Author: johnhawthorne

I could have said so much more…

PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON New Times San Luis Obispo 6/1/20

I have closely followed the developments of the nearly two weeks since George Floyd’s needless death in Minneapolis. But as I look over the past 11 days, I find myself less analytical and more introspective.

This week Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer wrote about the ways in which his life and successful career had been in part the result of the privilege attached to his race and class status. He tells of how his family had setbacks, but inherited wealth and connections of social capital opened doors that wouldn’t open otherwise.

Meanwhile, Thomas Reese, S.J., wrote this compelling piece for the Religion News Service. Titled, “My generation failed to deal with racism“, he rightly observes that the Boomer generation recognized the inequities of racial inequality and simply chose not to deal with it. Tom, a decade older than me, represents the front edge of the Boomers while I fall right in the middle of the cohort. But I share in his recognition that we have not championed change and now must leave it to others to pick up from our failure.

Yesterday, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota shared on Twitter that two of the officers charged with aiding and abetting in the death of George Floyd were graduates from the sociology program there. Minnesota had a track preparing students for careers in law enforcement.

I am now in my third week of retirement but these three stories have me reflecting over things said and left unsaid in my courses in sociology and criminal justice, in my role as an academic administrator, and as a member of the larger Christian college community.

There are rational reasons why I didn’t say more. I knew that the institutions tended to see sociologists as liberal social justice warriors, so I kept my comments more general and nuanced than what I really thought. I knew the constituency didn’t like social advocacy and so I didn’t push too hard. I bought into what MLK called “the tranquilizing drug of incrementalism“, accepting small steps as important when larger ones were called for. I knew my students were disproportionately from smaller and more rural towns and had strong pro-police sentiments (relying on “war on police” rhetoric).

I did ground my teaching in what we knew about structural inequality. We talked about stop and frisk and police deployment and mass incarceration and the challenges of reentry. I tried to raise the questions about the vast amounts of money we spend on criminal justice and how if we invested just a fraction of those funds into community and economic development our reliance on criminal justice would go down.

But there was so much more to say.

I could have talked more about how the culture of policing leads one to prioritize loyalty to peers and superiors over impact on the citizenry. The reckless assault on Martin Gugio in Buffalo under the auspices of “clearing the streets” and the subsequent protest of the other officers on the task force makes this clear.

I could have talked more about the importance of officer discretion and how an oversimplified view of the law is problematic. The NYPD actions on the Manhattan Bridge that trapped protestors between two groups of officers shouldn’t have happened. Sure, curfew violation is technically a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 3 months in prison, but arresting and prosecuting hundreds of violators is not feasible. The point was to get them off the street — no need to treat them like criminals to be subdued, beaten, or gassed.

I could have spent more time on how default assumptions about “criminal neighborhoods” become self-fulfilling prophecies. We have assumed those neighborhoods are poor and crime-ridden, used that as a justification for lack of economic and social investment, deployed our police force to patrol those areas, and expected them to be areas where police need to show maximum strength. No big surprise that they show disproportionate arrest rates.

I could have said more to administrators about Christian college’s tendency to support a type of model minority myth. We want to diversify our student body and our faculty, but we want “the right kind” of diversity. Rather than adjusting to open doors for underserved populations, we too often expected them first to “fit in” and be like us.

I could have talked more about the churches our students came from and how homogeneous they were both racially and politically. The ways in which being THAT sort of Christian get normalized could have been compassionately challenged.

I could have spent much more time interrogating the political talking points and legislative policies that fly past so many of our students (and faculty). The underlying assumptions needed to be exposed as the manipulative strategies they are.

I could have spoken more about the importance of civil disobedience and the role of protest movements in fomenting social change. Yes, these have the risk of being coopted by those interested in looting and sometimes people get caught up in collective behavior. But it is wrong to assume that protestors are “idle college students” seeking to destroy things. If the past two weeks have told us anything, it is that people are sincere in their concerns (even if they provoke the police).

I could have said more about how the warrior stance of policing become quickly problematic. It encourages an officer to see threat present everywhere and be prepared to act accordingly. We are one month past the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings that told us what happens when we put a group of militarized officers into a strange situation and have people mistreat them.

I could have spent more time encouraging us to see the common humanity present in all social interactions. My restorative justice students get introduced the the African notion of “ubuntu” — the mutuality and interdependence of our shared humanity. It’s the one thing they are still talking about at the end of the course and hopefully for decades after.

In many ways, being a retired sociologist gives me the freedom to worry less about how others will hear my words. I may still offend some, but am outside any institutional confines i may see as limiting.

So now I’ll be saying quite a bit more.

Exploring Evangelical Complexity

As I’ve written before, there is a well-developed cottage industry organized around the question “who are the evangelicals and what are they thinking?”. While I’m pretty sure we aren’t getting closer to any definitive answer, it feels like we’re beginning to grasp why the question remains such a conundrum.

This past week, Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe addressed the variety of answers to the question on the Religion in Public blog. Written in partial response to a recent book edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Masden — Evangelicals, Who They Are Now, Have Been, and Could Be — they attempt to explore the “blind men and the elephant” problem in studying evangelicals.

I read the Noll book last month and found it very helpful in understanding the development of the intellectual history approach to evangelicalism. The book reflects some coherence in that approach while still exploring the challenges inherent therein. Bebbington’s contribution focusing on four theological beliefs has merit but its applicability remains somewhat challenging in today’s marketplace. It is a very good book that involves some significant dialogue among the contributors.

