Determining Discrimination

Last week I thought this would be an obscure little post that most people would ignore. It was prompted by the release of a new poll that the Pew Research Center did on the experience of American Muslims. I was struck by a set of questions about the nature of discrimination. The summary is below:

Pew Muslim Discrimination

On three of these measures, things are somewhat better than they were in 2011 yet all are worse than they were in 2007. But “better” is a relative term. It is still true that nearly one in five Muslim responded that they had been called an offensive name. Six percent had been physically threatened or attacked.

The survey is drawn from 1,000 US Muslims over the course of this spring. Notice that the timeframe is the last year, not “in your lifetime”. That means that 60 Muslims were attacked and 180 were called names. Pew includes a summary calculation that identifies anyone who experienced any one of the five conditions described. The total comes to nearly 1 in 2 Muslims, or 480 people out of 1,000.

I’m particularly struck by the “treated with suspicion” option. Unlike all of the others, that appears to be more in the mind of the respondent. There is no necessary behavioral marker. Just a feeling that people are treating you differently because of your status.

That idea echoed another one from a different Pew survey. In a more general analysis of perceptions of discrimination, they asked people which groups they thought faced a lot of discrimination in today’s society. They then broke those down by subgroup, which makes for some very interesting analysis.

Pew Group Discrimination

So who faces discrimination? It depends upon who you ask. Less than half of whites say that blacks face a lot of discrimination. PRRI data suggests some interesting class and party distinctions.

White evangelicals are least likely to see discrimination against blacks (just over a third) or gays and lesbians (just over half). But half of white evangelicals argue that there is a lot of discrimination against them! No other subgroup sees that discrimination as overwhelming.

When I saw this last week, I was simply interested in the contrast between the Muslim survey that mostly asked about concrete behaviors and less about general perceptions.

But the past 24 hours has seen the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ exploring prosecution of reverse discrimination cases in colleges and universities. And today the White House rolled out new immigration policies to privilege English-speakers (ostensibly to protect jobs).

This all brings me back to the idea of “being looked at suspiciously”. It’s not about actual, demonstrable discrimination. It’s about the possibility that someone would take advantage and favor another group over yours. I can’t imagine seeing white evangelicals called names on the street. It’s beyond imagining that white students find themselves put upon on college campuses.

Discrimination has become separated from its sociological tether. No longer is it about structures that impede certain groups by law (redlining, law enforcement, neighborhood schools). It’s about being singled out because you’re white or Christian or conservative.

And all it takes to feel discriminated against is a single outlier instance. Bill Maher says something outrageous. A young woman isn’t admitted to the University of Texas. A florist in Washington is found in violation of a state nondiscrimination ordinance.

There may not really be jobs taken by new immigrants but there might have been. You heard that one story on the news. And maybe not today but certainly tomorrow.

This pattern of isolated outrage has become a staple of modern media environment. Organizations are quick to claim offense and paint the story in the worst possible and most egregious way. Because their business model depends upon it.

This is true of political organizations. It is true of religious organizations. It is true of media organizations.

But that outrage isn’t discrimination. And it’s a huge mistake to base public policy on something as fleeting as feeling “you were looked out suspiciously”.




What about the 19%?: Evangelical Democrats

Last week saw a really great collection of thoughtful pieces on evangelicals and politics. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were still trying to make sense of both the 2016 presidential election and the continuing levels of support for President Trump.

Last night I tweeted the following: “We need to know a lot more about the 19% of white evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump, especially those previously Rs. What rationales?

So naturally, I set out to try to figure out the beginnings of an answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have data on the election specifically nor anything on possible changes over time.

What I do have is the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. While it doesn’t deal specifically with voting behavior, the overall dataset is large enough to examine a particular set of evangelicals. Given the recognized confusions over who exactly is an evangelical, I selected a subset of data that would fit most people’s definitions.

I looked only at individuals who reported themselves as “born again or evangelical”,  who were part of an evangelical tradition, who attended church at least once a month, and who were white, non-hispanic. I also limited my analysis to only self-identified Republicans and Democrats, leaving out Independents and minor parties.

Evangelical Party

Because the Pew survey starts with 35,000 cases, there are still over 2,700 faithful white evangelicals using all my screens. This allowed me to do some sub-group comparisons to see if there were correlates with those evangelicals who identify as Democrats.

First, about a third of the Evangelical Democrats were born before 1945. On the other hand, a third of Evangelicals Republicans are Gen-X or Millennials compared to 20% of Democrats. It’s a matter of further research to determine if younger Evangelicals are more politically conservative or simply less likely to identify as evangelicals.

Second, there are the expected social class differences. Nearly 65% of Evangelical Democrats had family incomes under $50,000 in 2013. Over 58% of Evangelical Republicans were over $50,000. There is also a split on educational level, with Democrats being more highly represented among those who have a high school degree or less (this may well be an artifact of the generational pattern).

