Evangelicals and Democrats: Thoughts on Michael Wear’s Atlantic Interview

I trust Michael Wear. He is a faithful evangelical who is attempting to find a vital role for religious faith in our political system. This is a commendable, albeit taxing, task. He served in the Obama White House in the office of faith outreach during the first term. He has written a book Reclaiming Hope (which I preordered when it first became available) that releases in three weeks. I look forward to reading it.

Yesterday, The Atlantic published an interview Michael did with Emma Green. Titled “Democrats have a Religion Problem,” it covers a number of important issues we saw in the 2016 election. Notably, over 4 in 5 white evangelical/born again voters supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.


[Research note: the qualifications Pew uses are kind of weird — Black protestants are considered just Protestant. Evangelicals are people who self-identify as such. Born agains are anyone from any religious tradition who claims a salvation experience. And as I’ve noted before, there is significant variation in their church attendance.] 

The most basic explanation Michael offers is that Democrats never asked for the evangelical vote. If they had, it would have been a tough sell but losing evangelicals by 57 points as Obama did in 2012 instead of Clonton’s loss of 65 points would have been huge in an election that ended up so close. (Obama has done interviews recently explaining how he used this “limit the size of the loss” strategy in downstate Illinois during his US Senate race.)

Another explanation Wear gives is that the Democratic Party seemed to go out of its way to poke fingers in the eyes of evangelicals. This was true with a platform that demanded repealing the Hyde Amendment that blocks federal funding of abortion. It was true with making HB2 in North Carolina a rallying cry against homophobic religious folks. It was true with regard to how the contraceptive mandate in ObamaCare was seen to force religious groups to sue the federal government to  protect their “deeply held religious views”. While these issues served to fossilize the preexisting partisan distinctions, they could have been handled differently as I’ll explore below.

Thirdly, Michael points out that there is a lot of religious illiteracy among Democratic operatives. They don’t hang out with religious folks so it is easier to minimize and ridicule their positions. It’s helpful to consider how journalists with churched backgrounds do a far better job of avoiding such ridicule, treating people of faith as real people (shout-out to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Sarah McCammon, Ruth Graham, Emma Green, and others I shouldn’t be forgetting). 

This lack is particularly damaging when its filtered through the lens of religious persecution. There is an entire industry devoted to finding outrage around religion issues. A religious freedom limitation in a local school is cast as “what’s coming for us all“. The president-elect is fixated on the Johnson Amendment with no evidence that pastors have ever been limited in their political speech. But a few cases, when combined with the “they are opposed to religion” mantra creates an echo chamber that is very hard to engage.

And yet…

It’s hard for me to fully buy the “Democrats left evangelicals” argument. Lydia Bean’s book, The Politics of  Evangelical Identity underscores the myriad ways that evangelical subculture vilifies Democrats (or Liberals, which means the same thing to the parishioners in her study). It is taken as a matter of faith that not only has culture changed for the worse (sexual revolution, support of LGBT rights, the women’s movement) but that Liberal Democrats are directly to blame for forcing their views on others. It’s part of the taken for granted worldview and not a prescribed set of talking points taught from the pulpit. 

In 1988, a “colleague” wrote an opinion piece for the university paper claiming that the only way one could vote for a Democrat was by compartmentalizing ones faith from the willing sacrifice to the sovereignty of the state. I know it was written about me because he used to discuss me by name in class (according to mutual students). It fit very well within the ethos of that school and all of the others where I have worked. To make the argument that my position would have been more respected if I’d tried harder probably doesn’t hold. The best I could hope for was quiet toleration (like the angry uncle at Thanksgiving).

If we take another look at the Pew data above, it’s easier to argue that Evangelicals left Democrats, especially as moral issues superseded economic or policy issues in the minds of voters. It is true that Clinton lost evangelicals for 5% more than Obama, but the actual story going back to 2000 is a remarkable level of stability. The highest support Democrats received in the last five presidential cycles was Obama’s historic election in 2008 where he got almost a quarter of the evangelical vote. That’s a 6 point swing from Obama’s high to Clinton’s low (which would have mattered in an election so close, but still).

The easy explanation, of course, is abortion. Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, overturning that decision has been a high priority for evangelicals. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that supporting Republican presidents will change the makeup of the Court to make that possible. While the empirical evidence on that linkage is pretty poor (a lot of Republican appointees have supported Roe), it might be a viable electoral strategy — even though every president claims that there won’t be a litmus test and nominees make noises about settled law (Stare Decisis).

And yet we vilify Democratic candidates for nuancing their position on abortion (e.g., John Kerry, Tim Kaine) and arguing for space between the moral position (when does life begin) and the political position (what should policy be to govern individual rights). If one tries to argue for compromise, the firestorm from the church (especially with regard to Catholic candidates) is real.

I’d argue that Republicans have pushed the abortion debate in new directions in recent years. State laws mandating hospital level facilities for abortion clinics under supposed concern for very rare cases look to any casual observer as an attempt to undermine Roe and limit its applicability. Don’t believe me? Read the religious press when one of those laws passes and watch for the analogies to “knocking bricks out of the foundation“.

Our abortion policy is badly decided regardless of political party. The Hyde Amendment is a bandaid that holds off the actual national debate that should be had. State level restrictions on abortion are passed that manage to make abortion legal but impossible and seem to stem from the view that “we have the votes so we can do what we want.” 

We have to find new ways of having this important policy debate in ways that serve the common good and not just the partisan votes we can whip, but that’s a post for another day when I feel more brave.