There is real value in locating evangelicalism in a historical vein but there is often a disconnect between that view and how social scientists explore the question. I remember n the mid-80s being allowed to sit in as the token sociologist in a group of historians — including Joel Carpenter and the recently passed Don Dayton — at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The intervening decades have not brought us closer to consensus.

Ryan and Paul explore three different approaches social scientists might use as definitional schemas. First, they look at “organizational attachment” most often measured by the RELTRAD variable in surveys. Second, they try to use theological variables (measured by agreement with some standard (although largely inadequate IHMO — see my previous post) survey formulations from respectable polling groups. Examining some data, they do not find major differences between evangelical and non-evangelical Christians. Their third approach focuses on the “born-again” identification. While those in evangelicals denominations are more likely to claim the identity than mainline denominations (but only marginally different from Black Protestants), one is left to wonder what exactly that means. In my years as an administrator in Christian Colleges, I found I had to prep prospective faculty from non-evangelical traditions. They had deep faith commitments but didn’t use the born-again language search committees wanted to hear.

Early in their blog post, they share the following insight:

Perhaps sadly, the citizenry does not conform to consistency and academic rules of classification, which leads to some strange combinations of religious attributes. That is, religion is not like a matryoshka doll.

The same day Ryan and Paul wrote their piece, Peter Wehner wrote a reflection on the Noll book for Cardus — I think they landed on twitter within minutes of each other. Peter quickly moves from contemporary politics to Bebbington and then to scripture. He writes of people whose lives were transformed by the Gospel which then gave them the motivation to address power and injustice. Instead we see faith used as a means to gain power and control over others. Yet today:

We are much more tribal than we care to confess, and far too quick to manipulate faith to support our worldly desires. Rather than having our sensibilities shaped by the ethic of Jesus, too many of us use Christianity to validate our preexisting attitudes, what we already believe, what we already want to do.

He then discusses Michele Margolis’ From Politics to the Pews which suggests that we are political first and religious second.

The difficulty in all of these approaches is that we still know far too little about what is happening in people’s minds when they are making decisions as evangelicals. Are they, in fact, acting as evangelicals or, as Peter suggests, are they simply validating prior positions with religious language. (There’s been a debate this weekend on whether abortion is a motivating force in evangelical voting or a rationalization covering other policy preferences).

Because these issues are so multidimensional, it becomes very difficult to make sense of causal order, intervening variables, and triggering factors. In a different series of posts this weekend, Ryan Burge was exploring the relationship between partisan ideology and denominational affiliation (in response to the “religious left” twitter discussions). He showed that there were very few religious traditions in which liberals outnumber conservatives, one of which was the United Church of Christ. Most show more of a mixed pattern. Then there are those like the Southern Baptist Convention was are more heavily on the politically conservative end of the scale.

But that made me think about how hard it is to unpack that descriptive data. I asked myself, where are UCC congregations located? So I went to my trustworthy source, The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), and looked at the geographic distributions according to the 2010 congregations survey. What I found was that UCC congregations predominate in the Northeast and Midwest. I’ll let the reader figure out where the Southern Baptist congregation are.

If you consider what the infamous Blue and Red State maps look like, you’ll see the ways in which these maps would overlay. So are UCC folks politically liberal or do they reflect the dominant values of their region. By the way, the UMC — my own denomination — shows up in Ryan’s data as 25% liberal, 25% moderate, and 50% conservative. The congregational map for the UMC is dominant in the Eastern half of the US but more evenly distributed North and South. (I also looked at these maps by adherents per 1,000 population but it didn’t change much).

One could do the same analysis by age distribution, social class characteristics, or educational level. In any case, it’s very difficult to figure out where “evangelical” fits in the myriad factors influencing political identity and voting behavior.

I don’t have an answer, unfortunately. I simply keep wrestling with the gaps in our theoretical formulations and trying to figure out whether any classification system will give us a handle on this ever-puzzling phenomenon.

The Bible and Survey Questions

I really like the work of the Pew Research Center. Readers of this blog know that I have often drawn out some of their research for further comment about religion and contemporary society (as I did earlier this month). Sometimes, however, they ask questions that make me wonder what they were assuming about their respondents.

Yesterday, my history colleague Mark Edwards shared a Pew “Factank” article titled “Half of Americans say Bible should influence U.S. laws..”. This was a snapshot from the same March survey that was the basis for my above mentioned post. Here’s the relevant data:

The survey found that Americans were split on the question of whether the Bible should influence laws but that white evangelicals and Black protestants were much more in favor. Furthermore, the data suggests that majorities of both groups suggested that the Bible should be more persuasive than the will of the people.

So what does this data tell us? Without follow-up questions, it’s not clear what respondents were thinking. Is this about supporting “Biblical marriage”? Is it about prophetic passages instructing care for the poor, widowed, and orphaned? Maybe it’s a reference to Matthew 25 and “the least of these”. Or perhaps it is related to proof texting certain passages that seem to support certain policy concerns about welfare dependency.

Are these opinions held by people who regularly read the Bible (and thereby have something specific in mind) or is this simply capturing a naive “Bible is good” sentiment?

To be fair to Pew, I’m being pretty picky here. I’m right at the stage of my research design course where my student research groups are converting their research questions into actual survey questions. I’ve been pushing them to examine their assumptions and ask the question necessary to make sense of the data that they will eventually get.

