The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: An Update

Nearly three years ago I was invited to contribute a post to a Patheos series on The Future of Evangelicalism in America. My focus, which is the primary theme of my sabbatical book project, was the splintering of what we think of as evangelicalism.  Here’s how I ended that post:

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’s definitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

If evangelicalism can focus on affirming these core principles, even while disagreeing on broader issues, its impact on society will be substantial. If evangelicalism can’t build a big enough tent around those central pillars, it will mire in conflict and fade into irrelevance.

Little did I know three years ago that the 2016 election would substantially accelerate my prediction. In just the last few months, we have seen the following groups begin to emerge as public expressions of evangelicalism.

The Pro-Trump Evangelicals: This group, originally formed as then-candidate Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, has provided vocal support for nearly all of the president’s policies and general apology for his character failings. They are motivated in large measure by a vision of a Declining America that must be redeemed through “any measures necessary”. Which is why they’ve latched onto the Cyrus metaphor (although I argued the Nebuchadnezzar was a better metaphor). John Fea’s new book on the “court evangelicals” (which I haven’t read) explores this group in depth.

Billy Graham CenterThe Wheaton Gathering:  This week, a group of non-Trump evangelicals met at the Billy Graham Center on Wheaton’s campus to discuss evangelicalism in the age of Trump. The attendees differed demographically and stylistically from the Pro-Trump group — more females, less white, less combative, more culturally engaging.

The fragmentation is evident in the fact that the first group criticized the “evangelical thought leaders” gathered at Wheaton for not including voices like Franklin Graham or Richard Land. More extreme and fringe criticism even suggested that Tim Keller was an avowed Marxist!

The Lynchburg Revival: The week before the Wheaton meeting, Shane Claiborne and a group of progressive evangelicals (generally overlapping with Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and Moral Mondays movement) met in Lynchburg, VA — home of Liberty University — to have a series of meetings about issues of poverty, race, peace, and community. Historian David Swartz was there and gave a great report on both the Claiborne group as well as sharing reactions to Liberty.

Evolving Faith Conference: In late March, a group of religious bloggers and pastors — that I would put clearly in the evangelical camp– announced a conference to be held in Montreat NC in October. Advertising itself as “a two-day gatherin for the wanderers, wonderers, status quo upenders, and spiritual refugees to discover you are not alone”, the speakers fit Bebbington’s characteristics of evangelicals, even if they reject some of hte political and social trappings that go along with that label. They may not all be currently attending evangelical churches, but are evangelical nonetheless. (Some of my work with Pew Religion Data showed that a quarter of self-identified evangelicals were in mainline churches).

Millennial Evangelicals: As a professor at a Christian University, I can attest that things are changing in the young generation. While it is true that a larger number of their peers have no religious affiliation, their commitments to core faith principles are vibrant (if at times underdeveloped). Their commitments to diversity are strong and they want to make an impact on the world around them. But they are less politically partisan and more pragmatic. This is seen in their higher commitment relative to older generations to issues of LGBTQ inclusion, gender expectations, and racial equity. The percentage of millennial evangelicals supporting same-sex marriage, for example, is remarkably close to a majority (45%) according to the most recent data.  As David John Seel argues in The New Copernicans, millennial evangelicals are approaching the world using a different frame than their older counterparts.

The 81%: I have written extensively about how hard it is to characterize the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. They are still the demographic most supportive of his policies. It may be that religious motivations are strong with this group, but it is equally likely that other co-variants are playing a role. We know that not all of these folks regularly attend church and Barna recently learned that 40% of church-going evangelicals cannot tell what The Great Commission is.

What do I make of all this?

Clearly, what it means to be “evangelical” is contested terrain. It is likely that many of the groups that I have listed (and I haven’t said anything about Black or Hispanic evangelicals) would argue that their group is on the right path.

I remain optimistic in the long run that evangelicals can find ways of accepting some core principles and grant each other enough grace to focus our conversations on those rather than looking for the distinctions that would allow one group to claim the mantle of Truly Evangelical.

