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Taking the Long View: Robert Putnam’s The Upswing

The acknowledgements section of The Upswing contains a surprising note from Robert Putnam. In thanking his wife, he confesses that he had promised her that his 2015 Our Kids would be his last book. It was interesting to read his apology at the end of the book as it brings forth the big question of what motivated him to write it.

In many ways, Putnam picks up the themes he addressed in Bowling Alone, American Grace, and Our Kids. In all three books, he had explored society’s turn away from more traditional communitarianism. In the first, he argued that people were less likely to belong to community organizations. In the second, he (and co-author David Campbell) documented the major changes in American religion in the second half of the 20th century. In the third, he examined the ways in which economic and social inequality were replicated in American families — a condition he felt was very different from his own upbringing in 1950s small town Ohio.

What’s different about Upshift is the timeframe that he used. Rather than beginning somewhere mid-20th century, as these analyses often do, he begins in 1913. That longer timeline provides a different perspective in that what had looked like decline is seen as increase, plateau, and then decline. Examining a range of data points on economic, political, social, and cultural variables, he argues that the composite factors lay out in a curvilinear fashion with moves toward increased economic fairness, political compromise, social stability, and social responsibility for the first 50 years before reversing, in many ways ending even up worse than they were in the Gilded Age.

[As an aside, I should mention a quick analysis I did a few years ago on membership in the United Methodist Church. We tend to focus on the post-70s decline but the slope of the growth curve prior to 1950 creates exactly this curve.]

For each of the four factors Putnam explores, a similar pattern emerges. Take economics for example. There is data on the growth of educational attainment in the early part of the century. This is complimented with changes to income and wealth over time, shifts in tax policy, and the degree of upward mobility. In each of those areas, there is a move toward lessened inequality in post WW2 society which plateaus until the early 1970s and then falls precipitously (Putnam always orients “better” as “up”.) This argument is very similar to what Robert Reich argued in his 2011 Aftershock, where a period of general middle class economic wellbeing gives way to increased concentration of wealth at the top of the income/wealth spectrum.

Unfortunately, Putnam doesn’t share the equations used to combine all of his various indices into the solid line summary shown above. If you aren’t statistically inclined, you might be glad of that but I was frustrated by not being able to conceptually understand how all these features come together.

The politics chapter uses data on voting patterns, ticket splitting, attitudes toward the other party, faith in government, and belief in government operations. These improve over the first half of the time period before falling rapidly to levels today below those early in the 20th century.

The society chapter draws on religion, family, marriage and children, membership in social organizations, union engagement, and generalized social trust. The cultural chapter (probably the weakest) uses Ngrams from publishing to show how individual focus (for example on wanting unique baby names) give way to consensus (common baby names) and back. The authors contrast the prevalence of “rights” language as opposed to “responsibility” language.

Putnam and Garrett have a chapter on Race and a chapter on Gender. In each chapter, they demonstrate the ways in which the general upward patterns present in the previous chapters didn’t work the same way for Blacks and Women. This is helpful data in exploring the uniqueness of these subgroups within society but I found it somewhat confusing in that they were part of generic data present in the previous chapters. Putnam asserts that the most significant period of economic and social strengthening for Blacks was in the period immediately prior to the 1964-65 civil rights legislation. He also argues that the growth in the role of Women in society was more significant in the first half of the century than it was after the 1970s feminist movement. The picture of Women in society is limited by data showing women working out of economic necessity and still being burdened by the “second shift” problem of being responsible for household duties.

In many ways, I came away from The Upswing feeling that it was a marvelous compilation of data in search of a coherent explanatory framework. In the closing chapter, the authors struggle to find the theoretical answer to what drives the patterns in the curves above. Does economic inequality drive political isolation? Is it a shift away from religion or traditional family that drives cultural individualism? Which ones are the leading indicators and which are lagging indicators?

The authors examine a number of changes between 1968 and 1978. Beginning with the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, riots ranging from Detroit to the Chicago Democratic Convention to Student protests of the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the stagflation that burdened the Carter administration. They suggest that these social disruptions pit sectors of society against each other, substituting subgroup passions for a collective sense of social identity.

