Christian Universities Must Engage Broader Issues

Today, Chad Wellmon posted a fascinating article in the Chronicle of HIgher Education. Wellmon arrived on the University of Virginia grounds last week with his family to become principal of one of the residential colleges at UVA. An associate professor of German studies, he’s a fellow with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Moral Clarity

The marchers Friday night literally walked his residence. He describes that they “marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.” UVA’s president, Theresa Sullivan (a sociologist) responded with vague comments about “hateful behavior”. Drawing on Max Weber (I knew I liked this article), he claims that universities lack the moral language within its ranks to really engage the evil that marched onto campus.

If they looked to the university for guidance on how to live, they would be disappointed. The values that motivated students and faculty members to commit themselves to a political cause, a religious tradition, or even scholarship itself, came from elsewhere, from outside the university.

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. … They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

I think his application of Weber’s analysis is spot on. That’s why the whole political correctness/liberal bias/safe spaces debates around university spaces are so hard to resolve. Outside speakers from left or right are expected to come and embrace those “epistemic virtues”. Sometimes, however, there are moral questions involved that openness, critical inquiry, and argument will not properly address. When a speaker has a past endorsement for racist sentiment (whether dressed up in science or “free speech”) should we really engage in open discussion? But does the university have the moral framework to make that distinction? (This, by the way, doesn’t mean that people should abuse the speaker or shout him down.)

Here’s where Wellmon closes his argument:

When I welcome my students this Saturday, I will discuss white supremacy and the march, but I will use language different than the one my wife and I used with our three children. To them we spoke in the language of our faith tradition — in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love. When I speak to my students, I will do so in the language of the university and its traditions — in terms of open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

When I read his conclusion, I realized that we were talking about schools like mine. We operate all the time in language of “the image of God, the church, and Christian love”. It seems like Christian Universities would be uniquely positioned to engage these issues.

But we don’t. We don’t for similar reasons that Wellmon identifies. But in our case, the Weberian value system runs a different direction. We have prided ourselves since the the founding of our Christian Universities that our schools are “safe places” where we don’t have to confront angry speakers (except for some railing on conservative talking points in chapel). We are known for homogeneity and community spirit. Presidents prided themselves in not having any protests during the Vietnam war. We don’t do conflict well (if you doubt that, try attending a contentious faculty meeting).

So here’s the paradox: The research university lacks the moral language necessary to confront the angry conflict at its door while the Christian university has the requisite moral language but prides itself on the absence of conflict.

So what do we do? Perhaps Christian Universities (through their faculty and students) need to be freed to address large cultural issues. We could apply the moral language that is part of the fabric of our universities and speak to issues of race, economics, gender, family, and education.

We would need to temper our anger and political sentiments to some degree. Not because we’re worried about political correctness or conservative outrage but because my twitter feed has plenty of that for all of us. We need to speak from the language of theology because we are committed to critical thinking and thus stand apart from those who have somehow blended their theological and political commitments into some amalgamated mush.

I don’t know how this would work. Perhaps we need an online journal or better a Christian University version of Vox.

Somehow, Christian faculty could speak to complex issues in ways that influence both the church and higher education (an argument Robert Wuthnow made 30 years ago).

Wellmon’s argument based on his frightening experiences of this past weekend makes me think that we have to try. And given the events in Charleston, there’s not much time to waste.

 

 

Some random thoughts on the horrors of Charlottesville 

Like nearly everyone else I know, I’m struggling to get my mind around what’s happened in Charlottesville over the past 24 hours beginning with the surreal tiki-torch march last night through the malicious attack on counter-protestors that left one person dead. 


1. The sight of a parade of white nationalists marching to the University of Virginia chanting  racial and ethnic epithets let us know that this was far from normal, that something is very broken in our social fabric. Even though Jefferson had his blind spots on slavery that we can’t ignore, the entire march seems the antithesis of what he envisioned when founding UVA. Clearly, the nationalists have a guarantee of first amendment protections (championed by the VA ACLU) but we can celebrate their right to protest without legitimizing their views. 