One more thing about the gap between Democrats and Evangelicals. There is a huge instrastructure on the Right that mobilizes voters to attend to certain candidates. The Value Voters Summit and the Conservative Political Action Conference are two highlighted events that get covered by the major media. Republican candidates come and make their red-meat pitch to those in attendance (each trying to out extreme the previous speaker). The Family Research Council and similar groups regularly appear on cable news shows to reflect the position of evangelical Christians, always from the Republican vantage point. 

There is no equivalent infrastructure on the Democratic side. Sure, there are groups like Sojourners or Red Letter Christians but those are organized around a set of specific individuals. Who puts out the talking points to counter immigration policy from a faith persepctive? Where does criminal justice reform come in? What about balancing refugee relief and security concerns?

To me, these issues are addressed by activist groups formed around that particular agenda point. What is needed is for Democrats to find the funding to create the parallel non-governmental advocacy structures that exist on the right.

My colleague in 1988 was wrong (even though my candidate, Michael Dukakis, lost badly) — there are lots of ways of seeing how evangelical faith and Democratic partisanship flow together. I have been trying to walk that road my entire career. It’s hard and sometimes lonely but its important work to do.

The quality of our small-d democracy depends on all us putting in that work.

Emotions and Elections: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Last week, I wrote on two books that helped me reflect on our current political moment. One, Hillbilly Elegy, told the story of how limited opportunity connects to family dysfunction (a story told more sociologically in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids). The other, Evicted, detailed the complex interplay between poverty, tenant law, and the institutional forces that trap some populations in inner-city substandard housing. (The author, Matthew Desmond, will be speaking at Calvin College on January 5th.)

Both of these books address issues we never heard about during the presidential campaign. If we are to repair our political discourse in the face of segmented news sources and fake news conspiracies, we need to be more attentive to these institutional forces. If we want our candidates to speak to the real issues that would make government work for people (and thereby refute the claim that “government can’t do anything”), we need to listen more.

So I was pleased to be able to dive into Arlie Hochschild’s excellent book on Tea Party folks in Louisiana. A Berkeley sociologist, Hochschild took her qualitative lenses to the part of the country that confronts remarkable paradoxes. Inequality has grown substantially in spite of the new job economy that has gone along with expansion in the oil industry and fracking startups. Government oversight of those industries is usually seen as unwanted intrusion at best and harm causing at worst (the Obama administration’s moratorium on oil exploration after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon is an example of the latter.) But there is an awareness that the rules are written in favor of those oil concerns so government wasn’t going to do anything anyway (but somehow regulations could still apply to individual citizens who violated environmental guidelines).

Hochschild rejects the simplistic approach that asks why these Louisiana voters were acting against their economic self-interest. She begins her book refuting the argument made 12 years ago by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas. Frank had argued that Republicans offered social issues (Roe v. Wade, prayer in schools) to voters that they never moved on while supporting economic policies that worked for big business. Rather than beginning with her thesis and then finding supportive anecdotes, Hochschild is committed to finding the Deep Story that is motivating decision making (including voting).

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that Arlie tells her story of discovery along the way. The reader gets to follow along as she makes discoveries and starts connecting dots. When she arrives at a tentative Deep Story, she then tries it out on the people she has gotten to know during her visits. She shares her own struggles in trying to reconcile life in former plantation Louisiana with her life back in Berkeley.

The Deep Story she arrives at has an image of people standing in line for the American Dream. They have been standing for a long time, waiting to get their shot (Hamilton reference!). But society has been shifting demographically and attitudinally. People keep being invited into line in front of them and their promise of a good life is continually deferred. Moreover, the people put in line in front of them (immigrants, refugees, independent women, blacks, gays) are being helped by the social forces controlled by government. Nobody is looking out for their interests at all and the powers that be seem to be working directly counter to those interests.

This image of line cutting is quire consistent with the argument Robert Jones made in The End of White Christian America. Not only is it true that American society is changing with regard to religion and demography (albeit slower in Louisiana than in the country as a whole), it also aligns with Jones’ argument that 2016 saw a rise in “nostalgia voters”: people who longed for an earlier time when the Big Story worked (simply calling them racists and homophobes is as limiting as Frank focusing on economic issues).

The paradox is that this story fails to deal with the significant issues at their front door. Arlie uses environmental concerns as the keyhole issue through which one can read the relationship between the people, the free market, and the government. There is the story of Bayou d’Indie and how illegal dumping by the major employer destroyed the entire ecosystem making land unproductive and fishing absolutely hazardous. In 2012, careless drilling by Texas Brine punctured the Napoleonvillle Dome, a salt dome nearly 4000 feet below Bayou Corne. (Apparently, storing various materials in underwater salt domes is a common practice.) The result was a sinkhole that eventually subsumed 37 acres and inundated the water supply with flammable gas. The I-10 freeway bridge running across Lake Charles needs to be replaced because the clay on which the supports rest is contaminated with EDC (ethylene dichloride) which renders the supports unstable.

But media sources don’t cover these stories (how did we miss news of a 37 acre sinkhole?). And the people tend to think that interfering with the free market would be ineffective. The companies have too many lawyers, give too many campaign contributions, and infiltrate the oversight bodies. It wouldn’t do any good and the jobs on which the people are dependent might simply go away. There is little tie between corporate culture and community culture (perhaps due to tax abatements offered to get the plants to explore the oil and gas deposits that go with the terrain).

