The Aftershock that Broke Evangelicalism

High on the list American Graceof significant books about American Religion in modern times, you will find Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace. Written initially in 2010, it is a voluminous treatment of the changes in religion in the county. In light of contemporary conversations about evangelicals and the 2016 campaign, it’s worth giving it a look.

Early in the book, the authors lay out an earthquake metaphor to explain the shifting nature of religious life. It all begins, according to Putnam and Campbell, with the massive disruptions of “The Sixties” (note: I tend to place the 60s not as the decade but the period bookmarked by the assassination of JFK in 1963 and Nixon’s resignation in 1974).

Changing norms toward sexuality, increasing numbers of women in the workforce, opposition to the War in Vietnam, Roe vs. Wade, and the Woodstock generation created an earthquake of epic proportions. The known landscape shifted in ways that were remarkably disorienting.

Having lived on the west coast for 16 years, I know that earthquakes are devastating but the following aftershocks can demolish already weakened structures. Putnam and Campbell write that the first aftershock was the rise of the Religious Right. Acting against the unmoored nature they saw in American society of The Sixties, there was a marked attempt to restore morality; hence the Moral Majority.

The rise of the Religious Right gave way to a period of overly politicized religion; a religious expression that was overly certain, dogmatic, and rhetorically harsh. This aftershock was followed by one nearly as disruptive; the rise of the Religious Nones, especially among the millennial population.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve experienced yet another aftershock. As pundits, statisticians, and religious researchers attempted to make sense of evangelical support of Donald Trump, the first attempt was to point out that support for Trump was correlated with self-identified evangelicals who didn’t attend church. “Real Evangelicals” wouldn’t reconcile their attempts to follow Christ with the rhetorical style on a bombastic, take-no-prisoners, mocking, egotist.

Up until now, I’ve been tempted to buy that argument. As I shared in my last post, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey from 2014 shows that 12% of self-identified evangelicals seldom or never attend church. But that wasn’t allowing me to make sense of what’s going on, so I went back to the 2007 survey that has full data available for analysis.

I selected only those white respondents who had self-identified as “born again or evangelical” (as opposed to using the denominational characteristics that Pew uses). I could then contrast that with general political orientation. I collapsed the conservative and liberal categories and ignored moderates. Here’s what I came up with:

  Q.20 Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services… more than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never? Total
More than once a week Once a week Once or twice a month A few times a year Seldom Never
Ideology Conservative or Very Conservative Count 2111 1959 619 446 277 102 5514
% 38.3% 35.5% 11.2% 8.1% 5.0% 1.8% 100.0%
Liberal or Very Liberal Count 129 255 149 153 75 49 810
% 15.9% 31.5% 18.4% 18.9% 9.3% 6.0% 100.0%
Total Count 2240 2214 768 599 352 151 6324
% 35.4% 35.0% 12.1% 9.5% 5.6% 2.4% 100.0%

First, an interesting under-reported story is that about 13% of evangelicals identify as liberals. But more related to the overall theme, nearly 15% of politically conservative evangelicals attend church less than once a month (the comparable figure for liberals is 33%).

So it is true that some likely Trump supporters are non-attenders. But the recent exit polls showed evangelical support to be at least twice that figure. For example, Trump won 41% of Tennessee evangelicals. If the Pew 2007 data reflects today’s general patterns, to get to 41%, you’d have to include all non-attenders, monthly attenders, and half the weekly attenders.

This data explains why evangelical leaders suddenly woke up and began asking what was going on. Russell Moore, a fixture at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Southern Baptist Convention and no Trump fan (he’s been great at this) said that he could no longer call himself an evangelical, preferring “gospel Christian”. Dr. Al Mohler, president of the SBC, told NPR, “And now we’re having to face the fact that, evidently, theologically-defined – defined by commitment to core evangelical values – there aren’t so many millions of us as we thought.”

The 2016 primary season, and especially Super Tuesday, created a third aftershock. This aftershock has damaged foundations that were assumed to be secure. Sure, progressive evangelicals have been asking if they could find a place to remain evangelical for several years. But it seems that in just a few weeks, the entire meaning of “evangelical” is up for grabs.

There have been some good attempts at explaining how we got here and what to do now. Fred Clark wrote of the parallels between Trump and evangelical celebrities like Mark Driscoll. Thomas Kidd observes the linkages between evangelicals, Republicans, and Christian America rhetoric. Recent research has connected Trump’s success as being directly related to authoritarianism. While the data doesn’t look specifically at evangelicals, some segments of the movement that focus on moral decline and need for strong leaders who tell it like it is, would seem to share authoritarian qualities.

Some researchers are suggesting more refined measures of what makes one an evangelical. Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer have suggested a new four question measure. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group has begun distinguishing between evangelicals (who meet 9 criteria) and “non-evangelical born-agains” who say they are saved.

I’m not optimistic about this strategy. It’s not just that self-identification is a bad strategy for defining evangelicals. It’s that I’m not sure that any coherence remains in an evangelical segment.

If these patterns continue, and I can’t imagine why they won’t, we may look back on this as a disruptive period that redefined conservative religion for a generation or more.



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