Tag: Jonathan Merritt

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.

 

Will RFRA laws “lead towards anarchy”?

This is the first time I’ve found one of Antonin Scalia’s arguments particularly persuasive. I’ll explain in a minute.

Like nearly everyone else, I’ve been trying to make sense of Indiana’s RFRA law and its implications. There has been a surprising dispute about even the construction of the law. There are a number of articles claiming, as Governor Pence did, that the Indiana law is “just like the federal law signed by Bill Clinton” or “like scores of other states“. Here’s the central thrust of both the 1993 federal law and the Indiana law:

Federal

(a) IN GENERAL. — Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b). (b) EXCEPTION. — Government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person –(1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Indiana

Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

So in the primary language, these two laws are fundamentally the same. Except where they aren’t.

The Indianapolis Star compared the Indiana law with the federal law.  The relevant differences aren’t in the central provision of the law but in the definitional and implementation items. First, the Indiana law takes a post-Hobby-Lobby definition of “person”, granting religious freedom rights to private businesses and non-profits. Second, the threshold for the burden on exercise is lowered from recourse after government action to the potential of a burden. In essence, it moves the timeframe from a complaint after the fact to a potential violation that has not yet occurred. Third, the Indiana law suggests that the infringement could happen “regardless of whether the state..is a party to the proceeding”. This opens the possibility of RFRA actions being taken between private parties.

So while the law looks the same on the surface, it isn’t the same. Given the Governor’s arguments, I have to wonder if the parallel wording was designed for exactly the defense that was given. Furthermore, the private arguments of some of the law’s most ardent supporters told a very different story, putting the hypothetical baker as the law’s beneficiary. The Indiana legislature and Governor Pence  today put non-discrimination language as a preamble to the law (which eliminates the baker), but it doesn’t change what I think is the central issue.

Digging into the specifics of the Indiana situation led me to explore the history of Free Exercise cases before the Supreme Court. The first case (Reynolds vs. United States) was about a polygamous Mormon using his religious beliefs as a defense against a bigamy charge. The court ruled that because the bigamy law applied to everyone, the religious belief was irrelevant.

A second major case (Sherbert) dealt with an Adventist woman whose employer fired her for not working on Saturday. Her unemployment claim was denied by the state of South Carolina. The court ruled that the state’s action constituted an undue burden on her religious expression.

A third case is the one that prompted the federal RFRA. Alfred Smith had used peyote as part of Native American religious exercise. As a result, he was fired from his job at a drug rehab clinic. When he applied for unemployment in Oregon he was denied. The court ruled that since the drug prohibition applied to all Oregonians and didn’t single out Native Americans, there was no primary burden on religious expression.

Which brings us back to Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the Smith decision. Here are two relevantScalia paragraphs that seem to speak volumes about issues in the news in the last week:

“It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]…to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended….To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’ – permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’ contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.’ To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.”

“… The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.” [Emphasis mine]

The federal RFRA law was designed in direct response to the Smith decision. But 20 years later, Scalia’s warnings sound remarkably prescient.

Mark Silk of Religion News Service wrote today that if the Smith decision had gone the other way, there might not have been an RFRA in response. I think he’s right. I’ll come back to why that’s the case.

But I want to argue that the problem with Indiana’s RFRA is inherent in the language of the law in the first place. The problem exists in the 1993 law and likely in all of the laws passed since then. The RFRA laws define religious exercise as “any exercise of religion,whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” I’ve written before that a notion of religious belief separate from group practice is hard to understand. If we understood government infringement in terms of constitutional history, it would involve the limitation of a group’s central practice.

This is why the Sherbert decision makes sense. Worshipping on Saturday was a central issue to Adventists. In that regard, the use of peyote by Smith as part of religious ritual could have been defended, as long as this was established group practice. If, on the other hand, Smith and his friend had used the peyote as an individual option, the Oregon laws would hold. Furthermore, to suggest that “any” religious exercise — even if not central — is of equal weight simply defies logic.

