Tag: Evangelicals

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.

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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.

Evangelical Simulacra

Scholars continue to wrestle with the important question of “who is an evangelical?”. Some look at historical pedigree, looking for continuity of belief, behavior, and lifestyle (see Thomas Kidd, for example). Others have observed the cultural and political dynamics as a defining characteristic. Yet others have focused on developing the apologetic Biblical worldview that would protect evangelicals against the onslaught of secularism.

None of these approaches are able to adequately define contemporary evangelicalism.

Why? Because evangelicalism has taken on the form that Jean Baudriillard called simulacra. He argues that symbols take on particular meanings within a community. Eventually, the symbols become independent of the reality they are supposed to convey and become hyperreality — operating in the performed life space while no longer conveying specialized meaning.

Famous

This occurs as media culture creates a context in which identifiers are exchanged and language allows the maintenance of shared perspective. I took the above picture today on a walk in suburban Denver. The first thing that got my attention was the idea of “making Jesus famous“. I’m not sure what help Jesus needs or what theological principle is involved therein. The second thing I noticed was the word “Champions“. Not servants, not believers: winners.

This is an illustration of evangelical simulaca. I was violating the terms of identity by trying to plumb the various intended meanings. I wanted to know what the phrases meant. But they do not function to communicate meaning. The operate to communicate identity in a visceral, unreflective manner.

This week, my friend Kristen DuMez posted in The Anxious Bench about a family trip to Hobby Lobby. Walking through this Christian craft store (that of the “closely held religious beliefs” of SCOTUS fame) and taking remarkable photos allowed Kristen and her daughters to explore the impact of symbolic expressions of the nature of gender, true Americans, and religious identity.

By this point it had become clear to me that Hobby Lobby wasn’t just a Christian company because its owners were Christians, because they contributed a large chunk of their profits to evangelistic charities, or because they had emerged as heavyweight champions in the latest round of the culture wars. But Hobby Lobby also reflects (and, by selling Christian material culture, reinforces and shapes) a distinctive white evangelical cultural identity.

What does it mean to put wall plaques up in your house adorned with Bible verses? What is the purpose of bumper stickers that share stock Christian phrases or vanity plates that read GOD 1ST?

One might assume that this is an evangelistic tool, designed to coax people into asking questions after which the owner would share the Gospel. But survey data regularly report that people are almost as uncomfortable talking about religion as they are to hear about it.

Baudrillard would have us recognize that the essence of the simulacra is performance. One acts as an evangelical, embracing the signs and symbols evangelicals are expected to embrace. It is a statement of anticipatory identity — say it and it becomes true.

This process explains why 12% of self-identified evangelicals, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, seldom or never go to church. They perform evangelicalism in other ways through the manipulation of symbols. Going to church simply may not be necessary to maintain the identity.

The media and politicians become adept at manipulating these symbols: religious freedom, protect the unborn, stop secularists, MAGA. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious sentiments underlying these positions, as Jonathan Merritt observed today. You just need to know how to perform the rituals that are present in the hyperreality.

This makes the study of “real” evangelicals remarkably difficult. It is true that many operate in the realm of church attendance, orthodox beliefs, and Bebbington’s quadrilateral. But all of that is conflated with the performative aspects of American Evangelicalism, which results in us never knowing exactly whom we are talking about.

 

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

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

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

Ven Diagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What about the 19%?: Evangelical Democrats

Last week saw a really great collection of thoughtful pieces on evangelicals and politics. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were still trying to make sense of both the 2016 presidential election and the continuing levels of support for President Trump.

Last night I tweeted the following: “We need to know a lot more about the 19% of white evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump, especially those previously Rs. What rationales?

So naturally, I set out to try to figure out the beginnings of an answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have data on the election specifically nor anything on possible changes over time.

What I do have is the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. While it doesn’t deal specifically with voting behavior, the overall dataset is large enough to examine a particular set of evangelicals. Given the recognized confusions over who exactly is an evangelical, I selected a subset of data that would fit most people’s definitions.

I looked only at individuals who reported themselves as “born again or evangelical”,  who were part of an evangelical tradition, who attended church at least once a month, and who were white, non-hispanic. I also limited my analysis to only self-identified Republicans and Democrats, leaving out Independents and minor parties.

Evangelical Party

Because the Pew survey starts with 35,000 cases, there are still over 2,700 faithful white evangelicals using all my screens. This allowed me to do some sub-group comparisons to see if there were correlates with those evangelicals who identify as Democrats.

