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About that 44%: Did White Evangelicals Stay Away in Alabama?

There was a lot of conversation yesterday while folks were waiting for the final Alabama Senate returns to come in. In my circles, much of it circled around a pattern in the exit polls: Only 44% of the those polled were White Evangelicals compared to 47% in previous election cycles. Right away, the explainers showed up. There is a very good analysis from Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the Washington Post. Christianity Today reported that Al Mohler told CNN that Roy Moore was “a bridge too far” that caused white evangelicals to stay away. Still, 80% of White Evangelicals (using the Washington Post Exit Poll) voted for Moore, pretty much that same figure as the 2016 presidential election.

Evangelicals Alabama

Determining whether this supposed defection happened or not is challenging for a couple of reasons. First, we have the ongoing problem of self-identified evangelicals. More importantly, the exit poll conflates race and religion. Were there fewer willing to call themselves evangelicals? Fewer whites as a percentage? We are left with the 44% data point without any particular strategy for interpreting it.

The more significant dynamic in the outcome is race. Not only did the exit polls show an extremely lopsided support for Jones among Black voters, but the exit poll also shows interesting variations from past registration patterns.

Race Alabama

According to Alabama state records, Whites make up 71% of active eligible voters while Blacks make up 26%. But the exit poll above shows that Black voters were a larger share of the electorate than their registration would suggest while White voters underperformed (consistent with some late reporting last night).

Because the evangelical percentages are conflated with race, an increase in the percentage of Black vote will simultaneously increase the non-white-evangelical vote. It’s quite possible that the evangelical vote didn’t change from prior elections — they just made up a smaller slice of the electorate because of the increase in the non-white population.

In the methodology section of the Post’s story, they explain that there were 2,387 people interviewed in the exit poll. So I took that number, multiplied it by the respective category percentages, then multiplied that number times the percentage going to each candidate.


For example, 44% of 2387 is 1050 and 80% of those voted for Moore which gives him 840 votes out of the 2387 with Jones getting 189. When you add the columns together, you see that Jones wins with this breakdown by 71 votes or roughly 3%. If the White Evangelical vote had been 47% of the total (which reduces the other row to 53%), Moore wins by 12 votes (right at the half-percent official recount level).

When we look at the racial breakdown, we see a much more plausible explanation of the results (which, as I’ve said, get conflated with the evangelical variable). Using the same logic Moore gets 1071 White votes (66% of 2387 times his 68% share). Because the Black vote for Moore was so small (4%) the vote count drops to zero among Blacks (it’s actually 4% of one vote). Jones, on the other hand, picks up 1137 votes and wins by 66 votes (the 2.8% is pretty close to what I was hearing of the margin by the end of the night last night). If the Black vote had matched the distribution of eligible active voters (chart on the right), Moore would have won by 2%.

It turns out that while we were all focused on Moore’s past problems with teenagers, the Alabama NAACP had been heavily organizing get out the vote campaigns, keeping people aware of the upcoming special election, and making sure that voters could get to the polls. The Alabama Secretary of State had estimated the Black turnout at 25% but the NAACP argued that this was low.

If the Black turnout was higher than normal (matching Obama’s first election), that also drives up the non-white-evangelical vote share.

It may well be that white evangelicals opted to stay home or to cast their vote for Kenny Stabler. And it’s still true that a huge majority of them voted for Moore in spite of everything. These are questions that still need to be explored with good research and not just eyeballing exit polls.

But for now, my money is on an energized Black vote that isn’t likely to sit out future elections.


Is theology ever really an independent variable?: More on defining evangelicals

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve been wrestling with investigating evangelicals for years. I was going to post some relevant links, but about 40% of the blog feed over the last two years has been dedicated to attempting (to no avail) to disentangle evangelicalism from other variables (although this particular post has proven to be evergreen with a handful of views each week nearly two years after I wrote it).

