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The “Evolving Faith” Conference and Permeable Evangelicals

Readers of this blog know that I am working on a book exploring a shift in evangelicalism toward what I am calling Permeable Evangelicalism. This group of evangelicals is committed to cultural engagement, places a high value on diversity, is very active on social media, and critiques the institutional weaknesses of the evangelical church in search of better discipleship of Jesus.

So when I learned last spring that Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey were cohosting a gathering in Montreat, NC I knew I had to go and that it would be important for the book. So I cancelled plans to go to Las Vegas (for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference) and bought tickets.  I hadn’t anticipated (and neither had the hosts) that the Evolving Faith Conference would be attended by close to 1400 people with hundreds more watching the livestream.

The promotional materials for the conference described it as “a two-day gathering for the wanderers, wonderers, status quo upenders, and spiritual refugees to discover that you are not alone.” Attendees were encouraged that they would “engage your questions”, “reclaim your faith”, and “expand your worldview.”

With such a broad invitation, it was not surprising to find a crowd representing a variety of interests and positions. While most were younger, there were a surprising number of attendees in their 50s and older. I was told that there were more men than normally happens at conferences like this and many couples (straight and gay) were in attendance. While the speakers reflected more diversity than was true in the audience, that was addressed by the organizers and there were important messages from the platform that served to diversify the worldview of those in the audience.

The weather presented a challenge as a day-long persistent rain disrupted parking plans. The conference started nearly 90 minutes late and struggled to keep up with the logistics of travel, food, restrooms, and book signings for such a large crowd. Remarkably, the audience remained understanding (with some occasional social media complaining) — even when the food trucks ran out of coffee!

Speakers were organized into six sessions over the two days. Each speaker attempted to follow a 20 minute TED-talk format. The sessions ended with a general conversation among the participants. Each day ended with a general Q&A from the audience.


The first morning opened with Jonathan Martin offering a word from 2 Kings. This is the passage where Elisha allows his servant to see that they are surrounded by God’s armies and chariots of fire. This theme was picked up by Sarah and Rachel who both reminded attendees that they weren’t alone in their journey. Sarah observed that the temptation people face in the midst of change is either to pretend everything is fine or to “burn it all down.” She suggested that Love was a better way. Rachel talked of how cave fish evolve in response to their environment, losing their pigment and their eyes but develop other traits. This evolution, she said, was not about superiority but survivability. So an evolving faith is not a weak faith but one that endures in the face of new conditions.

The second session focused on how people navigate their journeys. Jeff Chu shared his story of transition including his coming out in a conservative Chinese Christian family. A writer and Princeton Theological Seminary student who works at “The Farmenary”, he shared insights on our need for a “robust theology of compost.” When things die, they actually present the ingredients for new life (as processed through the biology of earthworms). Jeff had all participants write a deep fear on a slip of paper. He had these collected and yesterday added them all to the Farmenary compost pile. Jen Hatmaker “used to be the darling of white evangelical culture.” Once she admitted two years ago that she had become LGBTQ affirming, that ended. She reflected on the exile from the gates and what life looks like on the outside. She took months trying to stay below the radar. When she began exploring the wilderness territory, she found many more people there than she expected. She said “our faith isn’t evolving because we’re contrarians but because we’re following Jesus.”

The third session focused on issues of faith and family. Oshetta Moore, Cindy Wang Brandt, and Kathy Escobar each reflected on how to navigate faith transitions with children present. Oshetta spoke of the need to put Shalom at the center of our engagement. She told a compelling story of how she had to confront an adult who had called her son a racial epithet. She spoke of the need to remember that adult as one of God’s beloved, to imagine the adult’s backstory and hold that. She still reported to authorities but was committed not to demonize the other. Cindy is the sponsor of the Raising Children Unfundamentalist Facebook group. She spoke of the need to narrate one’s faith journey in appropriate ways in front of one’s children and shared the challenge of Sunday School programs with White Jesus on the cover. Kathy challenged the audience to pursue “healthy, free, independent relationships.” A focus on identity development with grace toward those in more institutional systems is key.