2. The presence of armed militia today was especially unnerving, especially during the time where there seemed to be confusion as to whether these were guardsmen or militias. Their presence appeared not just to celebrate open carry rights but to make tangible the potential for violence.

3. I found cable news today to be singularly unhelpful in trying to see what was going on. I spent time with MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News (actually a few minutes each was all I could stand). All of them had their standard panels that divided into partisan camps and tried to link everything to all things Trump. The conversation drifted from events on the ground to North Korea to Mueller to wondering why POTUS hadn’t said anything yet (it was better when he didn’t). Fox managed to do a better job with events on the ground but I gave up when the host described “differences of opinion” about Confederate statues. To be realistic, these marchers weren’t talking about why a statue was important to heritage; they were talking about a different kind of nation altogether. 

4. The whole question of Trump Voters support the Alt-right seemed to be particularly problematic. To make such overgeneralizations had the predictable effect of making this a partisan conversation. It is true that Trump, like others before him, used awfully loud dog-whistles and continues to do so. But not everyone concerned about border security was carrying tiki torches. It’s important to isolate these bad actors and not link them to politicians or law enforcement. There are issues with both of those, but the nationalists deserve their own special approbrium. 

5. Social media played a very strange role in the events. On the one hand, it was the only way I could keep up with what was going on. But too many reposts were from earlier events, so I knew stuff was happening but not exactly what. Social media was also present at the events. I was amazed at how many videos from this morning showed people taking video or describing events to their friends. 

6. There is far too much “both-sidism” in situations like Charlottesville. We’re there angry worlds and gestures from counter-protestors? Yes. Did they instigate conflict? Certainly not. There are no parallels between Black Lives Matter and those White Nationalists who confronted them. BLM activists do not wish that White People should not be in the country. The early intimidation, threats of violence, and the eventual car attack stand apart from anything the counter-protestors were doing. To argue otherwise is blind at best and malicious at worst. 

7. Everyone, from Trump to local ministers to Boy Scout leaders, should know that we simply and clearly denounce White Nationalist attitudes and behavior. To not do so is at the heart of what researchers are talking about when they try to explain implicit bias (that one’s for you, Pence). 

For all the times conservatives have misappropriated MLK’s Dream speech, this is one time where it makes sense: “the content of their character” deserved to be judged and judged harshly. 

A Court Evangelical Fantasy

October 2008*

Media outlets across the political spectrum were stunned today when major evangelical leaders announced their support for Democratic Candidate Barack Obama with only weeks to go before the crucial presidential election.

Given the near-catastrophic economic collapse following the bursting housing bubble, the conditions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a rising sense of unease among American citizens, the evangelicals said that it was clear that God was preparing the society for a radical change.

“Look at the Old Testament,” counseled Houston mega-pastor Jeff Robertson, “God often picked the most unlikely leaders. Rarely the ones that everyone expected. Think of Abraham or Moses or David. They certainly weren’t the establishment pick.”Obama Evangelicals

The other evangelical leaders present raised similar concerns. “We’re not electing a pastor in chief”, said one. Another observed that “Romans 13 tells us that God places leaders in power. The citizens are only actors in that story.”

Asked how they could throw their support behind a pro-choice Democrat, Christian radio personality Jim Rawlings responded, “God’s ways are not our ways. He often uses what seems like foolishness to show his wisdom.”

Christian university president David Hawley, Jr., who has become a confidante of Senator Obama’s, explained that Obama’s family values, work ethic, and honesty were really the most important qualifications we should be looking for in a president. “Character matters”, he said.

The endorsement came after a meeting in which about two dozen popular evangelical figures met with Senator Obama for prayer.

“We could use our position to try to gain a special advantage for conservative Christians, but we assured Senator Obama that we wanted him to focus on guarantees of religious freedom for all citizens, even the freedom to not pursue faith” said evangelist Sally Woodson.

