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Religious Groups and Political Parties: What About the Independents?

The night before the PA 18 special election, Republican Rick Saccone told the gathered crowd what “the left” believes. Not only do they hate the president and the country, but “They have a hatred for God.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott deconstructed this argument, pointing out that apparent winner Conor Lamb is a Catholic with more conservative views on abortion.

PRRI’s Molly Fisch-Friedman shared data in response to Scott’s story,  pointing out that only over a quarter of Democrats were “nones” in 2016 compared to just under 10% of Republicans (both percentages have nearly tripled over the last decade).

This two-party comparison, common in our political discourse, struck me as incomplete. What about the Independents?

If people are going to claim that Democrats are uniquely opposed to faith, it’s helpful to have the full picture. Are Independents like Republicans so that Democrats are outliers in their secularism? Or do Republicans stand apart?

I went to 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, my default data set on religious factors (it’s one I have already dowloaded so I can quickly test spur of the moment hypotheses). I focused exclusively on white Christian groups plus the nonaffiliated. I then cross-referenced that with self-identified party affiliation, giving me the percentage belonging to each religious grouping within a particular party affiliation.

Religion and Party

What strikes me in this data is how similar the distributions are between Independents and Democrats. Independents are slightly more represented among evangelicals and slightly less represented among Catholics than is true for Democrats.

But the remarkable contrast is between the Republicans and the other two. This suggests that religion may be more salient among Republicans, which puts Saccone’s assertion in some context. This fits the embattled-religious-freedom concerns that have tied Republicans and Evangelicals together.

I admit  that this data doesn’t tell me how people vote. But the linkages between partisan orientation and faith provide some key indicators. When we read that 79% of White Evangelicals support the president, it’s important to remember that they are Republicans first.


Michael Gerson’s Analysis of Evangelical Politics

My social media feeds blew up this morning in response to Michael Gerson’s cover piece in The Atlantic. Gerson is an insider to both the world of evangelicalism (he has Wheaton credentials) and politics (he served as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration). In his role as Washington Post columnist, he has been a consistent voice of caution to those embracing Trump’s strategies and rhetoric.


This new piece is simply a “must read” for anyone with an interest in truly understanding the evangelical world and its relationship to politics. It picks up a number of important sociological themes (and quotes some of the right people in that regard). I want to hit some highlights and add my own comments as it relates to the work I’ve been doing for the last several years.

Gerson hits all the right notes. He correctly points to the role of how postmillennialism give way to premillennialism in shifting the evangelical stance toward social concerns.

Perhaps most important, prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists—that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era—a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

If politics is about the enhancement of the general welfare, then evangelicals can partner with secular forces to bring that about. But once that view is supplanted by the more pessimistic view of premillennialism in the early 20th century, then partnering becomes futile — as Don Dayton observed decades ago.

Furthermore, if society is in massive decline in its last days, then someone made that happen. I’ve written before about Lydia Bean’s book contrasting evangelical churches in New York and Ontario. People in both contexts were concerned about moral decline, but American churches blamed “liberals” and “Democrats”.

Christian Smith once characterized evangelicals as “embattled and thriving”. The sense of opposition — to liberal theologians, to political elites, to media, to progressive voices for change, to the broader culture — is endemic to evangelical thought. Its epistemology requires someone to be against. (Come to think of it, that’s something evangelicals have in common with the president!)

Gerson puts it like this:

As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

Simultaneously “in the right” and horribly besieged, evangelicals worry that their beliefs and practices could be taken away at any moment by forces specifically wishing them ill. A common theme in evangelical communication is to identify that one isolated teacher who won’t let a student write about Jesus as his hero and characterize all schools by that instance.

It is curious fact that social scientists abandoned the secularization thesis that society would lose its need for religion at about the same time that evangelicals saw society as a great threat. In spite of the persistence of religion, evangelicals have acted like the future is bleak.

Gerson correctly argues that this sense of oppression and hopelessness arises from an underdeveloped sense of political theology:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

What is missing in evangelicalism is a sound theology of the collective. We’ve gotten good at an individualized expression of faith — confess your sins, believe in Jesus, go to heaven when you die. But not so an understanding of how we relate to our neighbors, of moral conscience, of the need to behave in ways different from any other political action group.

