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The Pew Religious Landscape Report: Complications and Questions

Last Tuesday, the good folks at the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s Religious Landscape. Predictably, the internet went crazy. Some argued that the growth in the nonaffiliated marked the end of Christianity. Others argued that this was actually good news for evangelicals because they didn’t suffer losses are great as other religious groups. Still others used the data to continue the never-ending saga of “mainline hemorrhage”.

I watched all this from a bit of a remove because it was finals week and I had a pile of grading. But I submitted grades for my last class this morning, which freed me to explore these questions for myself. I don’t have access to the 2014 Pew data (if someone wants to give me access, I’d be thrilled!), so I played around with the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape data to test some assumptions.

What I’ve explored below are the key questions we ought to be asking before writing opinion pieces that simply read a narrative into the data. When I do get access to the 2014 data, I’ll repeat the analysis I did today.

1. The Problem with Pie Charts

Pew Religious Landscape

One of the first things I did was examine various “religious families” across the two survey periods. This comparison has been the basis of many of the blog posts about the 2014 data. The percentage of respondents who are nonaffiliated jumped from 16% to 23% while other groups took small losses. It is true that the mainline took a bigger hit than evangelicals, reflecting an actual loss of population over time.

But this kind of analysis is what happens when we rely on percentages. The pie charts have to add to 100%, so if the percentage of nonaffiliated goes up, other percentages must go down. It’s not religion; it’s just math.

An alternative interpretation that relies less on parsing changes to pie slices would look at the percentage of respondents who represent the four primary Christian families. In 2007, those families made up 75% of the total, which fell to 66% in 2014. However we look at this, dropping from 3 of 4 Christians to 2 of 3 Christians doesn’t mean Christianity is dying by any stretch.

2. The Challenge of Self-Identification

The Pew Survey asks people about their religious group identification (in denominational terms) and then collapses those into the religious families shown above (a variable they call RELTRAD). In doing my analysis today, I only focused on the primary four families: Evangelicals, Mainlines, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

Pew also asked whether respondents claimed to be “born again”. As commenters on the 2014 data have reported, a substantial percentage of respondents identify with the label.

In my analysis of the 2007 data, slightly less than half (46%) are born again. Most of these are Evangelicals. But four in ten of those “born agains” come from the other three families, with 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines agreeing. If over one in four Mainline respondents say they’re born again, the “mainline doesn’t stand for anything” narrative might need to go.

This may suggest that there are certain cultural dynamics related to labels that evangelicals like to claim as their own. This cultural identification may be consistent with those other surveys that show attitudes toward the historicity of the virgin birth. It may simply be that “that’s what we say” in certain situations. What people mean by born again will need much more analysis.

3. The Problem of Attendance

Things get more complicated when we look at attendance patterns. Since the Mainline Hemorrhage thesis depends on a simple cultural identification that now isn’t needed, it’s important to see what’s really happening in congregations. If one needed to go to church in the past to prove you’re a good community member and religious non-affiliation is now more accepted, we’d expect a lot of members on paper but not in real life.

There is some truth to this, but it cuts across religious families. I broke the attendance data into two sets; those who attended once a month or more and those who attended less than once a month (I used the “once a month” cutoff in my dissertation research as the minimum level of engagement in the congregation). Here are the percentages of each by religious family.

Attend Not Attend
Evangelical 75 25
Mainline 57 43
Black 77 22
Catholic 67 33

If the “Cultural Christian” thesis holds then we’d get data like we see for Mainlines. But that narrative fails to account for the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Mainline respondents are active in their congregations. Nor can it explain the 1 in 4 Evangelicals who rarely attend church.

A related story told in commentary involves the aging of the Mainline church. We can call that the “Blue Hair Thesis”. If that were to be supported, we’d see a gradual pattern of an aging population that fails to generate sufficient replacement populations to handle losses through death. Related to this pattern is the differential birthrates by religious family (which limits replacement in some traditions).

I was able to examine attendance patterns using the four age cohorts that Pew used in reporting the 2014 data: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 plus. It is true that the senior category has a higher attendance percentage than other groups, but what surprised me was the relative stability of the 18-64 groups.

Evangelical Mainline Black Catholic
18-29 75 56 76 58
30-45 73 52 72 60
50-64 74 54 82 61
65+ 77 64 82 74

Again, the data from the 2007 Religious Landscape study raises questions about our preferred narratives. While it’s true that attendance patterns run higher among Evangelicals and Black Protestants, every age cohort within every religious family shows a majority attending church at least once a month.

Working out my logic this morning, I played with a Baylor Religion Survey, also done in 2007 (thanks to the folks at The Association of Religion Data Archives). Attendance may also be a necessary qualifier in making sense of “switching data”. Those questions (which are in Pew) compare childhood religious family with current religious family. But the Baylor survey also asks about attendance at age 12. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents didn’t make the once a month attendance threshold (a pattern with surprisingly little variation by tradition). To treat infrequent attenders as “switchers” seem like a distortion of the data.