Senator Obama, whose own religious renewal came in a United Church of Christ, was clearly moved by the show of support.

*This makes as much sense as the rhetoric from Court Evangelicals (Fea, 2017) over the past 18 months.

 

Defending Faith: Exploring Industry Evangelicalism

I’ve been exploring a particular thesis within evangelicalism over the last several years. I’ve suggested that there are two faces of evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. I’ve been arguing that we’re seeing a shift from the former to the latter which is having all kind of disruptions in the interim.

In the link above, I explained what I meant by Industry Evangelicalism:

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

One of my first professional presentations on the shift was at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meetings in 2014. I contrasted two memoirs: Mark Driscoll’s reflections on building the structure that became Mars Hill (for a while at least) and Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire. My fellow panelist in that session was Daniel Bennett, who was presenting data on interviews he had conducted with leaders of Conservative Christian Legal Organizations.

Defending FaithDan’s book on CCLOs, Defending Faith, came out a couple of weeks ago and I finished it yesterday. He and I exchanged e-mails about it over the last 24 hours. I was very eager to read it because it would deepen my insights on how Industry Evangelicalism functions.

Dan, now an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University, analyzed press releases from seven different Christian Legal groups. I hadn’t heard of all of them, but the work of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice (Jay Sekulow’s group), and the Thomas Moore Law Center were familiar.

He explores these CCLOs by examining how they articulate issues of Religious Freedom, Traditional Marriage vs. Same-Sex Marriage, and Sanctity of Life Issues (mostly but not exclusively abortion). He supports the press release data with the above-mentioned interviews.

It’s important to pay attention to the infrastructural underpinnings of these groups. The ACLJ grew out of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, has its own law school, and works to train lawyers in arguing religious freedom cases. The ADF has its roots in linkages to James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright, Industry evangelicals all. The TMLC has conservative Catholic roots and was funded by the Domino’s pizza founder.

The protection of religious freedom and individual conscience is key to the rhetorical frame offered by the CCLOs. These issues are expressed as an individuals’ deeply held beliefs. But it’s interesting that, unlike the position that Russell Moore has been advocating, this isn’t support for religious freedom in the abstract, but conservative evangelical religious freedom in the particular. The debate over the Mississippi religious freedom law (back on again) will test whether this passes constitutional muster.

Conscience protections are key to understanding their legal advocacy on issues of marriage post-Obergefell and on issues of abortion in light of the strength of Casey. CCLOs aren’t that involved in policy making, but are interested in protecting a specific segment of the public.

Not all of them are directly partisan organizations (the ACLJ is the standout), but they share a sense that “the government” is doing bad things to people of faith. They tend not to see these issues as blind spots in well-meaning policy or unanticipated consequences of good actions. They see them through the lens of malevolent actors who oppose people of faith. It makes me wonder to what extent such institutionalized anti-government sentiment helps explain the 81% white evangelical support for Republicans.

The Industrial operation of CCLOs makes it difficult for them to come to a shared sense of how faith operates within a pluralistic environment. I recently heard a presentation on efforts to build Liberty For All legislation based on the Utah legislation that paired LGBT rights with robust religious freedom protections. The CCLO representative had a difficult time even imagining how such a compromise was possible.

When a group has defined enemies that must be “defended against”, compromise is almost impossible. Furthermore, the business model of the CCLOs depends upon them maintaining a sense of opposition, to standing in the breach. That’s where their donations come from because they aren’t charging bakers the going rate.

Their advocacy has impacts on other elements of Industrial Evangelicalism. It’s no surprise that religious media provides strong coverage to CCLOs on their terms or that evangelical groups like the CCCU invite them to major meetings to give input on how the government will look at Christian schools or that they give workshops at Value Voter summits. The interlocking linkages between these various organizations create an institutional bulwark to keep “them” at bay.

