My #TimesUp Moment

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

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

Time Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my #TimesUp moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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





On Holistic Christian Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my response to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Identity and Team Jerseys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

About that 44%: Did White Evangelicals Stay Away in Alabama?

There was a lot of conversation yesterday while folks were waiting for the final Alabama Senate returns to come in. In my circles, much of it circled around a pattern in the exit polls: Only 44% of the those polled were White Evangelicals compared to 47% in previous election cycles. Right away, the explainers showed up. There is a very good analysis from Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the Washington Post. Christianity Today reported that Al Mohler told CNN that Roy Moore was “a bridge too far” that caused white evangelicals to stay away. Still, 80% of White Evangelicals (using the Washington Post Exit Poll) voted for Moore, pretty much that same figure as the 2016 presidential election.

Evangelicals Alabama

Determining whether this supposed defection happened or not is challenging for a couple of reasons. First, we have the ongoing problem of self-identified evangelicals. More importantly, the exit poll conflates race and religion. Were there fewer willing to call themselves evangelicals? Fewer whites as a percentage? We are left with the 44% data point without any particular strategy for interpreting it.

The more significant dynamic in the outcome is race. Not only did the exit polls show an extremely lopsided support for Jones among Black voters, but the exit poll also shows interesting variations from past registration patterns.

Race Alabama

According to Alabama state records, Whites make up 71% of active eligible voters while Blacks make up 26%. But the exit poll above shows that Black voters were a larger share of the electorate than their registration would suggest while White voters underperformed (consistent with some late reporting last night).

Because the evangelical percentages are conflated with race, an increase in the percentage of Black vote will simultaneously increase the non-white-evangelical vote. It’s quite possible that the evangelical vote didn’t change from prior elections — they just made up a smaller slice of the electorate because of the increase in the non-white population.

In the methodology section of the Post’s story, they explain that there were 2,387 people interviewed in the exit poll. So I took that number, multiplied it by the respective category percentages, then multiplied that number times the percentage going to each candidate.


For example, 44% of 2387 is 1050 and 80% of those voted for Moore which gives him 840 votes out of the 2387 with Jones getting 189. When you add the columns together, you see that Jones wins with this breakdown by 71 votes or roughly 3%. If the White Evangelical vote had been 47% of the total (which reduces the other row to 53%), Moore wins by 12 votes (right at the half-percent official recount level).

When we look at the racial breakdown, we see a much more plausible explanation of the results (which, as I’ve said, get conflated with the evangelical variable). Using the same logic Moore gets 1071 White votes (66% of 2387 times his 68% share). Because the Black vote for Moore was so small (4%) the vote count drops to zero among Blacks (it’s actually 4% of one vote). Jones, on the other hand, picks up 1137 votes and wins by 66 votes (the 2.8% is pretty close to what I was hearing of the margin by the end of the night last night). If the Black vote had matched the distribution of eligible active voters (chart on the right), Moore would have won by 2%.

It turns out that while we were all focused on Moore’s past problems with teenagers, the Alabama NAACP had been heavily organizing get out the vote campaigns, keeping people aware of the upcoming special election, and making sure that voters could get to the polls. The Alabama Secretary of State had estimated the Black turnout at 25% but the NAACP argued that this was low.

If the Black turnout was higher than normal (matching Obama’s first election), that also drives up the non-white-evangelical vote share.

It may well be that white evangelicals opted to stay home or to cast their vote for Kenny Stabler. And it’s still true that a huge majority of them voted for Moore in spite of everything. These are questions that still need to be explored with good research and not just eyeballing exit polls.

But for now, my money is on an energized Black vote that isn’t likely to sit out future elections.

Is theology ever really an independent variable?: More on defining evangelicals

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve been wrestling with investigating evangelicals for years. I was going to post some relevant links, but about 40% of the blog feed over the last two years has been dedicated to attempting (to no avail) to disentangle evangelicalism from other variables (although this particular post has proven to be evergreen with a handful of views each week nearly two years after I wrote it).

I invite you to go to the home page of this blog (or follow me) and review what I’ve been up to in order to see the various ways I’ve been attempting to deconstruct the situation. The definitional questions of evangelicalism — historically, theologically, and sociologically — will become the opening chapter of the book I’m starting as I approach my sabbatical semester next fall.