In the Pew data, I was able to compare the “born again” data to the attendance data without separating the four religious families. I found 20% claiming to be born again and attending church less than once a month. Not everything is as we so easily suspect.

4. Religion is Important

Another of the popular narratives is that religion is become increasingly irrelevant to modern society. This may be true in the sense of lessened hegemony over cultural dynamics but it doesn’t show up in the data for those who regularly attend church. (And data on the non-affiliates show some curious patterns in reporting religion is important.)

As the earlier data showed, there are differences across the four religious traditions but these differences pale in light of the importance of religion to those who attend.

Attend Not Attend
Very Somewhat Very Somewhat
Important Important Important Important
Evangelical 89 10 54 35
Mainline 74 24 29 46
Black 91 8 66 28
Catholic 73 25 31 47

If we take the “very” and “somewhat” options together, the patterns on religious importance for those who regularly attend range from 98% to 99%. On the other hand, the nonattenders show the cultural dynamic of arguing that religion is very important in spite of their non-attendance. (This isn’t an artifact of seniors who simply can’t get out; it cuts across age categories.)

Sometimes it seems that the sociology of religion moves very slowly. It hasn’t been that long ago that we stopped dividing everything into Will Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew. We understand that there are larger dynamics of religious tradition in play.

But these patterns are clearly mitigated by attendance. We would do far better in understanding the role of religion in postmodern society if we paid more attention to the legitimate faith of those who regularly attend church instead of perpetuating our favorite version of why our particular tribe is better.

Changing the World Through Sociology

Remarks I’m making tonight at the induction ceremony for Spring Arbor’s Chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta (Sociology Honorary) AKD

We’re here to celebrate your ability to operate like sociologists. Through a series of classes, you’ve been exposed to some key ideas about how the world works. What you’ve learned is important for several reasons. First, as I was reminded at the North Central Sociological Association meetings, employers report looking for students like you. People who can understand organizational dynamics, analyze data, conduct research, and craft policy are extremely valuable (even if the employers don’t know they’re looking for sociologists). Second, it makes you more informed citizens. You have a natural interest in issues like Human Trafficking, in the dynamics of Race, or in the nature of poverty.

But I have more ambitious hopes for you. As Karl Marx put it, “philosophers have only interpreted the world…; the point, however, is to change it.” I want to briefly sketch four reasons why your sociology background puts you in position to change the world.

Sociology pays attention to how things are

Any intro to soc book will tell you about the “debunking tradition” of sociology. It usually winds up listing some common sense beliefs and showing why these aren’t so. This debunking winds up taking on various sacred cows, including a lot of assumptions we make about religion.

But there is something more significant going on that simply debunking. Sociology shows us that no matter how much we want certain things to be true or want to pretend that they are, we wind up asking hard questions: Is that really so? To use one of my favorite examples, when people quote MLK they like to go to the last paragraph of the Dream speech. But we know that MLK was a sharper critic than that. I play a sermon in CORE 400 he gave the weekend before he was killed and it could be given today. He tells the truth about our complex society and observes that issues of poverty, racism, consumerism, and militarism are all threats to our imagined future.

Consider our contemporary focus on economic inequality and racial justice. You’ve taken classes in stratification and race/ethnic relations. Those have sensitized you to real issues going on. While there may be some who like to blame the victim or offer simplistic, “common sense” solutions, you know that these problems are deeply imbedded in the fabric of society. Recent reports have shown how Baltimore residential segregation was the result of intentional policies related to industrial migration of Southern blacks. Add to that issues of suburbanization policies, educational policies, and justice policies and you get a bleak picture. But sociology starts where we are and not where we wish we were. Platitudes simply won’t get us there.

Sociology explores data patterns

From its earliest days, sociology has tried to understand dynamics of data. What can we measure and what does it mean? What data gives us the most information about how things are? Sociologists are familiar with the relevant data and are ready to share it with anyone who will listen (and those who won’t!).

Consider the issue of crime. In the face of non-stop cable news coverage about crimes that occur, police shootings (as either victims or perpetrators), or speculation about policy, sociologists know that the crime rate has been falling for a decade, that murders of and by police officers are less likely today than the were in the past. Because we pay attention to what is really happening and know how to make that data meaningful to others, we can go a long way toward correcting the political and media talking points that so dominate our policy discussions.

