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.

 

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