Given this ongoing exploration, I was intrigued when LifeWay research released a survey this week attempting once again to point out the difficulties of relying on evangelical self-identification. To their credit, the wanted to focus on belief. Focusing on four questions, they characterized a group they labeled “evangelicals by belief“:

In this new survey, LifeWay used a set of four questions about the Bible, Jesus, salvation and evangelism. Those questions were developed in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals. Those who strongly agree with all four are considered to be evangelicals by belief.

PrintThe evangelicals by belief (let’s call them EBB) are roughly half the size of self-identified evangelicals (SIE) and are more likely to be correlated with religious behaviors like church attendance. Where polls have regularly shown that 81% of SIEs are Republicans, LifeWay finds that only 65% of EBBs are (although the former includes only white evangelicals and the EBBS are racially mixed so that actual gap may be less narrow).

I have some quibbles with the wording of the questions that may be overly limiting but they are far less restrictive than an earlier Barna theology list (that required inerrancy and a literal Satan). Still, expecting strong agreement on all four of their items may define a religious population narrower than an actual evangelical list (especially non-Baptists).

LifeWay is assuming that distinguishing EBBs from SIEs allows a finer distinction of who is really an evangelical that might speak to the larger issues of how evangelicals have accommodated culture. Perhaps, SIEs align with the moral shift that PRRI has identified (the dramatic decline in belief in the importance of morality for political figures) but EBBS don’t. But examination of other data suggests this is unlikely to pan out.

Back in September, I used definitions suggested by the late Stephen Monsma (which included both doctrine and religiosity) to see if that changed the linkage between something like EBBs and political stances. It didn’t.

The obvious question: does this change the political orientation of the evangelicals? Could it be that the infamous 81% figure is simply an artifact of the less accurate definitions used in the media?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no (I really wanted it to be otherwise).

This morning, I returned to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey and tried my best to create scales that aligned with the LifeWay questions (I was surprised to find that Pew didn’t ask a Jesus question, presumably because they were looking at varieties of religious groups). I combined questions on Bible as Word of God, Only One Religion, and Engaging in Evangelism at least monthly. I found that just over 12% of the sample (not counting missing cases), not far from the LifeWay data.

Here’s the challenge that remains for both my analysis and I suspect for LifeWay as well. The belief variables, while an improvement over SIEs, are still not related to outcome variables. I looked at a few political questions in the Pew survey: government aid to the needy, concerns about immigration, and belief in small government. The belief variable doesn’t make much difference. For example 57% of those would be EBBs support small government while 54% of those who aren’t EBBs agree.

In other words, while theology may be a better screen than a self-identification (which reflect all kinds of cultural correlates) it’s still a pretty poor independent variable. As much as we want evangelicals to support positions and candidates that arise from their theological convictions, it doesn’t seem to happen much.

This raises an important social psychological question: when would theological views ever act as a legitimate predictor of behavior or attitude? I addressed this in this post from nearly three years ago:

But it seems to me that much of what is called “religious beliefs” are more peripheral in nature. They are positions we choose that may be derived in some fashion to a belief in the authority of scripture, but only in a very loose sense. Sometimes those beliefs are so peripheral that there is little attempt to create a cognitive linkage to central belief systems.

As much as we want theology to frame our thinking, I fear that it is largely compartmentalized or at best held in the loose sense I describe above. Social psychological research suggests that a belief must be activated in some manner and then connected to the question at hand through some logical progression. Given the lack of theological depth of many Christians (not to mention biblical illiteracy), it’s not surprising that they find it hard to make coherent arguments.

This is a project that churches and theological educators need to take on. We need far more depth in our theological understandings that move beyond affirming the rightness of our team’s position. We need serious conversation about the religious implications of political positions (as opposed to simple conversations of “what Christians believe” about the politician or position).

So, while the answer to my title question is “no”, it’s a dissatisfying answer. The whole point of Christian formation is that our faith commitments should make a difference in the way we live our lives.

Is There Evidence of Douthat’s Cultural Tribalism Among Evangelicals?

Like many people, I found things to like and dislike in Ross Douthat’s piece over the weekend. Reflecting on issues related to the Alabama Senate race, he suggested that we may be approaching an “evangelical crisis” (which he sees as not altogether bad). It’s possible, he writes, that what we’re seeing is White Christian Tribalism.

When I shared his article on Facebook and raised a number of questions about how little we know about “rank and file” evangelicals, as opposed to national and social media thought leaders, it prompted a wonderful dialogue among my friends. I suggested that perhaps what Douthat was getting at was the tremendous overlap between region of the country, rural culture, Republicanism, and Evangelicalism. I represented that idea through the following Venn Diagram (created very inartfully via PowerPoint).