The use of data also calls us to pay attention to matters of central tendency. Relax, I’m not turning this into a statistics presentation. But it is important to keep our focus on what the general patterns of data suggest (statistically, we’d look at medians and modes). This is important because too much of our cable news and social media outrage machines operate by picking out an extreme isolated instance and blowing it out of proportion. Yes, there may be an isolated teacher who interferes with a student’s religious belief (probably by misapplying a school policy) but that teacher doesn’t represent public education (no matter what God’s Not Dead would have you believe). Similarly, some isolated state legislator may suggest that Christianity should be a requirement for public office, but he doesn’t reflect our broad public consensus about church and state (although the pool of legislators who say stupid things is nearly inexhaustible in this cell phone age.)

We also care about the difference between statistical and substantive significance. This is one of the challenges of research. We so much want to test our hypotheses and see what we can conclude. But not everything that passes a statistical test is equally important. And our focus on significance can sometimes keep us from adequately making sense of what’s going on. I saw an article last week about the life outcomes for children growing up in same-sex households. It concluded that the odds of bad outcomes were half again higher for them compared to children who grew up in traditional birth parent households. But the article also said that the vast majority of children do not show negative outcomes regardless of the family in which they grew up. Statistically, it’s a significant finding. However, it would be a mistake to build policy on that statistical finding.

Sociology cares about patterns of social structure

Because we pay attention, we know something about the structural dynamics that shape individual and family life decisions. There is a tendency is society to generalize from middle class orientations that simply do not work in all sectors. Some children simply do not have the choices that you had or the social supports that got you to Spring Arbor. Data is clear that students in low income, predominantly minority school have differential patterns of suspensions and dismissals, which means that even those who want to stay in school find it difficult.

While those social structures limit individual choice, it is also true that individual choices shape the ability of individuals to overcome structural limitations. Patterns of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and contact with the criminal justice system limit the ability of children to thrive. One of the Baltimore books I read dealt with a young woman who had a baby while in high school and wanted her mother to care for the child. But her mother left the baby or was high while there, so she wound up quitting school. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids is full of similar stories of family dysfunction that passes along from generation to generation. The result is what he calls scissor graphs that show inequality increasing over time.

These realities are important precisely because we know that the legitimation of power makes things seem “natural”. The technical word is hegemony. Those in power get to determine what is “normal”. So the dysfunctions of families and structures remain invisible. It’s up to us to shine bright lights on what is really happening. It’s early yet, but I have the feeling that Baltimore changed everything. We can now see unless we voluntarily become blind.

Sociology addresses variables for change

In spite of all the frustration, sociology also tells us how to go about advocating for change. We see change happening around us and we have some general ideas on how to promote it.

For example, one key sociological variable is demographics. You all know that I have a keen interest in generational transitions. On a host of social policy issues, what is happening in the millennial generation is very different that what happens in the boomer generation. New thinking on religion, on social class, on race, on immigration is evident wherever you look. Not universally, but certainly on the central tendencies. And one of the realities of demographic change is that the oldest cohorts are passing from the scene. Even for us boomers, our time is coming. That means that smart sociologists spend their time understanding the rising generation.

Similarly, technology has changed the way we engage issues. Social media, for good or for ill, seems to democratize our communication. We can share videos, correct miscommunication, provide real data, and advocate for those who are powerless. We are still figuring out how to do this effectively but the future is bright. We must be smart about how we use this technology (Maybe fewer post about cats or selfies and more issues of engagement).

We close the theory class looking at three folks I call “Identity Sociologists”. They operate from the inside out. The talk of how their personal story reflects the structural dynamics and demand to be taken seriously as individuals. In doing so, they challenge the structures without denying the realities of those currently in power. We have to find a way of demonstrating compassion while for all while still working for change.

Finally, we know something about what it takes to create change. For those who have been in SFJ, you know that Sandel examines utilitarianism and its limits. As much as he and I advocate communitarianism, it is true that people will pursue their personal interests. It is useful to think about how this can motivate change. Here’s a quick example. It’s remarkable that politicians across the political landscape seem to be taking up the mantle of sentencing reform. Not because they care about mass incarceration as a necessarily moral concern but because the drain on state economies is unsustainable. The more we can help people realize that social change is to their advantage, the easier it will be.


So we know a great deal about the practicality of sociology as a means for social change. What remains is simply the political and personal will to put those tools to use. Knowing you as I’ve come to over the last few years, I am excited about the potential for what you will do as Critical Participants in the Contemporary World.

Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore



These two pictures illustrate a couple of the answers to my title question.  In searching for a picture to accompany this post, I went to Google Images and simply typed in “Baltimore”. The first 57 pictures were images like the bottom one — the skyline and the inner harbor. Only then did I get to the picture on top. Not only are these two images of Baltimore both accurate, but it is essential to understand how the two images are related.