The short run, on the other hand, is going to get very messy.

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What could MLK have done over the past 50 years?

In the spring of 1968, I was in the 8th grade at PS 103 in Indianapolis’ northeast side. I’m not sure what got me interested in the larger society around me; I think it was my US History class. What I do remember is that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room was a shock to a young teen finding his way in the world.

MLK BalconyI’m not sure I really understood anything about the civil rights movement. What I did understand was that MLK was striving for justice and society had its ways of stopping such efforts at disruption. It didn’t matter if it was a lone gunman or some huge conspiracy, it suggested the deck was stacked against those who pushed for change. It wasn’t the last time I’d learn that lesson.But today, five decades after the rifle shot at the Lorraine hotel, I’m reflecting on something different.

Last week at choir practice, there was a big celebration for one of our choir members who was turning 90. His family brought cake and the choir celebrated with them. Others in my church are 90 or over and are still vital members of the leadership.

If King had lived, he’d be a year younger than my choir member. In contemporary society, 89 is not unheard of. Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush are 93. Bob Dole is 94.  is 93.

At the time of his death, King was focused on three key issues: poverty, racism, and militarism. He also would have challenged the ability of the wealthy to influence public policy while nobody was looking out for those in need.

When Watergate got serious in 1973, MLK would have been 44 years old. What do we imagine he would say about the moral obligation of leaders?

Can you imagine King’s reaction to Reagan’s supply-side economics? He would have been 55 when Reagan took office. Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine him continuing his poor people’s campaign and battling against the disinvestment of America’s urban areas.

Given these ponderings, I went to the excellent King Institute at Stanford to find things King actually said that would be relevant to other events of our recent history.

Consider the first Iraq war in 1990. King, at 61, would have had real issues with America’s role as world policeman and the lasting impact of war on another country. “Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call ‘fortified hamlets.’ The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new [Iraq} on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.” (Beyond Vietnam )

1992 Rodney King riots (MLK at 63, my current age): It has been widely reported that King suggested that riots are a cry against injustice. Without excusing the rioters and looters, he would speak of the larger issues. “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” (The Other America)

1994 Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America (MLK at 65) “And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” (Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution)

1998 Bill Clinton Impeachment (MLK at 69): “We must walk the street every day, and let people know that as we walk the street, we aren’t thinking about sex every time we turn around. We are not animals to be degraded at every moment. We know that we’re made for the stars, created for eternity, born for the everlasting, and we stand by it.” (Some Things We Must Do)

2001 9/11 (MLK at 72) “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.” (Suffering and Faith)

2003 Invasion of Iraq (MLK at 74) “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” (Beyond Vietnam)

2008 Obama is Elected (MLK at 79) “As I see it, our problem is to make the majority of Americans who are willing to accept, and even to seek, integration aware of their responsibilities in this struggle.” (The Negro is Part of That Huge Community Who Seek Freedom in Every Area of Life)

2014 Michael Brown shot in Ferguson (MLK at 85) “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” (I Have a Dream)

2016 Trump Elected 45th President (MLK at 87) “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “ought-ness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.  I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” (Acceptance Address for the Nobel Peace Prize)

I know enough of history to be aware of the limitations of counter-factuals. It’s possible that King might have changed his views over time. On the other hand, there is a remarkable consistency in King’s thought from his time coming out of Boston University through his last address. It’s worth spending time pondering what might have been.

Religious Groups and Political Parties: What About the Independents?

The night before the PA 18 special election, Republican Rick Saccone told the gathered crowd what “the left” believes. Not only do they hate the president and the country, but “They have a hatred for God.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott deconstructed this argument, pointing out that apparent winner Conor Lamb is a Catholic with more conservative views on abortion.

PRRI’s Molly Fisch-Friedman shared data in response to Scott’s story,  pointing out that only over a quarter of Democrats were “nones” in 2016 compared to just under 10% of Republicans (both percentages have nearly tripled over the last decade).

