Category: Uncategorized

Time for new thinking about religion

I defended my dissertation 35 years ago next month. The focus was on what I called Attending NonMembers: people who regularly attended church but never joined. People fit my categorization is they had attended at least once a month for six months or more. Part of the project was simply to quantify the size of this population (somewhere about 10% of a local congregation’s attenders in 1983). As part of the research, I was forced to consider the relative importance of attendance vs. membership. Many pastors I interviewed jokingly said they were interested in how to get members to attend. I concluded that attendance was a more salient variable than membership when it came to understanding religious commitment.

My theoretical framework for the research drew from organizational dynamics and pressures to conform to institutional expectations. I posited that people felt the expectations of congregational life and would therefore live in a place of discomfort when they couldn’t meet expectations of membership. After all, people like Dean Kelley had been arguing that demanding something worthwhile was a key component of commitment and that’s why conservative denominations grew where liberal denominations did not. My research showed that people didn’t actually feel pressure to join, even from the pastor. (This was before the rise of the nondenominational and megachurch movements allowing anonymous presence as spectators to the show of the morning.)

I’ve returned to thoughts about the dissertation in recent weeks. New data from Pew Research released two weeks ago showed that Trump supporters were increasingly likely to define themselves as evangelicals when they didn’t in 2016. As they report,

[a]mong White respondents (including both voters and nonvoters) who did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 and who expressed a warm view of Trump at some point during the timespan of this study, 16% began describing themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020. 

One doesn’t need to join a church to declare oneself “evangelical or born again”. It’s simply an affirmative response to a somewhat vague survey question. But the Pew findings about pro-Trump religious identification suggest that what’s being claimed is more of an identity marker than a statement of religious commitment. While disappointing, this isn’t surprising. A careful review of polling data over the last several years has shown very similar political positions adopted by white self-identified evangelicals and Republicans in general.

In response to the Pew data, Ryan Burge (Twitter’s most prolific data analyst) shared data on the likelihood that Republicans would identify as evangelicals. Not only are Republicans more likely than Independents or Democrats to identify as evangelicals, but this was true regardless of attendance patterns.

This shows that fully half of Republicans who seldom attended church identified as evangelicals. Around a third of Republicans who NEVER attend church claim an evangelical identity.

In another analysis, Ryan explored attendance patterns among self-identified evangelicals. In 2008, 70.8% of evangelicals would have met my once a month threshold that I considered to be a minimum for congregational involvement. By 2020, the comparable figure was just 59.8%.

At the very least, these data points suggest that there is limited value in continuing to break out White Evangelicals as a separate category in public opinion surveys. The data picks up something but the extent to which that reflects religious commitments in fuzzy at best. (We really need survey data that explores theological beliefs beyond a commitment to inerrancy!)

If evangelical status is shifting to some kind of identity marker somewhat separate from congregational life, it raises serious questions about the whole “conservative churches are growing” argument. Kelley’s original argument was looking at membership and what was expected of members of conservative churches. Sociologists like Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, and Roger Finke picked up this theme, arguing that there is an exchange relationship between deep commitments and organizational vitality.

This argument is still popular. A friend from Michigan shared this recent piece by Tim Keller. It is a recapitulation of Kelley’s position from nearly 50 years ago. Keller summarize the argument:

Kelley argued that conservative churches continued to focus mainly on spiritual needs and supernatural “largest-scale” cosmic meanings—the reality of God, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit for inward change, the efficacy of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, the eventual arrival of the kingdom of God.

Again, there is declining evidence that self-identified evangelicals are thinking about cosmic meanings. It is far more likely that they are driven by concerns about the changing demands of the here and now. While Kelley and Keller would accuse the mainline church as being concerned with contemporary culture, it is the conservative church that is fighting culture wars. While I lack data on this, my casual observation is that mainline churches have deepened their theological and ecclesial commitments over recent decades.

This move toward political engagement, culture war advocacy, and Covid denialism has an impact on many within the conservative church. While these numbers aren’t large (according to the Pew report above), it does suggest a missing theoretical perspective in thinking about religious commitment.

There is an idea in social psychology that when attempts at persuasion push so hard as to limit individual freedom, the result is reactance. Not only is there resistance to the persuasive appeal, there is actually a movement in the opposite direction.

Listening to podcasts like Gangster Capitalism’s reporting on Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Christianity Today’s reporting on Mark Driscoll in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill suggest the discomfort that results from that pressure. Following reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention trying to respond (or not) to sexual abuse in their ranks has similar effects. “Being Conservative” is not enough. While some short-term good comes these institutions, the longer-term harm is concerning.