The fourth session focused on the Bible with Peter Enns, Mike McHargue (Science Mike), Cheryl Bridges Johns, and Wil Gafney. Pete discussed the various ways in which the Bible itself evolves. The understandings of the scripture authors represent new approaches from those who had written earlier. The issue is not, “should we reimagine God” but “how do we reimagine God well.” Science Mike pointed out that science isn’t a worldview but a matter of observable fact. Those facts can tell us that climate change is real but not what to do about it.  (I had to take a phone call that lasted through all of Mike’s address but this is what others have told me.) Cheryl said that the primary nature and ontology of the Bible is about New Creation. It is not simply spirit or word but SpiritWord, not subjective or objective but transjective. Wil called for an appreciation of a “womanist” approach to scripture — how scripture works from the perspective of marginalized women. She spent her time taking the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” examining the realities of all of the women involved in the stories of the patriarchs and the ways in which this shifts our understanding of God’s work with the people. She ended by saying that “the patriarchal fairy tale glosses over real work events.”

The second day opened with Kaitlin Curtice helping us acknowledging the reality of the land. We recognized the native tribes that had previously inhabited the lands we now inhabit. Nobody “owned” the land. The sun brings light, warmth, and good. (I was impressed that she avoided the Jesus-juke of switching sun to Son!).

Session Five featured Austin Channing Brown, Sandra Van Opstal, and Nish Wieseth and centered on the pursuit of justice. Austin presented a remarkable interpretation of  the story of Rizpah from 2 Samuel 21. Her sons had been killed because they were Saul’s and their bodies left to fester as a statement. She pursued justice, even for the dead, by placing herself with the bodies and refusing to move. Her anger was not destructive but instructive. Religious notions of piety and decorum will not stop the pursuit of justice. “I’m getting on this mountain until the dignity of every black life is honored.” Sandra observed that too much of what we have known as evangelicalism in America is tied up in culture and individualism. She observed that the concern over “what will happen to the church” ignores the fact that American Christianity is but a small percentage of world-wide Christianity. That pentecostalism is seen as strange in the US but is dominant in the southern hemisphere. She offered a remarkable critique of the individualism of American culture, rewriting the praise chorus “The Heart of Worship” as “It’s all about me and how I feel when I sing about you, Jesus”. Nish talked about our obligations on the political front. We need to step into the gap on behalf of those without power. We have ignored their voices for too long. “if we are not submitting ourselves to the leadership, experience, authority, and wisdom of the margins, we CANNOT be truly formed into the image of Jesus. It is impossible.”

The last session explored faith and the arts and featured Propaganda, Audrey Assad, and A’Driane Nieves. Hip-hop artist Propaganda described how we are culture makers, drawing on the classic work of Peter Berger to explore how we are simultaneously shaped by culture while we are trying to change it (he referred to it as “terraforming”). He pointed out the differences between what is marketable (Michael Jackson) and what speaks truth (Prince). Audrey described the challenges of growing up in a fundamentalist church and experiencing abuse. It raised issues of religious OCD. She discussed internalizing the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (“it should have been me”). Loving herself and her body is about the pursuit of justice because it connects her to other bodies. Her music is a way that this happens. A’Driane spoke of the need to truly see ourselves. She has a story of abuse and exclusion in a Christian college. As an abstract artist, she has moved from intellect to intuition, trying things that are different. She spoke of resilience and that the only thing that is fragile is your ego.

There was another group Q&A session and the conference closed with communion. I had decided to make it halfway back to Michigan Saturday night so I left before the Q&A but what I saw on social media told me that these were meaningful moments of closure.

So how was this received and what did it say about Permeable Evangelicalism? Based on conversations over meals and a review of Facebook and Twitter comments, people had varied expectations for the conference. Some wanted to know how this impacted their weekly church life. Others wondered why there was so much Christian talk and not more exploration of other aspects of faith and spirituality. Some were quick to call out a lack of empathy in some comments or music.

Friday morning I had a fruitful conversation with John Seel, the author of The New Copernicans. He was discussing the distinction between a Bounded Set and a Centered Set, preferring the latter to my notions of Permeable Evangelicalism. But reflecting on the two days, I’m drawn to Jen Hatmaker’s reflections on the journey into the wilderness that involves finding that there are others also there. It made me think that perhaps Permeable Evangelicalism is on its way toward a centered set but not yet there. Perhaps future conversations like this last weekend will allow us to see where that center lies without focusing on simply protecting new boundaries.

