Linking Sociology of Religion and Religion Journalism

I have followed religion writers on Twitter for years. I find their stories wonderful illustrations for classes and significant building blocks for my own research. Being on sabbatical this fall, and finding that the Religion News Association Conference was in fairly close Columbus, Ohio, I asked my friend Bob Smietana if it would be worth my time and money to join RNA and go to the conference. Bob was enthusiastic in his encouragement, so I took the plunge.

Religion News Association I’m very glad that I went. It was wonderful to interact in person with people I had only interacted with 280 characters at a time. They were remarkably welcoming in spite of my lack of journalistic bona fides. I told people how my parents met on the Butler University newspaper staff, so there’s that.

The conference sessions themselves dealt with a variety of important topics. Religious establishment and religious freedom, responses to gun violence, immigration and sanctuary, #MeToo in the church, religious nones, religion in science fiction, and others topics were seriously engaged. Most of these were plenary sessions, which gave people the common points of conversation that are often lacking in my normal conferences.

Sitting through the presentations, it became clear to me how sociology asks slightly different questions than a straight journalistic treatment would allow. When dealing with the trauma of gun violence and how churches might respond, I had questions about the distribution of gun violence in schools and churches and the challenge of preparing for such remarkably rare events. In hearing Vonda Dyer tell the story of her abuse by Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels (as covered first by Manya Brachear Pashman in the Chicago Tribune), I talked with her about the secondary abuse generated by a congregation’s show of support for the accused leader (standing ovations given in support of mild statements of regret). In hearing from the two dominant religion research sources (Pew and PRRI), I had questions the went deep below the top-line summaries.

The journalists’ views were on telling deep and true stories. The sanctuary presentation involved a pastor of a church that has allowed a woman to live in his church for nearly a year, a local immigration activist, and a national religion immigration activist. Centering the story on the mother and the church was a needed view that stands in contrast to national discussions of numbers and policy and court decisions. When Bryan Alexander read from his book Glass House (see my blog post on it here) about Lancaster Ohio, a rich story of how the financial changes of the last three decades impacted real people in a real town became clear.

The religion journalists — even though operating across the country, many as the only religion reporter in their workplace — build solidarity at conferences like this. Maybe even more than we have in sociology because everyone regardless of beat shares a common view that religion stories are important and worth telling. We had networking breaks five times a day and open seating at the sponsored lunches. Meeting new people and having follow-ups on earlier conversations was really wonderful.

One of the reasons I went to Columbus was to talk to religion journalists about my book project on the shifting nature of evangelicalism. I did so with some serious trepidation as I might get the dreeaded “already done that” response. But I was pleased that nearly everyone I talked to not only thought that the thesis has value but that they would look forward to reading the book whenever it comes out.

I also got to talk to people about issues in Christian Higher Education, the linkages between evangelicalism and partisanship, and balancing religious freedom claims with LGBTQ non-discrimination. I realized that one of the hidden values of teaching at a liberal arts institution is that it requires me to be a generalist knowing a little bit about a number of broad trends.

Saturday night was the RNA awards banquet. Because religion reporting also requires some generalization, the audience seemed to know everyone else’s work. Recognition was given to honorary mention, third, second, and first place winners in a variety of categories. Recipients were able to reflect on their honor and their craft to enthusiastic response from their peers. While I only knew a few of those stories given my twitter habits, I had my share of “I loved that piece” moments.

While sociologists of religion and religion journalists have somewhat different approaches and questions, there is still a tremendous affinity. While I haven’t been to a lot of family reunions in my life (we have small families), Columbus felt like hanging out with a bunch of cousins that sort of know you but you only get to connect with occasionally. Even though I was from that “other branch of the family”, they made me feel welcome.

I’ll probably do RNA again, especially after the book comes out. These are good people who care about the stories they tell and it was wonderful to hang out for a few days.

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Evangelical Simulacra

Scholars continue to wrestle with the important question of “who is an evangelical?”. Some look at historical pedigree, looking for continuity of belief, behavior, and lifestyle (see Thomas Kidd, for example). Others have observed the cultural and political dynamics as a defining characteristic. Yet others have focused on developing the apologetic Biblical worldview that would protect evangelicals against the onslaught of secularism.

None of these approaches are able to adequately define contemporary evangelicalism.