Yet I wonder if the Bible and law question doesn’t force a frame into which the respondents fit their opinions. If you asked, “what should be the source of our laws?” would the Bible show up as a top response? Why not Lockean philosophy or enlightenment social contract theory?

Asking questions about the Bible is hard, particularly because so much is left to individual interpretation (and Pew’s prior work on Biblical literacy shows how limited those interpretations might be!). One of the common questions about the Bible is that used by Gallup. Respondents are given the option of seeing the Bible as the literal word of God, the inspired but not literal word of God, or an ancient book of fables (highlighting mine).

Even here, we don’t really know what respondents mean by literal or inspired. Some have asked questions about degrees of error or conflict in the scripture. Yet even then, we don’t really get at how individuals are using the Bible in their decision making (if at all).

I once experimented with a question that asked people what parts of the scripture they were most likely to read in their daily devotions using broad categories of history, psalms and proverbs, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation. and the like. In my most recent project surveying evangelical clergy, I asked questions about their method of biblical interpretation.

Sam Perry recently explored the way different Bible translation versions related to assumptions about gender roles in the family and in the church. His comments near the end of his article do a nice job of summarizing a broader and richer approach to the Bible than we normally see:

While American sociologists are well aware of the Bible’s importance to understanding Americans’ beliefs, values, and behavior, I have advocated a more critical approach to the Bible’s content, one that understands it as a product of ideology and not merely a producer or platform. 

If we really want to understand how Americans view the Bible and its role in the broader society, we simply have to ask better and more in-depth questions.

To my Bernie-supporting students

Dear current, recent, and long-ago students of mine;

I have watched you on social media over the last twelve months advocating effectively for Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee who would take the fight to Donald Trump in the 2020 campaign. Your passion for a shift away from politics as usual is commendable and your impatience with the status quo gives me hope.

And yet, here we are. Yesterday, Senator Sanders made what was likely the inevitable decision to suspend his 2020 presidential campaign.

This is certainly hard to deal with. The direct affront to such an optimistic vision easily leads to a “pox on both your houses” moment. The temptation to sit out the 2020 election is understandable. But it must be resisted.

I have a long history of processing such disillusionment. I have voted in enough elections over my career to know how these emotions play out. Especially since my favored candidate has lost far more often than won.

Even though the 26th Amendment passed in 1971 allowing 18-year old’s the right to vote, my own 18th birthday fell 11 days after the 1972 election. So my first vote was cast for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I was excited about Carter’s energy and enthusiasm. But he really had no experience at the federal level and had relied too much on his “Georgia mafia.” If it had been a period of quiet in American society he might have been okay, but economic downturn and the Iran hostage crisis rendered him over his head.

In 1980, it was clear that Reagan was going to handily beat Carter. In that year, I cast the only vote I’ve ever made for a third party candidate, supporting John Anderson’s independent run. I thought that if enough people voted for Anderson, it might not change the outcome but it might just create legitimacy for third party efforts in presidential campaigns. It didn’t.

Reagan’s governing philosophy (such as it was) was anathema to a sociology PhD student in 1981. He was working hard to minimize issues of inequality and to handcuff government’s ability to get anything done. I tried to remain hopeful but it was hard work.

In 1984, I was intrigued by the young visionary Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart. He was brilliant and had long-range vision. He dealt with ideas that others hadn’t even realized were topics of consideration. It was a good run but he was eventually overwhelmed by the establishment candidate who had been Carter’s vice president four years earlier, Walter Mondale. I voted for Mondale in ’84 knowing that he was going to lose (but not thinking he would lose as badly as he did).

The 1988 election gave us the possibility of an open race. The Reagan years were over and GHW Bush was running. Gary Hart was the presumed front-runner on the Democratic side and he was stronger than in ’84. And then his candidacy imploded in the Donna Rice allegations. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the Democratic Primary and he got my vote. The nomination eventually went to Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, who had strong technical skills but no charisma. That he made GHW look compassionate was a real feat. But I voted for Dukakis anyway because I thought we needed a pragmatist/technocrat following the free-wheeling years of the Reagan Administration.

In 1992, Bill Clinton emerged as a surprising front-runner in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misbehavior, assault, and potential rape. There was something of a generational change underway and a younger charismatic candidate following GHW’s handling of a serious recession coupled with a serious third-party run by wealthy anti-free-trader Ross Perot, made him president. That marked the second political win of my voting career. Clinton had been a major force in the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate/conservative Democrats who were attempting to combine a pro-business orientation with a social safety net. When the Gingrich revolution flipped the House in 1994, Clinton tacked to the right in order to govern. The 1996 election is hardly worth mentioning. Senator Bob Dole, a tower of Republican leadership, was given the nomination but it was clear that Clinton’s re-election was never in doubt. The Lewinsky scandal and impeachment followed on the heels of the election which cast real doubt on the Democrats’ ability to retain the White House.

In the 2000 Democratic primary, I was enamored with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. He was progressive, having opposed Clinton’s welfare reform act. But his campaign never took off and vice president Al Gore took every primary contest. Gore was in a tough spot, inheriting Clinton’s policies while not quite being able to distance himself from Clinton’s moral failure. Texas governor George W. Bush, GHW’s son, won the Republican primary as a “compassionate conservative” (those were the days!). I supported Gore and saw the election contest stretch into early December when the Supreme Court ruled against a state-wide recount in Florida, giving Bush the election.