First, about a third of the Evangelical Democrats were born before 1945. On the other hand, a third of Evangelicals Republicans are Gen-X or Millennials compared to 20% of Democrats. It’s a matter of further research to determine if younger Evangelicals are more politically conservative or simply less likely to identify as evangelicals.

Second, there are the expected social class differences. Nearly 65% of Evangelical Democrats had family incomes under $50,000 in 2013. Over 58% of Evangelical Republicans were over $50,000. There is also a split on educational level, with Democrats being more highly represented among those who have a high school degree or less (this may well be an artifact of the generational pattern).

Third, there is a gender gap (although this didn’t turn up in exit polls in 2016). Females are 10% more likely than males to be Democrats.

In my earlier analysis of evangelical Republicans, I examined the difference between attitudes toward what I called conservative issues (size of government, attitudes toward welfare) and moral issues (legality of abortion, attitude toward same-sex marriage). In that piece, I argued that on conservative issues Evangelical Republicans looked like all Republicans but that there were differences on the moral issues.

Comparing Evangelical Republicans and Evangelical Democrats on the conservative issues shows a couple of interesting patterns. First, nine out of ten Evangelical Republicans favor smaller government with less services. Over half of the Evangelical Democrats would agree on smaller government with 45% favoring more services. Similarly, when asked about whether government aid to the poor creates dependency, eight in ten Evangelical Republicans agree as do a third of Democrats.

On the moral issues, about 38% of Evangelical Democrats favor same-sex marriage where less than 10% of Republicans do. The Democrats are evenly split on whether abortion should be legal where only 13.5% of Republicans think so.

Taken together, these differences paint a fairly consistent pattern: There is a very high degree of agreement among Evangelical Republicans with a very small outlying percentage. In general, Evangelical Democrats are divided on both conservative issues and moral issues.

Remember, all of the folks I’m looking at are regularly attending evangelical churches (although the Democrats are about one Sunday less frequent in attendance). How does an Evangelical Democrat operate in the midst of assumed (and perhaps demonstrated) uniformity on political issues? This internal congregational dynamic explain the conformity assumptions in American Evangelical churches. This is less true in Lydia Bean’s Canadian churches and is not present in this new book about British Evangelicals by Andrea Hatcher.

While it’s impossible to get at congregational dynamics with cross-sectional survey data, there is a hint in the Pew data set. There are a set of questions about attitudes toward church. Some of these look at the positive impact of churches in upholding morality and helping the poor. On these, there is virtually no difference between Evangelical Democrats and Evangelical Republicans.

On the other hand, Evangelical Democrats are 9% more likely to say the church is too rule-focused and 12% more likely to say the church is too focused on money and power. The real difference shows up in terms of political engagement. Evangelical Democrats (at 42%) are 21% more likely to agree that the church is too involved in Politics. (That 8 in 10 Evangelical Republicans disagree with this statement is why the President’s Johnson Amendment pitch gets traction.)

I’m stretching way beyond the data, but I’m drawn back to Putnam/Campbell and Kinnaman/Lyons. Both of these books argued that millennials were put off by the past political engagement of the church and withdrew. Or, I would argue, at least no longer identify as evangelicals. As I’ve mentioned before (paraphrasing Robert Jones), if progressive millennials depart, the unanimity of those evangelicals who remain will actually increase.

Shifting the evangelical-politics landscape is not likely to occur in the near future. On the one hand, the historic democrats are up against actuarial limits and aren’t being replaced at similar levels by younger cohorts.

In the final analysis, Michael Wear’s argument that the Democratic party needs to recognize the diversity present among Evangelical Democrats is correct. On the other hand, when put up against the overwhelming consensus present among Evangelical Republicans, its hard to figure out how productive such a strategy will be.

Of course, the roller-coaster ride we have all been on over the last six months may completely shift all of the patterns I’ve described. But I’m not holding my breath.

A Political Sociology of Evangelicals

While I’ve been in the midst of two major projects, I’ve been following some fascinating online conversations about evangelicals and politics. The overlaps and distinctions between these positions speaks directly to themes I’ve been raising on this blog since it began.

