Religious Freedom and “Deviant” Religious Groups

The Sunday before Thanksgiving was my 64th birthday.

It was also the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Every five years or so, the events of my birthday and Jonestown become as inextricably linked as they were when I turned 24. Then a recent college graduate in my first semester of graduate school in sociology with a keen interest in religion, Jonestown shook me to my core.

Looking back with the vantage point of history, it’s easy to identify Jim Jones as a cult leader. We know that this group didn’t fit our normal visions of religious expression. After all, the followers committed mass suicide by drinking tainted kool-aid. (It’s a remarkable thing that “drinking the kool-aid” has become part of our lexicon given its macabre origins.)

Jim Jones

But Jim Jones began his ministry in a Methodist church on the Southside of my hometown of Indianapolis. It is true that his views tended to liberal politics as he referred to himself as a socialist and communist.


Those views, however much out of the mainstream, are protected by the first amendment to the constitution. I am by no means trying to excuse what happened in Guyana and many books have been written on how Jones’ sense of paranoia led to increasingly aberrant behavior. But that feeling that “they” were out to get him should provide warnings to those who traffic in stoking perceptions of religious discrimination.

I’ve been listening to Ruth Graham’s excellent podcast Standoff exploring the Ruby Ridge standoff between the FBI and Randy Weaver. The first episode details how the Weavers were influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, a group that infused Aryan white supremacist views into apocalyptic scriptural passages. The ATF did go after Randy Weaver because of illegal arms sales (likely involving entrapment), but the precursor for the standoff is related to their religious beliefs. When the powers of the federal government get involved, killing Randy’s wife and son, it serves as a reinforcement of that belief system.

Back in August I attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. One session looked back at the 25th anniversary of the Branch Davidian Conflict in Waco, TX. The three panelists were all involved in either the actual standoff or in explorations immediately after the fact. Waco follows a similar pattern to the other two events. A set of beliefs, admittedly obscure and not broadly shared, led the group to pull together. Federal officials act on poor information and try to intervene, leading to a standoff that ends tragically.

This past weekend, Franklin Graham explained that white evangelicals like him support President Trump because he “defends the Christian faith:”

He also insisted his allegiance was not automatically for the Republican Party, stating that he backs politicians that “support the Christian faith whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Politicians that are going to guarantee my freedom of worship. And I appreciate the president has appointed now two conservative judges that are going to defend religious freedom, so amen to that.”

Herein lies the constitutional problem. The first amendment doesn’t call for the defense of the Christian faith. It calls for the protection of free expression of religion and opposes the official establishment of any particular religious group.

A key moment in religious freedom jurisprudence occurred in 1944 in United States v. Ballard. The Ballards were a husband and wife team that set up a church as a means to collect money, raising over $3 million. The lower court argued that the Ballards didn’t really hold a good faith belief in what they were espousing and got a fraud conviction. This was overturned on appeal in the US Court of Appeals. The state of California appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. By a decision of 5-4, the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court. Justice William Douglas, writing the majority opinion, argued:

The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position.

This is the birth of the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The Supreme Court refused to put itself in the position of “finding truth or falsity”. It is worth noting that none of the dissenters were willing to take up the “truth” question either. Three of the justices argued that illegal actions could not be masked under religious beliefs. The remaining justice, Robert Jackson, saw any enforcement of law over religion as problematic and raised potential for religious persecution. He then challenged the notion of sincerity:

If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand, and are almost certain not to believe, him.

This brings me back to Jim Jones, Randy Weaver, and David Koresh. It is difficult for those outside the religious group to evaluate the sincerity of the belief system involved. That’s why other laws are the means of enforcement. It is a matter of attempting to separate the religious beliefs from the expectations of shared adherence to laws.

So the Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby decisions represent the conflict that arises between shared legal standards and closely held religious beliefs. Following Ballard, the court has tended to side with the religious beliefs because it has no lever with which to do anything else.