Ven Diagram

While I don’t swear by the specific location of the circles, it did convey what I was pondering. Baylor’s Elesha Coffman pointed me to county level religious data that was done by the Association of Statisticians of America’s Religious Bodies. Looking closer, I found that the data had been gathered by a friend of mine, Rich Houseal, who serves as lead researcher for the Church of the Nazarene. I further realized that the actual data was available through the Association of Religious Data Archives (a marvelous site).

Naturally, I downloaded the data. Then I found 2010 Census data and matched the Counties so that I could measure the percentage rural within each county. Finally, I located 2008 presidential election results and determined the percentage of each county that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. Using around 3,000 counties, this would allow a rough analysis of my Venn Diagram. If i was right, there would be correlations between the rate of evangelical membership in the county per 1,000 population, the percent rural, and the percent voting Republican. Furthermore, I expected to find the pattern stronger in the south.

It turns out that the percent rural pretty much washed out in every analysis I did. But the relationship between the evangelicals and voting McCain showed itself to be at least mildly correlated at a rate of .37 (.60 is strong, 1.00 is perfect).

Controlling for region showed some different patterns. Using what the Census department calls East South Central (AL, KY, MS, TN) didn’t change the correlation at all. So I started playing around by looking at the correlations within individual states. The relationship completely disappears in the Mountain region (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, WY).

When I did just Alabama, the correlation jumps to .72. That means that counties with high rates of evangelical adherents were more likely to vote for McCain, even in a strong red state. The quarter of Alabama’s 67 counties that had the highest Evangelical rate (over 520 per 1,000) voted Republican at a rate 15% higher than those below 520 (72% compared to 57%).

This is some very preliminary analysis, but it’s yet another instance where i’ve tried to find other rationales for the linkage between evangelicals and being Republican but it’s just really tough to debunk. As Myriam Renaud observed at the time of Trump’s inauguration, this is not new.

The cultural tribalism, at least in some areas seems pretty vibrant. The generational shifts may result in fewer people identifying as evangelicals, as data has regularly shown. But in the short term, that will only increase the homogeneity of the population that continues to identify as evangelical.



About that 37% of Evangelicals more likely to support Moore…

You’ve no doubt seen the reports that 37% of Alabama evangelicals were more likely to support Judge Roy Moore after the accusations from the four (now five) women who were teenagers when he was in his early 30s. The data in question came from a poll conducted by a firm called JMC Analytics between November 9 (the day the story broke) and Saturday, November 11.

After reading several references to this statistic (and sharing much twitter outrage), I took the time to actually look at the poll results themselves. It’s somewhat helpful in making sense of this and other statistics. Here are some things I learned.

First, the poll seems to reflect a party affiliation. The analysis section on page 3 of the poll results contains an underlined section describing why “Republicans should be concerned.”

Second, the makeup of this poll (compared to the undated previous poll) was skewed more heavily toward evangelicals, up from 53% to 58%. I could write a separate post about whether it really makes sense to suggest that six in ten Alabamians are evangelicals, but I’ll let it go.

Third, the top-line data on the key question on how the scandal changes votes shows that the plurality (38%) are less likely to vote for Moore. And this was before the continued drumbeat of further reports, the comments from McConnell and other senators, and the RNC pulling funding.

Fourth, the subgroup comparisons show that most other subgroups are less likely to vote for Moore than more likely. One exception is that Whites are barely more likely to support Moore (and “other” is much more so). The evangelical subgroup is the only one that stands out — but as I’ve been arguing, the overlap between whites and evangelical self-identification is pretty great (and especially so in Alabama).

Finally, the most important story in the data is the substantial move of voters toward Doug Jones. Males are split, females are +6. Jones wins every age group but the oldest. A third of evangelicals say they would support Jones. The result of these splits is that Jones is up 6 percentage points from the previous poll (whenever that was) moving from a tied race to Jones ahead.

To review, there were 575 people interviewed via landline in four regions of Alabama. About 333 of those claimed to be evangelicals. As the Hill reports, 38% of that 333 (123) claimed they were more supportive of Moore (as of Saturday). But that’s still only about a fifth of those polled.

The PRRI data from last year (that I cited in my last post) on the remarkable shift in how important morality is in determining political leaders is still nothing short of striking. But every poll doesn’t necessarily represent that same trend.