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.
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.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.
I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.
So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.
Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.
David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.
But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).
Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.
These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.
When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?
We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.
The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.
There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.
Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.
But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.
In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).
Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.
Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.
Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.
The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.
For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.
David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:
Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).
I have begun to question whether writing this blog is an exercise in futility.
Like many others, I attempt to use my sociological imagination to understand what is happening within evangelicalism. However valid my points may be, it seems a Sisyphean task. We all seem to be talking to each other and having very little impact either on the broader culture’s understandings of evangelicals or evangelicalism’s limited powers of self-critique.
Over the past week, my social media feed has been filled with references to Peter Wehner’s Atlantic essay, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity.” Wehner critiques the evangelical embrace of Republican/Trumpian partisanship that has so dominated evangelical conversation. He suggests — following Saint Ambrose, Francis Fukuyama, and Fuller Seminary’s Mark Labberton — that urgent change is required to restore evangelicalism’s public witness before a tipping point is reached.
The political alignment between evangelicals and conservative politics has gotten so tight that it is almost impossible to separate out the causal forces. Ryan Burge shared data recently supporting an argument I’ve made over the last couple of years that the two factors have merged empirically. In fact, this 2017 article by Melissa Wilde argues that we should stop trying to pull the factors of race, class, and gender apart from religious views.
Wehner’s essay opened with a reference to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in which Reed celebrated the mutual love evangelicals and Trump have for each other. While that certainly does not ring true of the evangelicals in my social media feed, it does for surprising numbers of others who never read what I write.
At the Faith and Freedom gathering, Natalie Harp (above) was brought on stage to tell her story and the ways in which access to experimental treatments enabled by a law signed by Trump allowed her recovery from bone cancer. She went on say that Trump was like the Good Samaritan. To her, the medical establishment and the political establishment left her “by the side of the road” but Trump was the one to come to her aid. He was the outsider who “gave up his own quality of life” to help others.
My academic brain wants to quickly point out that 1) that is not how the Good Samaritan story goes and 2) the “right to try” bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a 91 vote margin — it wasn’t a major Trump initiative.
But that’s not the point. Trump campaigned on “I alone can fix it.” The evangelical culture, long comfortable with strong leaders, took that at face value. This is why evangelical voices like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Barton, Eric Metaxis, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are more influential that any critiques shared by Wehner, Gerson, Moore (Russell or Beth), Wear, Merritt, or me.
There is a strain of populist evangelical culture that is hard to penetrate. Kristin DuMez observed this trend with regard to Hobby Lobby. That populism is the subtext of Ruth Graham’s excellent piece on the “boy who went to heaven” book and its resulting drama — generalized supernaturalism, publishing entities playing on good news stories that support vague presuppositions, and spiritual warfare alarmists.
That populist strain bleeds easily into Christian Nationalism. You can go on a cruise celebrating Christian nation-ism (a distinction without a difference) where one can celebrate our “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “the importance of self-governance”. The stance taken by the organizers allows those participating to strike a blow against the liberal elites seen as society’s opponents.
Even though Republican mega-funder Miriam Adelson is not evangelical, her suggestion that someday the Bible should include a “book of Trump” would be celebrated, not just by those at the weekly Trump rallies but by rank and file evangelicals.
To return to Wehner’s article, the idea that the Christian cruisers, the heaven-experience readers, or the Hobby Lobby enthusiasts would engage in self correction after reading what Fukuyama, Labberton, or Saint Abrose says about the religion and politics is beyond absurd. Those are intellectuals and not “people of faith.”
Ryan Burge’s post ended by asking why the overlap between white evangelicalism and Republican partisanship is so strong.
That leaves us only two answers: the theological messages and social interactions that white evangelicals experience as part of the religious activity has no impact on their political outlook, or that this religious exposure is so intertwined with Republican politics that the two reinforce each other.
I understand his first answer. It’s what I’ve been writing about for years — the idea that theology should and must shape religious and political views. But that’s exactly what an academic would focus on.
Ryan’s second answer reminds me of an argument made by Amy Sullivan in 2017. In America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicals, Amy argues that cultural dynamics have significantly more influence that we’ve previously thought.
The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. [Roy] Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.
I’m struggling to find a satisfactory answer to the problem I’m identifying. I’m sure many of my social media followers will find it helpful. But it will do virtually nothing to influence the populist evangelical culture that has become so much of a factor in the public perception of religion in general and evangelicals in particular.