There is an added layer to her argument that I found fascinating. Early in the book, she writes this:

At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right wing belief. And it is to this core that a free-wheeling candidate such as the billionaire entrepreneur Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president in 2016, can appeal, saying, as he gazes upon throngs of supporters, “See all the passion.” (15-16, emphasis hers)

This passage helped me understand the concern about “political correctness” for the first time. The issue isn’t that they want to be free to use racial epithets or  homophobic slurs or echoing Rush Limbaugh’s concerns about “femi-nazis”. It’s that they don’t want people to tell them how they are suppposed to feel.

A commitment to being free to feel as you want rings true to me. I see it in the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump. I see it in Michael Wear’s conversation with Emma Green today on how democrats lost evangelicals.

Curiously, I also see it in millennials and others who are abandoning evangelicalism. The seem to be resenting the way that evangelical gatekeepers say “these are the issues you should be concerned about (see anything on Franklin Graham’s Facebook feed)” or “these are issues you can’t discuss (see Pete Enns’ response to the Tim Keller/Nicholas Kristoff interview).”

The challenge for us going forward is that there is a huge disconnect between the feeling concerns and the institutional forces that are really impinging on those feelings. If we stay at the emotional level, we feed a rugged individualism that insists on protecting one’s one interests. There is little there to build an understanding of the common good much less to build good policy.

But a necessary first step is to actually linked to hearing the experience of others. That’s something that policy makers of both parties need to work on.  

Reflections from Sociology of Religion

I had the joy of teaching a great class in the sociology of religion this fall. Had 20+ in the class and enough willing to engage in class discussion to make a learning experience for all. We used Roberts and Yaname’s Religion in Sociological Perspective as the primary textbook, supplemented by three monographs: Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity, Vern Bengtson’s Families and Faith, and Fengang Yang’s Religion in China. It was one of the best sociology of religion classes I’ve ever had.

As I wrapped up the semester at Spring Arbor (that’s my building), I decided to end the class with my own list of takeaways that I’ll continue to ponder for the next two years until the class rolls around again.

Here’s my list as I presented them to the students with some elaboration.

1. It’s surprising how little detail we actually have about the importance of religion in society. 

This observation stems from examining our standard measures of religious importance. Most of them seem to be likert items asking if “religion is important” but there’s little data on what makes religion important or what people even mean by that. We get similar fuzziness when asking about the preferred role of religion in society. It’s clear that the answer is somewhere between none at all and Christian America, but our data doesn’t do a good job of teasing out the impacts of those beliefs.

2. Much of what we look at when analyzing attitudes of religious groups is impacted by spurious variables. 

This was particularly evident during the election campaign. We could look at the evangelical vote, for example, but could never be clear if we were picking up pre-existing partisan biases, region of the country factors, racial dynamics, class dynamics, or rural/urban differences. Because so many of those factors were correlated with evangelical identification, it was actually very difficult to determine if religion was operating as an independent variable at all.

3. It’s not clear that denominational affiliation is an important variable. Variance within may be greater than variance between

Another factor that I was puzzling over at the end of the semester was why we keep treating denominational affliliation as predictive of other factors. While Pew data shows differences in political affiliation by denomination, there is still dynamism within that. And when we consider the above-mentioned factors of region, location, and race, separations between congregations within a denomination are great. That’s true whether we’re talking about Presbyterians or Assemblies of God. Add in the growth in non-denominations churches and the impact of denominational affiliation is even further weakened.

4. People claim to be religious independent of church attendance, theological orthodoxy, or religious knowledge. This may simply be culturally bound

Another big takeaway from data gathered around the election. There were sizeable numbers of self-identified evangelicals who never attended church. Other research has demonstrated that people have limited theological knowledge, even about the most basic facts like who wrote the Gospels. Yet those people will be considered “religious” by researchers (and journalists) as much as the Sunday School teacher or MDiv who attends church faithfully every week. People are responding, at least in part, to a belief that they are “supposed to be religious” because it’s what their cultural norms expect.

5. People’s religious attitudes (or their atheistic attitudes) may occur through osmosis more than indoctrination (Bean)

One of the really brilliant focal points of Lydia’s book is that the partisanship of the people in her study congregations (two in Albany, NY and two in Hamilton, ON) didn’t come from anyone in authority ever directing “how people were supposed to think”. Rather, partisan perspectives were developed through the social psychology of adjusting your opinions and statements to those around you. You learn what positions it’s best to take and how to frame them. The political orientation comes almost by default. It made me wonder if this kind of accommodation to the opinions of those around us isn’t also operating in non-religious groups as well.

6. Plausibility Structures can be more rigid or more permeable. This matters in terms of how social change is experienced

In looking at Berger’s plausibility structures and Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails, we got a clear sense of how the cognitive and symbolic structures that support belief are sustained. This speaks to the rigidity of “worldview” language on the one hand and the slipperiness of “seeker” language on the other (this is related to those who didn’t really believe the UFOs were coming).

7. How religion is expressed is correlated with notions of class, race, and gender. This leads to either homogeneity or conflict.

This reflects the Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation about Sunday Morning at 11:00 being the most segregated hour of the week. But it’s also true about social class and gender expectations (especially as it relates to leadership). Congregations will either need to acquiesce to the dominant perspective of their demography or their neighborhood or will need to commit to working through the kind of conflict that accompanies embracing difference.

8. Religious Expression is related to Family, School, and other institutional dynamics

The Bengtson book is a remarkable piece of research that follows religious expression across four generation in Southern California. Religious transmission is influenced in great measure by issues of parental style and warmth, by where one goes to school, by marriage and divorce patterns. We need to understand far more about how religion intersects with other aspects of an indivdiual’s life.

