An intriguing aspect of cultural conceptions has to do with the importance of numbers. Empires have historically (and colonial projects more recently) have trusted in the power of quantification for both influence in shaping narrative and to fuel the imagination of the population. The ability to take a census, to generate maps with classifications of miles and acres (for example) has been utilized by those in a position to do so as mechanism of control and domination.[1] Colonial concerns of quantification, compartmentalization and subsequent mastery (control) of those established categories have been powerful and formative in the imaginaries available to it subjects (and former subjects).

“The vast ocean of numbers regarding land, field, crops, forests, castes, tribes, and so forth, gathered under colonial rule over the last four centuries, was not a utilitarian enterprise in a simple, referential manner. Its function was part of a complex including informational, justificatory, and pedagogical techniques … State-generated numbers were often put to important pragmatic uses, including setting agrarian tax levels, resolving land disputed, assessing various military options, and, later in the century, trying to adjudicate indigenous claims for political representation and policy change. Numbers were useful in all these ways.” [2]

The mechanism of devices such as census, map and agrarian register functioned in one way during colonial occupation – and in many places still functions as such – but has morphed in more recent thought for both minority communities within existing systems of power as well as de-colonial perspectives.

For an example we might look to the impact of projected demographic changes in the United States. It is widely speculated that, if present trends continue, by 2048 there will be no white majority in the country.

It is important to clarify that

  • A) this has not happened yet and
  • B) that whites will still be larger than every other ethnic group (or racial category) individually.

The turning of the tide is that as the racial categories have been constructed, there will be more non-whites than whites. This is deceptive at two levels:

  1. first it is based on statistical projections bases on demographic numbers from census results. It is simply a number at this point.
  2. Secondly, there is no inherent association or camaraderie amongst what will be the new majority except that they are non-white. Outside of that parameter, there is no assumed similarity, priority, or fixed fraternity.

Here is an example of the difficulties associated with this approach. When a young Native American man says to me with confidence that in his lifetime there will be no white majority, he draws confidence that his current lot, as a minority, will not always be the case. He is both encouraged by this projected reality and emboldened to be strong, take a stand, and let his voice be heard. He can feel the change that is in the air. His America will look very different than his father’s and great-grandfather’s America. But within his conception – his new cultural imaginary – there are (at least) three unstated difficulties.

  • The first barrier is that it is a projected number that is not his present reality. He draws strength and confidence for resistance to the perceived injustice and inequality of present reality. It is a number generated from his colonial oppressors’ census data. His growing sense of self and imagined community is a result of an empirical projection.
  • The second barrier is that he is feeling a sense of fraternity and camaraderie with a population that he will only ever meet a fraction of. He is envisioning himself as part of a dispersed community that is based on the categorization imposed by the powers that oppress him.
  • The third barrier is that of assuming an alliance with Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Islanders, and other immigrants who he may have little in common with outside their expressed non-whiteness. If he were to be empowered with legislative influence along side an LA Latina, a South Carolina descendant of slaves, and a NY Korean would they share many common cultural values?

Yet he has been given a number that allows him to imagine himself in a different cultural context – participating in a different social order. That number allows him to dream and plan now for something that is not his present reality and to behave/participate as if that number were the greater reality. Numbers, in this sense, are powerful within and for the social imaginary.[3]

I was raised and ordained in a denomination that I experienced as massive. It had a global magazine, publishing house, plus six universities and two seminaries around North America. When I attended national gathering the rented civic centers were filled to capacity. I later found that we were dwarfed in size by other denominations. This numeric awareness changed my feeling about what I belonged to and my experience of it. I am now serving with the United Methodist denomination. I have experienced this group as vibrant and massive. Within the ranks, however, is an awareness of a statistical decline that is sobering. The way that members conceive of their movement and conceptualize what is possible is impacted (hampered) by the presence of a shrinking number. It seasons their reality and ability to imagine the community to which they belong.

The power of numbers to shape experience is worth examining.  If I were a child with a skin disease that limited my physical and social options, would I feel it less un-fair if I were informed that 364 other children are inflicted with this disease yearly? Would it matter if I were to learn that I was one of only 3 people worldwide that has my condition? What if I was the victim of a violent crime: would it change the way I process what I had experienced if I learned that 50 such crimes happened daily in my city?

Would my feeling of isolation and loss be impacted by my awareness (numerically) of people that I have never met? Yes. In the western construct, numbers impact the way that we conceive of our experience and conceptualize of an imagined reality or community.

Which brings us to the ‘persecution complex’ that is framing story of many Evangelical communities. Within the ‘statistical’ approach that I have suggested above,  one can quickly zoom in on a phenomenon related to narrative that some evangelical leaders peddle with great success to ‘rally the troops’ and garner support.[4] Pastor Holding Bible

In the exact opposite way that the young Native American man (above) gained encouragement from the idea of statistical formulation, the evangelical may become angry at the perceived loss of what Bill Leonard (in episode 114) calls “Protestant cultural hegemony”. From the ‘Happy Holidays’ controversy to the Duck Dynasty fiasco what we are going through is somewhere between a slight societal shift and a seismic cultural upheaval.

The phenomenon itself is debatable. What is not debatable is the very real perception and subsequent feeling of loss by those who have bought into this narrative framing of their experience.

I recently had a conversation with someone who lives in a different region of the country. She expressed concern that Wednesday nights were no longer ‘sacred’ and that both little league Baseball games and High School practice times now encroached on what just a decade ago was set aside for Bible Study and kids programs at the area churches.

Now the reality is that she can buy Christian books and music at Walmart (!) or one of several Christian bookstores in her area while listening to her choice of Christian radio stations as she drives past the more-than-a-dozen  Protestant churches between her kids’ private Christian school and the ball fields.

The reality is that Christians are neither A) persecuted nor B) a minority in America but that statistical awareness of an incremental  loss of influence is perceived (or felt) as such. The underlying truth, however, is that it is a conceptual framework (narrative) attempting to grapple with a loss of cultural influence/domination (hegemony) that was so pervasive within the 20th century’s modern social imaginary.

[1] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large, , 115.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] A similar case might be made for women who have been disgruntled based on the patriarchal remnants still influencing them and their sisters even though they are aware that they are 51% of the population as a whole. A great deal is made out of the number ‘51’ in juxtaposition to matters of access, equality and compensation. Much is made of that number. What if, one might ask, that number was changed. Would the case be harder to make? What if only 42% of the population were women? Or what if it turned out that an error had been made and actually 64% of the population were women. Would that make the current inequalities and unjust practices more grotesque? [See Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson]

[4] Madan Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 14. “Identity has a history. At one time it was taken for granted that a person had a ‘given’ identity. The debates round it today assume that identity is not an inherent quality of a person but that it arises in interaction with others and the focus is on the processes by which identity is constructed”