While Bush had tremendous popular support after 9/11 (as his father had after the first Iraq was), his decision to invade Iraq and interest in privatizing social security were liabilities. There were a number of strong candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary field (it was the year of the Howard Dean “scream“). Senator John Edwards got my attention with a consistent message about “two Americas” where some people are doing great and others are greatly suffering. It was a powerful message but he eventually lost the nomination to Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts and went on to become Kerry’s running mate. Kerry’s message wasn’t as strong and he was attacked unfairly by the Republican establishment and Bush was reelected. It was at the 2004 Democratic Convention that Barack Obama gave his famous “no red and blue America” speech, which placed him in the national spotlight.

The 2008 Democratic primary saw Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards as the major players. Edwards’ message hadn’t developed since four years earlier and he was sidelined by lots of hypocrisy issues (which became really serious after the campaign ended when his affair become public). As the race settled between Obama and Clinton, I continued to support Obama and was overjoyed when he went on to beat John McCain in November (in the midst of economic disruption). The 2012 race saw Obama-Biden ticket continue strong eventually overcoming the Romney-Ryan ticket in spite of major efforts by those on the right to find scandals where there weren’t any.

In the 2016 Democratic Primary, I was originally pulling for Martin O’Malley. He had been the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore. He brought a strong pragmatic governance streak but struggled to overcome some tough–on-crime stances he’d taken and to stand out in an unusual field. The presence of Hillary Clinton as the first female candidate and Bernie Sanders as the progressive candidate made O’Malley seem insignificant. I wound up supporting Clinton in spite of Sanders’ strong showing. In retrospect, there are many mistakes Clinton made in campaigning, in handling (not handling) the crises surrounding her, and in not building bridges to younger voters. And so, Trump gets elected in the second narrowest presidential election in recent memory.

That brings us to 2020. With such a large cast of candidates running there were many significant candidates to consider. While people like Harris and Klobuchar had my attention very early, that gave way to vacillating between Buttigieg and Warren. This is an example of my pragmatic streak coming forth. I want a president who knows how to govern and can make the checks and balances of our system work the way they are supposed to. Bernie Sanders’ analysis of contemporary issues was strong and largely correct, but the prognosis for how to implement those ideas seemed lacking to me.

So eventually, we wind up back in the situation where the former vice president becomes the presumptive nominee of the party. To be fair, the record for vice presidents running for president turns out to be one win and two losses. So why do people look to vice presidents as potential candidates? Some of that has to do with name recognition. People feel more secure with what they see as a known quantity. Some has to do with the ability to leverage past relationships in government and foreign policy for future benefit. One other factor to consider is the tendency for the modern electorate (especially those on social media) to play pundit roles, picking candidates based upon electoral strategy rather than governing ability.

To be sure, former vice president Biden has taken some shaky positions at various points over his career. We wish that he had been more careful in the way his desire for “getting things done” caused him to advocate positions that differed from a consistently principled stand. The sexual abuse allegation from 1993 is very troubling and requires a more forthright response. His tendency to get his points mangled is problematic as a campaigner.

It is also true that Bernie Sanders has significantly moved “the Overton window” over the last five years. While candidates aren’t talking medicare-for-all, there is more attention paid to health inequality than ever before. While other candidates may not attack “millionaires and billionaires” with the same fervor, economic inequality is on the table. The existential threat of climate change remains before us.

If there’s a consistent pattern throughout my voting history, it is this: I tend to be an idealist when it comes to primary elections and a pragmatist when it comes to the general. This is because the election isn’t the end of the process. Come January, the president has to be ready to govern.

In the 1972 movie The Candidate, Robert Redford upsets an incumbent senator from California. In the last scene of the movie, Redford’s character turns to his campaign manager and plaintively asks, “What do we do now?

This is the question that wasn’t asked in January of 2017. It’s the question that hasn’t been asked throughout this pandemic. What we have instead is continual ideological campaigning. I honestly don’t believe that our governmental structures can sustain four more years of this administration’s approach to governing.

However you’re feeling today, you need to vote in November.

Yours always,

John

On Evangocentrism

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.

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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.

Thinking About Christian Higher Education: Part Two — Looking Forward

The picture above is one I took last August on my “Last First Day of School”. In Part One of this reflection, I outlined many of the changes that have impacted Christian Higher Education over the last four decades. In Part Two, I want to address the “what now?” questions.

What do all of these structural and missional changes mean for the future of Christian Higher Education? First of all, let me say that claims of scores of Christian colleges closing are mostly alarmist. It is true that costs are increasing and that there is a limit on how fast increases in tuition and fundraising can offset those increases. Yet most institutions have enough elasticity in their operation to offset those challenges for the foreseeable future. The exceptions will be those institutions who have been financially unstable or facing accreditation challenges for a long period of time or who’s mission niche is so narrow that it can’t diversify. In short, it is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.

That said, there will clearly be winners and losers going forward. The winners share some common characteristics while the losers will face ongoing budget challenges and mission drift. They may not close but will be a shadow of their former promise. So who are the likely winners?

The first set of winners will be those Christian institutions of higher education with a national reputation. These are the schools that journalists contact when looking for trends in Christian higher ed. They are the names that get selected in the US News and World Reports reputational survey. While I’m sure I’ll leave some out, it’s clear to me that Wheaton, Calvin, Taylor, Seattle Pacific, Bethel (MN), Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Messiah, Belmont, and Abilene Christian are in this group.

The second set are those school who are located in destination locations. A recent story highlighted the success of three Christian universities in Nashville. It is a booming market in general and is not surprising that students would see it as a vibrant place to study for four years. On the other hand, many Christian universities were founded in areas far away from metropolitan areas. My non-exhaustive list of destination schools would include Wheaton, North Park, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Point Loma Nazarene, King’s, Colorado Christian, and Bethel (MN).

