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.

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