Methodists Wrestle With Diversity Instead of Imposing Uniformity

I have spent nearly half of the past 30 years as a member of the United Methodist Church (the rest of the time I was Nazarene or Church of God — Anderson). I have been in Methodist churches in rural Kansas, urban Oregon, and now Michigan. It is no surprise that these three churches were very different in their temperament, their theology, and their politics. That’s not even getting into the distinctions between the former Evangelical United Brethren churches which maintain a unique culture fifty years after merging into the UMC.

I recently read research outlining that 80% of Methodist congregations are located in the South or Midwest. No doubt those regional dynamics play a role in how people think about what it means to be Methodist. Then there is the urban-rural distinctions. Urban Methodists are different from Rural Methodists and likely to have a very different set of issues that motivate them. Clergy take different positions than do rank and file members.

There’s also a distinction to be made between those people who are multi-generational Methodists and those who happen to find themselves comfortable in a local congregation yet grew up Baptist or Catholic or nothing at all. There are also significant differences between older Methodists and their younger counterparts. The former look back at the days when the congregation was bigger and the church played a significant role in the community. The younger generation wants a vital faith experience that speaks to the world in which they live.

People are part of Methodist churches because they support their community or they want to serve those in need or they want to better understand their Bible or because it’s where their primary social circle is centered. Or sometimes all of these at once.

This diversity I’m exploring is a feature of the United Methodists, not a bug.

That feature is what has brought about a specially called single-purpose general conference in St. Louis over the next few days. Called in response to the 2016 General Conference, it is a way to explore the varied positions that exist within the denomination regarding LGBTQ issues — how the church views sexuality, whether or not to ordain LGBTQ clergy, and whether to permit same-sex marriages to be performed by Methodist clergy or in local congregations. For a great overview, you can’t beat this piece (or any other, for that matter) by Emily McFarlan Miller of the Religion News Service.

As I have considered the various plans that are under consideration this week, I have developed two guiding principles. First, a good solution must protect the diversity that exists within the denomination. Second, nobody should be forced into a position that violates their own sense of integrity.

The first principle would serve to legitimize what we already know. There is a wide range of theological perspectives on LGBTQ questions within the denomination’s membership. We must avoid the temptation to search for winners and losers. We must not villainize those on the other side as unbiblical or homophobic. The delegates in St. Louis should be trying to discern God’s best vision for the future of the UMC. Ideally, that precludes those who want to take a “my way or the highway” approach. There has been far too much talk of schism before the conversations even got underway.

The second principle follows from this. Legitimizing difference means finding ways of resolving conflict that neither force people into positions (i.e., conducting a same-sex wedding, accepting a gay pastor) nor seek to punish those who act out of conscience (suspension without pay, removal of credentials). Any efforts to create uniformity through force, coercion, or sanction are not in the Spirit of the early church.

There are four primary plans under discussion in St. Louis (our local Bishop, Dr. David Bard, did a great explainer video).

The Connectional Plan creates two Methodist churches — one affirming and one traditional. Local congregations would align with one of these two bodies regardless of where they are located. The varied logistical nightmares of assemblies and councils make this solution untenable. While it protects my second principle, it is a shallow version of the first.

The Simple plan removes the Discipline language about homosexuality being inconsistent with Christian teaching as well as any restrictions on ordination or marriages. The Traditional plan retains the language and increases the penalties for violation of existing Discipline rules. Either of these two options falls short of my second principle.

That leaves me with what the Bishops call the One Church plan. This option allows individual conferences and boards of ordained ministry to resolve the question of ordaining LGBT clergy. It allows individual clergy and congregations to resolve the questions regarding same-sex marriage. The One Church plan affirms the diversity of the UMC while providing freedom to local jurisdictions on how they plan to proceed.

What is the likely impact of such a solution in the years to come? It is frankly hard to predict. Yet there is reason to believe that it might not be as fraught as many are predicting. First, since Obergefell the general public has become far more accepting of same-sex marriage. The percentage of local congregants who have family members, friends, or coworkers who are LGBT is likely quite high. Second, the younger generation has already shifted on the same-sex marriage question. According to PRRI, a majority of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage as of 2017. Resolving, at least in part, the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ issues may help stem some of the generational loss impacting all religious groups.

I wrote on Twitter yesterday that I was thinking about #GC2019 with an eye toward the Catholic conference going on in Vatican City and while still reeling from the horrific news of the last few months about the Southern Baptist Convention, Harvest Bible Chapel, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, or Willow Creek. Those examples show us how far our churches need to go to address the critical challenges of our day, especially on issues of sexuality and human dignity.

I’m sure many friends will see the One Church Plan as half a loaf because it still allows UMC churches to be nonaffirming. Other friends will be similarly disappointed because they see any accommodation to broader social changes to be a failure of the church. This diversity is, as I said earlier, one of the great strengths of the UMC. The challenge for us all is to embrace those differences while celebrating the core of what we all have in common.