The title of this post comes from a series of things I posted on Facebook earlier this week. Far too many stories came across my social media feed which seemed to inhibit dialogue rather than invite it. This morning I receive a message from a Spring Arbor graduate who is interning with IJM in Asia and had been in my race and ethnic class. Watching all of this from afar, she wrote:

I’ve been recently becoming more and more frustrated by humanity’s apparent inability to have conversations about things like this. People seem to prefer choosing sides and having a screaming match instead of trying to come to a reasonable conclusion. Judging from your Facebook posts (and your class discussions) this is something that frustrates you as well.

Here are my answers to her very good question.

1. We Don’t Know How to Think about Structural Inequality

As I’ve written, last month I finished The Long Shadow, a book by Johns Hopkins sociologists examining two decades of life in Baltimore. It reports on a panel study that followed children starting public school through age 28. I shared their findings in our social stratification class yesterday (I summarized their mobility data in the post last month.) I gave the students this chart.

Long Shadow

I wrote in that other post that this is a Chi-Square test.For those who don’t know Chi-Square, it’s a test of independence. The “expected count” shows what you’d have if there was no relationship between the variables. While we can never “prove” a relationship, we wind up determining that the relationship is statistically significant (meaning the odds of this being a chance pattern are very small).There are four degrees of freedom in a three by three table and the Chi-Square value for a 1% chance of error is 13.27. For yesterday’s class I tested the probability of finding this result. The Chi-Square value for the table above came in at 126. When I plugged that figure into a Chi-Square calculator, I learned that the odds of finding this pattern rests at 1 out of 100,000.

What this chart tells us, as does Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, is that there is much more to intergenerational inheritance than we’ve been willing to admit. Advantage begets advantage. Disadvantage limits mobility. Of course it is true that individuals can rise about their circumstances through discipline and hard work. It is true that children of advantage can lose ground. But as the chart shows, these are the anomaly not the general pattern. Without something shifting trajectory, the likely outcome is class replacement.

Our focus on mobility and the American Dream blinds us to this basic sociological reality. To admit that some people seem trapped by their circumstances somehow runs the risk of determinism. So we try to generalize from the exception rather than looking at the common patterns.

2. We fail to understand the implications of past public policy decisions

As tempting as it is for some critics to simply blame Baltimore Uprising on partisan politics or racial insensitivity, the actual picture is more complicated. Emily Badger wrote a fascinating account in Wednesday’s Washington Post detailing the public policy history of Baltimore. It’s a harsh history. This passage summarizes things very well.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

Suburbanization led to White Flight. White Flight led to a declining city tax base. Urban redevelopment displaced powerless populations so that we could gentrify the neighborhoods to revitalize the downtown. Rundown areas became havens for crime. Crime-ridden neighborhoods required a regular police presence. Those who could flee the inner city did, leaving behind those with few other options.

I’d like to believe that these were all unintended consequences of misguided public policy. But I fear that there were those who manipulated these policies as economic incentives. Those who targeted West Baltimore for subprime mortgages didn’t do that by accident.

I could write an entire post on the ways in which our short-sighted policy decisions have contributed to the realities we face today. But until we recognize that this isn’t about welfare dependency or drug trafficking but is about a national policy that favored economic interests and upper-middle class enclaves, we can’t have a real conversation about why there are two Baltimores.

3. We are unable to take the role of the other

It’s easy to blame this on the media — they make it so easy. Jon Stewart did a great video montage this week of Wolf Blitzer claiming that he “couldn’t believe these things happen in America”. First, Wolf needs to get out more and talk way less. But more importantly, it reflected a blindness to the ongoing situations on the ground. Many people rightly observe that media coverage of the Baltimore protests was minimal and sporadic until the CVS store was burned. Suddenly, we denounce the looters and decry the sad state of our culture.

Two things needs to be said. First, I heard a long-term law enforcement officer on NPR this week (I can’t find the link) comment that Monday’s riot was nothing compared to what happened to Baltimore in 1968. Today we have 24 hour news channels and roving reporters demanding to know why rioting is happening. Second, the media coverage follows a pattern of finding the most egregious example and using that as the key talking point.

This story by Lonnae O’Neal does an excellent job of trying to walk in the shoes of those who actually experience West Baltimore. Perhaps if we had more sociological imagination we could begin to know what that’s like.

In a strange way, comments by law enforcement officials following the indictment of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray provide a starting point for empathy. NPR had a story yesterday about fears those in law enforcement that included the following:

“The specter of criminal charges being filed against police officers I believe is going to send reverberations across the nation,” says Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now runs the police academy in Washington state.

Rahr is reform-minded, having served on President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing. But she’s also worried that public opinion is becoming too slanted against police.

“What gets played in the media is the most extreme cases — the cases that represent an anomaly,” she says. “Because those are played over and over again, people get the perception that that’s happening all the time and that’s the norm.”

It almost sounds like she’s concerned that police would be blindly assumed of wrongdoing. What would be next? Randomly stopping innocent police officers and demanding that they explain their presence in the neighborhood? That they could be harassed just because of their physical appearance?