A second problem with the RFRA laws is that they have a relatively open definition of religion. Past jurisprudence has extended the right of religious expression not only to minority religions (Holt vs. Hobbs, 2015, on beard length for Muslim Prisoners) but to nonbelievers as well (Torcaso vs. Watkins, Oregon 2014). News reports have already shown up in Indiana regarding the proposed Church of Cannabis and the Wiccan plan to dance naked at the state house on the next full moon.

While the Indiana law was championed by conservative Christians, it opens the door for a host of other unintended challenges as Jonathan Merritt observed last year. Satanic statues in Oklahoma and Florida have demonstrated that protections for conservative Christians can easily be co-opted by other groups. This may seem like an extreme example, but I can imagine an atheist group claiming religious exemption to a personhood amendment based on their “deeply held beliefs” about when life begins. In what way is that not coercion by the state?

The third problem with RFRA laws comes in the need for consistent application. Who decides which particular violation of one’s religion exercise should be pursued in court? Ben Corey wrote this tongue-in-cheek post about all the reasons why one could refuse to bake a wedding cake. If every possible violation of someone’s personal principles becomes an occasion for legal redress against the state, it seems we would rapidly approach the scenario that Justice Scalia described above.

Here’s my overall conclusion. The RFRA laws are hampered precisely because they are negative statements. Rather than attempting to carve out a safe place for religious practice in a pluralistic society where increasing numbers of people claim no religious affiliation, we’ve attempted to protect the status quo against incursion from the changing society.

This is doomed from the start. The sooner we can begin to discuss the legitimate role of religion (which will protect ministers and churches from performing weddings against their church’s discipline), the better we’ll be able to protect the legitimate rights of believers and nonbelievers alike.

Truthiness, Belief, and Story: Reflections on Hobby Lobby Decision

I wanted to wait to comment on the Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) until I had a chance to review the actual decision after returning from my weekend in Chicago (a delightful Choral Festival at Fourth Presbyterian). In many ways, the outcome was fairly predictable given the Court’s prior position in Citizens United. Having granted bill of rights protections to corporations, it was likely that the conservative majority would be consistent. [In spite of some of what I’ve read, this wasn’t a First Amendment case on free expression but relied instead on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.]

Supreme CourtWhen I saw tweets that Justice Alito had written for the majority, it was also clear how the argument would be structured. Others have observed the sharp distinctions between the arguments of the majority and the dissent. It was almost as if they heard two different cases since their rhetorical focus seemed so different. As I did a summary read on the decision yesterday, I came away with three critical reflections.

 1. The Central Claim was one of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” the night he launched his satirical news show. His point was the facts didn’t matter because he depended on his gut to tell him what was true. It was the Merriam Webster “word of the year” for 2006, beating out the word “google”. If something feels a certain way, then that’s what matters.

At the heart of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate is a concern over four forms of contraceptives that the plaintiffs “believed” caused abortions. The mandate is actually in implementation language written by the HHS in response to amendment to the Affordable Care Act dealing with women’s preventative health. [The dissent makes clear than a religious exemption amendment failed during the ACA debate.] As the case was moving its way through the courts, I kept waiting for someone to address the central belief. There are many news reports that attempt to explore the claim that the four types (mainly IUDs and “morning after pills”) cause abortion rather than preventing ovulation. While not conclusive, my reading of the science leans toward the ovulation argument, but I’m not a definitive source. It seemed to me that someone would need to address this along the way.

I was quietly stunned in reading the oral arguments that both sides emphasized that the plaintiffs “sincerely believed” that the methods caused abortions which was a violation of their religious beliefs. But nobody addressed the scientific claim. I remember reading that social science data on young girls and dolls was an important part of the Brown v. Board deliberation, so it seemed appropriate.