As Dan and I discussed, there’s a real danger of the pendulum swinging back the other direction turning protection into isolation. In the process, the CCLOs may actually do more damage to the role of faith in the public square over the long run.

It’s worth pondering what kinds of institutional groups could be formed to rethink how people of conservative religious faith can be meaningful participants in collective efforts to protect religious freedom and individual conscience, especially for those who disagree with us.

That would likely require us to begin making the move to Identity Evangelicalism, worrying less about protecting the boundaries and more about expressing Faithful Witness.

Determining Discrimination

Last week I thought this would be an obscure little post that most people would ignore. It was prompted by the release of a new poll that the Pew Research Center did on the experience of American Muslims. I was struck by a set of questions about the nature of discrimination. The summary is below:

Pew Muslim Discrimination

On three of these measures, things are somewhat better than they were in 2011 yet all are worse than they were in 2007. But “better” is a relative term. It is still true that nearly one in five Muslim responded that they had been called an offensive name. Six percent had been physically threatened or attacked.

The survey is drawn from 1,000 US Muslims over the course of this spring. Notice that the timeframe is the last year, not “in your lifetime”. That means that 60 Muslims were attacked and 180 were called names. Pew includes a summary calculation that identifies anyone who experienced any one of the five conditions described. The total comes to nearly 1 in 2 Muslims, or 480 people out of 1,000.

I’m particularly struck by the “treated with suspicion” option. Unlike all of the others, that appears to be more in the mind of the respondent. There is no necessary behavioral marker. Just a feeling that people are treating you differently because of your status.

That idea echoed another one from a different Pew survey. In a more general analysis of perceptions of discrimination, they asked people which groups they thought faced a lot of discrimination in today’s society. They then broke those down by subgroup, which makes for some very interesting analysis.

Pew Group Discrimination

So who faces discrimination? It depends upon who you ask. Less than half of whites say that blacks face a lot of discrimination. PRRI data suggests some interesting class and party distinctions.

White evangelicals are least likely to see discrimination against blacks (just over a third) or gays and lesbians (just over half). But half of white evangelicals argue that there is a lot of discrimination against them! No other subgroup sees that discrimination as overwhelming.

When I saw this last week, I was simply interested in the contrast between the Muslim survey that mostly asked about concrete behaviors and less about general perceptions.

But the past 24 hours has seen the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ exploring prosecution of reverse discrimination cases in colleges and universities. And today the White House rolled out new immigration policies to privilege English-speakers (ostensibly to protect jobs).

This all brings me back to the idea of “being looked at suspiciously”. It’s not about actual, demonstrable discrimination. It’s about the possibility that someone would take advantage and favor another group over yours. I can’t imagine seeing white evangelicals called names on the street. It’s beyond imagining that white students find themselves put upon on college campuses.

Discrimination has become separated from its sociological tether. No longer is it about structures that impede certain groups by law (redlining, law enforcement, neighborhood schools). It’s about being singled out because you’re white or Christian or conservative.

And all it takes to feel discriminated against is a single outlier instance. Bill Maher says something outrageous. A young woman isn’t admitted to the University of Texas. A florist in Washington is found in violation of a state nondiscrimination ordinance.

There may not really be jobs taken by new immigrants but there might have been. You heard that one story on the news. And maybe not today but certainly tomorrow.

This pattern of isolated outrage has become a staple of modern media environment. Organizations are quick to claim offense and paint the story in the worst possible and most egregious way. Because their business model depends upon it.

This is true of political organizations. It is true of religious organizations. It is true of media organizations.

But that outrage isn’t discrimination. And it’s a huge mistake to base public policy on something as fleeting as feeling “you were looked out suspiciously”.

 

 

What about the 19%?: Evangelical Democrats

Last week saw a really great collection of thoughtful pieces on evangelicals and politics. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were still trying to make sense of both the 2016 presidential election and the continuing levels of support for President Trump.

Last night I tweeted the following: “We need to know a lot more about the 19% of white evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump, especially those previously Rs. What rationales?