Furthermore, there is a sense in which evangelical theology has failed in unique ways. The premillennial view of moral decline results in something akin to a deistic view of God. The lived theology, apart from the individualized version, seems to assume that God has abandoned society until such time when he will redeem it. Such a view betrays an idolatrous notion that God can’t manage our contemporary politics. That somehow the Holy Spirit no longer leads us into truth.

Instead, we pick battle lines that define who is in and who is out. And those battle lines are reinforced by organizations whose business model depends upon evangelicals being very afraid of “the other”. Gerson writes:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

This brings me back to the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It’s true that this demographic group broke in this fashion — in part due to covariants, in part due to opposition to Clinton, in part to shake up the system. But it is not clear that it was a clear sense of moral imperative or theological orientation that prompted that vote.

The good news for evangelicals in all this is that the media, political leaders, and most of society in general is looking for a theological consistency from Christians. People are indeed watching and they want our beliefs to matter. Even if they don’t see the need for religion personally, they want people of faith to be different. That’s why the claim of hypocrisy and political sycophancy is so damaging to Christian witness.

Near the end of his excellent article, Gerson points to hope:

At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.

And so it is. The solution to our evangelical political crisis is to act primarily as those who have received God’s unmerited favor and want to see that favor be extended throughout His now and not yet kingdom.



Good News about Evangelicals!!

I spent my spring break driving nearly 2,000 miles so that I could give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation. It was well worth it.

Young Clergy NetworkI drove all that way to attend the 2018 version of the Young Clergy Con sponsored by folks at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene. The organizers did a great job (as I heard they did at last year’s inaugural event).

Now, I don’t actually qualify as a member. I’m a 63 year old college professor who belongs to a UMC congregation. But this group gave me an opportunity to test the thesis of my book among those who are its subject.

As I’ve written before, my thesis is that the rhetorical frame of evangelicalism is changing. Former views based on boundary maintenance and separation (Industry Evangelicalism) give way to an evangelical approach based on story, listening, diversity, and engagement (Identity Evangelicalism).

There were careful conversations at the conference about engaging LGBTQ populations, of dealing with racial/ethnic diversity, hospitality,and acknowledging singleness. There was worship and fellowship and discussions about “institutional change from within”.

I was particularly glad to be with these innovators in light of my research project I mentioned in my previous post. Back in December, I was able to gather survey data on 470 clergy in the Church of the Nazarene who are under 40. I began unpacking that data over the last month in preparation for OKC.

There were four questions in my survey that allowed an initial test of my thesis. One dealt with how the church should respond to the changing social dynamics of same-sex marriage and transgender rights. There were four responses: a traditional response, a traditional response addressing the complexity of the conversation, a welcoming but not affirming response, and an affirming response. A second question asked if the church should maintain separation from society. A third dealt with discrimination against Christians. The fourth asked if the church should support America. The last three questions were in a strongly-agree to strongly disagree Likert format.

I scored the first question as either 1 traditional or 2 open. For the other three, I scored the questions as 1 SA/A, 2 neutral, and 3 D/SD. That gave me a scale ranging from 4 to 11. I then split the scale into two groups representing my two frames: Industry Evangelicalism (4-8) or Identity Evangelicalism (9-11). Using this scaling, 63% of my sample fell in the Industry category with the remaining 37% in the Identity Frame.

There are significant differences between the frames, The Industry folks see the changes in society over recent decades as more negative the positive while the Identity folks see the opposite. The Identity group felt that their denomination had been too cautious in responding to changes in society while the Industry group was mildly supportive.

Here’s the important point: Both groups are committed to remaining part of their denomination. Over 72% of the Identity group and 82% of the Industry group see it as important or very important to remain inside. This suggests that the changing frame is not a long term challenge to the institutional church.

It was clear from some of the first conversations at YCN that the attendees were disproportionately part of my Identity Frame. I lost track of the number of times “story” came up. There was an openness to engagement that was affirming. During the breakout times, the conversations were about how to assist the denomination move forward even though the attendees were not in positions of power (but there were some power positions in attendance and supportive).

They are not living in some post-evangelical reality. But they are trying all kinds of things to engage the world around them in its complexity in such a way as to keep the hope of the Gospel in front of people.

I got to see some old friends and make a bunch of new ones.

And for the first time in a very long time, I was optimistic about the evangelical voice within the broader society.


Black Swans, Tragedy, and the Limitations of Decision Making

When my twitter feed Wednesday afternoon broke the news of a another school shooting, I immediately prayed that the impact would be limited. As the news continued to seep out, it was clear that those prayers would shift to the families and friends who would be processing the loss of 17 lives.