I invite you to go to the home page of this blog (or follow me) and review what I’ve been up to in order to see the various ways I’ve been attempting to deconstruct the situation. The definitional questions of evangelicalism — historically, theologically, and sociologically — will become the opening chapter of the book I’m starting as I approach my sabbatical semester next fall.

Given this ongoing exploration, I was intrigued when LifeWay research released a survey this week attempting once again to point out the difficulties of relying on evangelical self-identification. To their credit, the wanted to focus on belief. Focusing on four questions, they characterized a group they labeled “evangelicals by belief“:

In this new survey, LifeWay used a set of four questions about the Bible, Jesus, salvation and evangelism. Those questions were developed in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals. Those who strongly agree with all four are considered to be evangelicals by belief.

PrintThe evangelicals by belief (let’s call them EBB) are roughly half the size of self-identified evangelicals (SIE) and are more likely to be correlated with religious behaviors like church attendance. Where polls have regularly shown that 81% of SIEs are Republicans, LifeWay finds that only 65% of EBBs are (although the former includes only white evangelicals and the EBBS are racially mixed so that actual gap may be less narrow).

I have some quibbles with the wording of the questions that may be overly limiting but they are far less restrictive than an earlier Barna theology list (that required inerrancy and a literal Satan). Still, expecting strong agreement on all four of their items may define a religious population narrower than an actual evangelical list (especially non-Baptists).

LifeWay is assuming that distinguishing EBBs from SIEs allows a finer distinction of who is really an evangelical that might speak to the larger issues of how evangelicals have accommodated culture. Perhaps, SIEs align with the moral shift that PRRI has identified (the dramatic decline in belief in the importance of morality for political figures) but EBBS don’t. But examination of other data suggests this is unlikely to pan out.

Back in September, I used definitions suggested by the late Stephen Monsma (which included both doctrine and religiosity) to see if that changed the linkage between something like EBBs and political stances. It didn’t.

The obvious question: does this change the political orientation of the evangelicals? Could it be that the infamous 81% figure is simply an artifact of the less accurate definitions used in the media?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no (I really wanted it to be otherwise).

This morning, I returned to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey and tried my best to create scales that aligned with the LifeWay questions (I was surprised to find that Pew didn’t ask a Jesus question, presumably because they were looking at varieties of religious groups). I combined questions on Bible as Word of God, Only One Religion, and Engaging in Evangelism at least monthly. I found that just over 12% of the sample (not counting missing cases), not far from the LifeWay data.

Here’s the challenge that remains for both my analysis and I suspect for LifeWay as well The belief variables, while an improvement over SIEs, are still not related to outcome variables. I looked at a few political questions in the Pew survey: government aid to the needy, concerns about immigration, and belief in small government. The belief variable doesn’t make much difference. For example 57% of those would be EBBs support small government while 54% of those who aren’t EBBs agree.

In other words, while theology may be a better screen than a self-identification (which reflect all kinds of cultural correlates) it’s still a pretty poor independent variable. As much as we want evangelicals to support positions and candidates that arise from their theological convictions, it doesn’t seem to happen much.

This raises an important social psychological question: when would theological views ever act as a legitimate predictor of behavior or attitude? I addressed this in this post from nearly three years ago:

But it seems to me that much of what is called “religious beliefs” are more peripheral in nature. They are positions we choose that may be derived in some fashion to a belief in the authority of scripture, but only in a very loose sense. Sometimes those beliefs are so peripheral that there is little attempt to create a cognitive linkage to central belief systems.

As much as we want theology to frame our thinking, I fear that it is largely compartmentalized or at best held in the loose sense I describe above. Social psychological research suggests that a belief must be activated in some manner and then connected to the question at hand through some logical progression. Given the lack of theological depth of many Christians (not to mention biblical illiteracy), it’s not surprising that they find it hard to make coherent arguments.

This is a project that churches and theological educators need to take on. We need far more depth in our theological understandings that move beyond affirming the rightness of our team’s position. We need serious conversation about the religious implications of political positions (as opposed to simple conversations of “what Christians believe” about the politician or position).