The book, while commendable for exploring such a long time horizon, would have benefitted from a better theoretical orientation. I would argue that economic inequality is a principal driver with the political sphere being a direct result of that. The social and cultural realms respond to those two structural conditions. Yes, I’m an economic determinist who believes that ideological structures are built as representations of core distributions of money and power. (That’s more Weber than Marx, by the way.)

I was also surprised at the relative inattention to the huge impact of suburbanization as driver of social change, especially as encouraged by government policy. Media could also have used more attention as a mechanism through which social changes are labeled (even today protests are framed as destruction of property).

In working through tremendous data over the span on a century, the book seems to miss the role of power in creating the shifts the authors document. One of the dynamics of social change is that powerful structures can stand in the way. Every one of the social disruptions of “the sixties” became an opportunity for upstart groups to challenge the powers-that-be. But they also become an opportunity for those powers-that-be to keep those upstart groups at bay or to coopt them or to redirect their efforts in ways that protect basic structures.

This morning, my friend Paul Djupe shared an analysis arguing that Christian Nationalists weren’t dealing with concerns over potential oppression but over a concern for Social Dominance. I think that argument can be generalized to explain that changes Putnam documents. One of Paul’s scale questions dealt with the idea that people should “stay in their place.”

The more social changes might demand accommodation from those with who held power in the periods of quiet consensus, the more those in power will push back. Economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, and loss of “the common good” might be a small price to pay to maintain the status quo.

How it Started/How It’s Going: Real America Edition

There’s been a cute trend on social media recently. One shares a picture from some earlier time and one that’s more current. I’ve seen these contrasting young children with their adult selves, with couples at first meeting and now years into marriage, or pre-pandemic (remember then?) and today. The little game communicates both stability and change over time.

As the Trump campaign and their allies have attempted to litigate and re-litigate and re-re-litigate the 2020 election results, I kept hearing echoes of familiar themes. When the Texas lawsuit (outrageously endorsed by most of the Republican establishment and thankfully — but expectedly — stopped at the Supreme Court) complained of the votes in their four target swing states, it spoke of alleged problems in their large cities. Giuliani said, without evidence beyond questionable affidavits, that these cities had long been sources of fraud. In other words, these Democrat[ic] cities cannot be trusted with fair elections and that those who voted for Trump had been disenfranchised somehow.

How does such an argument make any sense? Because Real America is only those parts of the country that voted for Trump.

In October of 2008, VP candidate Sarah Palin spoke to supporters at a fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her remarks, which were striking at the time but soon became part of her stump speech, suggested a narrow view of who Real Americans were.

“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe” — here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers — “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom (emphasis mine).”

I could point out that there are lots of factories in urban areas (or their suburbs), that there are teachers working hard and loving their students, and that military service is a common path for social mobility for urban minority populations. But that’s not the heart of her statement. Her claim was that rural America is where you find Real Americans and we can’t be sure about people who live in the urban areas, particularly those on the coasts.

I’m sure that Palin wasn’t the first to express such sentiments. They likely are echoes from early century populism. But I remember when I heard these comments and the resulting sense that I was being discounted from who counts as American.

I was reminded this week (thanks to a post from Rob Schenck) of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land –my 2016 review is here. She tells the story of residents of rural Louisiana who have come to feel that they have been left behind and that our political institutions don’t care about them. They don’t like being told how they’re supposed to feel about guns or religion or gays.

It is true that Democratic candidates haven’t helped those fears. Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comments fed into the perceived disrespect of the Real Americans (resulting in great sales of Deplorables t-shirts). Romney’s unfortunate comments about “47% of the electorates were takers” who wanted free stuff also fit their theory.

But the media has fallen over themselves trying to understand these rural and small town Republicans who were so central to Trump’s election races. There have been far too many “man in diner” stories where the interviewee repeats Fox News talking points and the journalist takes them at face value. Yet, the distrust of the media has only increased, part of the great conspiracy to deprive Real Americans from their due.

Trump distinguished himself among presidents in only caring about his base. He elevated these Real Americans to a position of prominence they believed they hadn’t gotten before and they loved it. It is no surprise that the geography of Trump Rallies are what they are. Even last week he didn’t go to the Atlanta area (where Republicans need to staunch the bleeding in their suburban support) but to Valdosta. Because Real Americans live in Valdosta and not in Atlanta.