Third, there is a gender gap (although this didn’t turn up in exit polls in 2016). Females are 10% more likely than males to be Democrats.

In my earlier analysis of evangelical Republicans, I examined the difference between attitudes toward what I called conservative issues (size of government, attitudes toward welfare) and moral issues (legality of abortion, attitude toward same-sex marriage). In that piece, I argued that on conservative issues Evangelical Republicans looked like all Republicans but that there were differences on the moral issues.

Comparing Evangelical Republicans and Evangelical Democrats on the conservative issues shows a couple of interesting patterns. First, nine out of ten Evangelical Republicans favor smaller government with less services. Over half of the Evangelical Democrats would agree on smaller government with 45% favoring more services. Similarly, when asked about whether government aid to the poor creates dependency, eight in ten Evangelical Republicans agree as do a third of Democrats.

On the moral issues, about 38% of Evangelical Democrats favor same-sex marriage where less than 10% of Republicans do. The Democrats are evenly split on whether abortion should be legal where only 13.5% of Republicans think so.

Taken together, these differences paint a fairly consistent pattern: There is a very high degree of agreement among Evangelical Republicans with a very small outlying percentage. In general, Evangelical Democrats are divided on both conservative issues and moral issues.

Remember, all of the folks I’m looking at are regularly attending evangelical churches (although the Democrats are about one Sunday less frequent in attendance). How does an Evangelical Democrat operate in the midst of assumed (and perhaps demonstrated) uniformity on political issues? This internal congregational dynamic explain the conformity assumptions in American Evangelical churches. This is less true in Lydia Bean’s Canadian churches and is not present in this new book about British Evangelicals by Andrea Hatcher.

While it’s impossible to get at congregational dynamics with cross-sectional survey data, there is a hint in the Pew data set. There are a set of questions about attitudes toward church. Some of these look at the positive impact of churches in upholding morality and helping the poor. On these, there is virtually no difference between Evangelical Democrats and Evangelical Republicans.

On the other hand, Evangelical Democrats are 9% more likely to say the church is too rule-focused and 12% more likely to say the church is too focused on money and power. The real difference shows up in terms of political engagement. Evangelical Democrats (at 42%) are 21% more likely to agree that the church is too involved in Politics. (That 8 in 10 Evangelical Republicans disagree with this statement is why the President’s Johnson Amendment pitch gets traction.)

I’m stretching way beyond the data, but I’m drawn back to Putnam/Campbell and Kinnaman/Lyons. Both of these books argued that millennials were put off by the past political engagement of the church and withdrew. Or, I would argue, at least no longer identify as evangelicals. As I’ve mentioned before (paraphrasing Robert Jones), if progressive millennials depart, the unanimity of those evangelicals who remain will actually increase.

Shifting the evangelical-politics landscape is not likely to occur in the near future. On the one hand, the historic democrats are up against actuarial limits and aren’t being replaced at similar levels by younger cohorts.

In the final analysis, Michael Wear’s argument that the Democratic party needs to recognize the diversity present among Evangelical Democrats is correct. On the other hand, when put up against the overwhelming consensus present among Evangelical Republicans, its hard to figure out how productive such a strategy will be.

Of course, the roller-coaster ride we have all been on over the last six months may completely shift all of the patterns I’ve described. But I’m not holding my breath.

A Political Sociology of Evangelicals

While I’ve been in the midst of two major projects, I’ve been following some fascinating online conversations about evangelicals and politics. The overlaps and distinctions between these positions speaks directly to themes I’ve been raising on this blog since it began.

The larger backdrop, as has been the case since the presidential campaign began, is about the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in November and who largely continue to do so. I argued just over a year ago that these patterns made sense if we consider covariants, demographic shifts, and subcultural influences within evangelicalism. This past April, I presented an analysis at Calvin College arguing that evangelicals act like Republicans when culture war issues aren’t particularly salient.

While followers of John Fea know that he’s been talking about Court Evangelicals for a few months, his argument hit the big time this week when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post. As John explained on his blog, the Court Evangelicals wanted to be near to Trump and made much of his comments on religions freedom, including the curious focus on the Johnson Amendment. (I wrote about this last July as well.) Emily Miller reported in Religion News Service that the new House budget contains language the keeps the IRS from taking action to enforce the Johnson Amendment, even though evidence is scarce that it has ever been enforced. Yet this largely symbolic step is seen as a win for Court Evangelicals.

Having visited Versailles twice during my recent France trip, the image of Court Evangelicals has taken on a particular meaning for me. One of my favorite parts of the tour of the “hunting lodge” is the dining room. At one end is the table where Louis XIV ate with his family. At the other end one finds a series of divans where the courtiers sat to observe and comment on how well the King was proceeding on his meal. The recent Oval Office prayer meeting has echoes of Versailles.