So naturally, I set out to try to figure out the beginnings of an answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have data on the election specifically nor anything on possible changes over time.

What I do have is the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. While it doesn’t deal specifically with voting behavior, the overall dataset is large enough to examine a particular set of evangelicals. Given the recognized confusions over who exactly is an evangelical, I selected a subset of data that would fit most people’s definitions.

I looked only at individuals who reported themselves as “born again or evangelical”,  who were part of an evangelical tradition, who attended church at least once a month, and who were white, non-hispanic. I also limited my analysis to only self-identified Republicans and Democrats, leaving out Independents and minor parties.

Evangelical Party

Because the Pew survey starts with 35,000 cases, there are still over 2,700 faithful white evangelicals using all my screens. This allowed me to do some sub-group comparisons to see if there were correlates with those evangelicals who identify as Democrats.

First, about a third of the Evangelical Democrats were born before 1945. On the other hand, a third of Evangelicals Republicans are Gen-X or Millennials compared to 20% of Democrats. It’s a matter of further research to determine if younger Evangelicals are more politically conservative or simply less likely to identify as evangelicals.

Second, there are the expected social class differences. Nearly 65% of Evangelical Democrats had family incomes under $50,000 in 2013. Over 58% of Evangelical Republicans were over $50,000. There is also a split on educational level, with Democrats being more highly represented among those who have a high school degree or less (this may well be an artifact of the generational pattern).

Third, there is a gender gap (although this didn’t turn up in exit polls in 2016). Females are 10% more likely than males to be Democrats.

In my earlier analysis of evangelical Republicans, I examined the difference between attitudes toward what I called conservative issues (size of government, attitudes toward welfare) and moral issues (legality of abortion, attitude toward same-sex marriage). In that piece, I argued that on conservative issues Evangelical Republicans looked like all Republicans but that there were differences on the moral issues.

Comparing Evangelical Republicans and Evangelical Democrats on the conservative issues shows a couple of interesting patterns. First, nine out of ten Evangelical Republicans favor smaller government with less services. Over half of the Evangelical Democrats would agree on smaller government with 45% favoring more services. Similarly, when asked about whether government aid to the poor creates dependency, eight in ten Evangelical Republicans agree as do a third of Democrats.

On the moral issues, about 38% of Evangelical Democrats favor same-sex marriage where less than 10% of Republicans do. The Democrats are evenly split on whether abortion should be legal where only 13.5% of Republicans think so.

Taken together, these differences paint a fairly consistent pattern: There is a very high degree of agreement among Evangelical Republicans with a very small outlying percentage. In general, Evangelical Democrats are divided on both conservative issues and moral issues.

Remember, all of the folks I’m looking at are regularly attending evangelical churches (although the Democrats are about one Sunday less frequent in attendance). How does an Evangelical Democrat operate in the midst of assumed (and perhaps demonstrated) uniformity on political issues? This internal congregational dynamic explain the conformity assumptions in American Evangelical churches. This is less true in Lydia Bean’s Canadian churches and is not present in this new book about British Evangelicals by Andrea Hatcher.

While it’s impossible to get at congregational dynamics with cross-sectional survey data, there is a hint in the Pew data set. There are a set of questions about attitudes toward church. Some of these look at the positive impact of churches in upholding morality and helping the poor. On these, there is virtually no difference between Evangelical Democrats and Evangelical Republicans.

On the other hand, Evangelical Democrats are 9% more likely to say the church is too rule-focused and 12% more likely to say the church is too focused on money and power. The real difference shows up in terms of political engagement. Evangelical Democrats (at 42%) are 21% more likely to agree that the church is too involved in Politics. (That 8 in 10 Evangelical Republicans disagree with this statement is why the President’s Johnson Amendment pitch gets traction.)