A third set may not represent destination locations but serve as the major Christian university in their region. Given that students are staying close to home, there is an advantage to those schools that are one of a handful of Christian institution in a two-hour radius. Those schools may not draw large numbers of students from far away but control their local market. Some examples of this group would include Northwest Nazarene, University of Sioux Falls, Colorado Christian, Gordon, Belhaven, and Cedarville.

The fourth set of winning schools are those who, in the face of the gen-Z religious changes discussed earlier, have held most closely to their theologically (and politically) conservative bona fides. They take pride in their non-accommodationist stance and will guarantee to pastors, trustees, donors, and parents that this is not going to change. In fact, many of these schools have taken stances in the last several years to guarantee faculty adherence to traditional positions. Those faculty who don’t align are either not renewed or made to feel unwelcome so that they go elsewhere. Examples of this pattern can be seen at Cedarville, Bryan, Oklahoma Wesleyan, College of the Ozarks, Asbury, and Bethel (IN).

I’ve long argued – it was a major reason for my first book – that there is an alternative to this last group of schools. It would be a Christian university that embraced the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw materials of education rather than a challenge. Such an institution would likely be in a destination location, would have a diverse non-denominational mission, and would be willing to be on the front lines of the most challenging issues of our day. It would have a clear sense of creedal orthodoxy without requiring narrow alignment of viewpoints.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I suddenly remembered that in 2014 I wrote a case position for something I called “The Center for Cultural Engagement” that would exist at one of our Christian institutions of higher education. I still believe that this is a critical need if Christian Higher Education is to do more than survive in mediocrity but thrive as a center of Christian formation for a post-modern age.

Thinking about Christian Higher Education: Part One –Looking Backwards

Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.

I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.

And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.

The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”

As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.

Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.

The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.

Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.

The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.

Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.

Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.

Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.

The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.

Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.

For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.

Christian Nationalism and Our Political Moment

Preface: I think this is the longest I’ve every gone between blog posts. I could say I was busy, but the reality is that I wasn’t sure I had anything compelling to add to the various crises swirling around us. That changed the last couple of days as I read Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And so I’m back!

I have been following Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry on social media for some time. I have read with interest the pieces they posted online and heard their presentations at conferences. It is good sociology that adds far more to our social and political moment that nearly all of the “Why did the white evangelicals support Trump?” opinion pieces.

In my own work on the question, I come to the same easy conclusion that Ryan Burge reports: White Evangelicals are Republicans. What has nagged at me for years is the motivation behind that correlation. Is it because white evangelicals are more likely to be rural or Southern? Less likely to have a college degree? More likely to hold a certain social class position? Concern over morality? A deep application of theological/scriptural understandings to their voting preferences?

It has proven nearly impossible to disentangle the mess of causal factors (which, admittedly, we are doing with correlational data). The search for a Grand Theory keeps failing us in the data. And so I was very excited to finally get Andrew and Sam’s book last week and put it on top of my things to do with my spring break.

It’s a quick and compelling read. The data is rich but easy for a lay reader to interpret and there’s an entire appendix on regression stuff for those who want the details.

Andrew and Sam argue that there is something of a central thread that begins to make sense of what we saw not just in 2016, but a host of things related to contemporary society. That central thread is support for Christian Nationalism. This is not a historical understanding of the nation’s founding, although it is related. It is a belief about the primacy of Christianity in our society’s social organization.

They measure Christian Nationalism through a scale made up of six questions. The measures of agreement with CN are 1) the government should declare the US a Christian nation, 2) the government should endorse Christian values, 3) separation of church and state should be minimized, 4) display of religion (read Christian) symbols should be allowed on state property, 5) American success is part of God’s plan, and 6) the government should allow prayer in public schools. They then divide the scale into four groups: Rejectors, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.

Using data from the Baylor Religion Studies, they explore the relationships between these four groupings and a host of contemporary issues. They supplement the quantitative data with 50 personal interviews representing the four orientations.

Notice the division in the chart above. Those distancing from Christian Nationalism make up just under half of their study population (48.1%) while those in favor are just over half (51.9%). It is also interesting that the two extreme categories (Rejecters and Ambassadors) are also nearly equal in size (21.%% to 19.8%, respectively). In the very first chapter, then, we have data that roughly mirrors the polarized socio-political moment we find ourselves in.

The authors unpack this data looking at three broad areas: Power, Boundaries, and Order. The first has to do with voting, legislation, and rights. The second has to do with in-group protections and out-group exclusion. The third has to do with issues of family structure and heterosexuality.

In the Power chapter, they provide a powerful counter narrative to the “white evangelicals and Trump” arguments. They show that Rejectors were very unlikely to have voted for Trump (around 5%) and Ambassadors were overwhelmingly likely to have done so (around 75%).

Moreover, this pattern repeats across a variety of subgroups (though with different percentage magnitudes). For example, 85% of evangelical Ambassadors (regardless of race) voted for Trump but so did 82% of Mainline Ambassadors and 79% of Catholic Ambassadors. Among white evangelicals, there is nearly a 60% gap between support for Trump between Ambassadors (90%) and Rejecters (31%). Even within political parties differences emerge — while 92% of Republican Ambassadors voted for Trump, only 31% of Republican Resisters did

The same patterns hold for attitudes toward refugees, military spending, and gun control. Interestingly, when they examine how a scale of religious practices relates to these same topics, the find that the more religious one is the more positive they are toward refugees, for example. So Christian Nationalism isn’t a mask for religious practice but a separate dimension altogether.