It was less than a day before the recriminations began. There was a record of school disciplinary trouble. The police were called frequently about Cruz over the years. The FBI had a record of a YouTube comment in September of 2017. (Details on all this here, here, and here.) Students interviewed remember Cruz as a troubled child who acted in scary ways.

This retrospective recollection of isolated events give us some sense of comfort while also allowing us to blame someone for such senseless violence. If there was a trail of breadcrumbs that made this predictable, then we aren’t at the mercy of random events. And if someone should have been following the breadcrumb trail, then maybe there could have been an intervention through either mental health or criminal justice organizations.

Black SwanBut this search for causation is doomed to fail. Because an event like Parkland is a perfect example of the Black Swan problem in probability. Nassam Nicholas Taleb points out the difficulty of extremely rare events (from the Wikipedia entry defining Black Swan events)


1. The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities). 3. The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there were just over 24,000 public high schools in the US in the fall of 2013 enrolling just under 15 million students. In 2017, there were 9 school shooting incidents with fatalities occurring in 5 of those (a total of 15 killed). The probability of having a shooting in a given school was just under .04%. The probability of being killed was literally 1 in a million.

That is not to throw up our hands and do nothing. It is rather to point out the folly of thinking we can predict any incident. It is true in retrospect that Cruz abused animals and that police were called to his house and that he posted a random comment five months back on a YouTube page. Let me illustrate with the most mundane example.

School Shooter
Yes No
Torments Squirrels Yes

It is true that the school shooter is a Yes-Yes in my table above. But there are lots of boys who torment animals and never go on to threaten their peers. And it’s logical to argue that some of those 9 school shooters in 2017 loved all sorts of animals.

Taleb’s work influenced Daniel Kanneman’s work on how we make decisions. Kanneman finds (as summarized in Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project) that the decision rules that professionals use seem to work but are less accurate the what an algorithm would predict. It is simply not possible for the human brain to consider all of the potential variables impacting a decision.

It is unreasonable, therefore, to expect the FBI to take a random comment from 2017 and use it to pinpoint a high-risk situation. It is unreasonable to blame school officials for not doing more to see their disciplinary situation as something more than a policy decision like those made daily.

For that matter, our search for less tangible causes is equally flawed. Politicians have referred to Nicholas Cruz as “evil”, on the reasonable assumption that normal people don’t shoot their classmates.

Those who blame cultural changes (lack of respect for authority, Hollywood, athletes, video games, hip-hop music) for school shootings are no different from those looking at the abuse of animals. Such claims of correlation are countered by the millions and millions of young people who experience the same cultural changes and don’t respond violently. (These same cultural critics were praising the faith commitments of Eagles players two weeks ago.)

In fact, the reactions of those very young people — who grew up with a sense of voice, access to social media, and a remarkable aversion to BS — who may be the most positive way forward out of this horrible situation. They are dismissing easy or trite answers and calling for honest engagement of the issues of school violence.

They may not know the probabilities but they want steps put in place that will keep them safer. That may involved discussions about automatic weapons or building security. It may involve actual changes in high school culture that makes it less likely that the angry social isolate remains cut off and feeling victimized.

So the media, the politicians and the religious leaders can tie themselves in knots looking for someone to blame. I’m putting my hopes in the kinds of kids who will call out Tomi Lahren on a daily basis.

My #TimesUp Moment

I have been closely following the social transformation that is the #MeToo movement since the Weinstein story broke in October. As I wrote at the time, it has been a remarkable cultural moment that is redefining sociological mores by the day.

Naturally, I thought it was an excellent choice when Time Magazine named “the silence breakers” as their 2017 Person[s] of the Year.

Time Person

Their stories have been hard to hear, not just because nationally recognized figures were involved as both victim and perpetrator, but especially because it shines a brilliant light on the behaviors that many men in power somehow saw as acceptable workplace behavior.

As I tweeted at the time, nobody should consider “normal” Matt Lauer’s alleged behavior of locking women into his office and asking for sexual favors. How do such things happen? Our Manichean sensibilities (dividing good people from evil people) provide an easy answer but one that is incomplete. As is true with issues of criminal justice, the question is not whether or not there are “bad apples” but rather what is it in the organizational culture that makes such offenses possible by the bad apples?