I’m stretching way beyond the data, but I’m drawn back to Putnam/Campbell and Kinnaman/Lyons. Both of these books argued that millennials were put off by the past political engagement of the church and withdrew. Or, I would argue, at least no longer identify as evangelicals. As I’ve mentioned before (paraphrasing Robert Jones), if progressive millennials depart, the unanimity of those evangelicals who remain will actually increase.

Shifting the evangelical-politics landscape is not likely to occur in the near future. On the one hand, the historic democrats are up against actuarial limits and aren’t being replaced at similar levels by younger cohorts.

In the final analysis, Michael Wear’s argument that the Democratic party needs to recognize the diversity present among Evangelical Democrats is correct. On the other hand, when put up against the overwhelming consensus present among Evangelical Republicans, its hard to figure out how productive such a strategy will be.

Of course, the roller-coaster ride we have all been on over the last six months may completely shift all of the patterns I’ve described. But I’m not holding my breath.

A Political Sociology of Evangelicals

While I’ve been in the midst of two major projects, I’ve been following some fascinating online conversations about evangelicals and politics. The overlaps and distinctions between these positions speaks directly to themes I’ve been raising on this blog since it began.

The larger backdrop, as has been the case since the presidential campaign began, is about the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in November and who largely continue to do so. I argued just over a year ago that these patterns made sense if we consider covariants, demographic shifts, and subcultural influences within evangelicalism. This past April, I presented an analysis at Calvin College arguing that evangelicals act like Republicans when culture war issues aren’t particularly salient.

While followers of John Fea know that he’s been talking about Court Evangelicals for a few months, his argument hit the big time this week when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post. As John explained on his blog, the Court Evangelicals wanted to be near to Trump and made much of his comments on religions freedom, including the curious focus on the Johnson Amendment. (I wrote about this last July as well.) Emily Miller reported in Religion News Service that the new House budget contains language the keeps the IRS from taking action to enforce the Johnson Amendment, even though evidence is scarce that it has ever been enforced. Yet this largely symbolic step is seen as a win for Court Evangelicals.

Having visited Versailles twice during my recent France trip, the image of Court Evangelicals has taken on a particular meaning for me. One of my favorite parts of the tour of the “hunting lodge” is the dining room. At one end is the table where Louis XIV ate with his family. At the other end one finds a series of divans where the courtiers sat to observe and comment on how well the King was proceeding on his meal. The recent Oval Office prayer meeting has echoes of Versailles.

Trump Evangelicals

These Court Evangelicals have built a rhetorical frame that allows them to see Trump as a Cyrus figure whom God rose up “for such a time as this.” However, while they are important in providing the President with the ability to say “I won the evangelicals”, it’s less clear how their influence may be influencing rank and file evangelicals (although Robert Jeffress’ MAGA celebration July 4th weekend was pretty unnerving.)

On Tuesday, Neil Young (not that one!) argued in Religion and Politics that “Evangelical is not a political term”. Reacting to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals, Young suggests that she makes too much of the alignment between evangelical strength and the rise of the religious right, spending nearly half of her tome on the rise of Moral Majority and Culture Warriors. (I’m only up to 1918 in my read of Fitzgerald but I get his critique.)

It is not at all clear how much of rank-and-file evangelicals are influenced by the political positionings of Court Evangelicals and Culture Warriors. Lydia Bean’s excellent The Politics of Evangelical Identity (summarized in the first link above) finds that church people weren’t directly influenced by the Religious Right or even pastoral jeremiads. Rather, the link between evangelical identity and Republicanism was framed in the informal interactions of folks in church. In her US churches (as opposed to her Canadian churches) people assumed that society had changed for the worse and this was due to direct actions by liberals (no prayer in school, abortion, LGBT rights). The nature outgrowth of such belief is to oppose Democrats. If one doesn’t hold those views, it’s real work to remain in fellowship. It might be much easier to find a nice Methodist church.

Shortly before Young’s piece appeared, Tim Gloege wrote in The Anxious Bench reflecting on Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter’s Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism. Gloege argues that there is much to explore in terms of additional social and political dynamics that shape the development and self-presentation of evangelicalism.