The Boundaries chapter deals with issues of immigration, race, and non-Christian religious groups. In each case, Ambassadors take the most conservative position and Rejectors the relatively liberal one. Again, these patterns are tested against religious practice with the same opposite effect as the previous chapter.

The Order chapter has a “focus on the family“. It deals with questions about mens’ role in leadership, stay at home mothers, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to transgender rights, and belief that divorce laws should be more stringent. In each case, the Ambassadors are highest in these measures and the Rejectors are lowest. In this chapter, as opposed to the others, religious practice does not move in a counter direction. As Sam Perry’s other books (on evangelical adoption and pornography use) show, this may because the family taken a central role in understanding contemporary religious practice.

As I was reading the book, a couple of questions kept recurring. I found myself wanting to do much more about the Accommodators. Are they conscious participants in Christian Nationalism or do they simply take its assumptions as background noise and implicitly act upon them? The same is true about the Resisters. Are they taking their objection to Christian Nationalism seriously or are somehow mildly annoyed at the Freedom Sunday celebration at church?

In the introduction, Whitehead and Perry describe Christian Nationalism as “a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a ‘symbolic framework’ — through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.” I think is an apt description, yet the social psychologist in me wants to know how that symbolic framework is activated and how it is addressed by those whose ideals are at odds with an Ambassador or Accommodator. Specifically, are there mechanisms through which Accommodators become Resisters?

Furthermore, if the church is to be an active yet not fearful part of the social discourse surrounding contemporary politics, how do pastors and congregations begin to reshape these implicit understandings. The data on people leaving the church due to what I would consider inappropriate political posturing is pretty clear. As Ryan Burge pointed out on Brad Onishi’s podcast last week, the alternative is to suffer in silence.

What do I mean by “inappropriate political posturing”? I mean the assumption that 1) we are all on the same side and 2) we can’t talk about broad social issues because that would be “divisive”. If the church is to the body of Christ in the contemporary word, it must be able to model church-state relations in a way that goes beyond hoping our side wins.

Andrew and Sam have provided us with an excellent starting place in terms of conceptualizing Christian Nationalism and how it is operating in contemporary society. Now it falls to other sociologists, political scientists, and religious leaders to figure out how to take their ideas into our everyday worlds in search of a more compassionate society.

The Christianity Today Editorial: Eleven Days Later

When I saw the news that Mark Galli had penned a pro-impeachment editorial in Christianity Today on December 19th, I wasn’t sure what to think. Obviously, it was good to see an evangelical opinion leader speak out on the current political moment. Having read and heard Mark over the years, I knew he was not the kind of evangelical leader who would come to such a conclusion easily. I think it is fair to label him a traditionalist and certainly no bomb-thrower. Sure, he was a never-Trumper early on, but lots of evangelical leaders wrote similar things over the years.

Galli centered his critique on two principal pillars: the illegality of the Ukraine scheme as documented in House Intelligence Committee testimony and the president’s moral challenges (lying, attacking, demeaning, damaging norms). For the first, he recognizes that impeachment is a feasible (if unlikely) remedy. For the second, he is advocating discernment when it comes to the 2020 election, especially in consideration of the witness of the church to a world in need of the Gospel.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that Galli’s editorial would make much of a splash. After all, many others like Micheal Gerson and Peter Wehner have been regularly raising the same critiques for years. In addition, releasing such an important editorial the week before the world shuts down for Christmas suggested that it would make a brief splash and then fade away (I realize that Galli wrote the piece when he did because he was about to retire).

Of course, my supposition that this would be an important but soon forgotten editorial was way off the mark. Here we are, over a week later, and the story has been the center of both broadcast and social media discussions. By the end of the first day, a number of what John Fea calls “Court Evangelicals” plus the president himself, had pushed back. They argued that Christianity Today represented “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and the magazine was “left-leaning” and “progressive. Another common refrain was to suggest that somehow CT was arguing that Democrats would better match evangelical values (which nobody had suggested). CT President Tim Dalrymple, himself no liberal, wrote a wonderful follow-up underscoring that the real issue presented by the Trump-aligned evangelicalism is the diminution of the witness of the church itself. He concluded, “We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high.”

What is also intriguing to me is that it is the CT critics who have kept this story in the center of the media narrative. They regularly list the imagined harms that would come if Democrats were to win election. As John Fea said on MSNBC the other night, this is the result of 40 years of rhetorical excess that resulted in the current political alignment. The letter from the 200 pastors identified themselves as “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”, which is one of the clearest statement of Christian Nationalism I’ve seen in print. The critics have also argued that Trump has accomplished many things that directly benefit these political evangelicals: pro-life judges and justices, support for Israel (including moving the embassy to Jerusalem), fighting for “traditional” stances in terms of religious accommodation (Masterpiece and Hobby Lobby), and standing for Christian values in the public square (Merry Christmas, everybody!).

But nearly all of those anti-Democrat and pro-Trump arguments seem focused on what primarily benefits conservative evangelicals. This view, which last week I labeled “evangelical ethnocentrism”, suggests that these evangelicals are less concerned about the common good than on protecting their own interests. Today, Grudem’s response focused on the promise of liberty in the Declaration of Independence which is distinctly different than the Constitution’s “in order to create a more perfect union.”