This two-party comparison, common in our political discourse, struck me as incomplete. What about the Independents?

If people are going to claim that Democrats are uniquely opposed to faith, it’s helpful to have the full picture. Are Independents like Republicans so that Democrats are outliers in their secularism? Or do Republicans stand apart?

I went to 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, my default data set on religious factors (it’s one I have already dowloaded so I can quickly test spur of the moment hypotheses). I focused exclusively on white Christian groups plus the nonaffiliated. I then cross-referenced that with self-identified party affiliation, giving me the percentage belonging to each religious grouping within a particular party affiliation.

Religion and Party

What strikes me in this data is how similar the distributions are between Independents and Democrats. Independents are slightly more represented among evangelicals and slightly less represented among Catholics than is true for Democrats.

But the remarkable contrast is between the Republicans and the other two. This suggests that religion may be more salient among Republicans, which puts Saccone’s assertion in some context. This fits the embattled-religious-freedom concerns that have tied Republicans and Evangelicals together.

I admit  that this data doesn’t tell me how people vote. But the linkages between partisan orientation and faith provide some key indicators. When we read that 79% of White Evangelicals support the president, it’s important to remember that they are Republicans first.

Michael Gerson’s Analysis of Evangelical Politics

My social media feeds blew up this morning in response to Michael Gerson’s cover piece in The Atlantic. Gerson is an insider to both the world of evangelicalism (he has Wheaton credentials) and politics (he served as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration). In his role as Washington Post columnist, he has been a consistent voice of caution to those embracing Trump’s strategies and rhetoric.

Gerson

This new piece is simply a “must read” for anyone with an interest in truly understanding the evangelical world and its relationship to politics. It picks up a number of important sociological themes (and quotes some of the right people in that regard). I want to hit some highlights and add my own comments as it relates to the work I’ve been doing for the last several years.

Gerson hits all the right notes. He correctly points to the role of how postmillennialism give way to premillennialism in shifting the evangelical stance toward social concerns.

Perhaps most important, prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists—that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era—a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

If politics is about the enhancement of the general welfare, then evangelicals can partner with secular forces to bring that about. But once that view is supplanted by the more pessimistic view of premillennialism in the early 20th century, then partnering becomes futile — as Don Dayton observed decades ago.

Furthermore, if society is in massive decline in its last days, then someone made that happen. I’ve written before about Lydia Bean’s book contrasting evangelical churches in New York and Ontario. People in both contexts were concerned about moral decline, but American churches blamed “liberals” and “Democrats”.

Christian Smith once characterized evangelicals as “embattled and thriving”. The sense of opposition — to liberal theologians, to political elites, to media, to progressive voices for change, to the broader culture — is endemic to evangelical thought. Its epistemology requires someone to be against. (Come to think of it, that’s something evangelicals have in common with the president!)

Gerson puts it like this:

As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

Simultaneously “in the right” and horribly besieged, evangelicals worry that their beliefs and practices could be taken away at any moment by forces specifically wishing them ill. A common theme in evangelical communication is to identify that one isolated teacher who won’t let a student write about Jesus as his hero and characterize all schools by that instance.

It is curious fact that social scientists abandoned the secularization thesis that society would lose its need for religion at about the same time that evangelicals saw society as a great threat. In spite of the persistence of religion, evangelicals have acted like the future is bleak.

Gerson correctly argues that this sense of oppression and hopelessness arises from an underdeveloped sense of political theology:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

What is missing in evangelicalism is a sound theology of the collective. We’ve gotten good at an individualized expression of faith — confess your sins, believe in Jesus, go to heaven when you die. But not so an understanding of how we relate to our neighbors, of moral conscience, of the need to behave in ways different from any other political action group.

Furthermore, there is a sense in which evangelical theology has failed in unique ways. The premillennial view of moral decline results in something akin to a deistic view of God. The lived theology, apart from the individualized version, seems to assume that God has abandoned society until such time when he will redeem it. Such a view betrays an idolatrous notion that God can’t manage our contemporary politics. That somehow the Holy Spirit no longer leads us into truth.