9. Megachurches, online platforms, and other consumerist expressions of religion may flourish for awhile but will be supplanted by more personal expressions.

Roberts and Yaname devoted a couple of chapters to alternative expressions of religious life not captured by the small congregation on Sunday morning. Many of these allow an individual to pursue feelings of comfort, of entertainment, or of insight without demanding much of the individual. There seems to be a real tension between the authenticity and accountability of a house church and the spectator role in an entertainment venue led by a celebrity pastor (skinny jeans or not).

10. The rise of the “nones” correlates with generational shifts in terms of religious expression. 

The growth in the unaffiliated population is primarily driven within the younger cohorts of society. It is true that there is a group who we now call “dones” and that average church attendance has declined by a week a month. But the principle driver of the changing perception of religion in America comes with the younger generation. Whether they are stopping out for a while or leaving for good remains the be seen but it is foolhardy to assume that they will match commitment levels of the preceding generations.

11. It’s intriguing to think of the “nones” in light of Yang’s approach to supply and demand markets

When Yang studied religion in China, he explored the relationship between government regulation, the nature of the religious market, and the ubiquity of demand. In short, he argues that while China attempted to eradicate religion that didn’t happen. When China attempted to dictate which religions groups were allowed to operate, it couldn’t stop a black (or gray) market from developing. Because the demand is higher than the supply, it makes it hard to determine who is really religious. In that light, it’s at least plausible that part of the “nones” in contemporary American society are simply dissatisfied with the supply available and are opting not to “purchase” at the moment. That would suggest that as some of the excesses of religious rhetoric start to shift, many of the nones may come back. 

12. Plurality (Yang) will be the driving force of religion in the coming decades. 

Yang made a very interesting distinction between plurality and pluralism. He suggested that plurality is a raw measure of the amount of religious diversity present in a society. The more avenues of religious expression, the higher the plurality. This is the condition we find ourselves in at the end of this year. There are white evangelicals, black evangelicals, Hispanic Catholics, Anglo Catholics, Nones, mainlines, muslims, sikhs, Jews, and atheists. The very fact of such diversity creates a shifting understanding of religion going forward (the thesis of Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America). We come an awful long way from Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

13. Pluralism (Yang and structural arrangements) will require significant inter-group interaction in the near future

Yang described pluralism as the specific societal structures, legal and political, that will be required to develop the framework for handling a society characterized by plurality.  While the temptation will be for groups to look out for their own, successful structures will require bridges to be built between religious groupings. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism is a good start in this direction.

14. How churches and religious organizations handle questions of social accommodation will have a lot to do with the vitality of religion going forward

This speaks back to issues presented in #6. The more rigid a group’s plausibility structure, the harder it is to reach across plurality boundaries. But too much accommodation leads to an extremely porous sense of group identity that challenges #5 and #8. To take a current example from the election season, Franklin Graham claims Trump won because God made it happen. That’s consistent with Graham’s worldview but won’t do anything to reach across religious boundaries. 

15. This will become very difficult in terms of the globalization of the faith and the politicization of religious decision making

The Christian church is growing most rapidly in Asia and the global South. But much of religious expression in those regions is much more conservative than religion in America, Canada, and Europe. To many of them, social accommodation begins to look like the abandonment of religious commitment. Those sentiments, when added to the more rigid worldview described above, suggest that religion will continue to feel marginalized. Ironically, this will happen as religious group suspicions seem to be at their highest (because we wind up confounding nationalism with Christian commitment as #2 would suggest.)

These 15 points simply reflect my best thinking at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them or if any of the implicit hypotheses stated herein have any evidence to support them. I can only say that I came out of the semester with fewer answers about the state of religion in modern society than at about any point in my career.

On Being Left Behind: Hillbilly Elegy and Evicted

Over the last few days, I listened to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.. Vance and finished reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Reflecting on these two books has me thinking about the nature of inequality and public policy in the light of our recent election campaign. My takeaways are likely a little different from what you may have read in the media but I think they point to some large issues we need to confront as a society.

Vance’s book is a personal reflection on his own journey from an Appalachian family to a Yale law degree. Many have used it as a lens for interpreting the “forgotten America” that disproportionately supported Donald Trump in the election. If you live in Manhattan, it’s probably a different world. But it’s really a fairly common story of family disruption passed along intergenerationally.

While the roots of Vance’s family run to Eastern Kentucky, most of the action takes place between Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. The grandparents, Meemaw and Papaw, had left “the holler” when they were very young. The combination of an unwed pregnancy and factory recruiters aggressively looking for workers for the steel plant set them on their course. There are issues with alcoholism, anger, and family disruption that extend to J.D.’s mother. Vance describes the challenges that came with her prescription drug dependency, loss of steady work, serial relationships, and trouble with the police. The instability of his life would appear to set him up to be yet another generation in the long pattern of generations.

Vance makes much of “Appalachian culture” — with a focus on self-sufficiency, keeping family business private, an individualized sense of religious life, and a limited focus on schooling. Meemaw’s approach to religion is interesting. They never go to church because they were taken advantage of once but she reads the Bible every night and says her Christianity is very important to her although she swears excessively and threatens troublemakers with violence. As she says, the Bible tells us that God helps those who help themselves (which is Ben Franklin and not Jesus).