NOTE: During the conference I was trying to take good notes, tweet meaningful moments, and track Facebook and Twitter feeds about the conference (it was mentally exhausting). Given all that, it’s possible that I have misrepresented comments made by speakers. I encourage other attendees, and especially the speakers, to let me know where I need to correct my recollections. 

“Debunking” the 81%?

This week Christianity Today reported on research sponsored by the Billy Graham Center and conducted by LifeWay Research. Titled “Why Evangelicals Voted Trump: Debunking the 81%,” it reported on data from 3,000 respondents.  These respondents were analyzed in three groups: evangelicals by belief (EBB), self-identified evangelicals (SIE), and non-evangelicals.


It’s hard to work backwards from infographics like this one, especially since we don’t have the racial and ethnic breakdowns from within each group. Not knowing the size of each group listed at the bottom of the infographic makes it hard to make sense of the 1 in 3 whites voting against Clinton or 1 in 4 blacks voting against Trump. The 1 in 5 evangelicals who didn’t vote is hard to reconcile with the other data — it looks like they are removed from the 58% figure (since the totals on that statistic add to 100%).

One thing that stands out immediately is that 77% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. While it’s true that this is less than 81%, it’s not really a lot to shout about. As Daniel Jose Camacho observed in Sojourners, including all evangelicals by belief regardless of race or ethnicity seems quite problematic.

The CT article states that Pew found that 1 in 3 evangelicals were nonwhite. If we assume the same breakdown among the 1,064 evangelicals by belief (EBB), that means roughly 350 were nonwhite. If 77% of the white EBB group voted Trump, then 20% of the nonwhite group would have voted Trump to get to 58%. This suggests a much larger black population (9%) than hispanic or other (40%+), given the infographic. (NOTE: This would be much easier to figure out if LifeWay shared their data, which they don’t.)

CT LW Methods

Other problems arise in the methodology section. The story opens telling us that they sampled 3,000 people but the total of the three groups comes to over 3,800. I would assume that there is some measure of overlap between the EBB group and the SIE group. In other words, some people qualified as EBB only, some as SIE only, and some as both.

The primary focus on the analysis is on the EBB group, although there are some comparisons made. As Tim Gloege observed on twitter, there are many LGBTQ people or socialists who could affirm the four statements described. Since we don’t have access to the actual question wording, it’s hard to make sense of exactly what people are agreeing to. That, of course, assumes that people read questions carefully (not doing so runs the risk of being accused a heretic).

There is a larger problem for me in the study: the assumption that evangelical beliefs inform political decisions. As I have written many times on this site, my Occam’s Razor answer to this question is that many white evangelicals have long been Republicans. What motivated their voting behavior? Their party preference.


That’s the biggest takeaway from the bar charts on the left hand side of this graphic. The differences between EBB, SIE, and non-evangelicals only stand out on a handful of issues: personal character of the candidate, abortion, and religious liberty. (NOTE 2: Not knowing what the question asked makes this impossible to unpack. It’s not clear if the assumption is that “position on” means agreement with my position. “Promises of taxes” makes me think that there was other wording involved.)

I don’t mean that as an attack on CT, BGC, or LifeWay. It’s quite likely that the average respondent didn’t mobilize their evangelical beliefs when answering questions about taxes or the vice president.

It’s also difficult to evaluate the chart when respondents were asked to identify “their single most important reason”. That’s not how most people make political decisions, preferring a constellation of more of less consistent views (although we are capable of remarkable cognitive dissonance).

Not knowing the questions also makes it difficult to unpack the right hand side of the graphic. It is true that 13% of white EBBs saw immigration as their most important issue. So did 14% of hispanic EBBs. It’s hard to fathom that both groups meant the same thing.

In summary, there is value in trying to understand what motivates evangelical voters in national elections. But this needs to be done not to explain away a troublesome talking point.

What is needed instead is a careful exploration of whether people of faith are mobilizing their theological commitments, how those methods vary be the measures of evangelicalism, and how people evaluate the real choices between real candidates.

I have colleagues in sociology, political science, and history who are very interested in the exploration of these questions. It would be so valuable if we were all working together with agreed-upon methodology and shared data. That is, if we really want to understand what motivates evangelical voters beyond party, fear, and power.

Some random thoughts after yesterday’s Kavanaugh hearingsp

Getty Images from The Weekly Standard

Like a lot of people, I spent yesterday morning in front of my television watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. I spent yesterday afternoon watching and then listening to Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony (had to get some work done!). In the midst of both, I was tracking twitter to see how others were responding.