The people called Methodists have always been a diverse bunch and will continue to be so. That’s not a bad thing because the world is made up of the same kinds of diverse folks.

If the United Methodist Church can acknowledge its internal diversity while maintaining the dignity of its member bodies, we will find the opportunity to stand in witness during these changing time by truly “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World”

“Those who rock the boat will soon find themselves on the rocks.”

The title quote comes from an event early in my career. It was an all-school event celebrating the start of school that was supposed to set a vision for the academic year to come. I don’t know what else the president talked about during that address. All I heard was that one line.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but I was less than compliant as a young professor. Naturally, I took the “rock the boat” line personally. There were certainly others who heard the line as I did and thought the president was talking about them. Still others were absolutely certain that he was talking about me and my friends.

Boats and Rocks

I’ve been reflecting on that line the last few days in light of events in the news. Whether it is John MacArthur’s sermon at The Master’s University and Seminary recently covered in The Chronicle, the horrific Fort Worth Star-Telegram story of sexual abuse and coverup in Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches, or the CBS Religion’s “Deconstructing My Faith” story on #exvangelicals, there is a pattern here about the organizational dynamics of conservative religious institutions.

The Chronicle story appeared the end of November. Audio of a September sermon had become available that was addressing the action taken by WASCUC, the regional accrediting body following a March regular review by a visiting team. When I served as an evaluator for WASC, I saw the care they went to in forming the visiting teams. I went almost exclusively to other faith-based institutions. That was also the case with TMUS’ March review — the five member team has three members from faith based institutions and the principal author (who is a friend of mine) has dedicated her career to institutional quality in Christian institutions.

In spite of this, MacArthur  blamed secular forces and even Satan for the accreditation situation (in spite of the fact that TMUS was out of compliance on two key eligibility requirements — an independent board and a full time CFO). Much of the challenge came as a result of the significant overlap between the church MacArthur serves, the institution, and its governing structure. As I’ve written before, Christian universities aren’t churches and the more they confuse the two the more the latter takes precedence.

The Chronicle summary of the sermon ends with these warnings MacArthur gave to the community:

“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” he said. “You didn’t have any right to find out about anything. That’s not your responsibility.”

In his remarks he referred to a Bible passage from the Book of Proverbs.

“There are things that God hates, right?” MacArthur said. “One of them is the one who stirs up strife,” he said, urging students to keep their complaints within the university and seminary.

“Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Don’t stir up strife. You don’t know the whole story.”

This combination of authoritarian leadership and dismissal of dissent is also at the heart of the sexual abuse stories arising out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The story is similar to what we’ve seen for years in the Roman Catholic Church — stories of abuse not being believed, perpetrators being transferred to new locations without disclosure, and placing the priority on the church’s mission and reputation. That the story opens with a review of the abuses by one of the key families in the movement only adds to the horror. This wasn’t some isolated pastor somewhere in a remote location. Key figures in the movement were engaged in abuse or involved in minimizing the impact.

When abuse was acknowledged, it was expected to stay in the church under the authority of the leadership.

“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”

The insularity of a “we know best” philosophy becomes an impossible situation for those who have been victimized. It provides no place for them to remain within the fellowship in good faith. Either they will be seen as suspect or they have to live with a cognitive compartmentalization that is harmful to a healthy Christian life.

The subjects of the CBS program on #exvangelicals showed some of the same patterns. The churches they were part of provided little space for their questions or concerns. At first marginalized, they eventually leave the evangelical church because the pain of staying is too great. Even though they have left for their own well-being, they seem still to be processing considerable harm dealt them by the very group that was central to their upbringing.

When I was at the Evolving Faith conference in October, I heard testimony from speakers and attendees about the levels of pain they had experienced within what was supposed to be “the Family of God.” That sense of lingering pain and betrayal is worth serious examination if we are to understand faith in contemporary America. Maybe my next book.

What happens to those who might “find themselves on the rocks?” We see those implicit threats as real. We recognize that remaining in that environment will bring pain. Of course, so will leaving. By leaving at least we find ourselves able to manage our own situation.

When the voices of dissent are silenced, whether through threat or departure, the institution itself suffers. It becomes less able to deal with the critical issues confronting it. It can choose to continue as it has for decades, assuming that by holding to the prior visions of authority and mission it is being successful. In reality, if finds people less interested in volunteering to be a part of such an environment.

Avoiding the rocks requires leaders to acknowledge that the rocks actually exist. Those who “rock the boat” aren’t just playing around. They are acknowledging the boulders in the stream and trying to find the path through the rapids.

 

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.

Millennial
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.

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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.

CT LW 1

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.

CT LW 2

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.