It’s worth mentioning that the books Vance mentions in support of his argument come from a culturist viewpoint (the lessons he takes from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart give that away). But the cultural argument needs to be more robust than it is usually made. It is often framed in a deficit model — the lack of established cultural expectations is used to explain the unwed pregnancy, the lack of schooling, the drug and alcohol dependency, the isolation. 

Vance becomes successful due to some specific interventions: he moves in with Meemaw instead of bouncing around with his mother from place to place, he is encouraged by a caring high school teacher who gets him thinking about college, and he joins the Marines. Then he succeeds at Ohio State (while overworking himself), gets admitted to Yale Law, and works for a hedge fund. (There was a story this morning that he’s returning to Ohio to start a non-profit.)

I want to be fair to J.D. Vance. He didn’t set out to write a book about “the people the media doesn’t understand.” He didn’t try to write a sociological treatise or an anthropological ethnography of a people group. He’s just a guy reflecting on his own upbringing who borrows from some sociology and family systems theory along the way. In that light, it’s really a story of intergenerational family dysfunction and the way in which that creates challenges to success in future generations (something about the sins of the parents being visited about children and grandchildren sounds almost biblical).

I’d love to know more about how Appalachian families were recruited to support industrial concerns and then abandoned when the plants eventually automate or close their doors. I’d love to know more about how politicians of both political parties have used them to further their own electoral ends. I’d love to know why their communities were the ones most likely to deal with effluent from the very plants that provided their livelihood.


I heard about Matt Desmond’s book in an NPR story this summer and then again in a Chronicle of Higher Ed update. I bought it right away and got about halfway through it before my crazy semester started. I was able to finish it once grades were in.

Desmond is a Harvard sociologist who did his graduate work at Wisconsin. Partly for his dissertation and partly because of his commitments to the people he met, he lived in substandard housing for a long time. He does a deep ethnography on people who struggle to solve their housing issues. They seem to be in a continuing pattern of renting a ratty apartment for way too much money, having trouble getting the landlord to respond to issues, having family crises, falling behind on the rent, being evicted, and starting all over again. 

With each eviction, finding the next place becomes that much more difficult. Rents on substandard apartments in crime-ridden areas would go for over half my mortgage. A “good deal” meant someone could get a place for $595 a month. Because of prior evictions or criminal records, housing vouchers were not available and public housing was denied. People living on limited incomes might spend up to 80% of monthly income just on housing. And there are no tax incentives for renting.

The landlords may want to be good people who are providing housing, but they depend upon the court protecting their rights to make return on their investments. Besides, they know that another desperate potential tenant is ready to move in at a moment’s notice. They aren’t malicious but they are blind to the ways in which their very livelihood is dependent upon  planned exploitation. There’s a point in the book where he argues that the owner of the dilapidated trailer park made 51 times what his renters made.

There were some occasional success stories in the book but more often past patterns repeat in something of a downward spiral. It’s a remarkable book but hard to come away hopeful. It’s a look inside an economic segment of society we rarely look at.

I guarantee you that not one politician in 2016 ran on the lack of affordable housing in America’s cities. There were no republicans looking to advance tax incentives for developers to expand affordable housing and no democrats looking to change the Byzantine regulations governing access to getting a roof over one’s head. Desmond’s book doesn’t explore politics directly but I’d confidently guess that the renters Matt profiles didn’t vote: could be due to the criminal record, the voter ID laws, or more likely because they have more immediate issues to deal with like making sure their kids eat something.

No one has written a post-election story about why inner city residents are not engaged in civic life. The cynic in me thinks that it’s because we don’t want them engaged (history buffs know that this is why we used to tie voting to owning property). No one has challenged the Trump administration or Governor Walker or the mayor Barrett of Milwaukee to find a way to respond to the renters’ needs.

Desmond argues that it’s not part of our sociological and political discourse because we fail to see the linkages that connect our economic success as a society with the fact that these folks (Appalachians as well as inner city renters) are at the mercy of economic forces that depend upon them being where they are. Here is a long passage where he makes this point explicitly:

When I began studying poverty as a graduate student, I learned that most accounts explained inequality in one of two ways. The first referenced “structural forces” seemingly beyond control: historic legacies of discrimination, say, or massive transformation of the economy. The second emphasized individual deficiencies, from “cultural” practices, like starting a family out of wedlock, to “human capital” shortfalls, like low levels of education. Liberals preferred the first explanation and conservatives the second. To me, both seemed off. Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine. With books about single mothers, gang members, or the homeless, social scientists and journalists were writing about poor people as if they were cut off from the rest of society. The poor were said to be “invisible” or part of “the other America.” The ghetto was treated like “a city within a city.” The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and middle class were intertwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not. Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities – who were rich precisely because they did so? Why, I wondered, have we documented how the poor make ends meet without asking why their bills or so high or where they money is flowing?

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class we read Michael Sandel’s Justice. He wrestles with what it means to have a good society and explores whether it is based on utilitarianism, libertarianism, or virtue. At the end, he comes away with a commitment to the common good — a recognition that when people are left behind we are all worse off. It’s a bit of an idealistic vision, as my students point out, and struggles to make a securely argument on why we should even care about cases like the ones Vance and Sandel show us. But that isn’t the only book we use in the class. Books by Christena Cleveland, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, and Andy Crouch remind us that we are part of something larger called the Body of Christ and that we have a personal obligation to pay attention to God’s work in the world around us.

Maybe the point is that nobody is supposed to be Left Behind.


Two Weeks Later — Being Wrong as Academics

I Was Wrong.


