It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.
As much as sociology can be accused (sometimes rightly) of “documenting the obvious”, it is far more interesting when data requires us to reinterpret Conventional Wisdom. The Rogers quote rang in my brain as I attended sessions a week ago at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
My paper on Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism (if interested, you can read it here: The Rise of Identity Evangelicalism — SSSR) was in the first session of the first day. That let me relax and devote some thought to what was coming out of other sessions. I kept running into papers that challenged what I keep reading in various evangelical internet sites. It’s one of the best things about the conference (plus hanging out with cool people). Let me highlight a few of those Common Wisdom pieces and then explain what I heard.
People commit to churches that are strict.
My paper wasn’t the only paper to deal with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. My new friend Jennifer McKinney (sociologist at Seattle Pacific) did an analysis of comments by former MHC members. It was a powerful paper, especially for those in the audience who hadn’t paid attention to the details of the Driscoll saga. Jennifer explained the the theoretical argument behind the “strictness is good” argument also included the concept that once people feel loss of freedom they’ll leave. Besides, the strictness argument is built on some questionable social psychology of sunk costs that will not hold in the face of competing alternative sources of reward. The stories Jennifer summarized all had tones of just not being able to take it anymore. Costs were just too great.
Republicans are Culture Warriors
Purdue sociologist Dan Olson and PhD student Benjamin Pratt examined General Social Survey data from 1972-2012. Doing some nifty statistics, they were able to plot 40 years of data along two primary axes: an economic/governmental dimension and a morality dimension. What they found was that while there is some variety by religious tradition based on the two axes, voting behavior and party affiliation tended to almost completely operate on the economic/governmental dimension. Democrats were in favor of a strong government that was attentive to issues of inequality and justice. Republicans favored small government with a more laissez faire approach. It’s not that there aren’t differences on issues of morality, but that they weren’t the drivers of voting behavior. (Here’s Tobin Grant’s take on the same paper as it conforms to some earlier work of his.)
The Mainline Church is Dying
This claim seems to be a byproduct of the strictness claim. The Common Wisdom is that mainline protestantism’s membership decline is due to liberal stances and “not standing for anything”. The actual picture is much less clear. In a wonderful session reflecting on the career of now-retiring sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof, the panel of speaker (top-notch folks in their own right: Nancy Ammerman, Robert Wuthnow, and Meredith Maguire) all referenced a book that Roof wrote with Bill McKinney back in 1987 titled American Mainline Religion. I used that book in class twenty years ago and it painted a picture of a vibrant and important segment of American religion. It is true that demographic patterns have not been kind to mainlines and that there were certainly members who affiliated simply for reasons of social accommodation, but it’s wrong to write them off (as I’ve written before). That point was underscored the last morning when Kevin Dougherty, Gerardo Marti, and Mark McCormack shared data derived from United Methodist Church annual congregational data. Using data collected from 37,000 congregations from 1989-2012 (over 850,000 data points), they shared an initial exploration of congregational diversity by race across time. Part of their research shared average attendance data, which is much more stable than the membership decline numbers would suggest. At the beginning of the period, the average congregation had a 91 attendees on a Sunday morning. That increased to 99 around the turn of the millennium and declined to just over 90 in 2012. This suggests that there may be very different patterns going on when we look at people who attend instead of denominational membership (a pattern that has been consistently replicated across denominational types: attendance is a very important independent variable).
Millennials Will Be Back Once They Have Kids
This is an argument that usually shows up in the face of millennial disaffection from religious institutions. It argues that most generations fall off in religious practice after leaving home and return once they are married and have children of their own. In short, this is called a “life cycle” effect and says not to worry. The alternative view is that these changes are a “cohort” effect and that important changes are occurring across generations. David Voas presented some truly remarkable research that he and Mark Chaves have been doing. They suggest that generational change may be one of the truly important drivers in what we sociologists call secularization: the process of lessening influence of religion in society. A working paper David shared with me shows that strength of religious affiliation is weakening with each successive generation (using General Social Survey data). When they used monthly attendance as a breaking point to divide the committed from the less committed, they get a very similar pattern. Each generation falls below the generation that preceded it. Even thought there is some slight upward shift in US cohorts with age, it is not enough to keep up with the decline from each prior cohort. They write:
[R]eligious change in the United States is very similar to religious change elsewhere: there is long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement. This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse. Children are raised by parents who are less religious than their parents were, and the culture is gradually reshaped with the passing of each successive generation.
Another session shared some initial data from the fourth wave of the National Survey of Youth and Religion. This survey began when its participants were 13-17 years old. By wave four, they are 23-27. One of the papers, by Richard Flory, examined data on attitudes toward religion. Respondents were divided into four categories: Non-religious, Religious upbringing but not attending, Marginal attenders (the same once a month category that Voas and Chaves used), and Regular Attenders. One of the questions specifically asked if the participant would attend services at 35. While 9 of 10 of the regular attenders said yes, the figure for the Marginal attenders fell to only 6 in 10. It’s a different measure to be sure, but it’s very consistent with the Voas and Chaves data.
What We Know
All of these papers underscored something I’ve been pondering for awhile. The nature of religious expression in America is changing and we need to rethink what vital religion looks like. Doing so will require us to pay much more attention to the complexity of things as they actually are and not the simple common wisdom we use to argue for stability of past patterns.
This weekend I attended an event on the nature of evangelism in a post-Christendom culture. It was very interesting but at times seemed caught up in the Common Wisdom. I’ll write more about that in my next post.