Why? Because evangelicalism has taken on the form that Jean Baudriillard called simulacra. He argues that symbols take on particular meanings within a community. Eventually, the symbols become independent of the reality they are supposed to convey and become hyperreality — operating in the performed life space while no longer conveying specialized meaning.

Famous

This occurs as media culture creates a context in which identifiers are exchanged and language allows the maintenance of shared perspective. I took the above picture today on a walk in suburban Denver. The first thing that got my attention was the idea of “making Jesus famous“. I’m not sure what help Jesus needs or what theological principle is involved therein. The second thing I noticed was the word “Champions“. Not servants, not believers: winners.

This is an illustration of evangelical simulaca. I was violating the terms of identity by trying to plumb the various intended meanings. I wanted to know what the phrases meant. But they do not function to communicate meaning. The operate to communicate identity in a visceral, unreflective manner.

This week, my friend Kristen DuMez posted in The Anxious Bench about a family trip to Hobby Lobby. Walking through this Christian craft store (that of the “closely held religious beliefs” of SCOTUS fame) and taking remarkable photos allowed Kristen and her daughters to explore the impact of symbolic expressions of the nature of gender, true Americans, and religious identity.

By this point it had become clear to me that Hobby Lobby wasn’t just a Christian company because its owners were Christians, because they contributed a large chunk of their profits to evangelistic charities, or because they had emerged as heavyweight champions in the latest round of the culture wars. But Hobby Lobby also reflects (and, by selling Christian material culture, reinforces and shapes) a distinctive white evangelical cultural identity.

What does it mean to put wall plaques up in your house adorned with Bible verses? What is the purpose of bumper stickers that share stock Christian phrases or vanity plates that read GOD 1ST?

One might assume that this is an evangelistic tool, designed to coax people into asking questions after which the owner would share the Gospel. But survey data regularly report that people are almost as uncomfortable talking about religion as they are to hear about it.

Baudrillard would have us recognize that the essence of the simulacra is performance. One acts as an evangelical, embracing the signs and symbols evangelicals are expected to embrace. It is a statement of anticipatory identity — say it and it becomes true.

This process explains why 12% of self-identified evangelicals, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, seldom or never go to church. They perform evangelicalism in other ways through the manipulation of symbols. Going to church simply may not be necessary to maintain the identity.

The media and politicians become adept at manipulating these symbols: religious freedom, protect the unborn, stop secularists, MAGA. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious sentiments underlying these positions, as Jonathan Merritt observed today. You just need to know how to perform the rituals that are present in the hyperreality.

This makes the study of “real” evangelicals remarkably difficult. It is true that many operate in the realm of church attendance, orthodox beliefs, and Bebbington’s quadrilateral. But all of that is conflated with the performative aspects of American Evangelicalism, which results in us never knowing exactly whom we are talking about.

 

The New Pew Religious Typology: What’s the Impact of Church?

This week the Pew Research Center released a new piece of work that supplements the data on American religion they’ve been working on for years. Using the statistical technique of cluster analysis, they analyzed several recent surveys to see if respondents could be categorized on a number of variables at the same time. This avoids the single question analysis and suggests that there are different kinds of religious expression in America. While their typology isn’t definitive, it provides some interesting insights and raises important questions.

I spent some time — when I could have been working on my book — trying to get my head around the new typology. I worked through what they call the Full Report, focusing particularly on the more religious end of the spectrum.

They identify seven orientations in their typology, ranging from most religious to most secular. They label these Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religiously Resisters, and Solidly Secular.

Denomination

It’s important to recognize that the typologies are not the same size. Just under a quarter of respondents (24%) fall in the Sunday Stalwart category. The two highly religious but not practicing groups make up another 14%. The two spiritual categories account for 29% and the two secular categories for 33%. As a result, even though it appears that similar percentages of the first two types identify as evangelicals, the picture is a little different when you look across the rows.

I took the average breakdown of the typology of respondents across the four waves of the survey and multiplied by the percent evangelical. That gives me approximately 22% of the overall sample identifying as evangelicals, pretty close to what Pew has referenced before. Of those 22%, 50% are Sunday Stalwarts, 16% are God and Country Believers, 17% are Relaxed Religious, and 14% are Spiritually Awake. Granted, this is dependent upon the somewhat fuzzy evangelical self-identification but is still informative.