It will be a while before we can really make sense of the whiplash of yesterday’s emotions, so I’m sharing some tentative reactions.

  1. It was fascinating to see how Dr. Ford had used her academic training in a therapeutic manner. The moment she talked about how pain is captured in the hippocampus, I recognized how important her training had been for her. When she told of her struggles in early years at UNC, it allows us to think that her pursuit of psychology was a means of grace for her. As a psychologist, she was both answering questions and being very cognizant of what was happening to her system in the midst of the whole terrifying experience.
  2. Telling one’s story brings it to consciousness even after 36 years. When Dr. Ford said that “the raucous laughter” was the one thing that remained, you could see in her demeanor and expression that she was literally hearing that laughter. This works for Kavanaugh as well. Every time he told the story of focusing on school, sports, church, and friends you could see him reconstruct his 17 year old persona. Drinking was minimized, normalized, and put in passive language. Any suggestion of that behavior negatively impacting others was seen through that reconstructed persona.
  3. She was 15 years old. I don’t think we talked about this enough. News coverage talked of “the accuser” and of the hearings as some conflict between adult individuals, that’s not what happened in 1982. He was two years older and a football player. Being at the gathering (not party) would be thrilling. If they had been in Michigan rather than Maryland, even consensual sexual intercourse at a party would qualify as statutory rape. Maryland’s law sets the age of consent at 15. Regardless of the legal issues, the developmental issues are significant. Working with college students as I do, I know how 18 year olds are still a work in process. That two year gap between a sophomore and senior in high school is huge. Add in the fact that he’s a popular athlete from the country club and the line between consent and exploitation gets very fuzzy.
  4. Social Class Implications are Huge. One of the things the last two weeks shined a light on was the life of economically privileged young people. Life centered on elite private schools, the country club, and parties. According to Kavenaugh, the parties happened on weekends. Reporting on Mark Judge’s book suggests that drinking was fairly frequent even when they weren’t at “parties”. They know that they are headed to Yale or Harvard, so academic struggles are not as significant. They go to Beach Week (just to enjoy the water, we’re told). In his own reflections on yesterday’s hearings, Jacob Lupfer wrote in Religion News Service, “Politically,  white conservative Christians have been invaluable to the country club wing of the Republican Party, which put their zeal to work to end an era of social progress on civil rights, economic equality and fiscal health.” This is a great point, but the reality is that the country club crowd has looked at evangelicals as slightly more welcome than the Beverly Hillbillies especially in the early 1980s.
  5. Male Entitlement and Female Response. This is a consistent theme across the various accusations raised against Judge Kavanaugh. The men at the gatherings thought they could act however they wanted. The women were literally victims. This sense of entitlement is larger than just sexual behaviors or insensitive comments. It connects this incident to the Catholic priest scandals. It links to sexual abuse in the evangelical church. Two weeks ago at RNA, I heard a remarkable presentation on #MeToo in the religious world. Vonda Dyer, the subject of the first Willow Creek story in the Chicago Tribune, told her story. It sounded very much like Dr. Ford’s testimony yesterday. Also on this panel was a United Methodist Bishop, who still has to deal with harassment issues AS A BISHOP. Or consider the situation where Andy Savage as a youth minister pressures Jules Woodson for oral sex. The prior issue, before any sexual overture, is the idea that thee men have a right to do what they did. We’ve seen the same story from Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., and others. Of course, hearing Judge Kavanaugh’s indignant responses yesterday made clear that entitlement is the larger issue.
  6. Instrumentality as a Central Value.  This is one of the sharp take-aways from yesterday. Poor Dr. Ford was acting as a witness, trying to tell her story. Nearly everybody else was pursuing instrumental goals. They were attempting to use the hearing as a means of advancing a political agenda. Democrats wanted to make salient points to impact the electorate. Republicans wanted to make sure they got their Justice on the Supreme Court. The President wanted a win. This is why the contrast between Ford and Kavanaugh’s sessions was so jarring. Instrumentality is also tied up in the Marist poll finding that 48% of white evangelicals said they supported Kavanaugh even if Ford’s accusations were accurate. Having a justice on the Court who will address issues of religious freedom/protections, abortion, and same-sex marriage was worth it to accept bad behavior. For that matter, the support that Bill Hybels initially received and Andy Savage’s standing ovation both show instrumental values — whatever happened before is acceptable as long as we get success. This is why the PRRI data in fall 2016 found that only 30% of white evangelicals thought personal morality was a key factor in the presidential election.