He has centered urban areas like Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit in his speeches and tweets and suggests that they are broken hell-holes, good only for rats and crime. His administration has made no effort to address challenges in those urban areas, opting for photo ops and vague claims (enterprise zones!).

It is no surprise, then, that Trump caravans were popular in blue state areas. It doesn’t take a huge showing to make a video splash and disrupt traffic, giving a middle-finger to the blue-leaning cities in the process. It is no surprise that a teenager would travel from his small town in Illinois and drive to Kenosha to protect businesses from Antifa, murdering two people in the process.

Which brings us to Rudy and friends making accusations about fraud. Because they begin with a generalized distrust of a place like Detroit, it’s easy to suggest that ballots were discovered and dead people voted and ballots were backdated. [By the way, when I lived in Illinois 40 years ago, a Tribune opinion writer said “dead people vote in Chicago and cows vote downstate.”) For so many votes to have been cast for Biden in Wayne County something had to be fishy (it couldn’t be that the city has a large minority presence and Biden won those populations by over 80%). There must have been fraud.

This winds up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only Real American votes count and everybody else cannot be trusted, as The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer wrote a couple of days ago. As I write this, a “stop the steal” rally is underway in Washington. Because Real Americans voted for Trump and states certified Biden as the winner, obviously the election was stolen.

Palin’s comments, surprising in 2008 to the point that the campaign walked them back, has become the default position of the Republican Party. Texas GOP chair Allen West (who was outrageous as a Florida congressman) suggests secession is in order. People like Michael Flynn suggest we need to overturn the election to protect “the soul of America”.

This puts remarkable pressure on President-Elect Biden. He has made it clear through the campaign that he, too, wants to heal the soul of America. But he means ALL of America, not just a part.

Moving forward from where we are now will require a very different approach to our politics, our reporting, and our sociological analysis. If we are to bridge these divides, and that’s a big if, we will need to find common stories regardless of geography. We will need concrete solutions at local, state, and national levels to the issues that the Pandemic has made visible that we would prefer to ignore. And somehow, we will need to learn to trust our neighbors — rural and urban — again.

I’ve started reading The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. It traces the ways in which America was characterized by individualism and inequality in the first part of the 20th century, saw that shift to better social cohesion post WWII, and then return to its earlier character over the last 50 years. Their point is that we can change if we choose to. It will be a hard road, but the optimist in me says that there is still hope.

The 2020 Election: When Prophecy Fails

The November election was called by the election desks three weeks ago today. When all the dust settles on December 14, President-elect Biden will win 306 electoral votes to President Trump’s 232. Biden’s popular vote lead has now crested an astonishing six million votes. In the meantime, the Trump campaign has pursued a couple of recounts with minimal success (the Biden lead in Milwaukee actually increased) and a series of state and federal level lawsuits with virtually no success.

And yet, as numerous observers have noted, Trump supporters — especially of the evangelical celebrity class — continue to argue that the election will not only be overturned, but that Trump actually won in a landslide.

How can all these people (and potentially millions who support them) continue to believe this stuff? I suggested earlier this week that one answer can be found in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Reiken, and Stanley Schacter. The book, written in 1956, was a field study of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

I re-read the book on Tuesday (only $0.99 on Kindle!) and was amazed at how helpful it was. Festinger had argued that having attitudes and behaviors that were in conflict created cognitive dissonance, a state of discomfort. There were several ways to resolve the dissonance: change the conflicting behavior/attitude, reduce the salience of the offending attitude, or add some new element to the mix that resolved the dissonance.

When Prophecy Fails (hereafter WPF) describes a real-life test of cognitive dissonance theory that seemingly dropped into the authors’ laps. In September of 1954, a group in Lake City (Chicago) with assistance from others in Collegeville (Lansing) announced that they had received word that a major cataclysm was going to occur that coming December 21. Massive earthquakes would result in flooding that would swamp most of central North America. Festinger and his co-authors, along with some other informants, joined the group in November and stayed in contact through December. [There are some interesting questions about the ethics of joining the group. By surreptitiously becoming a part, they may have added self-perceived legitimacy to the group members.]

A predicted cataclysm was exactly the kind of disconfirmation that would produce cognitive dissonance. All of the activity surrounding the system of belief — readings, meetings, messages from outer space, plans for the group’s rescue via flying saucer — would be put at risk if things didn’t come to pass. How would they resolve such a crisis of faith?