This is important because Justice Alito based part of his support on the idea that there were less restrictive options available. The federal government could pay for those disputed contraceptive methods. But one can’t do so without addressing the science. If it turns out that these methods are, in fact, abortifacients, the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak amendment to the ACA would preclude any federal funds being used.  It’s stunning that Alito would suggest such a strategy unless he believed the science was on the ovulation side. [He does argue that the government has a legitimate interest in providing all 20 forms of contraception.]

2. The Nature of Belief

There are volumes written in theology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy on the nature of belief. The RFRA was written to protect a religious group from laws that infringe on their first amendment protections. The Wikipedia description quotes the act as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The Hobby Lobby argument is that their belief that “life begins at conception” is a religious belief and that the mandate infringes on that belief with regard to the four contested contraception methods. Personally, I struggle with the application of language on “free exercise” of religion with a particular moral belief. There is a big difference between Native American peyote practice (the case behind the RFRA) and a specific belief.

There are Christians firmly committed to Young Earth Creationism or that women should not have authority over men. Do these positions constitute the central place of religious belief? It’s not the same as being at risk for believing that Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer. For a society that seems to adopt a smorgasbord approach to religious belief [the Catholic Bishops just accepted the fact that 95% of Catholics disagree with the official position on birth control], how do we navigate if every set of beliefs is privileged by law?

3. Whose Story?

The Court determined that “closely held corporations” were protected by the RFRA. In other words, corporations that form around family enterprises (but not publicly traded companies) could have religious positions that must be considered. But as many have observed, Hobby Lobby as a company doesn’t appear to be organized around religious ends (except for being closed on Sunday). Many have pointed out that there are practices the company engages in that are hard to characterize as “Christian” (e.g., Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Week).

But the court’s argument seems to be that the values of the Green family extend to the rest of the corporation. This strikes me as problematic on a number of levels. We often attempt to distinguish one’s personal commitments from one’s corporate stance. This was the argument made around the Chick-fil-a CEO last year. But if one’s beliefs and story extend over all else, then how do we make decisions?

This struck me the other night when I was watching Rising Star on ABC. I don’t normally watch these music competition shows, butRising Star a choir member’s niece was on when I was in Chicago so we all watched it together. What struck me was that the judges seemed less focused on musical ability or technique as on the back story. So the baseball pitcher who was blinded by a hit ball could now try to sing. The focus was on how much he’d overcome and what dedication he showed. People were commended on how they “brought it”, overcame nerves, or how their stories touched the judges.

There’s a parallel in a focus on stories that show dedication, sincerity, and Christian commitment within the political sphere. The argument becomes about the ways in which the Greens live out their commitments of faith. But our stories are part of what got us to the current point of discussion not the be-all-and-end-all. And we need to figure out how our stories intersect with the stories of others.

All of the justices were privileging story but they were privileging different stories. The majority focused on the Greens and the dissent focused on female employees of Hobby Lobby.

At the end of the day, I can affirm Hobby Lobby’s interest in pursuing legal remedies available to them but I keep thinking that there was a stronger opportunity for a faith witness in not insisting on their way.

These reflections can no doubt be challenged and I may modify my own thinking over time. For now, it seems like a decision that left a lot unexplored. We will no doubt be revisiting this case and others like it in the future.

This is not about Duck Dynasty

McDuck

The picture is the result of a humorous tweet Thursday making reference to the Duck Dynasty news with reference to Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool of money. As I wrote on Facebook, I’ve never seen the show. In fact, I avoid “Reality Television”. So for all I knew, it might have well been a throwback to Duck Tales.

But now I know about the “controversy”: How Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ, in which he shared his views about homosexuality and race relations. In sharing his opinions, he was brash and inconsiderate. How A&E took offense at his comments about homosexuality (but, somehow as Jonathan Merritt observed, not about race) and indefinitely suspended him from further episodes of DD. The public response to the banishment was quick and loud. On the one hand, twitter was aflame with those criticizing Robertson’s comments. On the other, there were thousands and thousands taking to Facebook to complain about how he was being punished for holding to Biblical standards.