It is impossible to gauge the impact of yesterday on our political establishment and general culture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that yesterday brought lots of stories to light for the first time (including the 76 year-old C-Span caller who shared her story for the first time). We saw the exercise of raw political power to achieve desired ends. It’s possible that we have now seen the fragmenting of the third branch of government, the one that is supposed to “call balls and strikes”.

It’s possible that we will look back on yesterday and find that it was just another crisis in our ongoing political sideshow. But I think it’s more likely that we will be talking about late September of 2018 for years to come.

Linking Sociology of Religion and Religion Journalism

I have followed religion writers on Twitter for years. I find their stories wonderful illustrations for classes and significant building blocks for my own research. Being on sabbatical this fall, and finding that the Religion News Association Conference was in fairly close Columbus, Ohio, I asked my friend Bob Smietana if it would be worth my time and money to join RNA and go to the conference. Bob was enthusiastic in his encouragement, so I took the plunge.

Religion News Association I’m very glad that I went. It was wonderful to interact in person with people I had only interacted with 280 characters at a time. They were remarkably welcoming in spite of my lack of journalistic bona fides. I told people how my parents met on the Butler University newspaper staff, so there’s that.

The conference sessions themselves dealt with a variety of important topics. Religious establishment and religious freedom, responses to gun violence, immigration and sanctuary, #MeToo in the church, religious nones, religion in science fiction, and others topics were seriously engaged. Most of these were plenary sessions, which gave people the common points of conversation that are often lacking in my normal conferences.

Sitting through the presentations, it became clear to me how sociology asks slightly different questions than a straight journalistic treatment would allow. When dealing with the trauma of gun violence and how churches might respond, I had questions about the distribution of gun violence in schools and churches and the challenge of preparing for such remarkably rare events. In hearing Vonda Dyer tell the story of her abuse by Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels (as covered first by Manya Brachear Pashman in the Chicago Tribune), I talked with her about the secondary abuse generated by a congregation’s show of support for the accused leader (standing ovations given in support of mild statements of regret). In hearing from the two dominant religion research sources (Pew and PRRI), I had questions the went deep below the top-line summaries.

The journalists’ views were on telling deep and true stories. The sanctuary presentation involved a pastor of a church that has allowed a woman to live in his church for nearly a year, a local immigration activist, and a national religion immigration activist. Centering the story on the mother and the church was a needed view that stands in contrast to national discussions of numbers and policy and court decisions. When Bryan Alexander read from his book Glass House (see my blog post on it here) about Lancaster Ohio, a rich story of how the financial changes of the last three decades impacted real people in a real town became clear.

The religion journalists — even though operating across the country, many as the only religion reporter in their workplace — build solidarity at conferences like this. Maybe even more than we have in sociology because everyone regardless of beat shares a common view that religion stories are important and worth telling. We had networking breaks five times a day and open seating at the sponsored lunches. Meeting new people and having follow-ups on earlier conversations was really wonderful.

One of the reasons I went to Columbus was to talk to religion journalists about my book project on the shifting nature of evangelicalism. I did so with some serious trepidation as I might get the dreeaded “already done that” response. But I was pleased that nearly everyone I talked to not only thought that the thesis has value but that they would look forward to reading the book whenever it comes out.

I also got to talk to people about issues in Christian Higher Education, the linkages between evangelicalism and partisanship, and balancing religious freedom claims with LGBTQ non-discrimination. I realized that one of the hidden values of teaching at a liberal arts institution is that it requires me to be a generalist knowing a little bit about a number of broad trends.

Saturday night was the RNA awards banquet. Because religion reporting also requires some generalization, the audience seemed to know everyone else’s work. Recognition was given to honorary mention, third, second, and first place winners in a variety of categories. Recipients were able to reflect on their honor and their craft to enthusiastic response from their peers. While I only knew a few of those stories given my twitter habits, I had my share of “I loved that piece” moments.