But it is vitally important to remember that religious freedom does not work as a particularized right. It is as relevant to evangelical Christians as it is to White separatists, to communal apocalyptic groups, to Pastafarians, and to those with no faith whatsoever.

My very first publication was a 1980 book review of James Richardson’s Conversion Careers: In and Out of  the New Religious Movements. As i remember the book, the takeaway was the thing that separated these “deviant” religious groups from established religious groups revolved around the social acceptance denied them.  When one’s group is seen as outside the mainstream, it’s harder for people to understand them as a legitimate religious group.

That may be true sociologically but it remains an open question for a Supreme Court that simultaneously upholds religious expression while avoiding questions of validity.



USC’s “Varieties of American Evangelicalism”

Last week the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California put out a provocative typology attempting to distinguish between varieties of American evangelicals in contemporary culture. Currently this typology, developed through dialogue with the Center’s researchers, is not based on any specific measurement strategies. Nevertheless, it makes some important distinctions that could help us better understand evangelicalism today.


Varieties of Evangelicalism

They identify five groups: Trump-vangelicals, NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians, and Peace and Justice Evangelicals. The identity of each group is captured well in the five images above.

Trump-vangelicals are most likely to reflect some form of Christian Nationalism. They see Trump as “God’s man” for the moment. Comments about a modern-day Cyrus and celebration of a president who “tells it like is” while projecting strength is key to this group. Yesterday, my twitter feed started showing a billboard outside St. Louis showing a picture of Trump with the caption “The Word Became Flesh” and a note that said “Make the Gospel Great Again” (I didn’t include it because I didn’t want that to be my cover image for this post.)

NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals see a strong separation of church and society (notice how the cross sits in contrast to the city in the second image). They are concerned about moral decline and right living. So they support Trump in an instrumental fashion — expressing their concern over Roe in the Supreme Court, religious liberty, and same-sex marriage. Their commitment to separation makes diversity of viewpoint a challenge. Their primary concern is to maintain their right to their own positions.

iVangelicals are the megachurch crowd. As the USC folks explain in their summary, this reflects an accommodation of religious culture to the dominant strains of individualism and consumerism in our society. While there are exceptions, they would be less likely to engage in direct political action, preferring their worship experience to be about warm feelings and a vital worship experience.

Kingdom Christians are likely to focus on issues of service. I’d imagine that Anabaptist groups would excel at this. They want to work in areas of need to provide the support of the Gospel to those who struggle. They want to serve as Jesus did (notice the image). They don’t soft-sell their Gospel commitments but they work them out in external locales. The church becomes a sending place.

Peace and Justice Evangelicals are also committed to seeing society change. They are as committed to diversity and service as the Kingdom Christians but layer on an awareness of structural dynamics that create certain living conditions. You will find this group much more likely to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and the exercise of power. They envision a society that looks like the coming Kingdom. Their commitments to Jesus compel them to address these difficult issues that some would rather they left alone.

As the USC typology has been shared on social media, a number of people have raised legitimate questions. Why is this necessary? Isn’t this divisive? Can’t people be in multiple categories? Does this describe my congregation?

Why create a typology at all? Because too many in the public sphere focus on how 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Based on their limited inside knowledge of evangelicals, they still are struck with the contrast between evangelical stands on morality and the president’s history and demeanor. As I’ve written frequently on these pages, this misperception of evangelicals risks long term damage to how churches are perceived by those they try to reach.

Why separate evangelicals? Because we actually vary quite a bit in our methods of understanding scripture, of how we should engage our surrounding culture, and how that translates into personal decision making on key issues like voting. This is a problem inside evangelicalism as well. There are many in the first two groups that regularly call out the last two groups, suggesting they aren’t “real Christians”, much less evangelicals. Especially as we consider the generational changes underway in evangelicalism, seeing the variety might help us hold on to those who would somehow drift into becoming “nones”.