So, while the answer to my title question is “no”, it’s a dissatisfying answer. The whole point of Christian formation is that our faith commitments should make a difference in the way we live our lives.




About that 37% of Evangelicals more likely to support Moore…

You’ve no doubt seen the reports that 37% of Alabama evangelicals were more likely to support Judge Roy Moore after the accusations from the four (now five) women who were teenagers when he was in his early 30s. The data in question came from a poll conducted by a firm called JMC Analytics between November 9 (the day the story broke) and Saturday, November 11.

After reading several references to this statistic (and sharing much twitter outrage), I took the time to actually look at the poll results themselves. It’s somewhat helpful in making sense of this and other statistics. Here are some things I learned.

First, the poll seems to reflect a party affiliation. The analysis section on page 3 of the poll results contains an underlined section describing why “Republicans should be concerned.”

Second, the makeup of this poll (compared to the undated previous poll) was skewed more heavily toward evangelicals, up from 53% to 58%. I could write a separate post about whether it really makes sense to suggest that six in ten Alabamians are evangelicals, but I’ll let it go.

Third, the top-line data on the key question on how the scandal changes votes shows that the plurality (38%) are less likely to vote for Moore. And this was before the continued drumbeat of further reports, the comments from McConnell and other senators, and the RNC pulling funding.

Fourth, the subgroup comparisons show that most other subgroups are less likely to vote for Moore than more likely. One exception is that Whites are barely more likely to support Moore (and “other” is much more so). The evangelical subgroup is the only one that stands out — but as I’ve been arguing, the overlap between whites and evangelical self-identification is pretty great (and especially so in Alabama).

Finally, the most important story in the data is the substantial move of voters toward Doug Jones. Males are split, females are +6. Jones wins every age group but the oldest. A third of evangelicals say they would support Jones. The result of these splits is that Jones is up 6 percentage points from the previous poll (whenever that was) moving from a tied race to Jones ahead.

To review, there were 575 people interviewed via landline in four regions of Alabama. About 333 of those claimed to be evangelicals. As the Hill reports, 38% of that 333 (123) claimed they were more supportive of Moore (as of Saturday). But that’s still only about a fifth of those polled.

The PRRI data from last year (that I cited in my last post) on the remarkable shift in how important morality is in determining political leaders is still nothing short of striking. But every poll doesn’t necessarily represent that same trend.

Why Harvey Weinstein Broke the Patriarchy

Okay, that’s a little strong. Patriarchy is still present in our society and makes itself explicitly and implicitly known on a regular basis. It shows up in every sphere of modern society.

And yet it feels like something fundamental has shifted in our sociological structures and processes in the five weeks since the first Weinstein story broke in The New York Times. Sociological time moves faster than geologic time but five weeks is but a moment in most understandings of social change.

WeinsteinMaybe it’s better to to think of Weinstein putting a fracture in Patriarchy and that the raft of follow-on revelations — Bill O’Reilly’s remarkable settlement,  Kevin Spacey’s exploitations, the NPR’s news editor’s ouster, Louis C.K.’s exposures, and Judge Roy Moore’s bizarre past (he admits to dating teenagers even if he disputes the molestation) — have splintered that fracture with each additional revelation.

For all those who like the “what about-ism” game, the issue isn’t why past actors, politicians, presidents, and businessmen got away with such oppressive behavior. Such games of looking for hypocrisy and trying to divine moral equivalence only leads to a race to the bottom where folks are motivated to find the worst excesses of the group they dislike, while trying to protect their own from “events of long ago”.

What’s different in the wake of Weinstein is that these oppressive and reprehensible behaviors are being met with broadly shared outrage and institutional consequences. Removing Weinstein from the Academy is largely a symbolic step, but is still important. Having Spacey replaced with Christopher Plummer in a movie that had already wrapped is remarkable. Seeing Louis C.K. go from media darling to pariah overnight is new.