Given the recent excellent scholarship by Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues on Christian Nationalism, the contrast between Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country Believers caught my attention. As the following chart shows, the primary difference between the two groups involves church attendance (and small groups).

Typology

Sunday Stalwarts report a rate of weekly church attendance over three times higher than the God and Country folks. But the striking thing to me is the general similarity they have on a number of other issues. They are similar on Biblical literalism, on God, on heaven, and on hell, There are minor differences on views of church, importance of religion, and prayer. Somewhat striking is that the God and Country folks are much more likely to say that believing in God is necessary to be moral.

The following chart shows this similarity in graphic form.

BeliefsWhile for some of these issues, the Diversely Devout are similar to the God and Country people, for many there is very little space between the position of the Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country types.

So perhaps the difference between Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country Believers is more demographic than simply belief. The next chart explores that possibility.

Demographics While there are some minor differences between the first two groups, the overall patterns seems very similar. Both groups are White, Female, Middle-Class or less, Over 50, and Republican. The Diversely Devout are different in makeup from the other two.

So what does this tell us?

First, the God and Country Believers appear to be fairly orthodox in belief even though they are less likely to attend church. Surveys that simply look to correlate belief patterns with other outcome variables (as I have done) will not be able to pull apart these two groups.

Second, and more importantly, it raises significant questions about the impact of church involvement. If 82% of the Sunday Stalwarts attend church weekly or more, shouldn’t that show up somehow in the other variables? There is a major difference between the two groups on importance of religion, but that seems to be largely circular — people who attend church think religion is important and attending demonstrates that importance.

Shouldn’t being involved in a local congregation provide a significant religious foundation that makes those who attend appear markedly different from those who do not? In this period where religious commitment is tied up in supporting a specific view of the political landscape, the similarity between the Sunday Stalwarts and the God and Country Believers should cause every pastor to think seriously about what they will do with the 20-45 minutes of the Sunday Sermon.

 

Evangelical Clergy Perceptions of Religious Discrimination

I’m attending the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings in Philadelphia. It’s been a great time connecting with old friends and meeting twitter friends in real life. Yesterday I presented on some data I gathered as part of my book project. Here’s a summary of the presentation.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held an event announcing a new task force on religious freedom in front of representatives from the Little Sisters of the Poor, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, and the Alliance for Defending Freedom. As the Religion New Service reported Sessions said that “he is creating a religious liberty task force to challenge what he called a dangerous movement ‘eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.'”

Such a reference to “a dangerous movement” is confusing in light of other indicators. Consider that a week later, Vice President Pence made remarks about the creation of the Space Force and closed those remarks by referring to God’s protections and paraphrased several passages of scripture.

And yet the notion of religious discrimination remains strong. Last year PRRI conducted a poll asking various groups their perceptions of who were victims of discrimination in America. White Evangelicals stood apart from other religious groups in the belief that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims (57% to 44%). But what does that really mean?

As part of my current book project, I conducted a pair of online surveys of evangelical clergy. While not the focus of the book, there were a pair of questions that allowed me to look at the religious discrimination issue more directly.

First, respondents gave their reaction to the item, “Society regularly discriminates against people with Christian beliefs.” Their answers are shown in the following chart.

Soc Disc

My surveys focused on Millennials and Boomers. As the data demonstrates, there are very different views based on generation. One way to see this is to subtract the D/SD percentages from the A/SA. For all respondents, this gives a +16.3 (46.7 to 30.1) but when you separate the generations, different patterns emerge. Boomers have a +47% (64.3 to 17.3) while Millennials have a minus 6.1% (33.4 to 39.5).

Respondents were then asked if they personally had been a victim of discrimination based on their beliefs and, if so, how. Only 29% of them said yes — slightly lower for Millenials and slightly higher for Boomers.  (I think of this as equivalent to people hating congress but liking their representative — Christians face discrimination but I don’t.)

For those who did claim some experience of discrimination, I was able to code their responses around five common themes. There are roughly equivalent to the various ways we think about discrimination in race or ethnicity. First, there is a Loss of Social Capital — feeling excluded, marginalized, or isolated. A second category is Bias — assumptions made about one’s character on the basis of stereotype or the expectation that you should defend others’ behaviors or opinions.  Then we have actual Discrimination — loss of a job, limitations on work conditions, being graded down at school because of Christian beliefs. Fourth is the category I call Church and State — disagreements over the public square, public prayers, use of schools and the like. Finally, there was a catch-all Other category which dealt with international, gender, or ethnicity treatments.