My state of Michigan has been overwhelmed the last several weeks with the sentencing hearings of Larry Nassar, the sports medicine “doctor” who pled guilty to illegal genital touching of minor girls who were gymnasts under his care. He had charges in both Ingham County (Lansing) and neighboring Eaton County. Over 150 girls and women gave victim statements in the Ingham hearing and another 50 plus in Eaton (including a father who understandably tried to attack Nassar when his three daughters told their story).

In the wake of the Ingham county hearing, the Michigan State president and athletic director have resigned. There are now state and federal investigations underway to determine if there were mandatory reporters at MSU with knowledge of what was going on. The law requires certain positions to report suspected minor abuse to authorities when it becomes known to the occupant. It is quite likely that the ongoing impact of the Nassar atrocities on Michigan State’s employees (and reputation) will be more serious that what Penn State dealt with in the Jerry Sandusky offenses.

This is as it should be. Sexual harassment, abuse, and the advantages of power are not simply personal choices. They have structural relationships. To address the occurrence without looking at the levers in the system that make it work, is to move from today’s story to tomorrow’s.

To return to the criminal justice example, I heard a great interview with a retired police superintendent around the time of Ferguson or Baltimore (I can’t find the link). He suggested that the solution to fixing issues of excessive use of force among officers was simple — make the occurrence count against the promotion possibilities of the shift supervisor. If that person knew that he would be held accountable for behaviors of his officers, then he would work to make sure there were bright lines on behavior and prioritization of de-escalation training.

This systemic component of sexual harassment is why all of the articles like this one by Kathleen Parker are so wrongheaded. Titled “A #MeToo backlash is inevitable“, it argues that our real problem is that men can be accused within the media or social media and give rise to “high-tech lynch mobs” (a terrible use of a phrase since that was Clarence Thomas’ defense before his Senate hearing — he could not be confirmed today based on what he admitted to at the time).

Our reaction should not be develop a scale that charts behavior from the merely boorish and juvenile on the one hand to forcible rape on the other. The structural issues do include protections of due process but these cannot squeeze out the issues of organizational culture.

This past week, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt was reporting from the Quadrennial Forum of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. She live-tweeted some really interesting insights along the way. One of these involved comparative research on sexual assault at CCCU, other Private, and Public institutions. The good news is that CCCU schools show less likelihood of sexual asssult, especially in relationships. The absence of party and hook-up culture plays a key role. However, students and faculty at the CCCU schools report a higher level of gender-based discrimination than other schools.

(I really need to get my hands on this research. If you want to see Kate’s descriptions, her twitter handle is @kateshellnut) from which I’ve taken the above paragraph.)

The research Kate summarized underscores my larger point. The culture of our schools may well contain elements that are noxious but they don’t get played out because of restrictions on alcohol and premarital sex. If we want to change that dynamic, we have to look at the cultural precursors and not simply the abusive behavior.

Which brings me to my #TimesUp moment.

Yesterday I learned that a faculty member at an institution where I worked in the past was named in a sexual harassment suit. It’s a horrible situation alleging abuse of the counseling relationship, the pastoral relationship, and in part the professorial relationship. There appears to have been an affair, which while purportedly consensual, raises all the alarms about power imbalances and advantage.

I was the chief academic officer at that institution a decade ago. While this incident occurs well after I moved to Michigan, I knew that there were difficulties the faculty member had in relating to colleagues, students, and church people. Again, nothing rose to the level of the incident currently being reported.

And yet, I find myself in the position of the shift commander who overlooked police misbehavior. Should I have taken a harder line with regard to issues of how one relates to others? Would it matter if I exercised my authority to put the faculty member on some kind of disciplinary procedure that could either correct the precursor behaviors or see the faculty member leave the institution?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and never will. What I do know is that I need to be far more of an activist on gender issues on my current campus and across Christian Higher Education in general.

I’m sure I can identify with those Michigan State employees who had some inkling about the Nassar stories and thought that it wasn’t their place to engage.

I guess that those of us who have been in position to make a difference need to claim the #MeToo hashtag as well. It would at least remind us all that this is serious and that the problem is not going away until we address the larger system and cultural dynamics that support it.




On Holistic Christian Higher Education

On Christmas Day, the Boston Globe ran a story about a Christian investment fund manager (yes, they exist) who is starting a Christian College in the city of Boston. Thanks to Bob Smietana for bringing it to my attention.