They have also adopted right wing talking points verbatim. They dismiss Galli’s concerns about Ukraine, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the July 25th call. Never mind that the Ukraine incident ran from May to September and involved attempts to subvert normal governmental process through private, non-accountable actors. They list Trump’s accomplishments in ways that sound as if they came out of the White House press office (Record Stock Market! Low unemployment! Executive Orders! No Iran Deal!).

Every Court Evangelical response to the CT editorial has resulted in careful analysis by scholars and opinion leaders identifying the challenges evident therein. It has caused moral stances like that of Napp Nazworth who left his role at Christian Post upon learning how that site was responding to CT. The news of Napp’s courageous resignation made news and launched another media cycle.

It encouraged a fascinating and disturbing analysis from Paul Djupe in which he identified an “inverted golden rule. Expect from others what you would do to them.” It spurned PRRI’s Robbie Jones to update his argument of demographic change among religious populations and how that relates to the fears the Trump Evangelicals have.

It must be noted that most evangelical churchgoers may not be paying any attention to these conflicts. They are happy to go to their Sunday Services and worship Jesus in song and word. Emma Green had a great interview with former head of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson. He argues that evangelicalism is about faith and not about politics. Emma tries valiantly and compassionately to get him to address the conflict therein, but he never gets there. Sarah McCammon interviewed a pair of Southern Baptist pastors (note: lots of evangelicals are not Southern Baptists!) on Saturday’s Weekend All Things Considered. The pastors argued that while there are broad social conflicts, people “at the level of the pew” don’t experience that division.

It needs to be recognized that the privatization of faith is what has allowed a public political stance that is largely divorced from deep theological insight. If we ever need serious work on political theology, it is today. Even though it runs the risk of causing short-term discomfort within local congregations, it would create a more healthy body of Christ as it interrogates matters of politics and public policy.

The most intriguing outcome over the last ten days is that way in which the media has begun to be more articulate on the definition of evangelicalism, what the core values ought to be, and how we square the circle of public and private belief. While they are often stumbling in their coverage (at best), the fact that we have been talking about morality, politics, and faith within the public sphere has been a net positive.

For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that the Galli editorial will change the forty-year alignment between evangelicals and the Republican vote that John Fea mentioned. There are many correlates of voting (rural, education, age, race) that disproportionately represent evangelicals.

And yet, there is a sense that something has shifted in the last week and a half. There is a conversation underway about how evangelicals should relate to the broader culture, especially in this pluralistic age. The coming weeks likely will prove to be just as problematic, but I’m moderately hopeful that these dialogues will strengthen religion in the public square. As Dalrymple suggested, this could be good for the witness of the church to the broader culture.

Reflections on Evolving Faith 2019

I’m spent this weekend in Denver, attending the second Evolving Faith conference being held in the hockey arena of the University of Denver (which I’m pretty sure is considered sacred space). The conference is the brainchild of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. After Rachel’s tragic death this past Spring, it seemed more important than ever to attend especially when the conference fell during our Fall Break. Plus, our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter live in Denver and it gave us an opportunity to visit while I attended the conference.

Meeting in a hockey stadium is a little less intimate than the gathering in the Montreat auditorium last year. Everyone is pretty far way but the messages seemed to resonate with those present.

I have no data to back this up, but the crowd was larger this year and seemed more diverse in terms of age (but still mostly female and white).

The conference opened, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of Rachel’s loss. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu shared their thoughts. Then Rachel’s husband, Dan, shared his own reflections. He reminded us that Rachel’s writing mantra was “Be Honest, Be Yourself, Be Kind” and then read a passage from her final book which will come out next year.

The first session of the morning was on what it means to be in the wilderness. Sarah Bessey, Eric Barreto, and Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of their own journeys of displacement. Living outside the dynamics of imposed structures is a characteristic of the wilderness journey. Barbara Brown Taylor pointed out how much Jesus didn’t just encourage the wilderness living, he dragged his disciples into danger. It takes deep faith to move beyond the comfortable structures of religious institutions.

It struck me that this may be a common perspective for Evolving Faith folks. Their past religious lives haven’t provided the space to ask questions are take a more complicated, ambiguous, deconstructed view of faith. As frightening as the wilderness is, it appears more authentic than quietly going through church motions.

The second session was on scripture. Pete Enns unpacked the story of Nicodemus in John 3 to illustrate that Nicodemus needs a new perspective, as radical as being physically born again. Pete went on to talk about his own journey and ended with a wonderful analysis of left brain/right brain approaches to faith. While he can do all kinds of deconstruction in the left brain, there is a source of assurance (he didn’t use this term but I’m making the Wesley reference) that shows up in the right brain. Area UMC pastor Jasper Peters filled in for Renita Weems and offered a fascinating re-interpretation on the authority of scripture. Because authority is often used to buttress other power and institutional claims, he affirms instead the power of the scripture in terms of impacting one’s life. This sentiment was underscored by the three speakers as they debriefed the session.

The first afternoon session revolved around themes of life’s struggles and how faith is impacted. Tanya Marlow described her multiple health challenges and how all attempts at theodicy failed. In time, she drew solace in knowing that God was part of her story and she was part of God’s. It wasn’t healing but it was faith affirming in small ways. Blogger and podcaster B. T. Harman described his journey of coming out as a thirty-year-old Southern Baptist. He described how his personal story and the political moment combined to interfere with his art and his faith. He described how he had settled on a discipline of gratitude, giving people space to be who they were, and appreciation as a means of restoring balance. Reflecting on Miriam’s song in Exodus, Cece Jones-Davis reflected on the need to know the key refrains. In the midst of transition, it is important to know what to hang on to and remember that “what the Lord requires also requires the Lord.” The conversation that followed invited the three speakers to reflect on what they hold on to from their more structured religious upbringing. All looked fondly upon those early years for what it contributed to their current journey. A similar question was asked last year with some pushback from those in attendance.