Trump Evangelicals

These Court Evangelicals have built a rhetorical frame that allows them to see Trump as a Cyrus figure whom God rose up “for such a time as this.” However, while they are important in providing the President with the ability to say “I won the evangelicals”, it’s less clear how their influence may be influencing rank and file evangelicals (although Robert Jeffress’ MAGA celebration July 4th weekend was pretty unnerving.)

On Tuesday, Neil Young (not that one!) argued in Religion and Politics that “Evangelical is not a political term”. Reacting to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals, Young suggests that she makes too much of the alignment between evangelical strength and the rise of the religious right, spending nearly half of her tome on the rise of Moral Majority and Culture Warriors. (I’m only up to 1918 in my read of Fitzgerald but I get his critique.)

It is not at all clear how much of rank-and-file evangelicals are influenced by the political positionings of Court Evangelicals and Culture Warriors. Lydia Bean’s excellent The Politics of Evangelical Identity (summarized in the first link above) finds that church people weren’t directly influenced by the Religious Right or even pastoral jeremiads. Rather, the link between evangelical identity and Republicanism was framed in the informal interactions of folks in church. In her US churches (as opposed to her Canadian churches) people assumed that society had changed for the worse and this was due to direct actions by liberals (no prayer in school, abortion, LGBT rights). The nature outgrowth of such belief is to oppose Democrats. If one doesn’t hold those views, it’s real work to remain in fellowship. It might be much easier to find a nice Methodist church.

Shortly before Young’s piece appeared, Tim Gloege wrote in The Anxious Bench reflecting on Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter’s Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism. Gloege argues that there is much to explore in terms of additional social and political dynamics that shape the development and self-presentation of evangelicalism.

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (emphasis in original)

I think Gloege is exactly right. Understanding evangelicalism at any point in time in dependent upon understanding which forces are involved in the contest. Are there tensions between Protestants and Catholics? Mainline churches and Fundamentalist churches? Arminians and Calvinists? Working class and Middle class? Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics? Those in the South and Midwest or those in the Northeast and Northwest? Suburban or Rural?

These contestations will work out differently for different subgroups at different points in time. They will differ in terms of which issues have salience (for example, RFRA issues are remarkably geographically bounded). They will differ on how the relate to various national issues as sides are determined in ways that Bean describes.

The difference between Young’s and Gloege’s arguments is important even though each have a part of the political reality. Chris Gehrz closed his blog post yesterday with a nice framing of the question:

Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?

If we use Young’s definitions, the answer comes closer to Ryrie’s. If we use Gloege’s, politics runs through evangelical identity. Not just in the narrow terms of partisan elections but in the broad context of definition and representation.

Consider the triumphalism some evangelicals expressed when the 2014 Pew Landscape survey showed that evangelicals held their own between 2007 and 2014 while Mainlines lost ground. I read far too many critiques about “cultural Christians” who believe but don’t act. (Actually working through the Pew data shows two problems with this: a large number of evangelicals don’t attend church and a large number of evangelicals belong to mainline churches.) That’s a political argument about how “we’re winning” which is then often used to justify our view as “the Christian view”.

One key point of contestation involves demographic changes. Robert Jones The End of White Christian America demonstrates how the share of the society fitting those characteristics is shrinking significantly. This is why he argued that evangelical support for Trump was made up on “nostalgia voters.” John Fea picked up this argument this morning suggesting that the 2016 election bore a resemblance to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was a last gasp effort to turn the tide against overwhelming odds.

All of these discussions have been valuable as I’ve been refining the argument I’ve been making for several years: that millennial evangelicals are approaching the political question in Gloege’s framing while older evangelicals my age have tended to approach the political question in Fitzgerald’s framing. In other words, Millennials are attempting to move from their lived experience to their understanding of Christian faith while Boomers are more likely to move from Christian Positions to lived experience. Millennials may have a higher sensitivity to authentic and holistic expression where Boomers may be more likely to tolerate dissonance between institutional expectations and lived experience.

Why is that that the case? Pew research from early last year provides a clue. Between 2010 and 2015, loyalty toward institutional religion increased for all generations except millennials. Where 59% of Boomers saw churches and religious organizations as positive in 2010, they increased to 62% in 2016. This is in remarkably sharp contrast to millennials whose support for institutional religion fell from 73% (which seems artificially high to me) in 2010 to only 55% in 2016. This actually reflects a lessening of millennial institutional loyalty in a variety of contexts.

The Court Evangelicals, with some exceptions, are my age or older. They reflect the efforts of a pro-institutional identity attempting to take advantage of political opportunity. But there is not a general mobilization of millennials to join that bandwagon.

All of this takes me back to Lydia Bean. If the church is not a place where one can express disagreement on issues of either definitional politics or partisan politics, the costs of staying may simply be too great.

Robbie Jones makes an interesting argument in The End of White Christian America. He observes that social attitudes usually moderate among groups as younger generations take on a larger share of the demographic mix. Yet on some issues (like same-sex marriage) he didn’t see that happening. He hypothesized that those younger generations who disagreed with institutional positions were simply leaving the evangelical fold. The result is an increased homogeneity among the population that says behind.