But as my title says, I’m not really interested in the specifics of this situation. Somehow it blends together with the Paula Deen controversy over racial language, the Chick-Fil-A row over the owner’s interview regarding same-sex marriage, and the never-ending War on Christmas. Add in random ACLU actions, an isolated teacher who won’t let a child write about Jesus, and Atheist Billboards and the result in a near-permanent sense of outrage on the part of good Christian folks everywhere.

I’ve been wondering why this happens with such regularity and why we seem unable to build the bridges that will allow evangelicals to be faithful witnesses that helps the broader society understand the Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom. Friday, Tobin Grant wrote this wonderful piece for Religion News Service drawing on the work of sociologists James Davison Hunter and Christian Smith to suggest that evangelicalism has historically needed to be under attack as part of its cultural identity.

I addressed the same argument in my recent post on the Future of Evangelicalism:

This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain.

As I reflect on this shifting relationship between evangelicalism and the broader culture, I’m struck with a couple of things. First, the boundaries between church and culture are increasingly porous. It’s not just that conservative Christians seem to watch a lot of reality television (and situation comedies and police procedurals and bed-hopping dramas). It’s that we evangelicals simultaneously critique the culture while seeming to be fully immersed in it. I’m not suggesting that cultural isolation is to be preferred. Instead, there is a need to develop a better sense of discernment. How can we handle contemporary culture that maintains a distance between full engagement and isolation? When do we enjoy the top situation comedy and yet still maintain a Kingdom critique?

Second, I realize how much the outrage is not just predictable but quite likely manipulated by external forces. I’ve been wondering if A&E knew the Robertson was going to give the GQ interview. How could they not? Don’t they have publicists who manage things like that? Aren’t there contractual relationships involved? So how were they “shocked” when the Duck Commander said outrageous things?

This begins to really feed my cynical side. It’s not hard to imagine that A&E allowed the interview, took offense at the comment, and made themselves the center of the universe for a few days. As I reflect on the ongoing raft of outrages, I can find similar winners benefitting from the pain of others.

I’m reminded of Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. He argues that conservatives in Kansas sided with Republicans in opposition to their own economic interests over concerns about moral issues. But the trick, he suggested, was that nothing ever changed on the moral issues. The solution was just around the corner, which kept the Kansans voting Republican.

I’m not making a political argument here. But the basic analogy holds. There are forces at work trying to maintain a sense of outrage. They may be what we call principalities and powers. They may be economic interests. They may be the result of an evangelical search for power and prestige. They may be the result of religious celebrities who maintain their audience by being offended at slippery slope arguments about the nature of modern society.

So what do we do? Perhaps the first thing is to find a new sense of balance. Let’s decide that we won’t immediately react to every situation that is suggested on cable news, Christian websites, and Facebook pages. Maybe we can say, “there may be more to this story”. Or “maybe this can’t possibly be true”. Or “that one thing was outrageous but it’s not a broad trend”.

The second thing is to engage in some critical thinking: who benefits from this outrage? Does outrage move us toward the Kingdom of God or delay its arrival?

Finally, we need to ask what it means to live as Christians in a world that is not exclusively Christian. Those who hear us will not share our vocabulary or scripture references or church traditions. We must be working on telling our stories in ways that are inviting to others, that tell the truth, and that don’t demonize others in the process.

In the movie Network, anchorman Howard Beale screams “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His rant led to great ratings, so he had to keep it up. Eventually, he began criticizing the structures at the network so they had to find a way to eliminate him without damaging their power. Howard teaches us that anger cannot be sustained. Eventually it either gives way to complacency or it leads to more important questions. Maybe the answer is to lessen our anger. After all, when Jesus equates anger and murder in Matthew 5:22, he doesn’t have an exemption for being angry at cultural figures or political leaders. He just says to guard our anger.