Yet that kind of cross-over of viewpoint is necessary if we are to break out of our echo chambers. Otherwise, we keep talking to people who already agree with us about how bad THEY are.

4. We won’t abandon chicken-and-egg issues about culture and structure

It’s amazing how much is written about issues of culture versus issues of structural inequality. Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an essay about The Nature of Poverty. He says that we have spent great sums of money on programs and yet don’t seem to make a difference (to his credit, he doesn’t begrudge those attempts). He concludes his piece as follows:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

As a social psychologist, this is frustrating. The relationship between belief and behavior is a reflexive phenomenon. Our beliefs influence our behaviors and our experiences modify our beliefs. As I told the stratification class yesterday, it may be that not caring in school is a remarkable rational response to lack of opportunity or the difficulty of overcoming a brush with the law.

The only viable policy response is for us to consider how to support students who care about school while simultaneously addressing issues that make it worth their while to care. It is to consider how our drug policies have impacted family dynamics while we find ways of strengthening family and extra-family bonds (and be willing to support even those that don’t involve marriage).

As long as we simply pick a side and say that nothing can happen until we resolve this issue (joblessness or criminality), nothing will happen.

5. We lack a theology that confronts inequality

I just finished an excellent little book on Wesleyan Political Theology. It is Greg Coates Master’s thesis from Duke and explores how Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts built on John Wesley’s theology to engage political and economic conditions in 19th century America. Deeply embedded in American populism and the pursuit of the Imago Dei, Roberts worked vociferously for social change. Not as an addendum to his theological commitments but as a direct expression of them. Coates contrasts Wesley’s views of the monarchy and the government in England with Roberts’ views of economic exploitation and structural inequality in America. He concludes that Roberts grasps an underdeveloped component of Wesleyan theology; that individual AND structures are being redeemed.

Yet a Wesleyan approach to politics is rooted in the primary truth that all people are created in the image of God and that all of creation is intended to reflect the community of the holy Triune God, with whom we will one day be united after having been sanctified through the power of the Spirit. This means that first and foremost our political theology must be people-centric, not issue-centric.

Because Roberts wasn’t interested in premillennialism, he didn’t see the world as something to be abandoned. He recognized that somehow we are co-participants in God’s Kingdom and responsible to and for all those who live in it.

Maybe if we could take this last point seriously, the other issues would begin to be addressed.

The One Metaphor that Truly Hurts Christian Universities

Much of my attention over the past two weeks has been drawn to events at Christian Universities. Institutions that are often seen as the embodiment of shared community seem torn with conflict between leadership, faculty, students, and alumni. There are Facebook groups, letter-writing campaigns, and lead stories in student newspapers. It’s a lot to process.

The controversies have been covered in local news media, reporting on administrative actions dismissing or reassigning popular figures with the suspicion that it was because the views they espoused were somehow problematic (in spite of statements to the contrary by the administration). Social media played a key role in keeping attention on the unresolved issues, which made news coverage easier.

Administrative controversies are not new to Christian universities. A quick survey of institutional histories shows that the occur at nearly predictable intervals. In one of my institutions, the first major administrative crisis occurred within a decade of its founding, resulting in the dissolution of the board.

I experienced an upheaval 25 years ago. In conversation with a colleague who had left the same institution 20 years before that, we found that we experienced an identical pattern of action, recrimination, and abandonment.

Not ChruchI’ve been thinking about a conversation I had late in the 1989-1990 academic year. We were meeting in small groups to discuss the concerns about the administration. In that meeting, a faculty member who had come out of the pastorate shared this perspective:

It seems to me that the President is like the pastor of the church and the Trustees are like the church board. The faculty and staff are the congregation. The President discerns God’s leading for the institution, consults with the trustees, and the rest of us have faith in that leading.

That’s my paraphrase of what he said. I may not have the words right, but I know I got the sentiment.

Back in those days, nearly all of the trustees were pastors or lay leaders in the congregations and districts. They understood strong leader images. They didn’t particularly “get” academic culture. And there were still enough faculty members who shared a similar background with my quoted colleague to not rock the boat.

The Christian University is a far more complex entity than it was a quarter century ago. We now have more business leaders on the trustees, who may be likely to substitute a strong CEO model for the strong pastor model (although the two have gotten increasingly interchangeable).

Today we also have faculty members who believe in principles of shared governance, transparency, and integrity. We have students who feel free to express their opinions and challenges both on social media and in person. We have alumni who can look back fondly at their undergraduate years but are far more culturally savvy today and are willing to speak on behalf of those students who may feel powerless.

The Christian University is not like a church.

The Christian University is not like a business.

The Christian University is an educational community committed to critical thinking, careful communication, open dialogue, multiple perspectives, and truth-telling.