It seems that those tension are playing out on a weekly basis on my twitter feed. The most recent example was the did-he-or-didn’t-he coverage of Eugene Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage. These are political questions revolving around demographic shifts, lived experience, region of country, educational level, and yes, political party.

I certainly appreciate all of the historical analysis of evangelicalism and how it got where it is. To understand where it may be going we’re going to need new political definitions.


Dear Democrats: We Really Need to Up Our Game

We’re halfway through 2017 and just over five months into the Trump presidency. I was recently looking back over some previous posts and saw this paragraph in my review of Michael Wear’s book right after the inauguration:

At some point, I’ll find enough perspective to write a reflection on the 2016 presidential election. For now, I’m just struggling with the uncertainty on a new administration where every day brings new questions and puzzles. It’s really hard for a policy wonk like me to figure out what’s likely to happen in the coming months. So many things are up in the air: health care, international trade, the Middle East, market stability, transparent government. And it’s only day three.

Five months later, I’m no closer to certainty about what’s going on. But I may be getting a little closer in thinking about what we Democrats might do going forward. Spoiler: it’s not what we seem to be doing at the moment.

During the presidential debates, I found myself thinking of Mohammed Ali’s “Rope a Dope” strategy from his fight with George Foreman. Ali let Foreman come at him and exposed Foreman’s weaknesses. After Foreman became fatigued, the fight was Ali’s. In the debates, it seemed as if Clinton would give Trump openings he couldn’t pass up. He’d make an outrageous remark about Taxes or Miss Universe and that would become the storyline raising doubts about Trump’s qualifications for the office.

Since the election, it has become clear to me that the Rope-a-Dope strategy went both ways. The more Trump stepped into (and seemingly embraced) the openings Clinton left for him, the more Clinton’s campaign became an anti-Trump campaign. It didn’t shore up support for HRC, didn’t encourage turnout, and didn’t present a positive policy agenda that would solidify wary Republicans who were put off by Trump.


Democrats are still being suckered by this strategy. We move from outrage to outrage based on the latest news cycle. We have to have something more that what SNL skewered as the “this is not normal” response. We have to raise our game.


Here are a few ideas that I’ve been pondering for Democrats to consider:

We need to focus more on policy solutions: While the Congressional Republicans established themselves as “the party of no” over the last eight years, simply saying no to Republicans isn’t a strategy. It is not enough to stop their proposals. We must spend our time laying out the alternatives. For example, if we want to address health insurance premium costs, we need to speak to issues of how we might do that (increased subsidies, enhanced mandates, incentivizing states who experiment on increased care) and not simply talk of the damage that the Senate bill will do (it’s a lot). Every party figure interviewed should discuss specific solutions as much as possible.

We need to speak to issues of morality: There have been a host of pieces lately about the Democrat’s supposed “religion problem” (see here, here, here, and here). In light of the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, it’s tempting to focus energies on young, urban, educated, secular voters. But that’s a mistake that cedes the high ground to others.There are real questions of Imago Dei (believing that all are created in God’s image) and they need to be addressed as such. Concern over criminal justice reform should be grounded in compassion for suspects, victims, and law enforcement. Protecting the legality of Roe v. Wade can be done by speaking to issues of family wellbeing and autonomy without name-calling toward pro-life groups. Issues of inequality can be couched in terms of long-term societal impact on children and not simply in terms of “the greed of the 1%”.

We need to be careful with statistical arguments: We have to know what the actual data says and respond accordingly. To not do so supports the “everyone has their own facts” claim. There is nothing wrong with saying that the Senate bill does not allow Medicaid expenditures to keep up with either inflation or increased enrollment. To call it “a cut” allows Republicans to make the narrowly correct argument that there is no cut. To point out that the crime rate is falling requires us to also acknowledge the impact a small number of cities are having on an increased murder rate.  Similarly, saying that the crime rate for immigrants is lower than that for citizens needs to show that we recognize that any crime (immigrant or citizen) is something of concern.

We need to let the “the Russia-Trump-thing” run its course: MSNBC recently rebroadcast a 2013 special they had done on “All The President’s Men”. Narrated by Robert Redford, it told the Watergate story through movie clips, news reports, and interviews. It was very good but reminded me how slowly the investigations moved in 1973-74. Today we have social media and diversified broadcast channels but the actual investigation is not likely to move a lot faster than it did 40 years ago. We have to stop talking about Impeachment and looking for Smoking Guns. Even after Alexander Butterfield testified about the Watergate Tapes, it took months of court wrangling before Nixon felt pressure.  The Russia investigation makes for entertaining parlor chat but won’t come to anything until Mueller finishes. We have to stop looking like we’re hoping for a breakthrough. It would be a constitutional crisis that should sadden everyone regardless of party affiliation. To celebrate too soon (or at all) simply feeds the “witch-hunt” narrative.

