Religion is more complicated than our reporting suggests

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.

The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.

pew-obama

Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.

I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.

The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.

That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey  shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.

Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.

On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.

I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?

As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.

Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.

Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research  involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.

Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).

I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.

In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.

In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:

Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose.  He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world.  Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.

 

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