Leadership plays a role in providing strategic direction for the community precisely because leaders are operating first and foremost as community members. They know how to listen and how to engage. They exercise remarkable insight on how to make university policies become instruments of institutional values and are willing to change policy when it violates those values.

When we see the Christian university as having a special touch of God’s leading, interpreted and administrated by leadership, it keeps us from addressing real issues that need attention. We have too many chats about God’s plans for success and far too many comments on “for such a time as this”. It’s no wonder that leaders in such a culture wind up acting unilaterally without considering process concerns.

I believe people are gifted in administrative skills (not all of those people are in formal leadership). There is a responsibility to nurture those gifts and guard against the temptation to believe one is infallible.

Financial and political crises will come and go. They are part of the reality of small faith-based institutions of higher education. But how those are dealt with requires a commitment to community and not a default to strong leadership.

It goes without saying that the strong leader metaphor is even more problematic in the local congregation but I’ll leave that for another day.

On Academic Freedom and Not Being a Jerk

I spent this weekend at the North Central Sociological Association meetings in Cleveland. It was a joy to once again take a group of my sociological theory students and let them see sociologists in action. This is a picture of the Arcade, which is part of the Hyatt Regency.Arcade

This year I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Freedom of Expression in the Classroom: Challenges in the Changing Political Climate“. Moderated by Fayyaz Hussain from Michigan State, the panel was made up of Brendan Mullan from MSU (and next year’s NCSA president), Peter Blum from Hillsdale College, and me. Our session was in one of the rooms opening onto the arcade.

The topic was prompted by a situation with an MSU professor a year or so ago where he had made derogatory in-class comments about the Republican Party which were videotaped and became an internet sensation about liberal professors. He wound up being suspended from his teaching duties. We didn’t talk about last fall’s Marquette situation but could have.

We each opened with our own stories. The differences between a state school, a Christian university, and a politically conservative liberal arts college seemed to fade away once we got into the conversation.

As the discussion moved on, the conversation seemed to shift from the right to say whatever one thinks to how one properly interacts with one’s students. In short, there was agreement that just because a professor COULD take a political or theological position based upon one’s scholarship, it doesn’t follow that one MUST.

Toward the end of my remarks, I suggested that we needed a good operational definition of “being a jerk”. There is an important distinction between sharing a viewpoint and being a jerk about it.

There also seemed to be some agreement that pushing too hard would simply result in students closing down intellectually and emotionally. This isn’t effective either pedagogically or interpersonally.

As I reflected on situations I’ve been aware of where someone’s scholarship raised difficulty or challenging questions, especially for administrators, I found that the relationship with the students seemed to be central. If the faculty member puts a priority on  the long-term learning of students, it moderates how hard to push. On the other hand, it’s often the case that a disrespectful comment or a position directly attacking a group of students will trigger responses well beyond simple academic disagreement. Students who perceive that possibility may be far more likely to think about recording the professor in future interactions.

The discussion, while good, was more personal than academic. During the conversation part of my brain was focused on my friend Tom Oord, whose position was eliminated at Northwest Nazarene University under circumstances that are nearly impossible to explain. Tom’s scholarship has raised questions that some quarters of the denomination and conservative factions (and maybe some administrators) have been disagreeing with for some time.

OordBut at the center of Tom’s scholarship is a belief that love is pre-eminent. It is that love that allows hard questions to be asked. It is that love that makes him one of the warmest and most hospitable colleagues I have ever met. There are few people you can meet at a conference who will be more inviting and inclusive. His comment after receiving the news (now the Facebook meme above) was “I plan to live a life of love.

This is why there is such an outcry over Tom’s firing. The way the institution treated Tom seems to be the negation of everything he has been committed to as a scholar and a colleague. It was done in ways that, while defensible in only the most legalistic sense, were clearly damaging to Tom, his colleagues, and his students.

It’s not that everyone agrees with Tom’s positions. His supporters — colleagues, former students, current students, and social media contacts — just know that he would never act in ways that did harm to others.

We can manage a tremendous amount of ambiguity and uncertainty in Christian higher education if we keep love and community at the center of what we do. If we act in ways that cause faculty to be the center of attention, that minimize others in the process, or that accentuate power imbalances, we wind up in much darker places.

Putting priority on operating in love and community affirmation, even in the face of power differences (maybe especially there) is key to the proper exercise of academic freedom within a Christian educational setting. That’s what is missing when faculty members disrespect their students. It’s also what’s missing when administrators look to exercise power in ways that, while legitimate, damage their communities in the process.

Structural Inequality Three: Unequal Outcomes



The day the NCAA brackets were announced, I wrote this post on the nature of structural inequality. I argued that even though we like underdogs and upsets, the odds favored the turnout we expected from the beginning. As it turned out, three of the final four teams had been designated #1 seeds before the tournament (Go State!). This is probably as it should be — the best teams (at least as determined by the seeding committee) get to play in the Big Game.

