Religion is more complicated than our reporting suggests

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.

The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.


Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.

I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.

The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.

That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey  shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.

Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.

On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.

I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?

As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.

Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.

Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research  involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.

Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).

I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.

In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.

In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:

Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose.  He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world.  Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.


Your Annual Reminder about College Debt Hype

One of the things that makes writing about private higher education difficult is that most media coverage goes for the extravagant story without providing proper context. Often this takes the form of cherry-picking some reality from an Ivy League school and presuming that it is representative of all colleges. Other times it comes from looking at aggregate data without carefully deconstructing what that data is telling us.

I was reminded of this right before Christmas when the Washington Post wrote an editorial titled “It’s Time for a Reality Check on College Debt“. They were reporting on a commencement speech that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen had given at the University of Baltimore.The editorial writers offer the following:

Ms. Yellen’s words were a useful corrective to the view, expressed at great but tendentious length by presidential candidates this year, that student loans are “crushing” America’s young people — and that a major federal initiative is needed to correct that. In fact, debt distress is disproportionately concentrated in certain segments of the market, including professional schools and for-profit four-year colleges.

That’s a nice line, but the professional media has certainly contributed its share of debt-crushing stories with titles of “Is College Worth It?” Still, I’m pleased that the Post paid attention to what Ms. Yellen had to say.

In her speech, Yellen made clear that earnings for college graduates now outstrip those of people with a high school degree by 70% today compared to 20% 35 years ago. To be sure, much of this is due to the ways our economic transformations have disproportionately harmed high school graduates or those with some college.

According to the the recent national data, the total amount of student debt has reached $1.25 trillion. On the other hand, the median monthly payment for recent college students (aged 20-30) is just over $200 a month.

So where does the big debt come from? As Ms. Yellen points out, 40% of student debt is incurred in graduate or professional degrees. Other data sources put another 18% of the debt at the doorstep of for-profit colleges. Both of these institutional forms do not provide institutional aid (tuition discounts) and often require borrowing to support living expenses as well.

The students who are maximum risk of being burdened by college debt are those who take out maximum loans while not making adequate progress toward graduation. In that case, one gets the debt burden without the increased earning power.

Ms. Yellen argued:

In discussing higher education, you may have noticed that I have spoken in terms of completing your degrees. Research shows that a large share of the benefits I have described from higher education comes only to those who graduate. Even those completing three or more years of college benefit much less when they don’t get a degree. For example, some of you may be worried about paying off loans you have taken out to pay for your education. The good news is that the vast majority of student borrowers who complete their degrees find work that allows them to keep up with their payments and pay off their loans.

What does all this mean? For students, it means that borrowing for a meaningful education will pay dividends in the long run — even in art history! It means that key to success is a careful academic plan that gets on finished close to on-time. Private liberal arts institutions have a higher rate of on-time completion than other institutional types. For institutions, it mean that we need to be honest about the real costs and benefits of our degrees. We need to make sure that our students are progressing toward degrees and not simply enjoying the college life.

One of the few points of agreement between President Obama and President-Elect Trump involves the favorability of income based loan repayment plans with the possibility of forgiveness down the road. It’s an important policy initiative because the patterns for high school earnings are not likely to improve in coming decades. It’s the kind of policy that provides incentives for people to adjust to the economic transformations that have taken place. It’s certainly not the time to think about attacking student borrowing as the new chair of the House Education Committee, Virginia Foxx recently suggested.

I’ve spent a lot of time since the election pondering what it would have take for policy makers to incentivize those left behind by economic transformation in the same way they incentivized new business development.

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 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.