Last week, Scot McKnight wrote a piece in his newsletter titled “Deconstruction’s Three Phases.” It’s well worth the read. But here is the Cliff’s Notes version. The first phase he calls Liminality. This is a period where one feels slightly off kilter in the conservative church. It’s a feeling of not belonging. The second phase is Elimination. In this period, one strips away all the extras attempting to hold on to an authentic faith. In my review of millennial evangelical memoirs three years ago, I saw this pattern clearly play out. The writers distanced from church and prior patterns and clung to Jesus. That provided their way back. Scot’s third phase is Liberation. He says that this is a period in which one’s personality takes the fore and there is an attempt to reconcile faith in a new environment. I’m not sure this is as negative as he suggests, but I agree with his conclusion.

These deconstructors become, in other words, re-constructors. They reconstruct their Christian faith from the foundations up and they slowly, carefully lay one brick on another until they form a Christian faith that they find consistent with Jesus and what the church should and can be (all over again).

All of this leaves me trying to rethink religious paradigms I’ve held for decades. Where should our focus be? Are we concerned with documenting the political orientation of self-identified evangelicals? is there a way to value a variety of religious expressions, avoiding the triumphalism of either conservative or mainline churches? What is the role of theology is shaping attitudes (not just prooftexting a favorite scripture)? Where are the religious institutions that will truly assist individuals in working through McKnight’s deconstruction process to live faithfully in a confusing and conflicted culture?

Young Evangelicals and Same-Sex Marriage: A Brief Research Note

When I retired from teaching, I lost my access to SPSS and could no longer play around with data sets. Having time on my hands, it seemed like a good time to get a new statistical package — STATA 17 — and get back into the game (thanks to Westmont sociologist Blake Victor Kent for the endorsement!). I’ve always found that the best way to learn a new statistical package was just to dive in. Thankfully, the Association of Religion Data Archives has a treasure-trove of data sets available for further exploration.

A recent addition to the ARDA archive was a 2017 survey PRRI conducted with support from MTV. The survey focused on youth in their teens and early 20s. It asked interesting questions about discrimination and support for same-sex marriage. After some initial exploration of the data, I focused in on white self-identified evangelicals. This subgroups is almost evenly divided between young Millennials and older GenZ. There is a measurable difference between these two groups of young people when it comes to support for same-sex marriage: while 31.5% of the millennials support SSM, the figure for GenZ rises to 52.4%.

I began by testing a version of the standard Contact Hypothesis as it relates to intergroup relations. In the 1950s, Gordon Allport argued that bias can be combatted through equal contact between differing groups. The PRRI data set had questions about the nature of differing friendships (including having gay friends or family members) and it was possible to contrast those with attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The initial results of this exploration are below.

Those with gay friends are more than twice as likely to support same-sex marriage as those who have no gay friends of family. Interestingly, only three in ten of those with gay family members support SSM. Granted, the n is very small and the question doesn’t distinguish between immediate and extended family.

After exploring a number of factors in a similar two-dimensional fashion, it became clear that I needed to use a multivariate approach given the ways the various factors might interact. To do so, I had to teach myself how to do logistic regression on a dichotomous variable. The results for logistic regression are given in “odds ratios” for each variable independent of the effects of other variables in the equation. An odds ratio less than one has a diminishing impact on the dependent variable and anything over one increases the likelihood of the dependent variable.

Following an instructional video for Stata logistic regression processes, I added batches of variables that plausibly would relate to support for or opposition to same-sex marriage. A number of factors I thought would be of interest washed out as not being statistically significant: gender, region, generation. I also played around with various ways of splitting categorical variables – weekly attendance wasn’t significant nor was some college or being a democrat (largely because the number of democrats was so small in the WEV population). With all my playing around, I was able to come up with a pretty robust equation that speaks to levels of support for same-sex marriage. The results follow.

I’m still learning how to interpret this stuff, but I find it pretty interesting. Overall, the equation does a decent job of explaining the variability of support for same-sex marriage (the R squared for survey data is pretty good). Looking at the odds ratios, three factors significantly decrease support for same-sex marriage: attending church two or more times a week (only 1/8 the level of support), being a republican (cutting support by nearly 3/4ths), and believing that evangelicals face social discrimination (decreasing support by nearly 2/3rds). Conversely, earning a BA or higher more than triples the likelihood of supporting same-sex marriage. Having a gay friend quadruples support. I should note here that this is very consistent with earlier pieces I have written about anecdotal support for same-sex marriage at Christian colleges.

In addition to the equation and odds ratios, additional output allows examination of how well the predicted variables perform relative to actual responses. As the bottom of the chart shows, the equation correctly classified over 3/4ths of the cases. I kept trying new things to see if I could drive this figure up, but am fairly satisfied with progress to date.

I’m trusting my statistically savvy readers to correct any errors I’ve made in logic or statistical analysis. For now, I think it is pretty interesting data and look forward to further testing with other data sets.

