Regular readers of this blog are aware that I’ve spent much of the last decade exploring an idea that there are new trends within White Evangelicalism that could potentially reframe our future understanding of this subset of the religious world. Specifically, I’ve argued that many younger evangelicals (and some older ones) have abandoned the separatist structures of their youth and replaced them with a new level of cultural engagement.
Over the last two years I have been working on a book project laying out the argument. Since retiring I’ve been able to devote some more time to the project, restructuring the introduction, reordering the chapters, and thinking about next steps in the research.
However, during that time I have been reading four remarkably important books that have upended the entire project. As a result, I’m not exactly sure where my research should go and have put things on “pause” while I try to figure out if a solution is feasible. That is the specific meaning of the title of this post. There is a general meaning I’ll come back to in a bit.
I’ve approached these four books as if we were peeling back layers of an onion. Yes, I’d argue, that is a problem within white evangelicalism as commonly understood. But what if we pulled away that layer and stayed with what was left?
I started with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God. Andrew and Sam demonstrate that Christian Nationalism isn’t just an issue for white evangelicals but cuts across religious groupings. Believers in Christian Nationalism want a “Christian America” and are uncomfortable with other groups. Those who score high on their Christian Nationalism scale disproportionately support more conservative policies and were much more likely to have supported Trump from 2016 to today. The four categories of CN in their scale are Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejectors. I was able to run their data (table 1.2) backwards to estimate the percentage of white evangelicals in each category: 39%, 38%, 17%, and 6%. There is some solace in the fact that just under a quarter of white evangelicals in the Baylor Religion Survey did not support Christian Nationalism. Peeling back the Christian Nationalism layer of the onion helps but not much.
The next layer I peeled off addressed issues of Patriarchy, Authoritarianism, and Toxic Masculinity (with some celebrity worship thrown in). Kristin Kobes DuMez’s much anticipated Jesus and John Wayne explores white evangelicalism from a cultural history perspective. Evangelicalism in many ways adopted primary elements of America culture — cowboys, warriors, strong men all — and incorporated them into religious understandings. These in turn sacralized certain definitions of the nation, marriage, the family, and politics. While Kristin would be the first to acknowledge that these patterns don’t describe all evangelicals, they have been a significant factor in both the public’s understandings of evangelicals as well as default markers within the evangelical cultural sphere. So what happens if we peel James Dobson, Oliver North, Mark Driscoll, John Eldridge, and the like away from modern evangelicalism? It’s really hard to say. Those images remain dominant in too many quarters. Just last week a leading figure in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) pretty much channeled Kristin’s entire book in advocating what good evangelical men are to do and be.
The next book release to show up in my mailbox was Robert Jones’ White Too Long. A remarkable combination of history, autobiography, and data analysis, Jones’ book paints a dire picture of the ways in which white supremacy has been imbedded in American theology, not just in the evangelical south but throughout the country. In the data chapter, he contrasts various views of race across major religions traditions (white evangelicals, white mainlines, white Catholics). None of these groups come off well. While white evangelicals score higher on his racism scale (and on individual items that make it up) than do mainlines and Catholics, he says it is more a difference of degree rather than kind. The real contrast on these racial issues is between the religiously affiliated and the nonaffiliated. This pattern holds among those who attend church frequently and across regions. This was underscored by research this week from the Barna group showing that “practicing Christians” were less concerned about issues of race in 2020 than they had been in 2019, even though it’s been a key issue in the public eye since June. In other words, pulling away the layer of racial attitudes as represented in religious groups doesn’t leave us with much.
The fourth book in this cycle was Sarah Posner’s Unholy. A journalistic account of the rise of the Religious Right and its alignment with the policies of Donald Trump, it runs parallel to the arguments in the other three books. She highlights the role of religious television, especially among charismatic evangelists in contributing to a unique view of the world with dark forces at work. Another of the themes that Posner keeps returning to is the linkage between the conservative political establishment and the major evangelical figures over the last fifty years. One of the figures that is just beneath the surface in the rise of the Religious Right is Paul Weyrich, who created the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This frequent interplay and cross-fertilization between conservative politics and white evangelical organizations in unavoidable. Along with the other three books, it shows the ways in which imaging white evangelicalism without nationalism, conservatism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism becomes nearly impossible. One more layer of the onion peeled away.
But maybe there’s something still at the center of the onion, something that can give hope for the future as we look for a new plant to emerge. Many people have responded to critiques like the one I’m making by saying that this doesn’t describe their local fellowship, where people worship together and form community. There is clearly some truth to that but there are challenging signs even within local congregations.
Last month, Katelyn Beaty wrote a persuasive article in Religion News Service (subsequently expanded in an in-depth NPR interview) examining the ways in which the QAnon conspiracies have made inroads into evangelical churches. Pastors find themselves hard pressed to speak against the claims of deep forces controlling the world with Trump as savior. Recent social media posts have suggested pastors may find their positions at risk for attempting to correct these ideas. So even people who regularly attend church and enjoy worship with their friends may be trafficking in ideas very different from the Gospel when it comes to their Facebook feed.
Last week Christianity Today reported on LifeWay research regarding “the state of theology”. Using the standard screen for evangelicals drawn from the Bebbington Quadrilateral, the examined a number of different beliefs. A distrubing finding was that 30% of those categorized as evangelicals did not agree that Jesus was God but that he was simply “a good teacher”.
When I combine the racial, political, and gender ideologies shaping today’s evangelicalism with QAnon conspiracies and theological heresies, I’m not sure that I can argue that there is any core left to the onion. Given that, it is not surprising that Evangelicals for Social Action changed their name to Christians for Social Action.
The implication for my book is clear — I need to rethink my direction and focus less on evangelicals. The broader question about whether evangelicalism survives in any meaningful form remains an open question. I’ll explore more of that in my next post.