Instead, we pick battle lines that define who is in and who is out. And those battle lines are reinforced by organizations whose business model depends upon evangelicals being very afraid of “the other”. Gerson writes:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

This brings me back to the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It’s true that this demographic group broke in this fashion — in part due to covariants, in part due to opposition to Clinton, in part to shake up the system. But it is not clear that it was a clear sense of moral imperative or theological orientation that prompted that vote.

The good news for evangelicals in all this is that the media, political leaders, and most of society in general is looking for a theological consistency from Christians. People are indeed watching and they want our beliefs to matter. Even if they don’t see the need for religion personally, they want people of faith to be different. That’s why the claim of hypocrisy and political sycophancy is so damaging to Christian witness.

Near the end of his excellent article, Gerson points to hope:

At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.

And so it is. The solution to our evangelical political crisis is to act primarily as those who have received God’s unmerited favor and want to see that favor be extended throughout His now and not yet kingdom.

 

 

Good News about Evangelicals!!

I spent my spring break driving nearly 2,000 miles so that I could give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation. It was well worth it.

Young Clergy NetworkI drove all that way to attend the 2018 version of the Young Clergy Con sponsored by folks at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene. The organizers did a great job (as I heard they did at last year’s inaugural event).

Now, I don’t actually qualify as a member. I’m a 63 year old college professor who belongs to a UMC congregation. But this group gave me an opportunity to test the thesis of my book among those who are its subject.

As I’ve written before, my thesis is that the rhetorical frame of evangelicalism is changing. Former views based on boundary maintenance and separation (Industry Evangelicalism) give way to an evangelical approach based on story, listening, diversity, and engagement (Identity Evangelicalism).

There were careful conversations at the conference about engaging LGBTQ populations, of dealing with racial/ethnic diversity, hospitality,and acknowledging singleness. There was worship and fellowship and discussions about “institutional change from within”.

I was particularly glad to be with these innovators in light of my research project I mentioned in my previous post. Back in December, I was able to gather survey data on 470 clergy in the Church of the Nazarene who are under 40. I began unpacking that data over the last month in preparation for OKC.

There were four questions in my survey that allowed an initial test of my thesis. One dealt with how the church should respond to the changing social dynamics of same-sex marriage and transgender rights. There were four responses: a traditional response, a traditional response addressing the complexity of the conversation, a welcoming but not affirming response, and an affirming response. A second question asked if the church should maintain separation from society. A third dealt with discrimination against Christians. The fourth asked if the church should support America. The last three questions were in a strongly-agree to strongly disagree Likert format.

I scored the first question as either 1 traditional or 2 open. For the other three, I scored the questions as 1 SA/A, 2 neutral, and 3 D/SD. That gave me a scale ranging from 4 to 11. I then split the scale into two groups representing my two frames: Industry Evangelicalism (4-8) or Identity Evangelicalism (9-11). Using this scaling, 63% of my sample fell in the Industry category with the remaining 37% in the Identity Frame.

There are significant differences between the frames, The Industry folks see the changes in society over recent decades as more negative the positive while the Identity folks see the opposite. The Identity group felt that their denomination had been too cautious in responding to changes in society while the Industry group was mildly supportive.

Here’s the important point: Both groups are committed to remaining part of their denomination. Over 72% of the Identity group and 82% of the Industry group see it as important or very important to remain inside. This suggests that the changing frame is not a long term challenge to the institutional church.

It was clear from some of the first conversations at YCN that the attendees were disproportionately part of my Identity Frame. I lost track of the number of times “story” came up. There was an openness to engagement that was affirming. During the breakout times, the conversations were about how to assist the denomination move forward even though the attendees were not in positions of power (but there were some power positions in attendance and supportive).

They are not living in some post-evangelical reality. But they are trying all kinds of things to engage the world around them in its complexity in such a way as to keep the hope of the Gospel in front of people.