Wisconsin has been in three final fours and won the whole thing in 1941. Duke has been in fifteen final fours and has four championships, the most recent in 2010.

This echoes one on the basic ideas in stratification: past benefits accrue over time.

This weekend I finished the two books I’ve been reading on the nature of inequality in America. As I’ve written, one is Our Kids by Robert Putnam and the other is The Long Shadow by a team of sociologists from Johns Hopkins. Reading them in tandem was enlightening.

Putnam’s book is full of site-specific case studies contrasting successful kids and challenged kids. Whether in Ohio, Oregon, Atlanta, or Orange County, similar patterns emerge. Each chapter fleshes out the case studies with national census-type data.

The Hopkins book also uses a site-specific comparison with some incredible data following the same set of kids from 6 to 28. The authors look at neighborhood characteristics, family dynamics, school conditions, and economic concerns. Where Putnam relies on story, the Hopkins folks end up doing some high level regression to look at how status is transferred (or not) across generations.

One of the curious things about the books is that they don’t work with the normal journalistic 1%-99% comparisons. Half of Putnam’s families are upper-middle class but nobody has a yacht. The Hopkins book focuses on families in the Baltimore Public Schools, so they don’t pick up those who moved to more affluent suburbs.

This is important. The inequality characterized in the books is not the story of rich people. It’s about “normal” people and those who have somehow been left behind (usually through no fault of their own).

Both books wind up telling exactly the same story. There is a significant difference in access to the very things that contribute to intergenerational success. Those who have resources use those to achieve. Those who don’t find themselves falling further behind.

Here’s a chart from The Long Shadow (page 124, picture from my Iphone).

Long Shadow

My stats students will recognize this as a Chi Square table. The rows represent the social class of origin. The columns represent the social class at age 28. The expected values tell us what we’d expect to find if there was no relationship (as one would expect in a meritocracy).

As the table shows, those who start out lower SES half are still lower class at about 1.5 times expected. They are less than half as likely to be upper SES at 28 as expected. At the other end, the upper SES kids who were lower class was only 1/4 of what would be expected but more than twice as likely to be upper SES at 28.

This remarkable stability of structural inequality is shocking, even to us social scientists. Here’s Putnam’s reflection:

Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids. Before I began this research, I was like that. I’ve worked hard, I thought, to rise from a modest background in Port Clinton— much of the time heedless of how much my good fortune depended on family and community and public institutions in that more communitarian and egalitarian age. If I and my classmates could climb the ladder, I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today. Having finished this research, I know better.

What factors explain these differences? Both books illustrate the patterns of family life beginning prior to the beginning of school. Those who have advantages are able to start strong and have school work for them. Those who don’t begin behind and have family or community disruptions that inhibit the expected school to college to occupation pipeline.

There are differences in school quality and neighborhood safety. But these pale in comparison to family struggles.

It is unreasonable to simply suggest that the disadvantaged should care more about school or have better marriages or take their kids to church. It’s not all economic but it is largely structural. Moving forward in the ways we seem to expect as a society may seem self-evident, but we have to address that fact that some people are starting significantly behind.

Furthermore, the Hopkins book demonstrates that those gaps widen over time. Differences in resources when kids start school play out in differences in resources throughout the elementary grades. Differences in elementary grades expand when kids get to junior high and really take off at high school. (Putnam’s book is full of stories of disadvantaged kids having a caring teacher in early grades who isn’t replaced as they move through their educational journey.)

This is why Putnam’s book ends with some specific recommendations that our policy makers should act upon. Enhanced Earned Income Tax Credits, better child care supports, teacher incentives to poor schools, changes in sentencing and reentry policies. These will all cost money in a time when we seem unwilling to do so. But we will pay much higher costs downstream.

If we can grasp Putnam’s understanding that these are in fact Our Kids we might see that such investments are not only feasible but mandatory in modern society.

Will RFRA laws “lead towards anarchy”?

This is the first time I’ve found one of Antonin Scalia’s arguments particularly persuasive. I’ll explain in a minute.

Like nearly everyone else, I’ve been trying to make sense of Indiana’s RFRA law and its implications. There has been a surprising dispute about even the construction of the law. There are a number of articles claiming, as Governor Pence did, that the Indiana law is “just like the federal law signed by Bill Clinton” or “like scores of other states“. Here’s the central thrust of both the 1993 federal law and the Indiana law:


(a) IN GENERAL. — Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b). (b) EXCEPTION. — Government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person –(1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.


Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

So in the primary language, these two laws are fundamentally the same. Except where they aren’t.