So what’s different? Why did Weinstein’s story become an institution-shaping story rather than a Charlie Sheen meltdown? I suspect there are many factors at play but I’ll try to isolate a few.

The presence of authentic narrators — In an era where personal story is paramount, having a figure like Ashley Judd (and others) come forward and describe her experiences with Weinstein rings with authenticity. All of the victims that have come forward did so at risk of personal loss. There is no evidence of looking for book deals or advancing careers. These are people with hard stories to tell and they demand attention. That’s why the #metoo hashtag developed, allowing other women (and men) to tell their own stories that ring of legitimacy.

The attempt at revisionist history — Weinstein’s first “apology” was to argue that “he grew up in a time when people accepted” this type of exploitive behavior. Harvey Weinstein is 64, one year older than me. We never argued that exploiting women within your company or school or church was what one did. Maybe in the Mad Men world of Manhattan advertising in the 1960s (and likely not even then). But Harvey and I were barely in first grade at the time the show begins. Maybe those who live in the world of politics or entertainment or broadcasting found that gender roles changed more slowly but I doubt it. It’s just that people in power didn’t feel the need to change because they could get away with it.

The rejection of “locker room talk” — The 2016 presidential campaign had gender at its very center. It was a question of whether a woman could be president, especially when that woman would be held responsible for her husband’s past misbehavior. It was a question of whether misogynistic statements from a candidate who demeaned women’s appearance, weight, and character could be trusted to lead the county, whether the accusations of past physical invasions were true or not. The most telling moment in the Access Hollywood video was not the “grabbing” comment but the one where he said “if you’re a star, they let you do it.” Those statements were seen as wrong by most people. The fact that their states voted for him anyway left people unwilling to tolerate such attitudes and behavior going forward.

The social media world — As we strive to understand exactly all the ways that Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms were manipulated during the 2016 election cycle, the ability of social media to rapidly disseminate information cannot be overstated. In fact, that’s why the disruptions from Russia and the alt-Right were so successful. But when the Weinstein story broke in the Times and then ricocheted across social media, the story not only grew in importance and legitimacy but it demanded responses from other institutional entities that would lead to specific action. The NPR case was particularly interesting in this regard as the story jumped from the Washington Post to NPR to Twitter and back. The story broke, was covered by NPR (including a fabulous interview on what the head of NPR knew and when), all the time mediated on my twitter feed.

“Ain’t got time for this..” — One interesting dynamic is that we seem to gotten to the end of our hypocrisy reservoir. Sure, some will still try to defend their favorite guy (the stuff on how “electing pedophiles is better than electing Democrats” is especially galling), but it’s recognized as hypocrisy and craven partisanship right away. One of my sociologist friends, Gerardo Marti, reposted this data from PRRI:

PRRI Morals

I’d seen this data when it first released and focused on the big shifts among religious folks on key issues of morality, especially among White Protestants. But I hadn’t noticed the shift among the Unaffiliated (who we know tend to be disproportionately younger). They are LESS wiling to ignore moral issues in 2016 that they were in 2011. This is consistent with what I see in my students. The week after the Weinstein story broke, I used it as an example in my night class to explore the morality of market decisions. Why couldn’t we argue, I suggested in true socratic form, that Weinstein and Judd had achieved some kind of free market exchange that was mutually beneficial (even if disgusting to imagine). My students argued that exchanges that resulted in the dehumanizing of another were morally flawed. I was very proud.

What make anyone think this behavior was normal? — It was interesting to hear people reflect on the sexual harassment training conducted by human relations departments. Companies adopt policies and make employees watch videos, which prove generally ineffective. The company requires the video to provide legal liability so that management doesn’t get sued when bad behavior occurs (“He watched the video!”). But a compliance approach is woefully inadequate when you’re trying to develop a healthy culture where people can flourish and do their best work. After the NPR firing, there was an interview on Morning Edition with an HR specialist. At the end of her interview, she said (paraphrasing), “We don’t need to train people not to try to kiss their employees and force their tongues in their mouths.”