We need to pay attention to demographics but carefully: While it is true that Jon Ossoff came close to winning a highly Republican district in the recent special election, it was always unlikely that he would do so: it was a heavily Republican district. Every election is not a national referendum and all districts are not the same. Furthermore,  demographics change slowly and there is variance within demographic groups. One of the challenges to November’s election forecasting was that many people were looking at Clinton’s popularity among certain demographic groups and assuming that because those groups were growing, she had an undeniable advantage. But those groups didn’t vote in accordance with their population percentage and some of them voted for Trump. Shifting demographics are important, as Robert Jones has pointed out, but that also created a pro-Trump backlash. In part, “Make America Great Again”, was a nostalgic call for a time before these demographic shifts. (It’s worth noting that while the Alt-right shares those concerns it didn’t make Trump supporters sympathetic with Richard Spencer.)

We need to be proactive not reactive: When something flies across the twitter feed, we need to resist the temptation to react. There are legitimate issues to address. Far better to work on issues of harrassment in general than to worry about Mika Brezynski. We can work toward an improved refugee vetting process and not simply react to the latest decision on the Muslim Ban. We can work toward adequate protections of religious freedom for all while also supporting non-discrimination of LGBT populations instead of freaking out about the Missouri Lutheran Church decision. These are legitimate initiatives that Democrats need to be thinking about, not because they represent interest groups whose votes we want but because these are issues we need to address.

We need to articulate a positive future: Last weekend I led a book group discussion of Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer prize winning book Evicted (my review is here). As my wife pointed out, it’s one of the most depressing books we’ve read in a long time. I told the group that the argument is similar to what Robert Putnam raises in Our Kids. There are very real issues confronting our society. Many of these were intentional policy decisions. Others are the unintended consequences of benign neglect. In any case, we are confronted with the reality that we need to find a better life for the children imbedded in all the statistics. Putnam (and others) argues that all these children are “our kids” and we will be concerned for their future either now and when they are adults. We need to articulate a future where their life chances aren’t completely determined by where and how they were born.


There are likely more ideas you could add to these seven. I encourage you to add them in the comments section.

For me, I’m going to try to put these ideas into practice in my local conversations and on my social media feeds. If more of us do this instead of reacting to the outrage-du-jour, maybe we’ll have some better conversations as we look toward November of 2018.


The problem politicians won’t talk about: Financialization

Since the November election, there have been scores of books and articles exploring the supposed alientation of the white working class. Some of these are quite good and others are much less so. Maybe voters were feeling nostalgic. Maybe their cultural locations had been ignored for too long. Maybe they were victims of a shifting occupational structure that resulted in a combination of moving jobs overseas or automating manufacturing plants. Maybe the coastal elites didn’t want to understand those inland. Maybe concerns about security overwhelmed other more self-interested factors. Maybe a focus on progressive issues like transgender bathrooms and criminal justice reform didn’t speak to the concerns of those voters. Each of these arguments shares some elements of truth.

During the primary campaign Bernie Sanders consistently complained about “millionaires and billionaires” who had benefitted the most since the end of the Great Recession. Others raised concerns over the need to raise the minimum wage or solve the health care crisis. Still others voices cited the damage being done by excessive inequality and raised concerns about the fragility of the middle class. These positions are also easily supported by data.

There is, however, something much deeper going on. The vast majority of the issues I’ve listed above are simply symptoms of that deep change. In his book, Aftershock, Robert Reich argues that the period from World War II until 1980 constituted a Great Expansion. Then we had a great transition. While “Reaganomics” played a role in this change, it’s only the political face of the larger issue.

 I recently read two books that speak to the critical change and its significance. The first of these was Brian Alexander’s Glass House;  an examination of the impacts of financialization on the Anchor Hocking plant and its community of Lancaster, Ohio. The other is Charles Peters’ We Do Our Part; a political and social  autobiography by the octogenarian editor of Washington Monthly.

Peters’ book, which was commissioned by Newsweek’s Jon Meacham (which is why I bought it), begins just before the New Deal begins addressing issues of the Depression. Growing up in West Virginia, Peters saw the impacts of the New Deal up close and became a fan of FDR from early on. The book runs all the way to the 2016 election. In the very first chapter, Peters observes that the key figures involved in FDR’s administration weren’t serving for access to money or prestige but because problems needed to be solved. When they left government, there was no revolving door to well-appointed lobbying firms. It wan’t long before that trend changed and changed dramatically. Peters also explores shifts in economic policy beginning with Reagan but continuing in general shape until the present. Deregulation became the watchword of the day for Republican and for Democratic administrations alike (although the rhetorical justification shifts by party).