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity (20).

But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. … If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it (21).

The leaders of the group (the authors call them Marion Keech and Thomas Armstrong) had long been religiously eclectic. They had been studying scientology, reincarnation, UFO sightings, seances, receiving involuntary writings, and more. (This is consistent with other sociological models on conversion to marginal religious groups.) Given their sources of information, the notion that a messenger named Sanandra from the planet Clarion would warn them of God’s plan for the coming cataclysm and then prepare them for their rescue would not be met with the levels of skepticism one might expect.

There are series of disconfirming events: the UFO’s don’t come, there is uncertainty about visitors who may or not from outer space, and finally, there are no earthquakes. But following this final disconfirming event, they make themselves more available to visitors and the press (including a public invitation to Christmas caroling), willing to explain their theoretical system to anyone who would listen. At least that’s how it worked for the True Believers — more fringe members simply drifted away.

On December 21 alone, Dr. Armstrong and Mrs. Keech made five tape recordings for radio broadcast. Within the next three days, Marian’s messages were used as reasons for drawing up new press releases and lifting the ban on photographers. Twice more the press was called in and their reception was warm and friendly. Reporters were granted extensive interviews and photographers welcomed (151).

There is much in WPF that has parallels to our current moment after the election results were known. First, there is a focus on self-confirming information sources (OANN) with access to unique information only known to the insiders (Q Anon conspiracies). Those certain of a massive Trump victory could support their predictions by pointing to esoteric knowledge (Jeff Sharlet recently argued it is a new Gnosticism) that gave them better insights. From Paula White calling on African Angels to belief in the Shy Trump Voters, forces were in play to provide a Trump victory in spite of what polls said.

Public relations events are part of this mythology. Trump Rallies with thousands supposedly turned away, Trump Truck Parades, Boat Parades, could all be used to assert an undeniable force of support. It’s no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s favorite tactic is to call a press conference or a “hearing” to use selected media to repeat claims he can’t legally make in court.

Belief in the disaster of massive voter fraud through mail-in balloting was rampant among the True Believers (even if many of them voted absentee). The massive fraud was assumed as a force to be defeated. This is buttressed by the inclusion of affidavits which claim process issues like where observers could stand or how someone was treated. They aren’t fraud but with all of these loose threads, there must be a major story here. (insert old joke about a Christmas pony here).

Those evangelical leaders who had positioned themselves so strongly as Trump supporters didn’t have a way to eliminate their dissonance. The disconfirmation of the loss was too great (contrasted with the transactional support for Trump over judges). They haven’t simply supported a preferred candidate but have argued that the alternative would end society as we know it. They drew on their religious bona fides to buttress their argument and now they can’t back down without putting those at risk. (Just ask those evangelical leaders what happened on social media when they suggested Biden won!)

Increased proselytization comes as Sidney Powell spins wider and wilder theories asserting that the algorithms in voting machine, created by foreign dictators and supported by Republican leaders across the country had actually turned a Trump victory into a supposed Biden win. That argument eventually became too much for the Trump Campaign and she was cut loose (unless you’re a True Believer and then this was part of the plan all along).

But a milder version of the belief system continues regardless of disconfirmation. Surely, as Eric Trump argued, something is amiss if Biden could get all those votes when he didn’t leave his basement! Which is, of course, the way in which these closed information loops work.

What happens to these True Believers after Inauguration Day is an open-ended question. In all likelihood, they will continue undeterred in their belief that the election was stolen from them because that’s what they’ve been told for so long.

At the end of WPF, Marion Kreech and Dr. Armstrong were both threatened with involuntary commitment and left the midwest. While continuing to speak to fringe groups (probably at the kinds of hotels Rudy holds hearings at), they eventually disappear from the scene.

Of course, as long as there is OANN and Newsmax (Fox is so passe), there will be places for Trump and Giuliani and Ellis and Powell to tell their stories. And there will be a ready group of listeners who are already predisposed to believe them.

Festinger and colleagues would argue that the group of listeners would shrink over time. They found that the central figures of UFO group took the move into more active proselytizing. Yet the more fringe members simply faded into the background and tried not to bring up their involvement at Christmas parties.