Sexism is real. Power is on display on a daily basis and is written into the DNA of many institutions that allows male privilege to be sustained. And yet if I listen carefully, I can hear structures creaking under their weight as their foundations are crumbling.

Defining Evangelicals: Take Three

I spent the end of last week in Indianapolis participating in a gathering exploring “The State of the Evangelical Mind”. (Go ahead and get your jokes out of the way now.) It was a very interesting meeting and great to connect with some social media friends in real life as well as to reconnect with others. I’ll share my own reflections on the gathering soon (and I have some).

Early in the meeting, I was in a conversation about the survey definitions of evangelicalism related to the work I’ve been reporting on this blog since the spring. I was reminded that the late Stephen Monsma wrote a piece in Christian Scholars Review published this summer that provided an excellent summary of scholarship on defining evangelicals in survey data.

After reviewing all the shortcomings of self-report and the RELTRAD variable (that measures religious “families” at the denominational level) he offers a pretty solid definitional schema.


Thus to be considered an evangelical one would have to be (1) be Protestant, (2) believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God and Jesus to be the only way of salvation, and (3) engage in at least two of the three religious practices [weekly church attendance, daily prayer, and bi-monthly small group participation]. (p. 339)

Upon returning from the conference on Saturday, I went back into my 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data and tried to estimate Monsma’s definition. First, I selected only protestants. Next, I looked at two doctrinal questions: 1) the Bible is the authoritative word of God (not the inerrant item that follows it in the survey) and 2) a belief that only Christian religion can lead to eternal life. Finally, I calculated a variable that measured if people managed at least two of his three activity measures of weekly church attendance, daily prayer, and bi-monthly small group participation. Here is how the data turned out.


So using Monsma’s definition, just over 15% of the population would be evangelical. This is instructive when compared to the other measures available. As I’ve pointed out before, over a third of respondents claimed to be “born again” (just under half of the Christian population). When we look at RELTRAD, 25% of respondents fall in the evangelical family.

So Monsma’s definition seems to be much closer to what we’d consider to be an orthodox or traditional evangelical who combines doctrinal commitment with actual religious practice.  This seems like a better conceptual measure of what insiders think of as evangelicals even if it’s a little more complex that opinion pollsters normally like.

The obvious question: does this change the political orientation of the evangelicals? Could it be that the infamous 81% figure is simply an artifact of the less accurate definitions used in the media?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no (I really wanted it to be otherwise).

I followed the same patterns I have before, using certain social attitudes as proxies for political orientation (I can’t actually get at Trump support with 2014 data!). My go-to question is one where respondents are asked if government aid creates dependency or meets people’s real needs.

Among White Evangelicals (the basis of the 81%) about 65% of the “Born-again” population select the dependency option. The figure for Whites in the Evangelical religious tradition (RELTRAD) goes up to 67%. If we use the Monsma definition on White Evangelicals, just under 72% agree that government aid creates dependency.

While it’s beyond the scope of available data, much more research is needed on how evangelicals construct their social policy views. There was some interesting reporting recently on the connections between the need for redemption and beliefs about the “deserving poor” (Sorry, I couldn’t track down the reference.)

The state of the evangelical mind is still one in which too many easy talking points have been offered to too many people. The challenge going forward is figuring out how to engage evangelicals in compassionate, non-condescending conversations about the nature of our complex social processes.

Who are the Evangelicals? (Reprised)

At least three issues prompted me to spend a lovely Saturday morning digging again through the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey data. First, the Public Religion Research Institute released America’s Changing Religious Identity from their 2016 American Values Survey. Following up on the landmark work of Robbie Jones’ The End of White Christian America, it shows that  White Evangelicals dropped from 23% to 17% of the population over a decade.