I got to see some old friends and make a bunch of new ones.

And for the first time in a very long time, I was optimistic about the evangelical voice within the broader society.

 

Millennials, Post-Millennials, and New Copernicans

Yesterday the Pew Research Center declared that Millennials were old news. Maybe it’s time to move on.

They point out that we can firmly fix the beginning and ending dates of the millennial generation starting with those born in 1981 and ending with those born in 1996. The youngest of them are now leaving college and the oldest are going to PTA meetings. They explain that we’re now looking to the next generation:

Since the oldest among this rising generation are just turning 21 this year, and most are still in their teens, we think it’s too early to give them a name – though The New York Times asked readers to take a stab – and we look forward to watching as conversations among researchers, the media and the public help a name for this generation take shape. In the meantime, we will simply call them “post-Millennials” until a common nomenclature takes hold.

Events of the past two months have put this post-millennial group in the spotlight. January was dominated (especially here in Michigan) by the horrible stories of Larry Nassar and the young gymnasts he victimized. February saw the terrors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida. The activism and presence of the young people arising out of both stories suggested something new on the horizon.

Back in January, the Public Religion Research Institute released results of a survey they had conducted on 15-24 year olds (they let some millennials sneak in). The PRRI survey provides context to some of what we’re seeing play out in the media. The rising generation has little tolerance for discrimination against Muslims, LGBT populations, or other racial groups.

This is not to suggest that the post-millennials are homogeneous in their views. There are conservative pockets worried about “reverse discrimination”. Young evangelicals stand out from their peers over concerns that evangelicals face discrimination. (Last week I proposed a paper for the fall SSSR meeting exploring what that means among a group of millennial pastors.)

Regardless of their political views, these young people see social media as part of their social expression. As PRRI reports:

The gender gap in online social and political activism is generally modest among black young people, but stark among white and Hispanic young people. Forty-four percent of white young women signed an online petition within the last year, compared to 34% of white young men. Nearly six in ten (58%) Hispanic young women report having signed an online petition, while 47% of Hispanic young men say the same. Nearly half (47%) of white young women have posted on social media about a cause that matters to them; only 31% of white young men report similar activity. Close to six in ten (57%) Hispanic young women report posting on social media in the last 12 months, compared to 43% of Hispanic young men. White young women (50% vs. 35%, respectively) and Hispanic young women (58% vs. 44%, respectively) are also far more likely than white and Hispanic young men to report having liked or followed a campaign online.

The combination of a strong sense of justice and social media advocacy contributes to a desire for more rapid substantive change. I see these patterns repeated among my own students on issues raising from money and politics to LGBT treatment within Christian Universities. They are simply unwilling to wait for things to get better and they are using their social media voices to advocate (which seems to be a shortcut to appearing on CNN!).

At the same time, there’s a real sense that generations are less important that the frames people are using to engage the broader world. As I’ve written before, there is a change underway in terms of how evangelicals are engaging their broader social location. The former model focusing on institutional structures and boundaries in giving way to a new perspective based on engagement across boundaries and willingness to consider alternatives.

New CopernicansI spent last Saturday reading David John Seel’s The New Copernicans.  Seel explores the same changes I have been describing over the last four years. While not as data-driven as my explorations, it has some real resonance with my own project. One helpful clarification Seel makes is that the shift to a new way of thinking isn’t endemic to millennials but it is carried by them. In other words, there are older New Copernicans and younger ones. But millennials have perhaps “normalized” the conversation.

Next week I’m unveiling some survey data I collected back in December. The results are very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to successfully distinguish between my two frames which I label as Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. Second, the presence of Identity Evangelicals raises real questions about the next phase of evangelical thought.

Generational analysis isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it provides us some key indicators of changes underway. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was about millennial evangelicals.

I’m writing this post following the funeral of Billy Graham. His impact on American religion cannot be overstated, as a quick review of articles written over the past week will show. And yet, his passing signifies precisely the kind of generational shift in perspective that Seel and I are talking about.

