A couple of weeks ago, my grad school collaborator and fellow Christian college sociologist friend Mike sent me an NPR story from last month about how the vast majority of white evangelicals in a Pew survey reported that they saw President Trump as “honest” and “morally upstanding“.
I clicked through to the Pew report (published on March 12) and found some of the primary results even more striking than attitudes toward Trump’s character. One of the questions asked “how important it is to have a president who stands up for your religious beliefs“. The contrast between white evangelicals and the population overall is striking.
Two-thirds cited having a president stand up for your religious beliefs as very important. This contrasts with 38% of the overall sample. Two-thirds see it very important or important that the president “share your religious beliefs.” Notably only 39% of the survey overall thought this was important or very important.
On another question, over half of white evangelicals said that Trump “fights for what I believe in” very well. Only a quarter of the overall sample agrees with that position.
Taken as a whole, this data suggests an interesting pattern — white evangelicals privilege their views over that of the society as a whole.
If I was attaching a sociological label, I’d call this “evangocentrism.” If ethnocentrism is using your home culture as the lens through which you read another culture, evangocentrism is seeking the common good only as an expression of your group’s religious beliefs.
It’s been clear for sometime that the religious freedom battles in the courts have more to do with protecting the interests of white evangelical beliefs and policy than abstract notions of religious freedom. It is very rare to hear those same concerns raised around minority religions, as first amendment purists might do.
It’s hard to say how much of this is a function of the Christian Nationalism that Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry explored in their book or what Katherine Stewart and Chrissy Stroop wrote recently. But I’m pretty confident that the sentiments Pew captured help us understand those churches who insist on staying open in the face of stay-at-home orders.
The general sentiment of these pastors seems to be that government cannot tell them what to do (even if that government cites them for misdemeanor violations of the orders). Their right to continue their beliefs and practices uninterrupted supersedes that of the health of the public at large.
Evangocentrism also helps explain why “Mr. Pillow”, Mike Lindell, felt free to give his comments about religion in America during the daily press briefing on Monday. As Politico reported, he said,
“God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell began, referencing the day Trump was elected president. “Taken out of our schools and lives, a nation had turned its back on God.” Lindell then offered advice to families stuck at home because of various social-distancing guidelines: “I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the Word, read our Bibles and spend time with our families.”
Liddell clearly has the right to his beliefs. To not recognize how they would go over in a public statement in the midst of a national crisis is evangocentrism. It reflects the assumption that the American public would be eager to hear such a sentiment and likely agree with it. It took away from the more important news that his company was going to be producing much needed masks for health care workers.
The future of the evangelical voice in America will require a moderation of evangocentric sentiments. If the gap between evangelicals and the broader American public continues to widen, the very fears that evangelicals have had about religious discrimination will become that much more visible.