had intense spiritual discussions with other wonderful people there as well. But the secular world of DC is another story. DC is so fraught with political strife that everyone has an unspoken agreement of don't ask/don't tell when it comes to religion and politics. It's understandable - after all, you wouldn't want people to come to blows on the metro. But there is a sterility to relationships here because everyone is so guarded. The only exception to this is the homeless - they are happy to talk about God with you. 

4. What belief system do the politicians in your area claim to practice: honey, it's DC. They say whatever they think their constituents back home want to hear.

5. How common would it be to see a family with more than three children: it depends on what neighborhood you're in. In the wealthier neighborhoods yes, this would be shocking. It's expensive to have more than 2 kids if you want to live in the pricier zip codes and attend the right schools; heck, this area is pricy no matter where you live. But when you get into the immigrant communities, large (and openly religious) families are the norm. Generally they are observant Muslim though. 

The altar at my parish, St. Paul K Street

6. What was the dominant belief system in your area 50 years ago? What is it now: The most common religion in this area 50 years ago was Christianity, especially Episcopalian protestantism - think "WASPS." The effects of this are still in the area: there are tons of Episcopal churches and schools, including boarding schools and the seminary where my husband attends. And of course the National Cathedral is in DC. I would say though that the influence of this denomination is far less than it used to be because there's much more "competition" for lack of a better term. This is such an international community, especially near where we live in NOVA. Sometimes I'm the only English speaker in the grocery store line, and it is very common to see women wearing hijab. 

Unfortunately, the gods of materialism and professional success rule supreme. When you meet someone, the first question is "what do you do?" i.e. what is your job. In an economy where unemployment is high, the emotional effects of this are almost as devastating as the physical ones. It is hard to maintain a healthy sense of self if you are not rich, if you can't wear the latest fashions or go to hip clubs on U Street or live in a cool neighborhood. Materialism is an American problem, but it is intensified to a giddy degree in the nation's capitol. Those who are poor are shunted to the side, ignored, and despised, even by the people who would claim to be socially conscious. 

7. Do the people where you live seem happy with their lives: I would say yes and no. It looks like the wealthy professionals in Chevy Chase and Arlington with their 1.8 kids and Whole Foods memberships are happy because they have it all. But I watch the professionals on the metro and in the city and at the Safeway, and there is a sense of discontent. 

Right before I got married, I worked for 6 months in a pediatric office in the poorest, most rural country in Georgia. And when I got married and moved to NOVA, I worked at an orthodontist office in Arlington before I found my current job at a DC law firm. The difference was unbelievable and, at first glance, the Arlington families were so much healthier. But that was the surface: underneath was a constant hurry, a fear of mediocrity, a need for their child to have the best of everything that will never satisfy. 

And then there are the poor, the homeless: they have nothing but what they can carry or push in a cart. But I have been blessed by the homeless - actually blessed, as in more than one homeless man has "pronounced" an impromptu blessing on me after a single conversation. They tell me that God is good; they tell me that God will fill my heart with peace. So nothing is as it seems around here. 


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog! Your post was so interesting. It was neat to see how our respective DC-area observations complemented each other. (At least, I think they complemented each other!) And of course it was interesting to read the observations of someone who comes from a different faith tradition from myself. I enjoyed it!

  2. This was really interesting. I can relate to your observations about the differences between the different parts of the country. I've lived in the South and in the Northeast and in a part of FL which is basically "Boston South" and South there is a lot more poverty and obesity.