Can people be in multiple categories? Perhaps there are interesting shadings between adjacent groups. The line between the first two groups or the last two groups might be fuzzy. But it’s very difficult to imagine a Trump-vangelical who is also a Peace-and Justice Evangelical. These five categories are what sociologists call “ideal types” — Max Weber’s idea that we identify theoretical categories first and then test those categories empirically. Without this preliminary work we simply have polling data without an interpretive frame.

Does this describe my congregation? First, in creating the typology the USC researchers have focused on certain leaders within the broader evangelical movement. That’s an important first step. But there is a difference between the factors that influence a national leader and a local pastor, much less the people who attend the church. Second, there is likely more diversity in your church than you realize. I once did a study of congregational networks and found that there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals in all three of my study congregations. Their relative size shifted depending upon the theology of the church but they were all present. The reality is that we aren’t very good and discussing these distinctions within local congregations, allowing us to believe there is uniformity when there isn’t.

As I reflect on the work that the Center for Religion and Civic Culture has done, I have a couple of lingering thoughts. First, I would love to know more about how each of the five groups work with scripture. My hypothesis is that they all are looking for ways of being faithful in their hermeneutic, but they would disagree greatly on which hermeneutic to use. Furthermore, I’d love to know which passages are their go-to scriptures. My hypothesis here is that the Trump-vangelicals are more comfortable in the Old Testament while the latter two groups work from the synoptic Gospels.

My final concern is the one that has driven most of my work on evangelicals. When these five different groups approach policy and politics, is their view mediated by any kind of theological understanding? Or is their perspective simply shaped by their group identity (which I have described elsewhere as similar to team jerseys)?

Sociologist Richard Flory (senior researcher at the CRCC) he told me in an e-mail exchange that this work is just beginning. From here they will be looking for ways to operationalize these five groups. I’m eager to explore possibilities for teasing out these differences in existing survey data from Pew or the General Social Survey. My current book project is focused on people who are pretty much in the Peace and Justice camp and I’m excited to still be able to think about them as evangelicals.

Millennial Evangelicals Anticipate Election Day

In late September, Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times sent out a request on twitter than many others, including me, passed along. She tweeted:

Followers–are you an evangelical born after 1980? I’d love to hear about the relationship btwn your faith + politics today. I’ve put together a few questions for you, and hope you’ll take time to reflect, respond and share with your churches + friends –>

Today, with five days to go before the midterms, she shared her responses. In her story “God is Going to Have to Forgive Me: Young Evangelicals Speak Out“, she summarizes the responses in general and then focuses on six specific individuals. As you read the story, be sure to click on the comments. The ones that are from young evangelicals are especially enlightening.

In her opening summary, Dias shares this:

Young evangelicals are questioning the typical ties between evangelicalism and Republican politics. Many said it had caused schisms within their families. And many described a real struggle with an administration they see as hostile to immigrants, Muslims, L.G.B.T.Q. people, and the poor. They feel it reflects a loss of humanity, which conflicts with their spiritual call.

Credit: Audra Melton for The New York Times

Young evangelicals struggle to find the balance between their desire to remain theologically and biblically grounded and to affirm the diversity that has been present in the society throughout their coming of age. This is a difficult path and one that they often walk alone. Two of the six featured evangelicals shared how little politics comes up in their family:

I don’t talk politics to anyone, not even my family. We talk about Christian values.

Last year I was in the car with my mom and her husband. Trump had said something. I said, “Well he’s racist and homophobic.” They were quick to dismiss that. That was the most I’ve ever talked politics with my mom. It was five minutes.

While many of these young evangelicals are looking to sever the presumed Republican-Evangelical linkage, it is hard for them to figure out where they land. They haven’t simply substituted a new party in place of the old one but are trying for a more informed perspective. Here are two more responses:

I don’t consider myself Republican or Democrat. I am pro-life. It’s not just abortion, it’s people in prisons being treated terribly. I went to the Women’s March knowing I wouldn’t agree with a lot of what they are saying. But there’s inequality in the workplace, there’s sexual abuse.

When I have white friends or colleagues, and they assume that I align fully with the Democratic Party, I try to be as tactful as possible. Wait, should I be fully Democratic? But as a Christian there will be things I don’t fully agree with.