I followed this election even more closely that I usually do. I believed the every-four-years hype of this being “the most important election in our lifetime”. I trusted the polls (even given their margin of error), thought the electoral map was structurally tilted toward Clinton, added in the rise is hispanic voters, paid attention to the Clinton advantage among suburban college educated white women, and held to my naive belief that governing was about policy.

But my wrongness runs deeper than election day.

While I tried to stay clear of fake news sites and was very cautious about clever memes to pass along, I paid a lot of attention to the kinds of media sources that fit my temperament as a sociologist — careful analysis of background factors, reliance on data, a favoring of rational dialogue. That’s why I (along with others) believed that the angry rhetoric of many at Trump rallies and/or on social media would also put off conservative Republican voters (which it did for some but not most).

Which means I’ve been wrong for a long time.

I’ve paid too little attention to those left behind in our social and economic transformations over recent decades. I wrote about most of these trends: changes in religious views, shifting attitudes toward sexuality and marriage, the housing crisis, growing inherited inequality, the shifting of the economy from manufacturing to finance, the increasing polarization of our politics, and the media’s increasingly relying on controversy to drive their economic model.

But I failed to reflect on how those changes affect different segments of the society. My sociological blinders had me looking at cities first and ignoring rural areas. This was made worse because I’ve argued for years that we don’t have red states and blue states; we have predominantly rural states and predominantly urban states.

I was wrong as an educator.

Many of my students come from smaller towns and suburbs of Michigan. While many of them were not supporting Trump, a great many more were and the vast majority of their families were. Granted, many of my students wouldn’t vote for Clinton because of their concerns over abortion. But they were making a significant choice in the first presidential vote they’d ever cast. To be honest, I was so concerned with how they’d respond when Clinton won that I didn’t really try to educate them about their voting decision. That was hubris on my part. Although I have to admit that finding the line between educating on the issues and direct advocacy can be hard to do.

There is a public responsibility to being an academic. We study things as a matter of discipline. We use careful reasoning and explain our thinking to others. We describe and interpret and occasionally make projections.

I wonder if all of the concern about “liberal academics”, “indoctrinating students”, “providing safe spaces”, offering “trigger warnings”, and being “politically correct” hasn’t made us unwilling to play our educational roles. We have maintained a presence in the classroom but have not done enough with public advocacy.

That vacuum is filled by news sites claiming the worst about others (which are easily “liked” by otherwise well-meaning people). It turns the already problematic cable news gabfest into a talking-point marathon featuring two shills for each candidate and a couple of supposedly independent journalists. It turns the election into a sideshow and leaves all of those social issues described above unaddressed for another election cycle.

Yesterday, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com posted a story titled “Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.” (This is the kind of data-based analysis I love to read.) Silver looks at the 50 counties with the highest percentage with a college degree and the 50 with the lowest. Even controlling for income, education still remains the more significant factor. Clinton won the first set by 8.5% more than Obama did in 2012. In the second set, she did 11% worse than he did.

I also read this piece today that was originally appeared in AlterNet. The author describes growing up in white rural Fundamentalist regions of the country and offers a pretty harsh critique of the “dark rigidity” of the Fundamentalist thought process. It overgeneralizes a little too much and comes off as if describing some remote and distant tribe. But it speaks to an educational need.

I’ve been wrong in my social advocacy strategies.

These two pieces have me asking what role academics can play in the midst of this educational divergence. Somehow we need to become a voice in our localities more than being a voice on Twitter.

After the election result, I realized that I have to communicate more with my congressman even though I don’t want to. But I need to do more than that. I need to increase my outreach efforts. I need to talk to high school civics classes about critical social problems confronting all areas of our country. I need to engage with civic groups about the needs in their communities and with ministers associations about the joys and concerns of religion in a diverse society. I need to write letters to the editor. I need to do all of this with ears to hear along with good sociological analysis. I need to make sure that I don’t speak with the arrogance of the educated explaining things to the masses.

This past two weeks has shown me that I’ve been wrong for awhile about a number of things. Now I have to figure out how to act on that realization. I hope my fellow academics will join me.


Religion and Discrimination: A Constitutional Challenge

I’m not a legal scholar. I’m a sociologist of religion who reflects on the relationship between law, religion, and the nature of pluralism. But I try to keep up in a cursory way with what some of the major legal tensions are in modern society and what those suggest about what it means for us to live with diversity.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for most of the summer. In fact, the early forms of my thoughts on the topic began to form back when Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Law in April of 2015.

My thoughts are not fully fleshed out but I feel pretty confident in the conclusion I think I’m coming to. I am sure I’ll dig deeper into this question in the future but I wanted to get my preliminary thoughts down before the semester starts and I get swamped teaching six classes this fall.

I’ll state my conclusion up front and then circle back to explain how I got here. Here goes:

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, claims of religious freedom will conflict directly with protections against discrimination. When that conflict occurs, the discrimination issues will win. This is the case because there is a conflict between the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. This means that way the forward for evangelicals in a diverse culture is not to rely on claims of religious freedom but to shift our argument to concerns about equal protection under the law.

ConstitutionLet me start with the US Constitution. As most of us learned in civics class, the 1st Amendment guarantees certain issues with regard to religion. Legal scholars distinguish between the establishment clause (government privileging of one religious group over others) and the free exercise clause (protecting freedom of religion from government interference).The 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship, mandates due process protections, and requires equal protection under the law.

I repeat: I am not a legal scholar. But the history of Supreme Court rulings is very instructive to our current situation.