Frederick Buechner writes this about anger in Wishful Thinking:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel, both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Changing Our Conversation

I’ve been wrestling with the ideas in this post for over a week. I knew what I wanted to say but was struggling over whether it was worth saying, if it had already been said much better by others, or if anybody cared if it was said. Yet the ideas wouldn’t stop spinning in my head so it seems the only way to organize my thinking is to say what’s in there.

For some time, I’ve been pondering the relationship between the evangelical church and the surrounding culture. I’ve read the material about the growth of religious nones and written about that. I’ve focused on millennials and the different questions they’ve been asking. I’ve looked at the options facing Christian higher education in light of these and other changes.

Looking around the blogosphere, I find lots of sources talking about a post-Christian society. I, along with others, have preferred the term post-Constantinian to denote the disentangling of the church from the power structures of the society. Others have suggested the term post-Christendom as a way of explaining the same shifts.

The partial government shutdown and the threat of a debt ceiling breach have prompted other posts about how the church (especially among the young) is turned off by the past blending of political and religious ideology. From the last two days alone I can point to pieces by Morgan Guyton, Ben Howard, and Jonathan Merritt.

Clearly, things are changing. Past assumptions are being called into question. Some people try to draw rigid boundaries to protect against the onslaught of change. Others are welcoming the changing context and calling the rest to find the courage to deal with the change around us.

Last night I realized that one of our real problems was trying to label the church in relationship to culture at all. Post-christian denotes a time when the society was Christian. Post-Constantinian suggests a changed relationship with the powers that be. What I’ve coming to recognize is that the church is never supposed to be defined in relationship to anything other than the Godhead. We are simply to BE the church and thereby a living witness to God’s Grace breaking into the world.

Change may be a problem for a church connecting to or reacting against existing power structures because change represents a realignment of the structures themselves. But the church isn’t about Power. It’s about witness. Once we start worrying about winning arguments, proving the superiority of our own positions, gaining access to important people, or becoming power brokers ourselves, we’ve forgotten who we are and why we exist.

Post-modernity provides an opportunity to tell our story with confidence, authenticity, and complexity. It allows us to admit that the world is messy without giving up our belief that God is doing his creative work in ways we can’t even see. Our words and stances may not persuade others, but perhaps that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Ours is to be faithful.

As I said, these aren’t new ideas. I recently came across a wonderful book by Rodney Clapp, “A Peculiar People: The Church in a Post-Christian Society”. Rodney wrote the book 17 years ago, before we were worrying about post-Christian labels. His point is that we weren’t supposed to be connected to society at all. He writes:

For radicals, postmodern pluralism is a social condition in which the Constantinianism that has always been a theological dead end now becomes a political and sociological dead end. There is a place for Christians in the postmodern world, not as typically decent human beings but as unapologetic followers of the Way. (32)

Other sources lately have led me to similar conclusions. Geoff Holsclaw’s work on the scandal of evangelical memory touches similar points as have several posts by David Fitch (they co-wrote Prodigal Christianity). I’m looking forward to being with them in two weeks for a Missional Commons gathering in Chicago.  I’ve enjoyed some e-mail conversations with Dr. Amos Yong, a fellow participant in the respectful conversations project.

The Church wasn’t bothered by change when Peter had that vision in Joppa. It wasn’t upset when Paul engaged the Greeks on Mars Hill. It wasn’t bothered by change at many points in modern history, even when the church got caught up in the wrong stuff. Somehow, it finds a way to simply be the church.

In class tonight, I spent some time unpacking the difference between contract and covenant. The former depends on power and is always worried that one party will take advantage of the other (which is why we have “binding” agreements and lots of lawyers). Covenant is based on relationship and rests in simple faithfulness.

As Abraham often learned, picking the wrong path didn’t break the covenant. It’s a lesson the Church would do well to embrace. It may be precisely what society needs in the midst of such major social change.

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.

A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.