Second, Baylor History professor Thomas Kidd questioned whether the term “Evangelical” has any meaning (especially as contrasted with its historical roots). As part of that questioning, he shared observations from a post earlier this summer which included this wonderful paragraph:

3. Modern political polling. Political polling has become remarkably accurate at predicting electoral outcomes, even when everyone believes the numbers can’t possibly be true (see Trump in the primaries). But pollsters stink at understanding the people they’re polling. The most serious problem with understanding “evangelical” political behavior, then, is letting respondents define their own religious affiliation.

Third, in two weeks I have the privilege of joining a number of other scholars in Indianapolis for a discussion of The State of the Evangelical Mind. I figured it was important to clarify my thinking on the matter (not presenting but I want my opinions to be properly informed).

And so I dove back into the Pew 2014 data. I began by simply examining how they broke down various religious traditions.

Religious Family

The second column over is exactly what Pew showed as the topline data in their report released in May of 2015. It shows that 24.5% of the total survey population qualified as evangelicals based on the alignment of the churches the respondents attended. Using this measure, the evangelical population would come in at just under 8600 people.

As Kidd observes, the self-report measure of being “born-again” or evangelical is especially unstable. Over a third of respondents claimed to be born again. By that measure, the total number of evangelicals would be just under 12,000.



Born Again

When you combine these two factors, the answer gets a little messier. Not all evangelicals (by church family) are born-again and some non-evangelical churches have people who claim to be born-again.


The top line within each religious family gives the percentage of that family claiming to be born-again. For evangelical churches, as would be expected, that percentage comes to just under 85%. But the next line down measures the percentage of born-agains who fall into the various religious traditions. Nearly 4 in 10 of those saying they are born-again are not in evangelical churches. The number of born-again evangelicals attending evangelical churches is 7122, which is just over 20% of the overall sample.

What happens when we start looking at attendance? I looked at those born-again by religious tradition and contrasted those who attend at least once a month (Pew moves from weekly to once-or-twice a month, so I went with monthly as a conservative frame). This shows that among born-agains in evangelical churches, 80% attended at least once a month. This drops the total of “active” evangelicals to 5659.


As a side-note, it’s interesting that patterns of church attendance don’t vary a lot by religious tradition if we limit the analysis to those who claim to be born-again. The percentage for mainline churches is only 2.4% behind evangelical churches (which are 4% lower than Black Protestant churches).

This raises the question of race. Since so much of the popular press as well as social media have been fascinated by the unique patterns of White Evangelicals, I screened for race/ethnicity. In limiting the analysis to white, evangelical, born-agains and contrasting with attitudes toward abortion, we learn a couple of things.

white-born-again-evangelical-attendance-abortion.jpgFirst, the column on the right answers the question about the number of white born-agains in evangelical churches. There were 4224 respondents in the Pew Landscape survey who met these characteristics. This represents 12% of the total sample, roughly half that reported in the Pew topline data.

Second, the attitudes toward abortion among this population reflect what I found in an earlier analysis this spring. Moral issues are important to this population. It may be coincidental that the percentage who believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases totals 79%, just shy of the mystical 81% we read so much about. On the other hand, 45% of those born-agains who attend evangelical churches less than once a month believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. (It’s an open question as to which way the causal arrows might go — it could be lack of religious engagement or it might be a feeling of discomfort of not following the party line.)

I also replicated some analysis I had done in the post in May. While there seems to be a real difference among white born-agains in evangelical churches on moral issues when we look at attendance, that doesn’t hold with regard to certain socio-political issues. This chart shows the same analysis as above but looks at attitudes toward immigration (another key factor in the 2016 election).

White, Born Again, Evangelical, Attendance, Immigration

Just over 6 in 10 white born-agains in evangelical churches think that immigration has made things worse regardless of how often they attend church. This replicates the distinction I found in my earlier work.