We’ll need to revisit the situation next November to see if the fringe falls away as life returns to some version of normal. But I expect the True Believers will remain for years to come.

UPDATE 12/13/20

Since I wrote this two weeks ago, the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court requesting the votes in four of the contested states to be invalidated. Over 2/3 of Republican AGs and Republican members of the House signed amicii briefs (as did the lawyer for New California and New Nevada!). The Safe Harbor date was reached by which electoral college members were locked in. And last Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court refused to take up the Texas case (with Alito and Thomas saying they’d hear the case but decline the merits). Tomorrow, the Electoral College formally votes Joe Biden the president-elect.

So it’s over, right? Not if you’re a True Believer.

Yesterday was the Jericho Walk rally in Washington DC. I only followed on Twitter. But it’s worth reading the reflections of conservative writers David French and Rod Dreher to get a sense of the ways in which the most vocal fans of Donald Trump have doubled-down to resolve the cognitive dissonance of their election loss. It’s pretty much what Festinger and friends would have expected.

“What Do We Do Now?” — Stacy Abrams and the work before us

As a political junkie, I love movies about politics. Dave is my all time favorite and I’m still a sucker for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But I often find myself thinking about 1972’s The Candidate. In that movie, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, Robert Redford plays an upstart candidate for Senate from California running against a long-term establishment incumbent. It tracks the ins and outs of his improbable campaign, managed by the inimitable Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein and Everybody Loves Raymond). At the end of the film, Redford’s candidate prevails. In the very final scene, Redford turns to Boyle and asks, “What Do We Do Now?”

This scene is central to my thinking that governing is more important than campaigning. The nuts and bolts of consensus building far outstrip the enthusiasm we have for election contests. Given yesterday’s court decision in Pennsylvania, we may be finally approaching the end of this election cycle (regardless of what now-former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell claims). Yes, there are still the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, but it’s time to think about what’s next.

Last week I finished listening to Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now. It is a primer on the key issues in extending the vote to underserved populations and combatting attempts at voter suppression. Her organizing, along with that of similar organizations across Georgia, was key to Biden’s victory in the state.

Following Abrams’ lead, there is much work for progressives to do in the coming twelve months. Republicans are already talking about investigating mail-in ballot processes in their quixotic search for their elusive voter fraud. Unless there is concerted effort to set some guidelines for how those ballots are processed, claims like those we’ve seen over the last three weeks will continue. States like Oregon, Colorado, and California need to be the models for how these ballots are processed as they have been using these processes for years.

Whether voting by mail or voting in person, we need to carefully distinguish between simple challenges to process (signature challenges, new address, failure to sign the envelope, voting at the wrong precinct) from invalid votes. Characterizing these errors as potential fraud is simply attempted voter suppression. Curing ballots is a fair process and should be easily available. Voting isn’t some trap where if you don’t get everything exactly right you get disenfranchised. Our default position should be to make it as easy to legally vote as possible.

In that regard, there need to be major changes in the availability of polling locations. Some consideration of a ratio of population distribution to the number of voting sites is essential. Texas’ idea of having one drop box per county is problematic for those in big cities (population) and those in big counties (geography). The goal must be to make access to voting simpler.

If states are going to rely on voter identification through driver’s licenses or other official cards, they need to consider those urban dwellers who don’t drive or the elderly who no longer drive. If photo IDs are not made readily available to all potential voters, then some other forms of identification should be allowed (multiple pieces of mail from government sources, for example).

We need to rethink how we process ballots when they arrive. It’s clear from the recent election that laws allowing mail-in ballots to be treated as early voting and processed (but not counted) prior to election day are reasonable. Not allowing votes to be counted until after the polls close is what created the crazy (yet predicted) scenario this cycle. We also need to clarify the roles of election judges, poll watchers, and partisan observers. The observers are there to represent their party but it is the judges and the poll watchers (who also represent the parties) who evaluate the quality of the ballots.

Of course, when there is actual fraud it needs to be prosecuted. Not on the basis of someone’s imagination, but real cases like the two cases uncovered in Pennsylvania: one who tried to vote using his dead mother’s ballot and another who tried to pass himself off as his son at the poll when he had already voted (both Republicans). If there is fraud via mail-in ballots, it must be proven and not asserted.