When you break down these categories among those who reported perceived discrimination, you get the following chart.

Disc Type

Over six in 10 of the 29% reported as discrimination feelings of marginalization by friends, family, neighbors or being thought stupid or judgmental because one is a Christian. These are important to be sure, but don’t reflect the “dangerous movement” the Attorney General warned about.

There were about a quarter of the 29% whose experiences as they saw them fit definitions of some type of direct limitation on behavior by other groups. It should be noted that all I have is the respondent’s version of events. If they said they lost their (non clergy) job for reading the Bible on break, I take that as given even though it might not have been the employer’s rationale. Someone who reports being limited in sharing faith at the food pantry because it received government funds may be responding to actual policy or maybe be misperceiving limitations.

So what does this tell us about perceptions of religious discrimination? First, most respondents haven’t experienced prejudice or discrimination directly. Second, some have clearly felt some form of micro-aggression as Christians which would be an interesting opportunity for future research. Third, there is an organized attempt by many in the evangelical subculture to promote stories that heighten fears of religious discrimination which is especially effective in a social media outrage environment.

One final point of analysis — there is a relationship between views of social change and perceptions of religious discrimination. Respondents were asked to rate the changes in US society over the last 50 years on a scale of 0 to 100. I compared the responses using a 95% confidence interval for the four conditions present (generation by discrimination). Millennials who did not report feeling discriminated against stood apart from the other three conditions Nearly all of that segment saw the changes in American society as more positive than negative.

Perhaps the fears about religious discrimination in the broader society might be a transitional moment and not a dangerous movement. If millennials are seeing social changes as positive and figuring out how to live their faith within those changes, maybe evangelicals can work from a position of what John Inazu calls Confident Pluralism and not from fear.

Parsing Luverne First Baptist

Like many people following religion and politics, my interest was piqued when I saw Stephanie McCrummen’s story in today’s Washington Post: “God, Trump, and the meaning of morality.” McCammen does a carefully reported deep dive into life at First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama. It paints a picture of a particular aspect of evangelical church culture yet one that should be approached carefully.

 

Luvene

The people of the church (picture credit Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) are admittedly not quite sure what to make of Trump, especially in light of Pastor Crum’s summer series on the Ten Commandments. There are the expected questions about Obama faith, concerns about antagonism to Christian views, and an absolute disavowal of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yet in this story we catch a glimpse of why it’s so hard to disentangle religious beliefs from a variety of other factors. Each of them impacts the political equation in particular ways.

The context: Luverne is a town of roughly 2800 according to the most recent census estimates. It is the county seat of Crenshaw County in rural southeast Alabama. This is a deep red part of a deep red state. Crenshaw voted for Trump over Clinton by 72% to 26%. While I hesitate to make correlations look like causation, the racial makeup of the county is 73% white and 28% black. In 2017, Crenshaw voted for Roy Moore over Doug Jones by 63% to 35% (values may have hindered the Crenshaw vote — other red counties went much heavier for Moore). It is handy to argue that religious values ought to temper political values but there’s an awful lot of socialization and plausibility structure building that pushes back against that.

The church: There is an assumption of homogeneity in this congregation (and perhaps most congregations). McCrummen quotes a church leader:

“As Southern Baptists in this small town, we want our leader to believe like we do,” said Terry Drew, who had chaired the search committee, and three years later, Crum was meeting their highest expectations of what a good Southern Baptist pastor should be.

The internal congregational culture guarantees a pastor that will maintain that culture. This is not a call for prophetic preaching. The story ends with the observation that Pastor Crum might have called Trump out while preaching on adultery, but stopped short.

Many of the interviews on political ideology appear to occur within the context of the church service (although not all). I’ve written about Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity in previous posts; her research demonstrates the power of the internal communication structures and the ways in which those become mutually reinforcing. People who don’t fit become uncomfortable and depart.