A number of years ago, the Barna group articulated a much more limited definition of evangelicals. They argued that real evangelicals affirm nine points. They have made a personal commitment to Christ and believe they will see Heaven. In addition, they hold to the following:


As others have pointed out, some of these criteria may not represent all evangelical views (especially the absolutist statements on Satan and Biblical inerrancy). This definition is probably more difficult to maintain in the public mindset that the practices we’ve used in the past.

But what I’ve learned is that we can define evangelicals as those who are born-again, are part of an evangelical tradition, and are actively involved in a local congregation.

On the other hand, as I’ve argued for years, we need to know more about those evangelical types who are actually in mainline churches. If a new categorization can be defined that dealt with religion as important, regular engagement in a church, and belief in the saving power of Jesus we may have another way forward beyond the current evangelical confusion.

Christian Universities Must Engage Broader Issues

Today, Chad Wellmon posted a fascinating article in the Chronicle of HIgher Education. Wellmon arrived on the University of Virginia grounds last week with his family to become principal of one of the residential colleges at UVA. An associate professor of German studies, he’s a fellow with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Moral Clarity

The marchers Friday night literally walked his residence. He describes that they “marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.” UVA’s president, Theresa Sullivan (a sociologist) responded with vague comments about “hateful behavior”. Drawing on Max Weber (I knew I liked this article), he claims that universities lack the moral language within its ranks to really engage the evil that marched onto campus.

If they looked to the university for guidance on how to live, they would be disappointed. The values that motivated students and faculty members to commit themselves to a political cause, a religious tradition, or even scholarship itself, came from elsewhere, from outside the university.

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. … They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

I think his application of Weber’s analysis is spot on. That’s why the whole political correctness/liberal bias/safe spaces debates around university spaces are so hard to resolve. Outside speakers from left or right are expected to come and embrace those “epistemic virtues”. Sometimes, however, there are moral questions involved that openness, critical inquiry, and argument will not properly address. When a speaker has a past endorsement for racist sentiment (whether dressed up in science or “free speech”) should we really engage in open discussion? But does the university have the moral framework to make that distinction? (This, by the way, doesn’t mean that people should abuse the speaker or shout him down.)

Here’s where Wellmon closes his argument:

When I welcome my students this Saturday, I will discuss white supremacy and the march, but I will use language different than the one my wife and I used with our three children. To them we spoke in the language of our faith tradition — in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love. When I speak to my students, I will do so in the language of the university and its traditions — in terms of open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

When I read his conclusion, I realized that we were talking about schools like mine. We operate all the time in language of “the image of God, the church, and Christian love”. It seems like Christian Universities would be uniquely positioned to engage these issues.

But we don’t. We don’t for similar reasons that Wellmon identifies. But in our case, the Weberian value system runs a different direction. We have prided ourselves since the the founding of our Christian Universities that our schools are “safe places” where we don’t have to confront angry speakers (except for some railing on conservative talking points in chapel). We are known for homogeneity and community spirit. Presidents prided themselves in not having any protests during the Vietnam war. We don’t do conflict well (if you doubt that, try attending a contentious faculty meeting).

So here’s the paradox: The research university lacks the moral language necessary to confront the angry conflict at its door while the Christian university has the requisite moral language but prides itself on the absence of conflict.

So what do we do? Perhaps Christian Universities (through their faculty and students) need to be freed to address large cultural issues. We could apply the moral language that is part of the fabric of our universities and speak to issues of race, economics, gender, family, and education.

We would need to temper our anger and political sentiments to some degree. Not because we’re worried about political correctness or conservative outrage but because my twitter feed has plenty of that for all of us. We need to speak from the language of theology because we are committed to critical thinking and thus stand apart from those who have somehow blended their theological and political commitments into some amalgamated mush.

I don’t know how this would work. Perhaps we need an online journal or better a Christian University version of Vox.

Somehow, Christian faculty could speak to complex issues in ways that influence both the church and higher education (an argument Robert Wuthnow made 30 years ago).

Wellmon’s argument based on his frightening experiences of this past weekend makes me think that we have to try. And given the events in Charleston, there’s not much time to waste.