The focus of the story is on Finny Kuruvilla, who has both a medical degree and a PhD from Harvard. As a resident assistant while at Harvard, he observed the standard problems of college life both socially and academically. To his credit, he is putting $30 million of his own money to do something about it. He envisions a college that would avoid many of those issues.

Screen shot from Boston Globe. Photo by Jonathan Wiggs of the Globe staff.

The story reports describes Kuruvilla’s vision for the new Sattler College:

The new four-year school is his attempt to start from a blank slate. He said his goals are threefold: to teach a strong core of liberal arts courses, provide students with a Christian community, and keep the cost extremely low. Tuition will be $9,000 per year, about a fifth of the cost of a typical private college.

Sattler’s mission will be to “prepare students to serve Christ, the church, and the world.” That will be accomplished, the story reports, in what the founder sees as a unique academic approach:

The faculty will teach some core courses in biblical languages and religious history, but many academic courses will be taken online. Students will watch lectures through free online learning platforms such as EdX, then attend classes to discuss the material with other students and professors. Faculty, who will be named later, will also mentor the students spiritually, Kuruvilla said.

It will operate as a commuter institution, offering classes in an office building and having no college housing.

Here is my response to the story.

First, I want to be clear that I commend Dr. Kuruvilla for his passion, commitment, and philanthropy. It is very impressive to see someone move beyond the standard critique of modern higher education and actually put himself at risk to make a difference in what he sees.

But as a number of colleagues across the country have pointed out in response to the story, this is not really a new model (except for the use of the EdX courses — more on that later).

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has a North American membership of over 150 regionally accredited institutions. According to the CCCU website, there are nearly 320 thousand students enrolled in these institutions each year which puts the number of alumni in the tens of millions. Furthermore, their stated mission is “advancing faith and intellect for the common good”. Some variation on that theme can be found by reviewing the webpages of the member institutions. The sentiments you’d find on those pages would read exactly like Sattler’s mission statement.

Christian colleges and universities do not segment the life of the mind from the essence of Christian discipleship; character formation, spiritual development, and academic rigor characterize these institutions. I have served in five such institutions and have friends serving at similar institutions across the country. While each school may pursue the balance between those three central thrusts differently, and we all have moments where are students fall short on one or more of them, it is a commitment evident in each institution.

Dr. Kuruvilla is correct that having Christian faculty who can mentor students through their transition for home of origin to the society at large is crucial. But there are others engaged in that effort as well: student life professionals, resident assistants, athletic teams, and friends in the residence hall. This is especially important for students like the young man from Ohio mentioned in the story who wants to pursue a degree but doesn’t want his faith broken by his educational journey. Character formation occurs throughout the totality of a Christian college experience.

While I have never been a fan of the phrase “the integration of faith and learning”, there is something to be valued in Christian faculty members who engage the academic material alongside their students. We think carefully about which texts are appropriate for where our students are and, more importantly, about how to walk with them as they process that information. This is not something that happens in a discussion session following a series of online videos. It is part of the daily walk alongside students as I try to model how Christian sociologists think about the world.

The model suggested appears likely to engage in more of an apologetic response. The student would watch a popular lecturer from a university across the world and then debrief with a faculty member thereafter. Given that the faculty will be drawn from fields of biblical languages and religious history, it seems probable that the discussion will center around “what did we think of that as Christians?”.

The attempt to keep costs low for students in commendable and $9,000 is an attractive price point. Two things stand out from this. First, I assume the students would need to find housing and work in Boston — certainly someone moving from Ohio to study at Sattler will face those expenses. This makes the actual costs of attending significantly higher (except for those already living in the Boston area).

Second, as with most critiques of private higher education, this model seems to miss the role of tuition discounting. At many institutions, including mine, the actual after scholarship costs of attendance run about $17,000 (room and board are extra). But the $17,000 (even for commuters) provides resources for study support, community life, career advising, counseling, intercollegiate and intramural sports, clubs, service opportunities, mission trips, and the like. These are not incidental to the mission effectiveness of a Christian university. They, along with classroom interactions with Christian faculty, are the laboratories in which that mission is accomplished. The differential costs when measured against benefits seems much more reasonable.

It is often difficult to get venture capitalists like Dr. Kuruvilla to see the value in established entities rather than start-ups. But an investment in the lives of those 320 thousand students already committed to combining academic rigor with mature Christian character in order to serve as Ambassadors to the world for Christ (as my university’s president likes to put it) would seem to pay much larger dividends over the long run.