Perhaps we need to abandon all of our thoughtful philosophical, theological, and sociological reflections and invest our time in making counter-cultural memes with funny gifs. Not my strong suit, but I can learn.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.
Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1962, Kuhn analyzed how science is transformed over time. For example, he explored how a Ptolemaic view of cosmology gave way to the Copernican view (which was then disrupted by Einstein and then by quantum physics). One of my sociological theory texts from grad school contained this helpful graphic explaining Kuhn’s theory.
Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.
Here’s how that relates to shifts in evangelicalism in the US. While we aren’t relying on empirical data in the same way as the natural sciences, there is a way in which establishment forms became dominant and were institutionally reinforced. The raw material from which the paradigm is built is through homogeneity of information. This happens through seminaries, denominational bodies, para-church networks, and dominant periodicals. The voices of Normal Evangelicalism don’t explore the questions that are disparate from the “Orthodox” view.
This presumed homogeneity of Normal Evangelicalism has been challenged with the availability of the Internet. Suddenly other voices were focused on those questions and perspectives that the dominant paradigm thinks shouldn’t be raised. These new voices, disproportionally women’s voices, didn’t arise from the establishment — as Tish Warren observed in 2017:
This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium.
In light of Kuhn’s model, it is instructive that Warren refers to these changes as “a crisis”. She’s correct, especially from the perspective of Normal Evangelicalism.
Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and numerous others occupied the space that Warren was describing. They benefitted from the dramatic way in which social media democratizes and deinstitutionalizes communication. They were able to build significant followings precisely because they were willing to wrestle with the anomalies in Normal Evangelicalism.
With Rachel Held Evan’s death two weeks ago, a natural question arises: who will take her place? The Religion News Service’s Emily Miller reflected on this yesterday in a piece titled “Who will be our next Rachel?” It’s an important question, but if I’m right about the democratization of social media, there are a host of people ready to step into that gap. Abby Norman, a recent M.Div. graduate of Candler Theological, wrote as much last week.
The Crisis phase, however, isn’t yet formed into a new Normal. This means that conflict is the story of the day. The Mother’s Day weekend interchange between Beth Moore and Owen Strachen was a perfect illustration. Beth Allison Barr captured well the importance of that exchange:
I think Beth Moore has decided not to be left out of the “divine loop” that means everything for evangelical women. This is our “critical moment.” And Beth Moore has stepped out in front holding her giant-size weight.
What was particularly telling that weekend was the groundswell of voices within evangelical circles who shared and celebrated Beth’s twitter thread. People were eager to weigh in on the need to provide a serious response to the implicit assumptions of too much of complementarian argument.
Voices challenging the Establishment paradigm can be seen in a host of other places as well: the #ChurchToo response to abuse in places like Willow Creek and some SBC congregations, the alignment of evangelicalism with pro-Trump triumphalism, critiques of the purity culture movement, and the recent actions of the United Methodist Church on LGBT issues.
It remains to be seen what is on the other side of the Crisis period.. My best guess, following Kuhn, is that new voices which are addressing tough questions and realistically struggling with them through the lens of vital Christian faith will prevail. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me suggests that the younger generation is eager to engage that struggle.
Building a New Paradigm is hard. The lack of power centers relative to Establishment Evangelicalism makes that more difficult. Yet seeing that develop is the most likely outcome over the long run. I can’t conclude this piece better than Kristin DuMez concluded hers from this morning, so I’ll simply quote her.
It remains to be seen what sort of power Beth Moore and the network of evangelical women she has forged will exert in the face of conservative evangelical networks. It also remains to be seen what will be come of the coalition of progressive Christian women Rachel Held Evans helped forge without Evans herself at its hub. In many ways, however, the future of American evangelicalism will unfold in terms of the relative power struggles within and among such networks and coalitions.
The title quote comes from an event early in my career. It was an all-school event celebrating the start of school that was supposed to set a vision for the academic year to come. I don’t know what else the president talked about during that address. All I heard was that one line.
It’s hard to believe, I know, but I was less than compliant as a young professor. Naturally, I took the “rock the boat” line personally. There were certainly others who heard the line as I did and thought the president was talking about them. Still others were absolutely certain that he was talking about me and my friends.