While sociologists of religion and religion journalists have somewhat different approaches and questions, there is still a tremendous affinity. While I haven’t been to a lot of family reunions in my life (we have small families), Columbus felt like hanging out with a bunch of cousins that sort of know you but you only get to connect with occasionally. Even though I was from that “other branch of the family”, they made me feel welcome.

I’ll probably do RNA again, especially after the book comes out. These are good people who care about the stories they tell and it was wonderful to hang out for a few days.

The New Pew Religious Typology: What’s the Impact of Church?

This week the Pew Research Center released a new piece of work that supplements the data on American religion they’ve been working on for years. Using the statistical technique of cluster analysis, they analyzed several recent surveys to see if respondents could be categorized on a number of variables at the same time. This avoids the single question analysis and suggests that there are different kinds of religious expression in America. While their typology isn’t definitive, it provides some interesting insights and raises important questions.

I spent some time — when I could have been working on my book — trying to get my head around the new typology. I worked through what they call the Full Report, focusing particularly on the more religious end of the spectrum.

They identify seven orientations in their typology, ranging from most religious to most secular. They label these Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religiously Resisters, and Solidly Secular.


It’s important to recognize that the typologies are not the same size. Just under a quarter of respondents (24%) fall in the Sunday Stalwart category. The two highly religious but not practicing groups make up another 14%. The two spiritual categories account for 29% and the two secular categories for 33%. As a result, even though it appears that similar percentages of the first two types identify as evangelicals, the picture is a little different when you look across the rows.

I took the average breakdown of the typology of respondents across the four waves of the survey and multiplied by the percent evangelical. That gives me approximately 22% of the overall sample identifying as evangelicals, pretty close to what Pew has referenced before. Of those 22%, 50% are Sunday Stalwarts, 16% are God and Country Believers, 17% are Relaxed Religious, and 14% are Spiritually Awake. Granted, this is dependent upon the somewhat fuzzy evangelical self-identification but is still informative.

Given the recent excellent scholarship by Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues on Christian Nationalism, the contrast between Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country Believers caught my attention. As the following chart shows, the primary difference between the two groups involves church attendance (and small groups).


Sunday Stalwarts report a rate of weekly church attendance over three times higher than the God and Country folks. But the striking thing to me is the general similarity they have on a number of other issues. They are similar on Biblical literalism, on God, on heaven, and on hell, There are minor differences on views of church, importance of religion, and prayer. Somewhat striking is that the God and Country folks are much more likely to say that believing in God is necessary to be moral.

The following chart shows this similarity in graphic form.

BeliefsWhile for some of these issues, the Diversely Devout are similar to the God and Country people, for many there is very little space between the position of the Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country types.

So perhaps the difference between Sunday Stalwarts and God and Country Believers is more demographic than simply belief. The next chart explores that possibility.

Demographics While there are some minor differences between the first two groups, the overall patterns seems very similar. Both groups are White, Female, Middle-Class or less, Over 50, and Republican. The Diversely Devout are different in makeup from the other two.

So what does this tell us?

First, the God and Country Believers appear to be fairly orthodox in belief even though they are less likely to attend church. Surveys that simply look to correlate belief patterns with other outcome variables (as I have done) will not be able to pull apart these two groups.

Second, and more importantly, it raises significant questions about the impact of church involvement. If 82% of the Sunday Stalwarts attend church weekly or more, shouldn’t that show up somehow in the other variables? There is a major difference between the two groups on importance of religion, but that seems to be largely circular — people who attend church think religion is important and attending demonstrates that importance.

Shouldn’t being involved in a local congregation provide a significant religious foundation that makes those who attend appear markedly different from those who do not? In this period where religious commitment is tied up in supporting a specific view of the political landscape, the similarity between the Sunday Stalwarts and the God and Country Believers should cause every pastor to think seriously about what they will do with the 20-45 minutes of the Sunday Sermon.


Evangelical Clergy Perceptions of Religious Discrimination

I’m attending the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings in Philadelphia. It’s been a great time connecting with old friends and meeting twitter friends in real life. Yesterday I presented on some data I gathered as part of my book project. Here’s a summary of the presentation.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held an event announcing a new task force on religious freedom in front of representatives from the Little Sisters of the Poor, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, and the Alliance for Defending Freedom. As the Religion New Service reported Sessions said that “he is creating a religious liberty task force to challenge what he called a dangerous movement ‘eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.'”