The larger backdrop, as has been the case since the presidential campaign began, is about the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in November and who largely continue to do so. I argued just over a year ago that these patterns made sense if we consider covariants, demographic shifts, and subcultural influences within evangelicalism. This past April, I presented an analysis at Calvin College arguing that evangelicals act like Republicans when culture war issues aren’t particularly salient.

While followers of John Fea know that he’s been talking about Court Evangelicals for a few months, his argument hit the big time this week when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post. As John explained on his blog, the Court Evangelicals wanted to be near to Trump and made much of his comments on religions freedom, including the curious focus on the Johnson Amendment. (I wrote about this last July as well.) Emily Miller reported in Religion News Service that the new House budget contains language the keeps the IRS from taking action to enforce the Johnson Amendment, even though evidence is scarce that it has ever been enforced. Yet this largely symbolic step is seen as a win for Court Evangelicals.

Having visited Versailles twice during my recent France trip, the image of Court Evangelicals has taken on a particular meaning for me. One of my favorite parts of the tour of the “hunting lodge” is the dining room. At one end is the table where Louis XIV ate with his family. At the other end one finds a series of divans where the courtiers sat to observe and comment on how well the King was proceeding on his meal. The recent Oval Office prayer meeting has echoes of Versailles.

Trump Evangelicals

These Court Evangelicals have built a rhetorical frame that allows them to see Trump as a Cyrus figure whom God rose up “for such a time as this.” However, while they are important in providing the President with the ability to say “I won the evangelicals”, it’s less clear how their influence may be influencing rank and file evangelicals (although Robert Jeffress’ MAGA celebration July 4th weekend was pretty unnerving.)

On Tuesday, Neil Young (not that one!) argued in Religion and Politics that “Evangelical is not a political term”. Reacting to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals, Young suggests that she makes too much of the alignment between evangelical strength and the rise of the religious right, spending nearly half of her tome on the rise of Moral Majority and Culture Warriors. (I’m only up to 1918 in my read of Fitzgerald but I get his critique.)

It is not at all clear how much of rank-and-file evangelicals are influenced by the political positionings of Court Evangelicals and Culture Warriors. Lydia Bean’s excellent The Politics of Evangelical Identity (summarized in the first link above) finds that church people weren’t directly influenced by the Religious Right or even pastoral jeremiads. Rather, the link between evangelical identity and Republicanism was framed in the informal interactions of folks in church. In her US churches (as opposed to her Canadian churches) people assumed that society had changed for the worse and this was due to direct actions by liberals (no prayer in school, abortion, LGBT rights). The nature outgrowth of such belief is to oppose Democrats. If one doesn’t hold those views, it’s real work to remain in fellowship. It might be much easier to find a nice Methodist church.

Shortly before Young’s piece appeared, Tim Gloege wrote in The Anxious Bench reflecting on Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter’s Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism. Gloege argues that there is much to explore in terms of additional social and political dynamics that shape the development and self-presentation of evangelicalism.

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (emphasis in original)

I think Gloege is exactly right. Understanding evangelicalism at any point in time in dependent upon understanding which forces are involved in the contest. Are there tensions between Protestants and Catholics? Mainline churches and Fundamentalist churches? Arminians and Calvinists? Working class and Middle class? Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics? Those in the South and Midwest or those in the Northeast and Northwest? Suburban or Rural?

These contestations will work out differently for different subgroups at different points in time. They will differ in terms of which issues have salience (for example, RFRA issues are remarkably geographically bounded). They will differ on how the relate to various national issues as sides are determined in ways that Bean describes.

The difference between Young’s and Gloege’s arguments is important even though each have a part of the political reality. Chris Gehrz closed his blog post yesterday with a nice framing of the question:

Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?

If we use Young’s definitions, the answer comes closer to Ryrie’s. If we use Gloege’s, politics runs through evangelical identity. Not just in the narrow terms of partisan elections but in the broad context of definition and representation.

Consider the triumphalism some evangelicals expressed when the 2014 Pew Landscape survey showed that evangelicals held their own between 2007 and 2014 while Mainlines lost ground. I read far too many critiques about “cultural Christians” who believe but don’t act. (Actually working through the Pew data shows two problems with this: a large number of evangelicals don’t attend church and a large number of evangelicals belong to mainline churches.) That’s a political argument about how “we’re winning” which is then often used to justify our view as “the Christian view”.