Evangelical Identity and Team Jerseys

Something of a cottage industry has develop in recent years attempting to identify American Evangelicalism, primarily among white adherents, and to see what connections those definitional schemes have on other social and political matters. Most notably among those couching their analysis in actual social science data are the Religion and Public Life arm of the Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), LifeWay Research, and the Barna Group. Add to that group numerous polling agencies that now ask whether subjects are evangelicals as a regular subgroup screen (equivalent to segmenting responses by gender or educational level). Then there are the political scientists investigating voting behavior or attitudes toward policy options and the religious historians exploring the intellectual pedigrees of modern evangelical thought.

In spite of the good work of the scholars behind these various efforts (many of whom have a great deal of sympathy with an evangelical viewpoint), it is surprising how little we actually know about who the evangelicals are. The various approaches yield some valuable insights, but like Kipling’s story of the blind men and the elephant, each approach leaves one feeling that something is missing.

There are three primary approaches to survey research on who qualifies as evangelical: self-identification, denominational identification, and theological orthodoxy. In each approach, there are concomitant variables to be considerer: religious practice, voting behavior, attitudes toward “culture war” issues.

Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election cycle relied upon the self-identification question. Respondents were asked if they were “born-again or evangelical”. As has been widely reported, 81% of those white voters who responded affirmatively voted for President Trump. This was especially telling in light of a PRRI finding that the percentage of evangelicals who thought that the moral failings of a candidate would not impact his/her leadership shifted from 30% to 70% between 2011 and 2017 {Galston, 2016 #622}.

The denominational approach to defining evangelicals was developed by the Pew Research Center. In their surveys, respondents are asked to identify the church body they are associated with. The interviewers prompt for more specifics and the church bodies are then collapsed into a broad category Pew calls Religious Tradition (RELTRAD). It is on the basis of this categorization that Pew’s Religious Landscape Surveys give the percentage (but not number) of evangelicals in America. In 2014, evangelicals made up 25.4% of the religious landscape, down slightly from 26.3% seven years earlier {Center, 2015 #623}. This was notable because other religious groups showed much larger percentage losses over that period (all changes in percentage were driven by the nearly 7% increase in unaffiliated over the same period). The relative stability of evangelicalism by religious tradition encouraged some Industry Evangelical leaders to proclaim that this was a win of “Real Christians” over “Cultural Christians”.

The theological approach to measuring evangelicals has primarily(?) come from the Barna Group or LifeWay research. Focusing on belief rather than either self-identification or denominational affiliation, this approach stipulates a set of beliefs that the researchers believe constitutes evangelicalism and then sees how many respondents agree with the full list. The Barna approach uses a nine-point scale, asking respondents to affirm a belief in Jesus as savior, a personal confession of sins, biblical inerrancy, the existence of Satan, salvation through grace, the necessity of witnessing, God’s omnipotence, that Jesus was without sin, and that religion is important. This more limited approach yields only 8% of Americans classified as evangelicals, which may be a function of the particular theological perspective of the researchers. The LifeWay approach attempts to model belief on David Bebbington’s four-fold definition of evangelicalism: the necessity of conversion, the sufficiency of Jesus, the authority of scripture, and the obligation to evangelize. LifeWay (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) found that roughly 12% qualify as “evangelicals by belief” using their criteria.

Each of these three approaches has serious difficulties. First of all, there is no way of validating the self-identification measure. In analyzing the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey data, I find that 21% of self-identified evangelicals attend church services less than once a month. While one might argue that this was a function of older respondents having more difficulty attending church, examining the generational cohorts separately doesn’t change the percentages at all (ranges from 18% for the Silent generation to 23% for Baby Boomers). Secondly, the self-identification of born-again or evangelical appears to be confounded with a number of other variables. Exit poll data regularly distinguishes between varieties of subgroups among the voting public: gender, educational level, race/ethnicity, and region of the country to name just a few. Yet the interactions between those variables pose significant challenges to figure out exactly what “evangelicals” believe. For example, I looked at the relationships between claiming the born-again identity and identifying as Republican. While just under half (49%) of the overall born-again population claimed to be Republican, there was considerable variation across the subgroups. Only 35% of Midwestern women with no college experience said they were Republicans while nearly 55% of Southern male college grads claimed the same. The question remains as to whether the identity of evangelical may be secondary to the number of other factors impacting individual votes and/or social positions. So while the 81% figure claiming evangelical support for Trump (or for Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election) is true, it is not clear that this support comes because the respondents are born-again evangelicals.