Peters spend a couple of chapters laying out the connections between a focus on New York City (because that’s where the money is), its style magazines that explain What’s In, salaries that support that lifestyle, and attitudes of those who are OC (not Our Class). This adds texture and context to the Bernie Sanders “millionaires and billionaires” complaint that moves us away from greedy individuals (although they exist) to larger structural and therefore sociological dynamics.

Peters’ argument reminded me of a book that Bob Woodward wrote about the first year of the Clinton administration: The Agenda. I haven’t read it in years, but the essence of it was that Clinton got his tax cut through (because VP Gore voted for it) as an expression of Clinton’s hope for a Third Way — to promote progressive policies by doing things that would benefit the bond and stock markets.  Clinton’s “end of big government” as illustrated in the Welfare Reform Act is consistent with the commitment to the financial system. As history tells us, by many measures Clinton’s agenda was successful — the government had an operating surplus and the stock market boomed.

As a democrat himself, Peters is generally supportive of the Clintons but he was obviously troubled by the circles the Clintons traveled in when they settled in New York City. Seen through the lens of Peters’ book, the high speaking fees (to financial firms, no less), celebrity status, and the Rolodex of the Clinton Global Initiative are fairly predictable. Peters points out that Obama was more circumspect but he had to be very careful about how he dealt with the financial industries in the midst of a precarious economic recovery.

Eisenhower’s defense secretary (formerly head of GM), Charles Wilson, once argued that “what was good for General Motors was good for the country and vice versa”. It’s interesting to think of that quote in light of the economic transitions of the last six decades. For all of the complaining about off-shoring or about Obama’s auto bailout, I think it is exactly what Wilson is calling for.

Today, of course, it’s more accurate to read Wilson’s line as “what is good for Wall Street is good for America”. And without the “vice versa”.

Improving stock price is key to business success and because the Republican mantra for four decades has been about rewarding the “job creators” (regardless of whether they add jobs), it has become the major objective in our economy. Well beyond the increase in compensation for executives is the practice of providing stock options, directly incentivizing the CEO (but not the workers) in seeing the stock perform as expected. This focus on stock price not only leads to short-term business strategy but it also results in (perfectly legal) game playing to kept the stock price high. The impact, as Peters describes, is clear:

Let’s take one company and see the impact of these buybacks on its workers. Over the past ten years Wal-Mart has spent an average of $ 6.5 billion a year on stock buybacks. This would have been enough to give each of its 1.4 million U.S. workers a $ 4,642 raise for every one of those years. So Congress or the SEC could make a good start on reforming the system by simply reinstating the regulation that prohibited buybacks.

A focus on share price above all creates the bizarre situation where stocks are abstracted from investments in companies. When traders move their server farms next to the NYSE server farms so that their algorithms gain a microsecond for arbitraging stock prices before the rest of the market catches shifts, they aren’t making the company better. They are just getting rich playing the market.

Of course, we are all increasingly complicit in this new financialization. My 401-K account, like virtually all others, is tied up in mutual funds managed by folks I’ve never met and never will. I’d love us to rethink our dependence on stock market expansion but my retirement (along with that of millions of others) depends on market expansion. 

So when Trump supporters say that the system is rigged against them, they’re right. They are just looking at the wrong system. It’s not a failure of government, it’s the success of the financial market. By operating as it’s supposed to operate, unfettered by government, press, or public opinion, it provides success for some at the expense of a great many others.

That brings me to Brian Alexander’s book on Lancaster, Ohio. It is a wonderful account of the changes that occurred in this medium sized manufacturing town as these economic transformations took hold. It was made poignant by the fact that Alexander grew up in Lancaster.

The Anchor Hocking plant (famous for Pyrex and other kitchen ware) was one of the true “anchors” of life in Lancaster. Executives lived in the town, it was a place where young high school graduates worked their way up into responsible production roles (in a very dangerous profession). Anchor and its employees were leaders in the community and cared for its general wellbeing. The plant found community to be very important: both the community in which they were located and the way in which the plant employees related to one another.

While Anchor had issues with competition from Libby, keeping up with plant maintenance, and the fluctuations of the business cycle, the real issues with financialization began in the 1970s. Raider Carl Icahn was a minority stockholder in Anchor after it had good public and engaged in “greenmail” to force changes in the company (or he’d weaken the stock value). Shortly thereafter, Anchor becomes a pawn in a series of what we used to call “leveraged buy outs”. Sometimes the new entity combined Anchor with other kitchen products in an attempt at horizontal integration. Sometimes it was the piece spun off and the company changed hands.

As these practices continued, it had devastating effects on the company. Workforce reductions were common and union contracts were “renegotiated”. When a new group of venture capitalists took on the company, their primary interest was to improve its short term safety rating and not to enhance the capacity of the plant to retool (to say nothing of dealing with deferred maintenance). Why safety? It stood in the way of selling the plant to the next group of potential investors after the first group had gotten from it what they could. But if it had a good safety rating, selling was a positive option (for the owners, not the plant).

