Tag: Andrew Whitehead

The End of the Evangelical Project?

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I’ve spent much of the last decade exploring an idea that there are new trends within White Evangelicalism that could potentially reframe our future understanding of this subset of the religious world. Specifically, I’ve argued that many younger evangelicals (and some older ones) have abandoned the separatist structures of their youth and replaced them with a new level of cultural engagement.

Over the last two years I have been working on a book project laying out the argument. Since retiring I’ve been able to devote some more time to the project, restructuring the introduction, reordering the chapters, and thinking about next steps in the research.

However, during that time I have been reading four remarkably important books that have upended the entire project. As a result, I’m not exactly sure where my research should go and have put things on “pause” while I try to figure out if a solution is feasible. That is the specific meaning of the title of this post. There is a general meaning I’ll come back to in a bit.

I’ve approached these four books as if we were peeling back layers of an onion. Yes, I’d argue, that is a problem within white evangelicalism as commonly understood. But what if we pulled away that layer and stayed with what was left?

I started with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God. Andrew and Sam demonstrate that Christian Nationalism isn’t just an issue for white evangelicals but cuts across religious groupings. Believers in Christian Nationalism want a “Christian America” and are uncomfortable with other groups. Those who score high on their Christian Nationalism scale disproportionately support more conservative policies and were much more likely to have supported Trump from 2016 to today. The four categories of CN in their scale are Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejectors. I was able to run their data (table 1.2) backwards to estimate the percentage of white evangelicals in each category: 39%, 38%, 17%, and 6%. There is some solace in the fact that just under a quarter of white evangelicals in the Baylor Religion Survey did not support Christian Nationalism. Peeling back the Christian Nationalism layer of the onion helps but not much.

The next layer I peeled off addressed issues of Patriarchy, Authoritarianism, and Toxic Masculinity (with some celebrity worship thrown in). Kristin Kobes DuMez’s much anticipated Jesus and John Wayne explores white evangelicalism from a cultural history perspective. Evangelicalism in many ways adopted primary elements of America culture — cowboys, warriors, strong men all — and incorporated them into religious understandings. These in turn sacralized certain definitions of the nation, marriage, the family, and politics. While Kristin would be the first to acknowledge that these patterns don’t describe all evangelicals, they have been a significant factor in both the public’s understandings of evangelicals as well as default markers within the evangelical cultural sphere. So what happens if we peel James Dobson, Oliver North, Mark Driscoll, John Eldridge, and the like away from modern evangelicalism? It’s really hard to say. Those images remain dominant in too many quarters. Just last week a leading figure in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) pretty much channeled Kristin’s entire book in advocating what good evangelical men are to do and be.

The next book release to show up in my mailbox was Robert Jones’ White Too Long. A remarkable combination of history, autobiography, and data analysis, Jones’ book paints a dire picture of the ways in which white supremacy has been imbedded in American theology, not just in the evangelical south but throughout the country. In the data chapter, he contrasts various views of race across major religions traditions (white evangelicals, white mainlines, white Catholics). None of these groups come off well. While white evangelicals score higher on his racism scale (and on individual items that make it up) than do mainlines and Catholics, he says it is more a difference of degree rather than kind. The real contrast on these racial issues is between the religiously affiliated and the nonaffiliated. This pattern holds among those who attend church frequently and across regions. This was underscored by research this week from the Barna group showing that “practicing Christians” were less concerned about issues of race in 2020 than they had been in 2019, even though it’s been a key issue in the public eye since June. In other words, pulling away the layer of racial attitudes as represented in religious groups doesn’t leave us with much.