Such a reference to “a dangerous movement” is confusing in light of other indicators. Consider that a week later, Vice President Pence made remarks about the creation of the Space Force and closed those remarks by referring to God’s protections and paraphrased several passages of scripture.

And yet the notion of religious discrimination remains strong. Last year PRRI conducted a poll asking various groups their perceptions of who were victims of discrimination in America. White Evangelicals stood apart from other religious groups in the belief that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims (57% to 44%). But what does that really mean?

As part of my current book project, I conducted a pair of online surveys of evangelical clergy. While not the focus of the book, there were a pair of questions that allowed me to look at the religious discrimination issue more directly.

First, respondents gave their reaction to the item, “Society regularly discriminates against people with Christian beliefs.” Their answers are shown in the following chart.

Soc Disc

My surveys focused on Millennials and Boomers. As the data demonstrates, there are very different views based on generation. One way to see this is to subtract the D/SD percentages from the A/SA. For all respondents, this gives a +16.3 (46.7 to 30.1) but when you separate the generations, different patterns emerge. Boomers have a +47% (64.3 to 17.3) while Millennials have a minus 6.1% (33.4 to 39.5).

Respondents were then asked if they personally had been a victim of discrimination based on their beliefs and, if so, how. Only 29% of them said yes — slightly lower for Millenials and slightly higher for Boomers.  (I think of this as equivalent to people hating congress but liking their representative — Christians face discrimination but I don’t.)

For those who did claim some experience of discrimination, I was able to code their responses around five common themes. There are roughly equivalent to the various ways we think about discrimination in race or ethnicity. First, there is a Loss of Social Capital — feeling excluded, marginalized, or isolated. A second category is Bias — assumptions made about one’s character on the basis of stereotype or the expectation that you should defend others’ behaviors or opinions.  Then we have actual Discrimination — loss of a job, limitations on work conditions, being graded down at school because of Christian beliefs. Fourth is the category I call Church and State — disagreements over the public square, public prayers, use of schools and the like. Finally, there was a catch-all Other category which dealt with international, gender, or ethnicity treatments.

When you break down these categories among those who reported perceived discrimination, you get the following chart.

Disc Type

Over six in 10 of the 29% reported as discrimination feelings of marginalization by friends, family, neighbors or being thought stupid or judgmental because one is a Christian. These are important to be sure, but don’t reflect the “dangerous movement” the Attorney General warned about.

There were about a quarter of the 29% whose experiences as they saw them fit definitions of some type of direct limitation on behavior by other groups. It should be noted that all I have is the respondent’s version of events. If they said they lost their (non clergy) job for reading the Bible on break, I take that as given even though it might not have been the employer’s rationale. Someone who reports being limited in sharing faith at the food pantry because it received government funds may be responding to actual policy or maybe be misperceiving limitations.

So what does this tell us about perceptions of religious discrimination? First, most respondents haven’t experienced prejudice or discrimination directly. Second, some have clearly felt some form of micro-aggression as Christians which would be an interesting opportunity for future research. Third, there is an organized attempt by many in the evangelical subculture to promote stories that heighten fears of religious discrimination which is especially effective in a social media outrage environment.

One final point of analysis — there is a relationship between views of social change and perceptions of religious discrimination. Respondents were asked to rate the changes in US society over the last 50 years on a scale of 0 to 100. I compared the responses using a 95% confidence interval for the four conditions present (generation by discrimination). Millennials who did not report feeling discriminated against stood apart from the other three conditions Nearly all of that segment saw the changes in American society as more positive than negative.

Perhaps the fears about religious discrimination in the broader society might be a transitional moment and not a dangerous movement. If millennials are seeing social changes as positive and figuring out how to live their faith within those changes, maybe evangelicals can work from a position of what John Inazu calls Confident Pluralism and not from fear.

Parsing Luverne First Baptist

Like many people following religion and politics, my interest was piqued when I saw Stephanie McCrummen’s story in today’s Washington Post: “God, Trump, and the meaning of morality.” McCammen does a carefully reported deep dive into life at First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama. It paints a picture of a particular aspect of evangelical church culture yet one that should be approached carefully.



The people of the church (picture credit Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) are admittedly not quite sure what to make of Trump, especially in light of Pastor Crum’s summer series on the Ten Commandments. There are the expected questions about Obama faith, concerns about antagonism to Christian views, and an absolute disavowal of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yet in this story we catch a glimpse of why it’s so hard to disentangle religious beliefs from a variety of other factors. Each of them impacts the political equation in particular ways.