Furthermore, each of these transactions wound up loading Anchor with the debt involved in the other acquisitions. This led to Anchor having to declare bankruptcy in 2015 as a means of eliminating the debt load. As a result, the board of directors was made up entirely of the creditors who knew nothing about glass production and were only looking to get out of the glass business as quickly as possible so as to move on the next option.

None of these people had any history in Lancaster. They didn’t care about the yearly folk festival. They weren’t likely to prop up the very successful alternative school. They weren’t going to run for mayor or see that the town competed with more affluent suburbs closer to Columbus. 

Alexander tells part of his story by tracking the lives of some neighborhood residents who were involved in the opioid epidemic through sales, use, or both. Their feeling of being tied to Lancaster while simultaneously not seeing hope for the future shows a serious indirect impact of the acquisitive financial markets that enveloped Achor Hocking and therefore Lancaster.

One of the toughest parts about sociology is that it often finds that a search for villains is futile. People respond to the social structures in which they are imbedded. It’s not enough to suggest that billionaires are gaining at the expense of the working class. We need to examine the imbedded incentives that are part of our systems and figure out how to make them just a little more fair.

I’m not suggesting that Wall Street is evil or that sometimes plants don’t need to close (although I really have a hard time with micro trading). Capitalism depends upon balancing economic and social interests. It recognizes that we actually have multiple markets, not one. Gains by one part of the economy (investors) at the expense of another (workers or consumers) create an unstable system.

Citizens United said that corporations were legally citizens when it comes to political speech. Many, including me, have criticized that decision. But the solution is for corporations and their governing boards to be real citizens who engage the life of the communities impacted by their operations.

Voters often tell pollsters that they think that having someone with a business background will help solve the problems of governing a complex modern society. But investing in real estate has little resemblance to what the preamble to the constitution calls “promoting the general welfare”.

As we work our way out of the current governmental disunity, we need politicians of both parties to join economists, political scientists, journalists, and sociologists in finding an appropriate sense of balancer in the economic marketplace. 

At the end of the day, what is good for Americans is what is good for Wall Street.

President Trump’s Religious Freedom Executive Order

Trump Religious Freedom

On Thursday, while the House of Representatives was rushing through their Health Care Overhaul, President Trump signed his promised executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty”.

The President, as quoted in the Washington Post, explained his position: “For too long the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” Trump said, later telling those gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say . . . No one should be censoring sermons or targeting ­pastors.”

I notice two things at the outset about these comments. First, he’s absolutely right about his last statement: nobody should be censoring sermons on behalf of the federal government. Of course, that has never happened and never would and the logistics of how one would do that completely fail me. But credit where credit is due.

Second, let’s ponder the claim in the first statement — the federal government has used weapons against people of faith, has bullied them, and even punished them. This assertion is wrong on its face, with the exception of Native Americans and Mormons earlier in our history. (There was significant anti-Catholic bias but that only indirectly involved the federal government). The assertion of intent by a secular government that hates religion may play well to an audience who believes they are regularly discriminated against but it cannot be supported by facts, especially when the leaders of government continue to be overwhelmingly Christian.

Still, the Executive Order was a major part of President Trump’s campaign so it’s worth looking at what it says. My twitter feed has been full of reactions. My short take is that if the Alliance Defending Freedom doesn’t like it, it didn’t do much. Reviewing its elements make the order’s symbolic role pretty clear.

Section 1 says that “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” It goes on to celebrate the role of religion in the public square and asserts that the administration will protect that constitutional right. Of course, the president swears to uphold the constitution in his oath of office, so this is just a reminder and not new ground.

It’s worth watching this language, however. Increasingly, courts have been using the administration’s claims (including statements during the campaign) as embodying intent. So when the White House claims it will protect the freedom of religious groups to exercise their religious views without interference from the government, that doesn’t just apply to conservative religious groups. It applies to Muslims and the non-religious as well.

Section 2 makes a stab at Trump’s complaints about the Johnson Amendment. In short, this section says that the Treasury Department will not engage in adverse actions in response to moral or political speech by churches or pastors. It’s well documented that this has almost never happened, that pastors of various political persuasions have engaged in Pulpit Freedom Sunday (openly defying the Johnson Amendment IRS rules) without penalty, and that many churches have spoken on moral and political issues for years. For all of Candidate Trump’s pronouncements about killing the Johnson Amendment, the language of the EO was clearly done by a crack team of lawyers:

In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.

Section 3 speaks to religious conscience protections for those opposed to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act (which is not mentioned by name). The concern for some groups has been that the regulations implementing the contraceptive mandate included methods they believed were abortifacients. This was the basis for the Hobby Lobby decision. The EO instructs government entities to “consider implementing amended regulations” to “address conscience-based objections“. On the one hand, the courts have already been involved in encouraging the various parties to find reasonable accommodation. On the other hand, if the AHCA were to become law, it’s unclear what the status of the contraceptive mandate is going forward anyway.