The fourth book in this cycle was Sarah Posner’s Unholy. A journalistic account of the rise of the Religious Right and its alignment with the policies of Donald Trump, it runs parallel to the arguments in the other three books. She highlights the role of religious television, especially among charismatic evangelists in contributing to a unique view of the world with dark forces at work. Another of the themes that Posner keeps returning to is the linkage between the conservative political establishment and the major evangelical figures over the last fifty years. One of the figures that is just beneath the surface in the rise of the Religious Right is Paul Weyrich, who created the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This frequent interplay and cross-fertilization between conservative politics and white evangelical organizations in unavoidable. Along with the other three books, it shows the ways in which imaging white evangelicalism without nationalism, conservatism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism becomes nearly impossible. One more layer of the onion peeled away.

But maybe there’s something still at the center of the onion, something that can give hope for the future as we look for a new plant to emerge. Many people have responded to critiques like the one I’m making by saying that this doesn’t describe their local fellowship, where people worship together and form community. There is clearly some truth to that but there are challenging signs even within local congregations.

Last month, Katelyn Beaty wrote a persuasive article in Religion News Service (subsequently expanded in an in-depth NPR interview) examining the ways in which the QAnon conspiracies have made inroads into evangelical churches. Pastors find themselves hard pressed to speak against the claims of deep forces controlling the world with Trump as savior. Recent social media posts have suggested pastors may find their positions at risk for attempting to correct these ideas. So even people who regularly attend church and enjoy worship with their friends may be trafficking in ideas very different from the Gospel when it comes to their Facebook feed.

Last week Christianity Today reported on LifeWay research regarding “the state of theology”. Using the standard screen for evangelicals drawn from the Bebbington Quadrilateral, the examined a number of different beliefs. A distrubing finding was that 30% of those categorized as evangelicals did not agree that Jesus was God but that he was simply “a good teacher”.

When I combine the racial, political, and gender ideologies shaping today’s evangelicalism with QAnon conspiracies and theological heresies, I’m not sure that I can argue that there is any core left to the onion. Given that, it is not surprising that Evangelicals for Social Action changed their name to Christians for Social Action.

The implication for my book is clear — I need to rethink my direction and focus less on evangelicals. The broader question about whether evangelicalism survives in any meaningful form remains an open question. I’ll explore more of that in my next post.

Christian Nationalism and Our Political Moment

Preface: I think this is the longest I’ve every gone between blog posts. I could say I was busy, but the reality is that I wasn’t sure I had anything compelling to add to the various crises swirling around us. That changed the last couple of days as I read Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And so I’m back!

I have been following Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry on social media for some time. I have read with interest the pieces they posted online and heard their presentations at conferences. It is good sociology that adds far more to our social and political moment that nearly all of the “Why did the white evangelicals support Trump?” opinion pieces.

In my own work on the question, I come to the same easy conclusion that Ryan Burge reports: White Evangelicals are Republicans. What has nagged at me for years is the motivation behind that correlation. Is it because white evangelicals are more likely to be rural or Southern? Less likely to have a college degree? More likely to hold a certain social class position? Concern over morality? A deep application of theological/scriptural understandings to their voting preferences?

It has proven nearly impossible to disentangle the mess of causal factors (which, admittedly, we are doing with correlational data). The search for a Grand Theory keeps failing us in the data. And so I was very excited to finally get Andrew and Sam’s book last week and put it on top of my things to do with my spring break.

It’s a quick and compelling read. The data is rich but easy for a lay reader to interpret and there’s an entire appendix on regression stuff for those who want the details.

Andrew and Sam argue that there is something of a central thread that begins to make sense of what we saw not just in 2016, but a host of things related to contemporary society. That central thread is support for Christian Nationalism. This is not a historical understanding of the nation’s founding, although it is related. It is a belief about the primacy of Christianity in our society’s social organization.

They measure Christian Nationalism through a scale made up of six questions. The measures of agreement with CN are 1) the government should declare the US a Christian nation, 2) the government should endorse Christian values, 3) separation of church and state should be minimized, 4) display of religion (read Christian) symbols should be allowed on state property, 5) American success is part of God’s plan, and 6) the government should allow prayer in public schools. They then divide the scale into four groups: Rejectors, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.