The final set of speakers spoke to important sociological issues of race, decolonization, and structures of assumed power. William Matthews used horror films to describe how we are told the dread that is before us and especially addressed this in terms of racial power dynamics. Listening to the powerless would provide a clearer sense of the challenges that are just around the corner. Kaitlin Cortice spoke of her Potawatami roots through her father’s side and what she has learned about re-appropriating a cultural identity that was taken from her when she was young. She said that American culture prides itself in being a toxic empire. I found this a helpful way to tell the story rather than focusing on individual expressions. Chaneque Walker-Barnes shared her journey of trying to “fit” into a variety of local church expressions that never quite worked. She raised the question of why congregations expected her to shave parts of herself off in order to fit in, deciding instead to take a sabbatical from church to figure out how she worshipped and what part she played before trying to return. In the summary conversation, Jeff Chu pushed the speakers to address the big challenge of the event: we were an overwhelmingly white group meeting at an overly white campus in an overly white city. This in turn led to an important conversation about the ways in which white liberal progressive churches fall well short in terms of addressing structural (rather than personal) issues of race, politics, and justice.

Day one ended with a “grief and lament” service that included Rachel’s sister, Amanda. I didn’t attend since I’m went to dinner with the family.

The second day opened with devotions, Matthew Paul Turner reading his children’s book, and singing “Spirit in the Sky”. Then we split up among varied breakout sessions.

I attended a live taping of the podcastPantsuits and Politics“. Hosts Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland explored the challenges of the Ukraine/impeachment conversations and then moved on to other topics. Much of the hour was spent on discussions of the #MeToo movement, Weinstein, Kavenaugh, and the church. They addressed importance of hearing womens’ stories, but especially those stories told TO women. The immorality and capitalist assumptions of non-discloure agreements that force women to deny their trauma while protecting the powers and structures that sustained the abuse in the first place. The challenges of pushing back on dominant political narratives for those who see politics differently was also a major theme. If you listen to the podcast when it comes out, you can hear me asking a questions about Trump’s claim of a Third Great Awakening and why Franklin Graham supporters in North Carolina supporting the president isn’t news.

The second breakout session I attended was on the enneagram, which is a big deal among young religious folks. Mickey ScottBey Jones led the session describing exactly what she jokingly called “this cult” is all about. I hung out for awhile and even retook an enneagram quiz online (it’s says I’m a 5; last time I was a 3) but I really can’t get into the whole idea.

Over the lunch break, I had a great conversation with Roxanne Stone, now managing editor of Religion News Service and formerly with the Barna group. She was very kind in listening to my ramblings about my book project, evangelicalism, and evolving faith. Watch for an Evolving Faith report from Roxanne in coming days.

The afternoon session was focused on personal testimonies of faith journeys. Musician Jennifer Knapp shared her coming out story and discussed the realities of having people react to her. Jen Hatmaker spoke on Jesus’ parable of the good fruit and bad fruit as part of telling her story of evolving faith (it was very interesting to compare it to last year’s testimony). She spoke at length about the ways in which the religious power structures made the Gospel mostly about themselves and justified the exclusion of others. She called it one of the greatest examples of “gaslighting” to have the bad fruit (LGBTQ exclusion, abuse, celebrity, power) called “good” in the process. Lisa Sharon Harper spoke at length about the centrality of the Image of God throughout our Christian history. The problems of exclusion and dismissal are based on the denial of that central image. Jess Chu wrapped things up with a reflection on water. He opened by describing the morning mists at the Princeton farminary and how moving it was to see things come clear. Drawing from Ezekiel, he described how that fresh water is central to the renewal of all life. He connected that renewal to Ezekiel and the dry bones being given new life.

Sarah Bessey closed out the session by discussing the status of Evolving Faith itself. There was a period after Rachel’s death that she and others thought that maybe they couldn’t go on. But they prayed and talked and realized that there was a need for this group. There is now a mission statement and a set of core values. The 2020 conference has been scheduled for Houston.

The conference closed with communion, with Nadia Bolz-Weber giving the sermon. I left early as I had on Friday so I could have dinner with the family.

So here’s my takeaway. This year’s conference felt different. Some of that was to be expected: Rachel was gone, we were in a hockey arena, the crowd was bigger and slightly older. But the real difference was in tone. Last year the message seemed to be “you’ve left your prior church experience and it’s going to be okay here in the wilderness.” This year still gave permission for people to doubt or question, but it had for me a sense of movement. It was more like “you’re out here in the wilderness and it’s time to do the work to figure out where the path leads.” There is work to be done.

I told a few people about this outlandish prediction I made five years ago. I had argued that there was a coming convergence between progressive evangelicals rethinking boundaries and theologically grounded mainliners seeking to connect their faith in Jesus to a complex culture. Here is how I ended that piece:

I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.

This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.

I can’t say that my prediction was coming to pass in that hockey stadium in Denver, but I could begin to catch the glimmers of it in the mist that Jeff Chu described. Something is happening here and it seems to say a lot about the future of faith in America after we’re done with the politics of the current moment.