The Second Coming:  McCrummen’s interviews show people focused on the life to come more than on this one. Political engagement is interesting, but the real question is to make sure one is headed to Heaven. One person not only knows the dimensions of Heaven and the characteristics of Hell, but imagines the kinds of appliances that will be in her Heavenly mansion when she gets there.

Such a focus is consistent with arguments Donald Dayton made nearly 40 years ago on how millenarianism negatively impacts social engagement. Politics may be occasionally interesting, but it’s not the important thing.

Manichaeism and Spiritual Warfare: Present in the interviews is a strong sense of good and evil. Or maybe just evil. Trump may be flawed, but he wasn’t Clinton. She would destroy our way of life, the second amendment, religious freedom, and the entire nation.

Both political parties and their candidates, then, represent the combatants in the cosmic war between God and Satan. God uses his people to advance his desires while the other side (who are perhaps unwitting instruments) represent all that’s wrong. Recent PRRI data showing that a majority of White Evangelicals see increasing diversity in the society as a net negative demonstrates the perceptions of threatening “others”.

Sheilaism Redux; When Robert Bellah and colleagues wrote Habits of the Heart in 1985, one story that got the attention of sociologists, religionists, and journalists alike was the story of “Sheilaism”. In her interview, Shelia reported:

“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”

McCrummen finds another Sheila, this one a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist. She is certainly more devout than that other Sheila. But her political theology is no better constructed.

Sunday School Sheila explains:

“Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,” she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false. “He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.”

“Obama woke a sleeping nation,” said Linda.

“He woke a sleeping Christian nation,” Sheila corrected.

Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.

“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”

Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”

Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”

“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ ” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”

This version of Sheilaism has shocked people on my twitter feed today.

But it shouldn’t.

There is no reason to suggest that Jesus was only concerned with one’s neighbor of nationality (it was, in fact, the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan!). And to be fair to Sheila, I don’t think she believes that. She is combining her political beliefs with her religious beliefs in ways that sound right to her.

She has an idea that her theology ought to inform her political positions but when they become incompatible she papers over them. She’s not hypocritical, she simply is striving for cognitive consistency. And coming out in favor of immigrants just doesn’t fit her culture and upbringing.

——–

What does this story really tell us about the politics of evangelicals and their congregations? It gives us a glimpse into how conservative white evangelicals process their political views. But those views occur in a particular context of community, history, eschatology, and personal psychology. Trying to sort out precisely which one is operative at any given point of time is nearly impossible.

In closing, I should also note that Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons pointed out yesterday that journalists and researchers seem particularly interested in seeing these stories told of evangelical Trump supporters. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine Stephanie McCrummen doing a deep-dive story on a United Church of Christ congregation in Seattle. It would be a fascinating sociological comparison between the two congregations and how they approach politics.

 

My Review of John Fea’s “Believe Me”

This week I drove to Valparaiso, Indiana to have lunch with religious historians Heath Carter and Dan Silliman and to conduct background interviews for one of the book chapters. It gave me a perfect opportunity to listen to John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe MeFea, history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, has been a prolific blogger for many years. His webpage, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home”, is a tremendous source of some of the latest happenings in Christian academic circles. Along with many others I could list, he has exerted great effort in the last two years to make sense of the connections between evangelicals and support for Donald Trump both in the election and beyond. He has coined the term “Court Evangelicals” to refer to those public figures in evangelical circles who go out of their way to defend Trump in the media: Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White, just to name a few. He has an interesting chapter unpacking the three strands of Court Evangelicals: the former Christian right, the Independent Charismatic group/dominionists, and the Prosperity Gospel leaders. It’s always important to remember that most evangelical leaders don’t fall in this group.

His engagement with these issues over the past three years gave birth to Believe Me, recently published by Eerdmans. As a historian and an evangelical, Fea is in a great position to explore both the continuities and discontinuities with past evangelical political engagement. Both insider (as an evangelical Christian) and outsider (as an academic and never-Trumper), he manages a compassionate yet critical stance toward the broader question of “the 81%”.

It is clear from the outset that John has been strongly influenced by sociologist James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World (2010). Fea picks up on Hunter’s argument that a conflict approach to cultural engagement evidenced by Culture Wars (the title of a book Hunter wrote 20 years earlier) is damaging to the church. I have recently been making the same argument in my manuscript. John sees the current situation of evangelical alignment as a long-term historical development arising around three broad features: Fear of Change, The Search for Power, and a Nostalgic Grasp for some Golden Age.