Navigating the space between church and the voting booth is a challenge. One woman shares the following (the quotes originally appear in the opposite order).

I don’t feel so much like I am leaving conservative evangelicalism. I worship like one, I talk like one. It’s not like I can pull myself out of this relationship. I feel incredibly guilty for attending a church I can’t invite people to. But I love the community that raised me.

The world I was dreaming about was not the world my church was dreaming about. The world liberal evangelicals want to see is the one conservative evangelicals hope doesn’t happen.

Some of the young evangelicals featured in the story maintain their Republican identity. To them, Trump is supporting evangelicals in unique ways. It’s possible that their social location (Kentucky and Iowa) has shaped those views, but they appear sincere.

I know Trump has brought back prayer. Knowing that our leaders believe those same core beliefs as us is something that brings calm. We know they have our best interest in mind.

As a Christian, I drive around the town now and see the billboards that say, “Jesus is lighting the way.” But before, when you’d say you are a Christian, that would signal you are a critical, judgmental person. I feel a little bit more safe now, going into places and saying, “I’m a Christian.”

Their views reflect the kind of rhetoric President Trump has used quite often. In a conversation with David Brody of CBN aboard Air Force One, the president reflected on the promises to evangelicals.

“Well they’re going to show up for me because nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or frankly religion than I have. You’ve seen all the things that we’ve passed including the Johnson Amendment and so many things we’ve nullified. Nobody’s done more than we have. Mexico City, take a look at that. Things that frankly until Ronald Reagan, nobody did anything. So, I know they’re very happy with me. We’ve seen they’re very happy. The question is whether or not they’re going to go out and vote when I’m not running. I have no doubt they’re going to be there in ’20. I hope they’re going to be there now because it’ll be a lot easier if they are, a lot better.”

For the record, I have to observe once again that Trump did not do anything to the Johnson Amendment besides signing an executive order to instruct the government not to after pastors, which they weren’t doing in the first place. And it is true that he reinstated the gag order on abortion messaging in Mexico City but that has flipped every time the party in the white house flips.

Yet his rhetoric rings true to some. For a young woman in rural Iowa to now feel “safe” being a Christian or for a young man to believe that “prayer is back” suggests that the sense of oppression characterizing some corners of evangelicalism is very strong.

My friend Kristen DuMez had an interesting post in The Anxious Bench today about Evangelical Fear. She writes:

Perhaps evangelical leaders believed these threats were real and present. Perhaps. But they knew full well that inciting fear in American Christians was key to amassing their own personal power. In convincing followers that evil lurked around every corner, they ensured that their followers would cling more tightly to the spiritual protection they promised—a protection that came with a cost.

White evangelical fear is genuine. But history teaches us that evangelicals should be more suspicious about who is stoking that fear, and to what ends.

Elizabeth Dias’ article suggests that these past appeals to fear will be less potent for the rising generation. Two of her young evangelicals spoke to the limitations of this method.

There are a lot of old white men in the Republican Party that use Christianity as a weapon to get themselves elected, but I’m here to tell you that we do not fall for them. The Jesus those men depict is not the Jesus that healed the sick and broke down social barriers. We are not a part of those men’s religion, and my hope is people will see that.

I don’t think I diverge theologically from my parents in major ways, but while my family is quicker to blame “the liberals,” I’m able to see that they aren’t evil, just people trying to do things in a different way.

If millennial evangelicals continue being reflective about policy positions, commit to civil discourse, and try to articulate their religious values into their voting patterns, there is reason to believe that the rancor that has so dominated our political lives might be dissipating.  That clearly would be good for evangelicalism and for the country’s sense of civic engagement.


The “Evolving Faith” Conference and Permeable Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Debunking” the 81%?

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


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

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

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

CT LW Methods

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some random thoughts after yesterday’s Kavanaugh hearingsp

Getty Images from The Weekly Standard

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

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

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

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

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

Linking Sociology of Religion and Religion Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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