The context: Luverne is a town of roughly 2800 according to the most recent census estimates. It is the county seat of Crenshaw County in rural southeast Alabama. This is a deep red part of a deep red state. Crenshaw voted for Trump over Clinton by 72% to 26%. While I hesitate to make correlations look like causation, the racial makeup of the county is 73% white and 28% black. In 2017, Crenshaw voted for Roy Moore over Doug Jones by 63% to 35% (values may have hindered the Crenshaw vote — other red counties went much heavier for Moore). It is handy to argue that religious values ought to temper political values but there’s an awful lot of socialization and plausibility structure building that pushes back against that.

The church: There is an assumption of homogeneity in this congregation (and perhaps most congregations). McCrummen quotes a church leader:

“As Southern Baptists in this small town, we want our leader to believe like we do,” said Terry Drew, who had chaired the search committee, and three years later, Crum was meeting their highest expectations of what a good Southern Baptist pastor should be.

The internal congregational culture guarantees a pastor that will maintain that culture. This is not a call for prophetic preaching. The story ends with the observation that Pastor Crum might have called Trump out while preaching on adultery, but stopped short.

Many of the interviews on political ideology appear to occur within the context of the church service (although not all). I’ve written about Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity in previous posts; her research demonstrates the power of the internal communication structures and the ways in which those become mutually reinforcing. People who don’t fit become uncomfortable and depart.

The Second Coming:  McCrummen’s interviews show people focused on the life to come more than on this one. Political engagement is interesting, but the real question is to make sure one is headed to Heaven. One person not only knows the dimensions of Heaven and the characteristics of Hell, but imagines the kinds of appliances that will be in her Heavenly mansion when she gets there.

Such a focus is consistent with arguments Donald Dayton made nearly 40 years ago on how millenarianism negatively impacts social engagement. Politics may be occasionally interesting, but it’s not the important thing.

Manichaeism and Spiritual Warfare: Present in the interviews is a strong sense of good and evil. Or maybe just evil. Trump may be flawed, but he wasn’t Clinton. She would destroy our way of life, the second amendment, religious freedom, and the entire nation.

Both political parties and their candidates, then, represent the combatants in the cosmic war between God and Satan. God uses his people to advance his desires while the other side (who are perhaps unwitting instruments) represent all that’s wrong. Recent PRRI data showing that a majority of White Evangelicals see increasing diversity in the society as a net negative demonstrates the perceptions of threatening “others”.

Sheilaism Redux; When Robert Bellah and colleagues wrote Habits of the Heart in 1985, one story that got the attention of sociologists, religionists, and journalists alike was the story of “Sheilaism”. In her interview, Shelia reported:

“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…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”

McCrummen finds another Sheila, this one a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist. She is certainly more devout than that other Sheila. But her political theology is no better constructed.

Sunday School Sheila explains:

“Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,” she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false. “He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.”

“Obama woke a sleeping nation,” said Linda.

“He woke a sleeping Christian nation,” Sheila corrected.

Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.

“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”

Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”

Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”

“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ ” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”

This version of Sheilaism has shocked people on my twitter feed today.

But it shouldn’t.

There is no reason to suggest that Jesus was only concerned with one’s neighbor of nationality (it was, in fact, the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan!). And to be fair to Sheila, I don’t think she believes that. She is combining her political beliefs with her religious beliefs in ways that sound right to her.

She has an idea that her theology ought to inform her political positions but when they become incompatible she papers over them. She’s not hypocritical, she simply is striving for cognitive consistency. And coming out in favor of immigrants just doesn’t fit her culture and upbringing.


What does this story really tell us about the politics of evangelicals and their congregations? It gives us a glimpse into how conservative white evangelicals process their political views. But those views occur in a particular context of community, history, eschatology, and personal psychology. Trying to sort out precisely which one is operative at any given point of time is nearly impossible.

In closing, I should also note that Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons pointed out yesterday that journalists and researchers seem particularly interested in seeing these stories told of evangelical Trump supporters. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine Stephanie McCrummen doing a deep-dive story on a United Church of Christ congregation in Seattle. It would be a fascinating sociological comparison between the two congregations and how they approach politics.