One key point of contestation involves demographic changes. Robert Jones The End of White Christian America demonstrates how the share of the society fitting those characteristics is shrinking significantly. This is why he argued that evangelical support for Trump was made up on “nostalgia voters.” John Fea picked up this argument this morning suggesting that the 2016 election bore a resemblance to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was a last gasp effort to turn the tide against overwhelming odds.

All of these discussions have been valuable as I’ve been refining the argument I’ve been making for several years: that millennial evangelicals are approaching the political question in Gloege’s framing while older evangelicals my age have tended to approach the political question in Fitzgerald’s framing. In other words, Millennials are attempting to move from their lived experience to their understanding of Christian faith while Boomers are more likely to move from Christian Positions to lived experience. Millennials may have a higher sensitivity to authentic and holistic expression where Boomers may be more likely to tolerate dissonance between institutional expectations and lived experience.

Why is that that the case? Pew research from early last year provides a clue. Between 2010 and 2015, loyalty toward institutional religion increased for all generations except millennials. Where 59% of Boomers saw churches and religious organizations as positive in 2010, they increased to 62% in 2016. This is in remarkably sharp contrast to millennials whose support for institutional religion fell from 73% (which seems artificially high to me) in 2010 to only 55% in 2016. This actually reflects a lessening of millennial institutional loyalty in a variety of contexts.

The Court Evangelicals, with some exceptions, are my age or older. They reflect the efforts of a pro-institutional identity attempting to take advantage of political opportunity. But there is not a general mobilization of millennials to join that bandwagon.

All of this takes me back to Lydia Bean. If the church is not a place where one can express disagreement on issues of either definitional politics or partisan politics, the costs of staying may simply be too great.

Robbie Jones makes an interesting argument in The End of White Christian America. He observes that social attitudes usually moderate among groups as younger generations take on a larger share of the demographic mix. Yet on some issues (like same-sex marriage) he didn’t see that happening. He hypothesized that those younger generations who disagreed with institutional positions were simply leaving the evangelical fold. The result is an increased homogeneity among the population that says behind.

It seems that those tension are playing out on a weekly basis on my twitter feed. The most recent example was the did-he-or-didn’t-he coverage of Eugene Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage. These are political questions revolving around demographic shifts, lived experience, region of country, educational level, and yes, political party.

I certainly appreciate all of the historical analysis of evangelicalism and how it got where it is. To understand where it may be going we’re going to need new political definitions.

 

The Pew Religious Landscape Report: Complications and Questions

Last Tuesday, the good folks at the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s Religious Landscape. Predictably, the internet went crazy. Some argued that the growth in the nonaffiliated marked the end of Christianity. Others argued that this was actually good news for evangelicals because they didn’t suffer losses are great as other religious groups. Still others used the data to continue the never-ending saga of “mainline hemorrhage”.

I watched all this from a bit of a remove because it was finals week and I had a pile of grading. But I submitted grades for my last class this morning, which freed me to explore these questions for myself. I don’t have access to the 2014 Pew data (if someone wants to give me access, I’d be thrilled!), so I played around with the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape data to test some assumptions.

What I’ve explored below are the key questions we ought to be asking before writing opinion pieces that simply read a narrative into the data. When I do get access to the 2014 data, I’ll repeat the analysis I did today.

1. The Problem with Pie Charts

Pew Religious Landscape

One of the first things I did was examine various “religious families” across the two survey periods. This comparison has been the basis of many of the blog posts about the 2014 data. The percentage of respondents who are nonaffiliated jumped from 16% to 23% while other groups took small losses. It is true that the mainline took a bigger hit than evangelicals, reflecting an actual loss of population over time.

But this kind of analysis is what happens when we rely on percentages. The pie charts have to add to 100%, so if the percentage of nonaffiliated goes up, other percentages must go down. It’s not religion; it’s just math.

An alternative interpretation that relies less on parsing changes to pie slices would look at the percentage of respondents who represent the four primary Christian families. In 2007, those families made up 75% of the total, which fell to 66% in 2014. However we look at this, dropping from 3 of 4 Christians to 2 of 3 Christians doesn’t mean Christianity is dying by any stretch.

2. The Challenge of Self-Identification

The Pew Survey asks people about their religious group identification (in denominational terms) and then collapses those into the religious families shown above (a variable they call RELTRAD). In doing my analysis today, I only focused on the primary four families: Evangelicals, Mainlines, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

Pew also asked whether respondents claimed to be “born again”. As commenters on the 2014 data have reported, a substantial percentage of respondents identify with the label.