Take, for example, the phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs”. On the surface that seems to be an affirmation of religion. But it’s curious that the phrase arose in a 1944 decision, United States v. Ballard. It revolved around a California group that called themselves “I Am”. The founders of the movement had, according to the state, bilked people out of millions of dollars based on what the state called “fraudulent beliefs” (this was to prove they acted with intent to defraud). But in Ballard, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not the place of the court to deal with the validity of religious claims.

There are many cases where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious protections for individuals in the face of state laws. In Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist woman was protected from the demands that she work on Saturday. Similar decisions regarding the Amish and public schools (Yoder v. Wisconsin) or Alaskan Aboriginals and hunting rights (Frank v. Alaska) were upheld.

On the other hand, one of the earliest religious freedom cases (Reynolds v. United States) went against the religious practitioner who in 1844 wanted to practice polygamy in line with his Mormon beliefs. In 1990, a native american lost his job due to peyote use and sued to get unemployment benefits (Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith). The Court ruled that the government had a compelling interest in both cases that overrode the individual claims of religious freedom. The Smith case prompted Congress to pass the federal RFRA in 1993.

In the midst of the coverage of the Indiana law, I wrote this post which quoted a remarkable passage from Justice Scalia writing in the Smith decision. Here it is again:

“It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]…to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended….To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.’ To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy (emphasis mine).”

What do I make of this history? First, while the Court supports the free exercise clause, it has been fairly erratic in its decisions. The freedom sought by the petitioner is usually balanced by larger state interests. Second, there appears to be a pattern of granting relief to those from a respected minority group against a majority view (Sherbert or Yoder) but less so against those seen as more marginal (Ballard or Smith). Third, while the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” works in certain circumstances where the practice is self-contained (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby or the recent state decision about a Michigan funeral home), it’s hard to see how the same applies to people working and living in broader secular culture.

[There is another avenue for redress beyond direct 1st Amendment claims. In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides some protection against zoning laws and was the ground for the Holt decision allowing a Muslim  prisoner to keep his beard.]

In short, the tensions between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause make certain application of freedom of religion claims hard to manage. Consider this description of the Locke v. Davie decision (taken from a very good site I found from the University of Missouri at Kansas City):

In 2004, the Supreme Court in Locke v Davey considered the reach of Lukumi Babalu [which protected animal sacrifice by a small group in Florida] in a case involving a Washington State scholarship program for gifted students.  The program allowed students receiving a state scholarship to pursue any major, with one exception: a degree in devotional theology.  When Joshua Davey, a scholarship recipient, was denied funding to pursue a theology program at Northwest, a private religious college, he sued, alleging that Washington had violated his Free Exercise right.  Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for a 7 to 2 majority, found that the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause, read together, offered enough “play in the joints” to allow Washington to exclude a major in devotional theology, “a religious calling” as much as “an academic pursuit,” from the list of endeavors it will support with taxpayer funds. Justices Scalia and Thomas disagreed, finding the exclusion to be a clear violation of Free Exercise principles laid down in Lukumi Babalu [emphasis mine].

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Indiana’s RFRA law was seen as “license to discriminate” by observers in the press, in industry, and social media. People struggled to see the religious freedom arguments because they didn’t involve state compulsion to not practice one’s religion. Furthermore, an expression of ones group’s free exercise will be seen by others as a distinction against another group. This is the conflict between the 1st and 14th Amendments.

Where the 1st Amendment is open to various interpretations given some of the vagaries described above, the 14th appears relatively straightforward, especially considering the Equal Protection clause. If the petitioners can demonstrate that they have been dealt with differentially under the law, the courts (state, Circuit, Appellate, and Supreme) will tend to affirm the claim.

Consider the decision last month where the Federal Appeals Court ruled North Carolina’s Voter ID law unconstitutional. The court ruled that the state had gone out of its way to select those voting processes that were most used by African Americans. Having found a “smoking gun”, the court’s decision was fairly clear.

It’s important in this light to remember that Obergefell, in legalizing same-sex marriage, was technically a 14th Amendment decision. It was actually a ruling on the unconstitutionally of voter initiatives and state laws that singled out gay couples and said that they couldn’t marry. The Windsor decision, that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act follows the same logic.

I wrote recently about Robert Jones’ great new book, The End of White Christian America. Jones documents the past dominance of Protestants (both Mainliners and Evangelicals) in American society and the ways in which that dominance is declining due to demographic and religious shifts in the society. You can watch a C-Span presentation of Jones’ argument here (and hear me ask the question that prompted this blog post!).

The loss of cultural dominance has some dramatic impacts. One of these is a feeling of persecution (or, more correctly, marginalization).Another is a desire to strike back, to protect against further encroachment.

This spring’s Mississippi law is a good example of this latter approach. In April, the legislature passed a law (HB 1523) designed to protect certain “sincerely held religious beliefs”. It was blocked from taking effect by District Judge Carlton Reeves at the end of June. Here is a summary of the law taken from his ruling.

HB 1523 enumerates three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” entitled to special legal protection. They are,

(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;

(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and

(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth (p.11).

Judge Reeves ruled that there were 1st Amendment Establishment Clause issues in privileging a particular religious view for state protection. But most of his decision was based on 14th Amendment Equal Protection issues.

The State’s argument overlooks the fundamental injurious nature of HB 1523 – the establishment of a broad-based system by which LGBT persons and unmarried persons can be subjected to differential treatment based solely on their status. This type of differential treatment is the hallmark of what is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment.