Reverend Graham’s final crusade took place in 2005. The oldest millennials were 24 and the youngest were 9. Few of the post-millennials have any idea who Billy Graham was or why his style of evangelicalism was significant to so many. And the post-millennials are far more likely to know him, if they know of him at all, as the father of that Franklin guy whose tweets they respond to so readily.

Black Swans, Tragedy, and the Limitations of Decision Making

When my twitter feed Wednesday afternoon broke the news of a another school shooting, I immediately prayed that the impact would be limited. As the news continued to seep out, it was clear that those prayers would shift to the families and friends who would be processing the loss of 17 lives.

It was less than a day before the recriminations began. There was a record of school disciplinary trouble. The police were called frequently about Cruz over the years. The FBI had a record of a YouTube comment in September of 2017. (Details on all this here, here, and here.) Students interviewed remember Cruz as a troubled child who acted in scary ways.

This retrospective recollection of isolated events give us some sense of comfort while also allowing us to blame someone for such senseless violence. If there was a trail of breadcrumbs that made this predictable, then we aren’t at the mercy of random events. And if someone should have been following the breadcrumb trail, then maybe there could have been an intervention through either mental health or criminal justice organizations.

Black SwanBut this search for causation is doomed to fail. Because an event like Parkland is a perfect example of the Black Swan problem in probability. Nassam Nicholas Taleb points out the difficulty of extremely rare events (from the Wikipedia entry defining Black Swan events)

 

1. The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities). 3. The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there were just over 24,000 public high schools in the US in the fall of 2013 enrolling just under 15 million students. In 2017, there were 9 school shooting incidents with fatalities occurring in 5 of those (a total of 15 killed). The probability of having a shooting in a given school was just under .04%. The probability of being killed was literally 1 in a million.

That is not to throw up our hands and do nothing. It is rather to point out the folly of thinking we can predict any incident. It is true in retrospect that Cruz abused animals and that police were called to his house and that he posted a random comment five months back on a YouTube page. Let me illustrate with the most mundane example.

School Shooter
Yes No
Torments Squirrels Yes
No

It is true that the school shooter is a Yes-Yes in my table above. But there are lots of boys who torment animals and never go on to threaten their peers. And it’s logical to argue that some of those 9 school shooters in 2017 loved all sorts of animals.

Taleb’s work influenced Daniel Kanneman’s work on how we make decisions. Kanneman finds (as summarized in Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project) that the decision rules that professionals use seem to work but are less accurate the what an algorithm would predict. It is simply not possible for the human brain to consider all of the potential variables impacting a decision.

It is unreasonable, therefore, to expect the FBI to take a random comment from 2017 and use it to pinpoint a high-risk situation. It is unreasonable to blame school officials for not doing more to see their disciplinary situation as something more than a policy decision like those made daily.

For that matter, our search for less tangible causes is equally flawed. Politicians have referred to Nicholas Cruz as “evil”, on the reasonable assumption that normal people don’t shoot their classmates.

Those who blame cultural changes (lack of respect for authority, Hollywood, athletes, video games, hip-hop music) for school shootings are no different from those looking at the abuse of animals. Such claims of correlation are countered by the millions and millions of young people who experience the same cultural changes and don’t respond violently. (These same cultural critics were praising the faith commitments of Eagles players two weeks ago.)

In fact, the reactions of those very young people — who grew up with a sense of voice, access to social media, and a remarkable aversion to BS — who may be the most positive way forward out of this horrible situation. They are dismissing easy or trite answers and calling for honest engagement of the issues of school violence.

They may not know the probabilities but they want steps put in place that will keep them safer. That may involved discussions about automatic weapons or building security. It may involve actual changes in high school culture that makes it less likely that the angry social isolate remains cut off and feeling victimized.

So the media, the politicians and the religious leaders can tie themselves in knots looking for someone to blame. I’m putting my hopes in the kinds of kids who will call out Tomi Lahren on a daily basis.