In my analysis of the 2007 data, slightly less than half (46%) are born again. Most of these are Evangelicals. But four in ten of those “born agains” come from the other three families, with 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines agreeing. If over one in four Mainline respondents say they’re born again, the “mainline doesn’t stand for anything” narrative might need to go.

This may suggest that there are certain cultural dynamics related to labels that evangelicals like to claim as their own. This cultural identification may be consistent with those other surveys that show attitudes toward the historicity of the virgin birth. It may simply be that “that’s what we say” in certain situations. What people mean by born again will need much more analysis.

3. The Problem of Attendance

Things get more complicated when we look at attendance patterns. Since the Mainline Hemorrhage thesis depends on a simple cultural identification that now isn’t needed, it’s important to see what’s really happening in congregations. If one needed to go to church in the past to prove you’re a good community member and religious non-affiliation is now more accepted, we’d expect a lot of members on paper but not in real life.

There is some truth to this, but it cuts across religious families. I broke the attendance data into two sets; those who attended once a month or more and those who attended less than once a month (I used the “once a month” cutoff in my dissertation research as the minimum level of engagement in the congregation). Here are the percentages of each by religious family.

Attend Not Attend
Evangelical 75 25
Mainline 57 43
Black 77 22
Catholic 67 33

If the “Cultural Christian” thesis holds then we’d get data like we see for Mainlines. But that narrative fails to account for the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Mainline respondents are active in their congregations. Nor can it explain the 1 in 4 Evangelicals who rarely attend church.

A related story told in commentary involves the aging of the Mainline church. We can call that the “Blue Hair Thesis”. If that were to be supported, we’d see a gradual pattern of an aging population that fails to generate sufficient replacement populations to handle losses through death. Related to this pattern is the differential birthrates by religious family (which limits replacement in some traditions).

I was able to examine attendance patterns using the four age cohorts that Pew used in reporting the 2014 data: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 plus. It is true that the senior category has a higher attendance percentage than other groups, but what surprised me was the relative stability of the 18-64 groups.

Evangelical Mainline Black Catholic
18-29 75 56 76 58
30-45 73 52 72 60
50-64 74 54 82 61
65+ 77 64 82 74

Again, the data from the 2007 Religious Landscape study raises questions about our preferred narratives. While it’s true that attendance patterns run higher among Evangelicals and Black Protestants, every age cohort within every religious family shows a majority attending church at least once a month.

Working out my logic this morning, I played with a Baylor Religion Survey, also done in 2007 (thanks to the folks at The Association of Religion Data Archives). Attendance may also be a necessary qualifier in making sense of “switching data”. Those questions (which are in Pew) compare childhood religious family with current religious family. But the Baylor survey also asks about attendance at age 12. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents didn’t make the once a month attendance threshold (a pattern with surprisingly little variation by tradition). To treat infrequent attenders as “switchers” seem like a distortion of the data.

In the Pew data, I was able to compare the “born again” data to the attendance data without separating the four religious families. I found 20% claiming to be born again and attending church less than once a month. Not everything is as we so easily suspect.

4. Religion is Important

Another of the popular narratives is that religion is become increasingly irrelevant to modern society. This may be true in the sense of lessened hegemony over cultural dynamics but it doesn’t show up in the data for those who regularly attend church. (And data on the non-affiliates show some curious patterns in reporting religion is important.)

As the earlier data showed, there are differences across the four religious traditions but these differences pale in light of the importance of religion to those who attend.

Attend Not Attend
Very Somewhat Very Somewhat
Important Important Important Important
Evangelical 89 10 54 35
Mainline 74 24 29 46
Black 91 8 66 28
Catholic 73 25 31 47

If we take the “very” and “somewhat” options together, the patterns on religious importance for those who regularly attend range from 98% to 99%. On the other hand, the nonattenders show the cultural dynamic of arguing that religion is very important in spite of their non-attendance. (This isn’t an artifact of seniors who simply can’t get out; it cuts across age categories.)

Sometimes it seems that the sociology of religion moves very slowly. It hasn’t been that long ago that we stopped dividing everything into Will Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew. We understand that there are larger dynamics of religious tradition in play.

But these patterns are clearly mitigated by attendance. We would do far better in understanding the role of religion in postmodern society if we paid more attention to the legitimate faith of those who regularly attend church instead of perpetuating our favorite version of why our particular tribe is better.