There are also problems inherent with the religious tradition approach. First, it is not clear that individuals place the same meaning on the labels within RELTRAD that the researchers do. It is useful to contrast the self-identified evangelical question among white respondents with that of the religious tradition from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data. Doing so shows two surprising facts: roughly 15% of respondents from evangelical churches according to RELTRAD do not claim the evangelical self-identification and roughly 40% of the self-identified evangelicals are part of churches categorized as Mainline, Catholic or Black Protestant traditions. Furthermore, in an era of decreased commitment to denominationalism (References) it is not clear that denomination remains a salient variable (with the possible exception of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, and Black Protestant traditions). The same regional and community variations that exist in the individual level data likely exist within congregations as well. An evangelical church according to RELTRAD from a high-education suburban area may be more progressive than a mainline church in the rural south. As Lydia Bean demonstrated in The Politics of Evangelical Identity, there are a host of factors operating within the local congregation that shape individual perceptions on issues of politics and morality. Even in the absence of a top-down denominational approach, the subculture of the local congregation can foster the adoptions of certain political positions as a means of conformity and in-group identity. It is quite likely that these local factors are more significant (while being extremely difficult to evaluate) than denominational categorization.

The third approach, theological, has its own set of problems. While the attempt to examine theology as an independent variable has a long tradition in the sociology of religion dating back to Charles Glock in the 1960s, it has proven difficult to operationalize. As stated earlier, attempts to define theological distinctives in ways that allow sufficient nuance to capture actual individual belief have been wanting. Too often, these measures reflect the theological orientations of the researchers themselves, seeking to demonstrate the percentage of the population that meets their pre-established criteria. Furthermore, the specific questions often suffer from vagueness on the one hand (LifeWay on Bible and decision-making) or too much limitation (Barna’s requirement to believe in a literal Satan). More importantly, we really don’t know enough about how theology operates in individual decision-making. It is quite possible that individuals can affirm agreement with theological positions that would characterize them as being evangelical and yet NOT use those theological formulations when making other judgments. In another analysis based on the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data, I tried to evaluate the relationships between certain religious variables (including the self-identification as evangelicals) and certain conservative policy positions. Building upon an analysis from Gallup in 2017, I selected only white self-identified Republicans to see how evangelical Republicans might differ from their non-evangelical counterparts. I found that on issues I labeled as culture war positions (opposition to abortion, disagreement with same sex marriage, concern about out of wedlock births, and fears of moral relativity), the evangelicals were markedly more conservative. And yet on issues I labeled as standard conservative positions (belief in small government, that welfare creates dependency, that immigration is harmful, and that environmental focus costs jobs) there was no appreciable difference at all. On those issues, evangelicals were simply acting as Republicans. It is possible that the respondents were working through detailed theological consideration of why they supported small government, but it is far more likely that they were simply following conservative talking points, what Amy Sullivan described in an article on the impact of Fox News on evangelicalism.

Given this analysis, it seems clear that we have very little idea who evangelicals are, where they go to church (if they do), what they believe, or what difference those potential beliefs make in the larger world. Perhaps the best way of thinking about evangelicals is to think of them as a group of people supporting a particular identity, not unlike the fans of a sports team.


Some people may really like the Boston Celtics because they grew up in the Northeast or because the family loved the Celtics. So they buy the jerseys and follow the scores. They are happy when the Celtics win and frustrated in the rebuilding years. But the star player can get traded to the Golden State Warriors and they simply adjust to the new player who took his place, buying a new jersey next time they can. In this sense, their loyalty is to the idea of the Celtics more than to any actual Celtics.

In the same sense, then, I would argue that everyday evangelical are attracted to the idea of being known as an evangelical. To be a person who takes the Bible seriously. To react negatively about a variety of social changes in recent decades, being what Robert Jones of PRRI referred to as “nostalgia voters”. To stand in opposition to “liberals” or “secularists” in much the same way a Celtics fan might rabidly dislike the Cavaliers. To have Donald Trump elected president is seen as a win for the team.

This would suggest that much of the various thought pieces on what role evangelicals are playing in the broader culture are well-intentioned but generally inconclusive. There is simply too much variability around the concept of evangelicalism. For those who question whether the term “evangelical” has outlived its value, the answer may be that it’s always been something like a jersey one puts on. We won’t find a lot of meaning in what everyday evangelicals mean by the concept.