The Indianapolis Star compared the Indiana law with the federal law.  The relevant differences aren’t in the central provision of the law but in the definitional and implementation items. First, the Indiana law takes a post-Hobby-Lobby definition of “person”, granting religious freedom rights to private businesses and non-profits. Second, the threshold for the burden on exercise is lowered from recourse after government action to the potential of a burden. In essence, it moves the timeframe from a complaint after the fact to a potential violation that has not yet occurred. Third, the Indiana law suggests that the infringement could happen “regardless of whether the state..is a party to the proceeding”. This opens the possibility of RFRA actions being taken between private parties.

So while the law looks the same on the surface, it isn’t the same. Given the Governor’s arguments, I have to wonder if the parallel wording was designed for exactly the defense that was given. Furthermore, the private arguments of some of the law’s most ardent supporters told a very different story, putting the hypothetical baker as the law’s beneficiary. The Indiana legislature and Governor Pence  today put non-discrimination language as a preamble to the law (which eliminates the baker), but it doesn’t change what I think is the central issue.

Digging into the specifics of the Indiana situation led me to explore the history of Free Exercise cases before the Supreme Court. The first case (Reynolds vs. United States) was about a polygamous Mormon using his religious beliefs as a defense against a bigamy charge. The court ruled that because the bigamy law applied to everyone, the religious belief was irrelevant.

A second major case (Sherbert) dealt with an Adventist woman whose employer fired her for not working on Saturday. Her unemployment claim was denied by the state of South Carolina. The court ruled that the state’s action constituted an undue burden on her religious expression.

A third case is the one that prompted the federal RFRA. Alfred Smith had used peyote as part of Native American religious exercise. As a result, he was fired from his job at a drug rehab clinic. When he applied for unemployment in Oregon he was denied. The court ruled that since the drug prohibition applied to all Oregonians and didn’t single out Native Americans, there was no primary burden on religious expression.

Which brings us back to Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the Smith decision. Here are two relevantScalia paragraphs that seem to speak volumes about issues in the news in the last week:

“It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]…to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended….To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.’ To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.”

“… The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.” [Emphasis mine]

The federal RFRA law was designed in direct response to the Smith decision. But 20 years later, Scalia’s warnings sound remarkably prescient.

Mark Silk of Religion News Service wrote today that if the Smith decision had gone the other way, there might not have been an RFRA in response. I think he’s right. I’ll come back to why that’s the case.

But I want to argue that the problem with Indiana’s RFRA is inherent in the language of the law in the first place. The problem exists in the 1993 law and likely in all of the laws passed since then. The RFRA laws define religious exercise as “any exercise of religion,whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” I’ve written before that a notion of religious belief separate from group practice is hard to understand. If we understood government infringement in terms of constitutional history, it would involve the limitation of a group’s central practice.

This is why the Sherbert decision makes sense. Worshipping on Saturday was a central issue to Adventists. In that regard, the use of peyote by Smith as part of religious ritual could have been defended, as long as this was established group practice. If, on the other hand, Smith and his friend had used the peyote as an individual option, the Oregon laws would hold. Furthermore, to suggest that “any” religious exercise — even if not central — is of equal weight simply defies logic.

A second problem with the RFRA laws is that they have a relatively open definition of religion. Past jurisprudence has extended the right of religious expression not only to minority religions (Holt vs. Hobbs, 2015, on beard length for Muslim Prisoners) but to nonbelievers as well (Torcaso vs. Watkins, Oregon 2014). News reports have already shown up in Indiana regarding the proposed Church of Cannabis and the Wiccan plan to dance naked at the state house on the next full moon.

While the Indiana law was championed by conservative Christians, it opens the door for a host of other unintended challenges as Jonathan Merritt observed last year. Satanic statues in Oklahoma and Florida have demonstrated that protections for conservative Christians can easily be co-opted by other groups. This may seem like an extreme example, but I can imagine an atheist group claiming religious exemption to a personhood amendment based on their “deeply held beliefs” about when life begins. In what way is that not coercion by the state?

The third problem with RFRA laws comes in the need for consistent application. Who decides which particular violation of one’s religion exercise should be pursued in court? Ben Corey wrote this tongue-in-cheek post about all the reasons why one could refuse to bake a wedding cake. If every possible violation of someone’s personal principles becomes an occasion for legal redress against the state, it seems we would rapidly approach the scenario that Justice Scalia described above.

Here’s my overall conclusion. The RFRA laws are hampered precisely because they are negative statements. Rather than attempting to carve out a safe place for religious practice in a pluralistic society where increasing numbers of people claim no religious affiliation, we’ve attempted to protect the status quo against incursion from the changing society.

This is doomed from the start. The sooner we can begin to discuss the legitimate role of religion (which will protect ministers and churches from performing weddings against their church’s discipline), the better we’ll be able to protect the legitimate rights of believers and nonbelievers alike.


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