As I stated earlier, differential treatment either experienced or anticipated is not difficult to prove. So attempting to carve out special religious conscience clauses are unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

There are, however, other strategies for Christians to navigate these churning seas of cultural change beside holding to our past positions and claiming 1st Amendment protections. Earlier this summer, I wrote about John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism. While John ends up in some different places that I do, his book is helpful. I’ll repeat the quote I used in my earlier review:

 The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function — and even to flourish — despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs (8, emphasis mine).

This week my friends Alan Noble and Michael Wear, along with others, launched a new initiative they’ve called Public Faith. You can read their vision statement and sign an affirmation here (I did right away!). They rightly lay out a vision that suggests that Christians play a vital role in society without expecting dominance or withdrawal. While I may differ on some policy orientations, there is a great deal to admire here. Consider this paragraph from the opening passage:

Also central to true pluralism is the continued inclusion of people of faith and religious organizations of various backgrounds and beliefs in the American political community. We believe strongly in religious freedom for all as a bedrock principle that will be essential if we are to build a more inclusive America in this new century. Such freedoms include religious minorities—including Muslims—and religions that hold beliefs that are unpopular. Religious freedom is not absolute, and religious freedom should not cause undue harm to achieve political ends, but it should only be infringed upon in the most extenuating circumstances, and only when absolutely necessary. This idea is not new, but reflected in both statutes and our Constitution. Christian institutions deserve full inclusion in American society, and efforts to starve or stigmatize Christian institutions by force of law or government-endorsed marginalization should be opposed (emphasis mine).

This, then, is where I think we end up.

Rather than calling for religious freedom protections on 1st Amendment grounds as a way of defending our past positions in light of social change, we evangelicals need to give more thought to the way the 14th Amendment Equal Protection and Due Process protections could work. That will require us to be far clearer about the harm done by participating in a pluralistic culture that doesn’t share our values. Failure to do so has been why claims of bakers, photographers, and court clerks have not tended to prevail in court.

We have recently seen an example where my 14th Amendment approach may be in operation. This spring a legislator in California introduced SB 1146 which was aimed at Christian Colleges that had Title IX exemption around LGBT acceptance (California has a state non-discrimination law). There was great concern in the Christian community about what such an approach meant for religious freedom and the future of Christian Higher Education. But as the bill made its way through the state assembly, having passed the Senate, accommodations were made that allowed the Christian schools to continue to operate (while requiring disclosure of the exemptions). It really did attempt to find a way to protect both Christian institutions and LGBT students who might consider attending them.

Alan Noble wrote what I think is an excellent analysis in The Atlantic. There were critics of Alan’s article from both left and right, which is how things will go if we pursue the kind of confident pluralism that the coming decades will demand.

We may be approaching the “End of White Christian America” but there is still a solid voice for people of faith in the midst of the coming diversity.


There’s Something More Important Than the Election

[Some faculty members at Spring Arbor were invited to write something about the election for the fall alumni newsletter. Here’s my submission.]

Like much of America, I can’t seem to stop reading about what’s happening in the presidential race. The major candidates have the highest unfavorable ratings of any two candidates in history. Hardly a day goes by without a new revelation about something one of them did or said which has to be fact checked and analyzed.

The polls provide a snapshot of how potential voters are responding to the candidates. It’s possible to sort support for candidates based upon what characteristics are most important to which subgroups. How do white women with college degrees differ from white men without? Which are leaning toward Clinton? Which are encouraged by Trump’s remarks on national security? The stability of polling has allowed many professional analysts like FiveThirtyEight or Real Clear Politics to make probability estimates on how the Electoral College is likely to turn out.

A quick note about political polling from someone who teaches statistics and research methods: Those polls done by professional organizations are actually quite stable and trustworthy. Yes, there is a margin or error to each individual poll but when they are aggregated over time that margin goes down. The key to polling is to have a sample that reflects the voting population in general. These summary analyses have proven very effective at predicting the eventual outcome of the election in November. This is because they are looking at how states are likely to turn out, which is what the Electoral College is based on, and not on each individual voter. (If you want to know more, drop me an email.)

My real problem with polling is that it focuses all of our attention on November 8th. We can make our own predictions on how the election will turn out and be happy or sad about the outcome depending upon which candidate we were backing.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t be so focused on November. The real questions around the presidential election begin to arise on January 20th. How will the new president lead the country to address the many critical issues that require our attention? Can the rhetoric of a political campaign be translated into appropriate policy? Can the president work with members of the opposition party to advance issues on behalf of the common good?

I am what Andrew Hamilton (of musical fame) called a Federalist. That means that I believe that there is a role for the federal government to play in fostering “a more perfect Union”. We haven’t been very good at that in recent administrations, regardless of party. This is why polls show Americans overwhelming believing that the country is “on the wrong track” and why Congress’ approval rating remains in the single digits.

Our never-ending election seasons have encouraged us to look at political life as a repeated pattern of winners and losers. In reality, we have to work together across party lines to deal with the pressing issues facing us as a society.

This is particularly important for Christian voters to remember. Because we live in a representative democracy, our viewpoints are important voices in the public square but are not the only voices. We also need to remember than some of the people with whom we disagree politically are also Christians striving to follow Jesus. Finally, we need to recognize that many outside the church are evaluating Christianity on the basis for how we engage political discussion.

That preamble to the Constitution is really a remarkable paragraph. Its what should be guiding all of us in our thinking about “We The People”. Regardless of the outcome on November 8th, that’s the important challenge before us.