Charles Lindbergh and “Religion”

I just finished reading Chris Gehrz’s Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, which releases 8/17. All I really knew about Lindbergh was that he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, their son was kidnapped/murdered a few years later, and that he was the antagonist in Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America that HBO ran last year

Chris’ book is part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography. According to the website, the series “brings to life important figures in United States history .. [linking] .. the lives of their subjects to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” What makes the Lindbergh book somewhat unique is that the pilot had little use of religion as we normally think of it. That makes this “religious” biography appear to be a negation of the significance of religion in modern life, at least on the surface.

And yet, the book requires us to think more carefully about what constitutes religion. That thinking, in turn, opens up a number of contemporary issues. Examining Lindbergh’s thought offers glimpses of the religious mindset present in Christian Nationalism, White Supremacy, Critical Race Theory, and Economic Inequality.

As Chris describes in the opening pages, Lindbergh is a forerunner of the “spiritual but not religious.” He had little interest in organized religion, rarely went to church, and was devoted to science. There were religious friends, some quite zealous, but he had little room for their strand of religion. Yes Lindbergh had religious influences, but at the heart of his thought was the belief that he could make sense of things on his own. Many times, especially in the second half of the book, I found myself remembering Robert Bellah and friends describing “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart. Sheila had said:

I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice (2008: 221).

When Lindbergh reflects upon the “mysterious beings” that he said were with him in the middle of the flight across the Atlantic or when he describes his environmental concerns later in life (which Chris identifies as close to panentheism), it seemed he was putting things together in his own religious concoction. It is also present when he desires to quote Jesus’ “wisdom” without a broader theology. This is far from what we normally think of as religion.

Yet I found myself rethinking this critique at many spots along the Lindbergh journey. Perhaps I was relying too much upon substantive definitions of religion instead of more functional understandings. About a third of the way through the book, as “the miracle of flight” was becoming a reality, I found myself reflecting on Emile Durkheim’s view of religion.

Religion, to Durkheim, was “a unified system of beliefs and practices around sacred things…”. And what was the sacred? Those things that are over and above individual daily life (the profane). What does this mean for the first man to take a solo flight across the ocean? I found myself taking this very literally. There was something about being in the air that was sacred for Lindbergh. He contrasts this with the people on the ground when he’s flying in the South Pacific during the War.

In another case, Lindbergh’s belief in the superiority of White Western Civilization in contrast with more primitive groups appears as a near religious devotion to the special case (he writes of quality not equality). His support for Eugenics is part of the same ideology. It is not too much to argue that for Lindbergh, Western Civilization was sacred and other parts of the world (including Asiatic Russians) were lesser.

These are the same sentiments that have a Tucker Carlson fawning over Hungary’s “freedoms” and have politicians decrying the teaching of America’s racial history (under the guise of concern over “Critical Race Theory”). American civilization (epitomized by America First) is sacred. Dealing with inequality, racism, or ethnic diversity means celebrating the profane rather than recognizing the sacred character of “our” civilization. The storming of the US Capital on January 6 was, to the supporters, needed to protect the sacred character of America.

Chris addresses these concerns in a wonderful afterward, reflecting on the deaths of Philando Castile and George Floyd in light of the centrality of White Supremacy to Lindbergh and his ilk. Understanding how someone like Charles Lindbergh constructed his “religious worldview” gives us a lens into how our fellow citizens are constructing their own views around their personal commitments to what they claim as sacred.

It’s disappointing that none of Lindbergh’s more religious friends were able to have an impact on him. And it’s even more disappointing that we seem incapable of reaching our own contemporaries with the broader claims of the Kingdom of God.

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.

UPDATE TWO: January 20, 2021

Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny from NBC News have kept an eye on the QAnon movement over recent months so the rest of us don’t have to. If you weren’t aware, the Great Awakening was supposed to happen today — where all the cannibal liberals would be arrested and Trump would be established as ongoing president with the support from the military. It would all happen just before noon today when the victors would take over all broadcast channels to start the trials.

This afternoon, they have continued to monitor Q conversations. Needless to say, a number of QAnon supporters are disillusioned that nothing happened and Joe Biden is president.

In QAnon chats captured by the fact-checking technology company Logically.AI and reviewed by NBC News, QAnon supporters drew hard lines shortly before the inauguration began and felt instantly embarrassed when the coup did not occur.

“God help us we’re beyond ready. If nothing happens I will no longer believe in anything,” said one supporter at the beginning of inauguration.

“We all just got played,” said another, moments later.

I’ve seen some tweets of supporters suggesting that “this is all part of the plan” and that the big reveal will come in a couple of weeks. Those are the true believers and nothing is likely to dislodge them. Rush Limbaugh and One America News seem to be the last holdouts. Even the Proud Boys have moved on.

“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.