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (emphasis in original)

I think Gloege is exactly right. Understanding evangelicalism at any point in time in dependent upon understanding which forces are involved in the contest. Are there tensions between Protestants and Catholics? Mainline churches and Fundamentalist churches? Arminians and Calvinists? Working class and Middle class? Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics? Those in the South and Midwest or those in the Northeast and Northwest? Suburban or Rural?

These contestations will work out differently for different subgroups at different points in time. They will differ in terms of which issues have salience (for example, RFRA issues are remarkably geographically bounded). They will differ on how the relate to various national issues as sides are determined in ways that Bean describes.

The difference between Young’s and Gloege’s arguments is important even though each have a part of the political reality. Chris Gehrz closed his blog post yesterday with a nice framing of the question:

Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?

If we use Young’s definitions, the answer comes closer to Ryrie’s. If we use Gloege’s, politics runs through evangelical identity. Not just in the narrow terms of partisan elections but in the broad context of definition and representation.

Consider the triumphalism some evangelicals expressed when the 2014 Pew Landscape survey showed that evangelicals held their own between 2007 and 2014 while Mainlines lost ground. I read far too many critiques about “cultural Christians” who believe but don’t act. (Actually working through the Pew data shows two problems with this: a large number of evangelicals don’t attend church and a large number of evangelicals belong to mainline churches.) That’s a political argument about how “we’re winning” which is then often used to justify our view as “the Christian view”.

One key point of contestation involves demographic changes. Robert Jones The End of White Christian America demonstrates how the share of the society fitting those characteristics is shrinking significantly. This is why he argued that evangelical support for Trump was made up on “nostalgia voters.” John Fea picked up this argument this morning suggesting that the 2016 election bore a resemblance to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was a last gasp effort to turn the tide against overwhelming odds.

All of these discussions have been valuable as I’ve been refining the argument I’ve been making for several years: that millennial evangelicals are approaching the political question in Gloege’s framing while older evangelicals my age have tended to approach the political question in Fitzgerald’s framing. In other words, Millennials are attempting to move from their lived experience to their understanding of Christian faith while Boomers are more likely to move from Christian Positions to lived experience. Millennials may have a higher sensitivity to authentic and holistic expression where Boomers may be more likely to tolerate dissonance between institutional expectations and lived experience.

Why is that that the case? Pew research from early last year provides a clue. Between 2010 and 2015, loyalty toward institutional religion increased for all generations except millennials. Where 59% of Boomers saw churches and religious organizations as positive in 2010, they increased to 62% in 2016. This is in remarkably sharp contrast to millennials whose support for institutional religion fell from 73% (which seems artificially high to me) in 2010 to only 55% in 2016. This actually reflects a lessening of millennial institutional loyalty in a variety of contexts.

The Court Evangelicals, with some exceptions, are my age or older. They reflect the efforts of a pro-institutional identity attempting to take advantage of political opportunity. But there is not a general mobilization of millennials to join that bandwagon.

All of this takes me back to Lydia Bean. If the church is not a place where one can express disagreement on issues of either definitional politics or partisan politics, the costs of staying may simply be too great.

Robbie Jones makes an interesting argument in The End of White Christian America. He observes that social attitudes usually moderate among groups as younger generations take on a larger share of the demographic mix. Yet on some issues (like same-sex marriage) he didn’t see that happening. He hypothesized that those younger generations who disagreed with institutional positions were simply leaving the evangelical fold. The result is an increased homogeneity among the population that says behind.

It seems that those tension are playing out on a weekly basis on my twitter feed. The most recent example was the did-he-or-didn’t-he coverage of Eugene Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage. These are political questions revolving around demographic shifts, lived experience, region of country, educational level, and yes, political party.

I certainly appreciate all of the historical analysis of evangelicalism and how it got where it is. To understand where it may be going we’re going to need new political definitions.