Tag: Bradley Wright

And Liberty and Justice for All

[My September submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Evangelicalism and Politics.]

An introductory comment: A reader responding to a recent post asked if I (and other writers in this series) saw any future in evangelicalism at all because he read the posts as attacking evangelical positions. I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks and realize that I could be clearer on my intent. I’m raising concerns about some aspects of evangelical culture in an attempt to call out the latent consequences those pieces may have — especially in terms of the broader culture hearing the heart of evangelicalism as it shares the love of Christ in prophetic ways to the broader society. After the critique, I’ll try to do a better job of speaking to the positive future.

It was the fall of 1981 and I was teaching my very first Introduction to Sociology class. I’d been a TA for the course in grad school but now I was responsible for the lectures myself. When I got to the broad institutional areas (of which Politics is one), I contrasted different views of governance: town hall democracy, Jeffersonian government by elites, oligarchy, and special interests. As I finished giving the lecture, I suggested that many in the church had adopted special interest tactics and that I was worried that the Body of Christ would be seen as simply another advocacy group.

The Moral Majority had been formally established just two years prior and CNN the year after that. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell could regularly be found on the new cable news outlet speaking on political issues on behalf of Christians. It had been eight years since the Roe v. Wade decision but was still five years away from the formation of Operation Rescue.

Sociology professors talking to undergraduates are  not prophets. Yet in my own small way, I was trying to be a voice about something that could prove problematic. Maybe if my undergrads paid attention and acted differently as a result, we’d find a better way of engaging the political realm.

The last three decades have seen my meager warnings come to full flower. We now have major political organizations organized around Christian themes (e.g., Family Research Council). Or are they Christian organizations organized around political themes (e.g., The Family Leader)? When political candidates flock to the  Value Voters Summit (“Faith, Family, and Opportunity for All”) to prove their conservative credential to a room full of Christian delegates, the lines between religion and politics seem to disappear.

The impact of “evangelical as special interest group” has been well documented. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? suggested about a decade ago that evangelical voters were enticed into voting for political candidates on promises to address social issues like abortion and prayer in schools but those issues didn’t remain important to the candidates after the election. He argues quite cynically (Frank is really good at cynicism) that if the issues were addressed, the voters might return to their economic interests as a basis for voting. Perversely, one of the outcomes of the special interest approach is that the establishment keeps the issue on the table to maintain funding and voter participation but doesn’t create the desired social change.

The dynamics of the special interest approach show up in the midst of the “millennials leaving church” argument. The Barna Group’s data suggests that at least some of the disaffection of today’s young people comes from seeing church leaders as overly strident on social issues, being anti-science, anti-homosexual. In short, it’s about being known for what one is against and not what one is for.

Listen to any news program discuss what “evangelical voters” care about. Sure, they’ll take about their concerns over abortion or traditional definitions of marriage. But you’re just as likely to hear them decry Obamacare, support lower taxes and limited government, and favor a strong military. This is another outgrowth of the special interest approach — parties build “big tents” of various special interests and those coalitions start to bleed over into common talking points.

Evangelicals may have access to varied outlets in television, radio, or internet, but it doesn’t change the basic principle of electoral politics: numbers. Consider the following chart produced by UConn sociologist Bradley Wright from General Social Survey data. It’s his estimate of the percentage of Americans who can be classified as evangelicals.

Wright Evangels-in-US

The GSS data suggests that evangelical strength peaked in about 1990 and has been slowly waning since. Other data suggests it’s waning even more rapidly among the young with the percentage evangelical for those under 30 falling to 17% in 2010. This means that evangelicals cannot shape public policy without significant assistance from non-evangelicals. That 24% of the public may be strident and therefore more likely to vote than the average citizen, but elections are likely to follow demographic trends similar to the 2012 election.

Here ends the negative griping. What is the alternative going forward? Let me suggest three strategies.

First, we should recognize the difference between what is scriptural priority (to some eyes) and what makes for public policy solutions. If evangelicals are only a quarter of the population, we’ll need to find better ways of engaging with those who don’t share our faith perspectives. It means being willing to influence those things we can while not fighting over the things we can’t. For example, there is interesting data from a recent Baylor Religion study suggesting that a segment of the evangelical public isn’t fighting gay marriage as a matter of social policy. A debate is brewing among some Christian bloggers about whether this represents caving to liberalism or crafting a “messy middle” My read of the report suggests the latter. The correlation data suggests that these Ambivalent Evangelicals (really needs a new label) share few if any characteristics with liberals. (I’m in conversation with the Baylor sociology folks to get a better read on the data and may update this as that comes together.)

Second, regardless of one’s view of Christian America rhetoric (there are a vast number of good Christian history sources laying the claim to rest, but it survives in spite of it), we need to craft an understanding of the country based on the current realities. Let’s not fight over Jefferson’s views on religion or the church memberships of the signers of the Declaration. We live in a culture that is marked by demographic diversity. We are surrounded by ideological diversity. We need to engage that discussion on the basis of guiding values and not on claims of superiority. It will require much patience, careful listening, and far less pronouncing. While 24% of the public isn’t majority language, it’s worth being heard as evangelicals.

Third, evangelicals are at our best when we’re advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. This has been the heart of the pro-life movement. But it goes beyond that. It means that we are passionate about justice — not just in a narrow partisan sense but in the “least of these” sense. Let’s worry less about political party orientation and think together with non-evangelicals about how we speak on behalf of those without voice. The poor, the broken, the abandoned, the hurting, the addicted, the dispirited. As people reflecting God who gave himself up for us, we cannot be guilty of a self-interested approach to democracy. It’s not about us. We already received more than we could possible imaging.

It’s about “liberty and justice for all”. There’s a reason the pledge ends with that line. It’s the hope of the nation and evangelicals have a unique role in seeing that hope come to fruition.

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.