Building from the long-view of religious change, the book walks its way from Puritans worrying about diversity in their midst, to the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings, to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, to Civil Rights legislation, to Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in schools. One after another, the self-perception of conservative Protestants as “the real Americans” is challenged by new waves of “others” who wind up on our shores. In this manner, one sees that the perceptions of loss that Robert Jones describes in The End of White Christian America have always been part of the American religious story. Religious diversity by definition means that prior assumptions of homogeneity will be violated. In this context, a presidential candidate that promises to “protect Christians” and their religious freedom (even from the IRS!), who can reverse anti-Christian court decisions, and who will privilege support of Israel can be seen as “one of ours” even if he’s not. John makes a very interesting observation: the Christian right politicians like Cruz and Carson played on the nature of evangelical fear but voters wanted a strong-man to see those issues addressed and so switched to Trump.

In terms of Power, Fea tells a story that has been told at length elsewhere. This describes the move of evangelical Christians into the public and media spheres. From Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and presidential run to the Christian Coalition to the dominionist rhetoric of Christian right presidential candidates in 2016, there has been a struggle for having “our side” win. Such a struggle requires an “othering” of one’s political opponents, seeing them in the worst possible light and believe outrageous things about them (Vince Foster, PizzaGate, Benghazi). Part of the struggle for power requires overlooking the flaws of our side while maximizing those of their side. John documents the great concerns about Bill Clinton during the impeachment process of the late 1990s and contrasts those with defenses of Trump in 2016. This conforms with the PRRI data showing that only 30% of white evangelicals said that character was important in their preferred candidates, a reversal from just a few years before.

The Nostalgia chapter explores a central question: when was America great? When we make America Great “Again”, what’s the referent? John shows that every period the Christian America crowd like Jeffress looks to had significant negative implications for other segments of the society. It seems to me that the real slogan of the campaign was “Make America Great Again for Me and Mine”.

As an evangelical Christian, Fea wants his readers (listeners) to remember that fear, power, and nostalgia are not the way Christians are to operate in this world. We are people of hope. We are people who follow Jesus who, as Philippians reminds us, gave up everything. He didn’t side with those religious leaders who pursued Power — they started trying to kill him early in his ministry. We don’t look only to the past because we have the promise of the Kingdom of God unfurling in our midst.

John ends the book on that hopeful note, reflecting on how the Black church during the civil rights movement operated in ways that were forward looking in the midst of their pain and suffering at the moment. That last section of the book reminds the evangelical church that we aren’t clamoring for some imagined Christian past but are God’s people looking hopefully toward God’s glorious future.

 

Evangelicals and the Challenges of Modernity

HunterAs part of my book project, I’m tracing how sociologists have approached evangelicals from a theoretical rather than descriptive perspective. What follows is my treatment of James Davison Hunter’s American Evangelicalism (1983).

 

At the time that major newsmagazines discovered evangelicals in the late 1970s, sociologists hadn’t really devoted sufficient attention to this segment of the American religious landscape. In part, this was due to the belief popular in the 1960s that secularization was a dominant force within society and that religion would be less important going forward. With that presumption, the vitality of a conservative religious group like evangelicals didn’t fit the established theoretical framework. Perhaps, as Steven Warner observed at the time {Warner, 1979}, this could be explained by the biases present even in sociologists of religion — seeing evangelicals as lower class, as politically conservative, and as a historical throwback resisting the natural order of progress.  It should be noted that much of modern journalism, with the exception of religion reporters, suffers from the same biases four decades later. Warner writes:

Evangelicalism has heretofore not received the sociological attention that its intrinsic importance calls for. It is overlooked, or discounted, stereotyped and patronized (3).

One sociologist who responded to Warner’s call for better theoretical work on evangelicalism was James Davison Hunter. His American Evangelicalism {Hunter, 1983} did a deep dive into evangelicalism (although he included fundamentalists in his data set) and examined it from a sociology of knowledge format. To Hunter, the modern age — that earlier sociologists saw as feeding secularism — provided a critical challenge for evangelicals.