I’ve been reflecting on that line the last few days in light of events in the news. Whether it is John MacArthur’s sermon at The Master’s University and Seminary recently covered in The Chronicle, the horrific Fort Worth Star-Telegram story of sexual abuse and coverup in Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches, or the CBS Religion’s “Deconstructing My Faith” story on #exvangelicals, there is a pattern here about the organizational dynamics of conservative religious institutions.
The Chronicle story appeared the end of November. Audio of a September sermon had become available that was addressing the action taken by WASCUC, the regional accrediting body following a March regular review by a visiting team. When I served as an evaluator for WASC, I saw the care they went to in forming the visiting teams. I went almost exclusively to other faith-based institutions. That was also the case with TMUS’ March review — the five member team has three members from faith based institutions and the principal author (who is a friend of mine) has dedicated her career to institutional quality in Christian institutions.
In spite of this, MacArthur blamed secular forces and even Satan for the accreditation situation (in spite of the fact that TMUS was out of compliance on two key eligibility requirements — an independent board and a full time CFO). Much of the challenge came as a result of the significant overlap between the church MacArthur serves, the institution, and its governing structure. As I’ve written before, Christian universities aren’t churches and the more they confuse the two the more the latter takes precedence.
The Chronicle summary of the sermon ends with these warnings MacArthur gave to the community:
“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” he said. “You didn’t have any right to find out about anything. That’s not your responsibility.”
In his remarks he referred to a Bible passage from the Book of Proverbs.
“There are things that God hates, right?” MacArthur said. “One of them is the one who stirs up strife,” he said, urging students to keep their complaints within the university and seminary.
“Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Don’t stir up strife. You don’t know the whole story.”
This combination of authoritarian leadership and dismissal of dissent is also at the heart of the sexual abuse stories arising out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The story is similar to what we’ve seen for years in the Roman Catholic Church — stories of abuse not being believed, perpetrators being transferred to new locations without disclosure, and placing the priority on the church’s mission and reputation. That the story opens with a review of the abuses by one of the key families in the movement only adds to the horror. This wasn’t some isolated pastor somewhere in a remote location. Key figures in the movement were engaged in abuse or involved in minimizing the impact.
When abuse was acknowledged, it was expected to stay in the church under the authority of the leadership.
“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”
The insularity of a “we know best” philosophy becomes an impossible situation for those who have been victimized. It provides no place for them to remain within the fellowship in good faith. Either they will be seen as suspect or they have to live with a cognitive compartmentalization that is harmful to a healthy Christian life.
The subjects of the CBS program on #exvangelicals showed some of the same patterns. The churches they were part of provided little space for their questions or concerns. At first marginalized, they eventually leave the evangelical church because the pain of staying is too great. Even though they have left for their own well-being, they seem still to be processing considerable harm dealt them by the very group that was central to their upbringing.
When I was at the Evolving Faith conference in October, I heard testimony from speakers and attendees about the levels of pain they had experienced within what was supposed to be “the Family of God.” That sense of lingering pain and betrayal is worth serious examination if we are to understand faith in contemporary America. Maybe my next book.
What happens to those who might “find themselves on the rocks?” We see those implicit threats as real. We recognize that remaining in that environment will bring pain. Of course, so will leaving. By leaving at least we find ourselves able to manage our own situation.
When the voices of dissent are silenced, whether through threat or departure, the institution itself suffers. It becomes less able to deal with the critical issues confronting it. It can choose to continue as it has for decades, assuming that by holding to the prior visions of authority and mission it is being successful. In reality, if finds people less interested in volunteering to be a part of such an environment.
Avoiding the rocks requires leaders to acknowledge that the rocks actually exist. Those who “rock the boat” aren’t just playing around. They are acknowledging the boulders in the stream and trying to find the path through the rapids.
Last week the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California put out a provocative typology attempting to distinguish between varieties of American evangelicals in contemporary culture. Currently this typology, developed through dialogue with the Center’s researchers, is not based on any specific measurement strategies. Nevertheless, it makes some important distinctions that could help us better understand evangelicalism today.
They identify five groups: Trump-vangelicals, NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians, and Peace and Justice Evangelicals. The identity of each group is captured well in the five images above.
Trump-vangelicals are most likely to reflect some form of Christian Nationalism. They see Trump as “God’s man” for the moment. Comments about a modern-day Cyrus and celebration of a president who “tells it like is” while projecting strength is key to this group. Yesterday, my twitter feed started showing a billboard outside St. Louis showing a picture of Trump with the caption “The Word Became Flesh” and a note that said “Make the Gospel Great Again” (I didn’t include it because I didn’t want that to be my cover image for this post.)
NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals see a strong separation of church and society (notice how the cross sits in contrast to the city in the second image). They are concerned about moral decline and right living. So they support Trump in an instrumental fashion — expressing their concern over Roe in the Supreme Court, religious liberty, and same-sex marriage. Their commitment to separation makes diversity of viewpoint a challenge. Their primary concern is to maintain their right to their own positions.
iVangelicals are the megachurch crowd. As the USC folks explain in their summary, this reflects an accommodation of religious culture to the dominant strains of individualism and consumerism in our society. While there are exceptions, they would be less likely to engage in direct political action, preferring their worship experience to be about warm feelings and a vital worship experience.
Kingdom Christians are likely to focus on issues of service. I’d imagine that Anabaptist groups would excel at this. They want to work in areas of need to provide the support of the Gospel to those who struggle. They want to serve as Jesus did (notice the image). They don’t soft-sell their Gospel commitments but they work them out in external locales. The church becomes a sending place.
Peace and Justice Evangelicals are also committed to seeing society change. They are as committed to diversity and service as the Kingdom Christians but layer on an awareness of structural dynamics that create certain living conditions. You will find this group much more likely to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and the exercise of power. They envision a society that looks like the coming Kingdom. Their commitments to Jesus compel them to address these difficult issues that some would rather they left alone.
As the USC typology has been shared on social media, a number of people have raised legitimate questions. Why is this necessary? Isn’t this divisive? Can’t people be in multiple categories? Does this describe my congregation?
Why create a typology at all? Because too many in the public sphere focus on how 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Based on their limited inside knowledge of evangelicals, they still are struck with the contrast between evangelical stands on morality and the president’s history and demeanor. As I’ve written frequently on these pages, this misperception of evangelicals risks long term damage to how churches are perceived by those they try to reach.
Why separate evangelicals? Because we actually vary quite a bit in our methods of understanding scripture, of how we should engage our surrounding culture, and how that translates into personal decision making on key issues like voting. This is a problem inside evangelicalism as well. There are many in the first two groups that regularly call out the last two groups, suggesting they aren’t “real Christians”, much less evangelicals. Especially as we consider the generational changes underway in evangelicalism, seeing the variety might help us hold on to those who would somehow drift into becoming “nones”.
Can people be in multiple categories?Perhaps there are interesting shadings between adjacent groups. The line between the first two groups or the last two groups might be fuzzy. But it’s very difficult to imagine a Trump-vangelical who is also a Peace-and Justice Evangelical. These five categories are what sociologists call “ideal types” — Max Weber’s idea that we identify theoretical categories first and then test those categories empirically. Without this preliminary work we simply have polling data without an interpretive frame.
Does this describe my congregation? First, in creating the typology the USC researchers have focused on certain leaders within the broader evangelical movement. That’s an important first step. But there is a difference between the factors that influence a national leader and a local pastor, much less the people who attend the church. Second, there is likely more diversity in your church than you realize. I once did a study of congregational networks and found that there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals in all three of my study congregations. Their relative size shifted depending upon the theology of the church but they were all present. The reality is that we aren’t very good and discussing these distinctions within local congregations, allowing us to believe there is uniformity when there isn’t.
As I reflect on the work that the Center for Religion and Civic Culture has done, I have a couple of lingering thoughts. First, I would love to know more about how each of the five groups work with scripture. My hypothesis is that they all are looking for ways of being faithful in their hermeneutic, but they would disagree greatly on which hermeneutic to use. Furthermore, I’d love to know which passages are their go-to scriptures. My hypothesis here is that the Trump-vangelicals are more comfortable in the Old Testament while the latter two groups work from the synoptic Gospels.
My final concern is the one that has driven most of my work on evangelicals. When these five different groups approach policy and politics, is their view mediated by any kind of theological understanding? Or is their perspective simply shaped by their group identity (which I have described elsewhere as similar to team jerseys)?
Sociologist Richard Flory (senior researcher at the CRCC) he told me in an e-mail exchange that this work is just beginning. From here they will be looking for ways to operationalize these five groups. I’m eager to explore possibilities for teasing out these differences in existing survey data from Pew or the General Social Survey. My current book project is focused on people who are pretty much in the Peace and Justice camp and I’m excited to still be able to think about them as evangelicals.