Section 4 instructs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting federal liberty protections in Federal law“. This section is the one that rang alarm bells for my progressive friends — what does this allow AG Jeff Sessions to do? I understand that concern, but this order doesn’t give Sessions any more freedom to do this that he already has. In fact, issuing guidance about Federal law is pretty much the first thing on the Attorney General’s job description!

The final two sections are pretty boilerplate. If one of the first four sections was unconstitutional, the others could stand. If you thought that language in here allowed you to break a Federal law, it doesn’t.

So, on balance, the Executive Order doesn’t change much of anything. With the exception that it affirms a robust Federal commitment to religious freedom that I believe will be used by non-majority religious perspectives to claim their freedom to worship (or not) as they please.

Those that were somehow hoping that the Federal Government would carve out a protected role for Conservative Christians to live out their faith commitments over and against other groups will be naturally disappointed. All the Federal Government has the capacity to do, regardless of who is in the White House, is to affirm the vital role of a robust public square.

The Executive Order closes section 1 by stating this explicitly: “Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.


Big Surprise! White Evangelicals are Republicans

If your social media feed looks like mine, the world is suddenly surprised that a new Pew Report shows that 78% of White Evangelicals are supportive of the job President Trump has been doing over the first 100 days. Unlike patterns that seemed to be evident during the Republican primaries a year ago, those who regularly attend church at least once a month seem most supportive of the president.

It doesn’t help that Jerry Falwell, Jr. claims that “evangelicals have found their dream president”.

The Pew Report contained a link to a September report that helps explain this data. As their chart shows, the alignment between White Evangelicals and Republicans has shifted significantly in recent years.

Evang Rep

As I estimate the numbers on the chart, when George W. Bush was elected over Al Gore, White Evangelicals favored Republicans by under 30 percent. Sixteen years later, the gap has nearly doubled.

This data is very consistent with some analysis I’ve been doing using the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study. I gave a preliminary analysis of this research this past weekend at the Henry Symposium on Faith and Politics at Calvin College.

For some time, I’ve been trying to sort out what is going on with White Evangelical voters. Like many others, I’ve wondered how religious values influence policy preferences and resulting voting decisions.

Last month Gallup did a report that gave a clue to what was going on. The researchers examined data on how religious variables related to support for Trump and found the kinds of church attendance patterns frequently cited. But when they controlled for political party and only looked at Republicans, the religious differences disappeared!

Taking Gallup’s lead, I went into the Pew 2014 data and began examining the handful of policy variables they ask about. I found two very different patterns: one set for what I call “conservative issues” and another for what I call “moral issues”.

The conservative issues are policies that do not have obvious religious influence (I know that there are sound scriptural reasons for engaging these issues but that’s not how conservatives are seeing them). I examined four different issues: belief that welfare creates dependency, that environmental policies cost jobs, that immigration is harmful, and that small government is good.

The moral issues are the kinds of things more likely to be addressed in sermons: abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, opposition to gay marriage, concern over children born out of wedlock, and  belief in absolute right and wrong.

I calculated the percentage of Republicans supporting the various positions to see how they varied by religious variables. What I found was surprising but exactly what Gallup found — on conservative issues religion isn’t a factor; on moral issues it is.

I’ll give one example of each issue: Welfare Dependency and Gay Marriage show the patterns well.

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 10.10.26 PMScreen Shot 2017-05-01 at 10.10.46 PM

The religion variables are fairly standard: do you claim to be born again, how often do you attend church, how important is religion, religious tradition (as characterized by Pew), and a measure of religious orthodoxy. The red bar at the bottom shows all Republicans without considering religious variables.

The conservative issues of welfare dependency is remarkably stable. There is very little difference between the religious subcategories. While there is slightly higher variation among some of the other issues, their overall pattern is similar.

On the other hand, there is significant difference among Republicans by religious category on moral issues like Gay Marriage. The other moral issues show similar patterns, again with some variation.

What does this mean for our contemporary politics? I believe we are in a period where the moral issues have taken a back seat. While abortion was indirectly related to a Supreme Court nominee, any Republican nominee was likely to hold that position. In the aftermath of Obergefell, gay marriage fades in significance as a political factor.

This is, in fact, what the Trump campaign claimed all along. While Candidate Trump made noises about the Johnson Amendment and saying Merry Christmas, the heart of his argument was about borders, government, jobs, and safety. These were all hot-button conservative issues.

Furthermore, to go back to the Pew chart at the top of this post, when you have 76% of White Evangelicals identifying as Republicans it just doesn’t make sense to treat them as a conceptually distinct category. Especially when the moral issues are not of high salience when the questions are being asked.

This alignment will be problematic going forward, more so for Evangelicals than for Republicans. As the general public (especially Gen-X and younger) see such a strong alignment, they will likely flee both Evangelicals and Republicans. Over the long run, it may well become considerably harder for Evangelicals to be heard even on moral issues.