There should probably be some limits place on when and under what circumstances elections can be challenged. Automatic recounts are fine but frivolous lawsuits attempting to litigate a settled vote should be met with harsh penalties from judges. Saturday’s Pennsylvania decision was a good example of the kind of response these cases should receive.

Progressives have long pushed back at election law changes by rightly complaining about attempts at voter suppression. But that leaves them in a reactive mode. What we need now is a major push to fix those aspects of the voting system that would increase the franchise to more people. That will likely involve some tradeoffs with conservatives but major gains are possible if action is taken before we get close to the 2022 midterm election cycle.

The high road going forward is to make voting accessible to as many citizens as possible in ways that are fair and safe. We have serious work to do.

Confronting Institutional Sin: A Church Called Tov

Sociologists like me tend to focus on institutional arrangements and organizational culture when analyzing particular moments. It’s not that we don’t care about individual action, it’s that often those actions are contingent upon these larger issues. So that what seems like an individual action really needs to be examined in its broader context.

Given my preferred mode of analysis, I was particularly excited to recently read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Having read Scot’s earlier book on congregation life, A Fellowship of Differents, as part of a Sunday School class I lead, I knew it would be worthwhile.

I was pleased to find the book much more than “worthwhile”. It spoke to serious problems in some local churches and paid attention to the organizational and cultural forces contributing to those forces right off the top. In doing so, it painted a picture of what is required for “institutional repentance”, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In a blog post six years ago, I wrote the following:

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

Tov begins by acknowledging wrongs the church would often prefer not to discuss. It opens with the Bill Hybels crisis at Willow Creek Community Church, telling the story of what happened at WCCC and examining the variety of factors that allowed the abuse to go on for so long and to be covered up by a culture than minimized wrongdoing, celebrated celebrity, ostracized critics, and denied the truth (even after it was reported in the mainstream press).

McKnight and Barringer elaborate on the nature of toxic church culture by exploring the issues in Harvest Bible Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the story of Jules Woodson and Andy Savage, and others. They write of the myriad ways in which dysfunctional cultures frame narratives, protect insiders, and demonize critics.

The second half of the book refers to the title: Tov means Good. Church cultures should be about the production of good in all segments of church life. Those cultures require empathy, grace, truth, justice, and service. If these last eight chapters of the book were all there was, it would still be a good book about what healthy culture looks like. But it would have likely seemed like just so many platitudes and would certainly fail to be as important of a book.

McKnight and Barringer tell the truth about dysfunctional culture and then work from there to explore how to repair cultures to their intended state. It quickly reminded me of the Restorative Justice class I taught every couple of years. The purpose of restorative justice is to restore things to how they ought to be.

I always started that class with Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu writes that there was danger in simply moving on from the atrocities of apartheid as if nothing happened. There was also danger in Nuremberg style tribunals. The “third way” was to allow people to tell the truth of what happened, for those responsible to admit their role, and to then move toward healing.

This is precisely how Church Called Tov opens. It forces us to see the wrongs that were done, to lament those wrongs, to hear repentance from those responsible, and to make the necessary changes in structures and changes for the Church to be Good.

Since I finished the book, Carl Lentz of Hillsong NY was forced out of his congregation for an affair involving an imagined identity. The stories that followed the initial news have wrestled with celebrity culture, power and control, and even the hip personal of the tattooed pastor in skinny jeans.

The Jerry Fallwell, Jr. story continues to swirl with new and more salacious details. The Southern Baptist Church recently refused to take any meaningful steps in holding accountable those who knew of minister transgressions. The Cardinal McCarrick scandal was apparently known by the Pope but nothing was done.

Telling the truth about dysfunctional institutional structures and organizational cultures is vitally important. It is needed in Higher Education as universities shed trusted faculty members. It is needed in our political circles where power is preeminent and any means necessary thinking is far too common. It is needed in our churches where younger Christians find themselves on the outside for supporting their LGBTQ+ friends. It is needed in city governments and police departments who fail to recognize the myriad ways in which their structures and cultures harm people of color.

If, rather than seeking to defend existing turf, these various institutional structures began by naming those dysfunctional elements of their culture and systems, we’d be in a place where we were more attentive to what is Tov for everybody.

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.

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

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.