Using data from the Baylor Religion Studies, they explore the relationships between these four groupings and a host of contemporary issues. They supplement the quantitative data with 50 personal interviews representing the four orientations.

Notice the division in the chart above. Those distancing from Christian Nationalism make up just under half of their study population (48.1%) while those in favor are just over half (51.9%). It is also interesting that the two extreme categories (Rejecters and Ambassadors) are also nearly equal in size (21.%% to 19.8%, respectively). In the very first chapter, then, we have data that roughly mirrors the polarized socio-political moment we find ourselves in.

The authors unpack this data looking at three broad areas: Power, Boundaries, and Order. The first has to do with voting, legislation, and rights. The second has to do with in-group protections and out-group exclusion. The third has to do with issues of family structure and heterosexuality.

In the Power chapter, they provide a powerful counter narrative to the “white evangelicals and Trump” arguments. They show that Rejectors were very unlikely to have voted for Trump (around 5%) and Ambassadors were overwhelmingly likely to have done so (around 75%).

Moreover, this pattern repeats across a variety of subgroups (though with different percentage magnitudes). For example, 85% of evangelical Ambassadors (regardless of race) voted for Trump but so did 82% of Mainline Ambassadors and 79% of Catholic Ambassadors. Among white evangelicals, there is nearly a 60% gap between support for Trump between Ambassadors (90%) and Rejecters (31%). Even within political parties differences emerge — while 92% of Republican Ambassadors voted for Trump, only 31% of Republican Resisters did

The same patterns hold for attitudes toward refugees, military spending, and gun control. Interestingly, when they examine how a scale of religious practices relates to these same topics, the find that the more religious one is the more positive they are toward refugees, for example. So Christian Nationalism isn’t a mask for religious practice but a separate dimension altogether.

The Boundaries chapter deals with issues of immigration, race, and non-Christian religious groups. In each case, Ambassadors take the most conservative position and Rejectors the relatively liberal one. Again, these patterns are tested against religious practice with the same opposite effect as the previous chapter.

The Order chapter has a “focus on the family“. It deals with questions about mens’ role in leadership, stay at home mothers, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to transgender rights, and belief that divorce laws should be more stringent. In each case, the Ambassadors are highest in these measures and the Rejectors are lowest. In this chapter, as opposed to the others, religious practice does not move in a counter direction. As Sam Perry’s other books (on evangelical adoption and pornography use) show, this may because the family taken a central role in understanding contemporary religious practice.

As I was reading the book, a couple of questions kept recurring. I found myself wanting to do much more about the Accommodators. Are they conscious participants in Christian Nationalism or do they simply take its assumptions as background noise and implicitly act upon them? The same is true about the Resisters. Are they taking their objection to Christian Nationalism seriously or are somehow mildly annoyed at the Freedom Sunday celebration at church?

In the introduction, Whitehead and Perry describe Christian Nationalism as “a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a ‘symbolic framework’ — through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.” I think is an apt description, yet the social psychologist in me wants to know how that symbolic framework is activated and how it is addressed by those whose ideals are at odds with an Ambassador or Accommodator. Specifically, are there mechanisms through which Accommodators become Resisters?

Furthermore, if the church is to be an active yet not fearful part of the social discourse surrounding contemporary politics, how do pastors and congregations begin to reshape these implicit understandings. The data on people leaving the church due to what I would consider inappropriate political posturing is pretty clear. As Ryan Burge pointed out on Brad Onishi’s podcast last week, the alternative is to suffer in silence.

What do I mean by “inappropriate political posturing”? I mean the assumption that 1) we are all on the same side and 2) we can’t talk about broad social issues because that would be “divisive”. If the church is to the body of Christ in the contemporary word, it must be able to model church-state relations in a way that goes beyond hoping our side wins.

Andrew and Sam have provided us with an excellent starting place in terms of conceptualizing Christian Nationalism and how it is operating in contemporary society. Now it falls to other sociologists, political scientists, and religious leaders to figure out how to take their ideas into our everyday worlds in search of a more compassionate society.