Hunter argued that the modern age individualized religion, presented it as but once choice among many, and removed religion from its connections to the broader institutional mosaic. Where faith was previously imbedded in community life, it became increasingly personal. For example, the Supreme Court has dealt with “sincerely held religious beliefs” as the screen used to evaluate religious freedom claims; a clearly individualized approach. In the face of the structural pluralism of religious life, a sense of equivalence is created between mainline churches, evangelical churches, mosques, temples, and yoga classes. Given the diversity of religious views present, and the constitutional protections arising from the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment, religion in general and conservative religion in particular, is removed from consideration of everyday political life.

The response to these challenges, Hunter suggested, occurred in the realm of “cognitive bargaining” — nurturing a particular mode of thought about things religious that stands in contrast to the forces of modernity. While some religious groups focused on how to incorporate the modern age into their religious self-understandings, not so with evangelicals. They adopted a strategy Hunter called cognitive intransigence, “ignoring the plurality by affirming the veracity of one tradition and the illegitimacy of the others (16-17).”

Key to the cognitive instransigence effort is the maintenance of a distinctive “worldview”. Evangelicals spend considerable effort to articulate a particular means of understanding the world in an effort commonly referred to as “apologetics”. Hunter provided a deep analysis of books written to evangelicals designed to maintain a distinct worldview. Interestingly, he observed that many of those books incorporated elements of modern rationality, reducing evangelical faith to a series of steps (“four spiritual laws”).

One of the distinctive elements of evangelicalism in this period was the development of significant parallel structures. Contemporary Christian music arises alongside popular rock-and-roll. Specifically Christian periodicals appear alongside popular newsmagazines. Religious broadcasting moves from being a fringe movement to a staple of American entertainment. Christian publising allows for a continual stream of appropriately supportive material in front of evangelical readers to be found in distinctly Christian bookstores.

Hunter argued that evangelicals were more removed from the forces of modernity given their social location within the broader structures of society. His data showed that evangelicals were significantly more likely to be Southern, rural, and working class. They were far less likely to be college educated.

The combination of parallel institutions and isolated social location allowed evangelicals to maintain their distincive worldview in the face of increasing forces of pluralism and secularity. Doing so, however, is an uphill battle. Hunter argued:

Cognitive survival in this climate will require the continued effort to build and maintain a sociocultural world in which the Evangelical view of reality is actively supported, even taken for granted. Stable institutions acting as plausibilty structures would be capable of reimposing their objectified meanings on a laity perplexed by the contrary realities of day-to-day life, of reassuring the doubter that things are all right after all (132).

I will return to this analysis in the next chapter, but I can give a preview here. Some Christian bookstores, like Family Christian chain closed {Merritt, 2017}. Of those that remain, it has become harder to maintain a consistent worldview as evangelical authors raise new perspectives; some of these have begun dropping certain authors. The presence of online book sources like Amazon and Barnes and Noble render these efforts at control limited at best. The percentage of Christian young people opting to attend Christian universities has declined, especially among denominational schools. Christian universities have had to broaden their generic appeal to maintain enrollment. As we will see later, the impact of social media on those attempting a pristine Christian worldview cannot be overstated.

The social location of evangelicals has changed since Hunter first wrote, exacerbating the breakdown of the worldview perspective. For example, Hunter found that only 24% of evangelicals had more than a high school education. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, in contrast, showed that 62% of evangelicals had some post-secondary education and 13% had graduate or professional degrees. Similarly, Hunter had found that 44% of evangelicals lived in rural areas. Research by Ryan Burge in 2016 {Burge, 2016 #681} estimating evangelical location using county level data showed that 47% of evangelicals lived in major metropolitan areas or their suburbs. Finally, Hunter’s data showed that only 38% of evangelicals were middle or upper class (according to his measures). Adjusting his categories by the rate of inflation in the Pew data shows taht fiugre increase to 52% (roughly a quarter of respondents fall in each of Hunter’s four class categories).

If we take the worldview and social location issues together, then, evangelicals have struggled with “the quandary of modernity” precisely as Hunter suggested. As the worldview dynamics weaken while evangelicals are mingling more in contemporary secular society, it creates fissures in what might have been a more coherent perspective in past decades.

This has two predictable outcomes. One is increased innovation within the evangelical camp with less coherent boundaries. The other, paradoxically, is an increased defensiveness of those who hope to protect those boundaries. Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism {Smith, 1998} is helpful in explaining this latter phenomenon.