Tag: Paul Djupe

Exploring Evangelical Complexity

As I’ve written before, there is a well-developed cottage industry organized around the question “who are the evangelicals and what are they thinking?”. While I’m pretty sure we aren’t getting closer to any definitive answer, it feels like we’re beginning to grasp why the question remains such a conundrum.

This past week, Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe addressed the variety of answers to the question on the Religion in Public blog. Written in partial response to a recent book edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Masden — Evangelicals, Who They Are Now, Have Been, and Could Be — they attempt to explore the “blind men and the elephant” problem in studying evangelicals.

I read the Noll book last month and found it very helpful in understanding the development of the intellectual history approach to evangelicalism. The book reflects some coherence in that approach while still exploring the challenges inherent therein. Bebbington’s contribution focusing on four theological beliefs has merit but its applicability remains somewhat challenging in today’s marketplace. It is a very good book that involves some significant dialogue among the contributors.

There is real value in locating evangelicalism in a historical vein but there is often a disconnect between that view and how social scientists explore the question. I remember n the mid-80s being allowed to sit in as the token sociologist in a group of historians — including Joel Carpenter and the recently passed Don Dayton — at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The intervening decades have not brought us closer to consensus.

Ryan and Paul explore three different approaches social scientists might use as definitional schemas. First, they look at “organizational attachment” most often measured by the RELTRAD variable in surveys. Second, they try to use theological variables (measured by agreement with some standard (although largely inadequate IHMO — see my previous post) survey formulations from respectable polling groups. Examining some data, they do not find major differences between evangelical and non-evangelical Christians. Their third approach focuses on the “born-again” identification. While those in evangelicals denominations are more likely to claim the identity than mainline denominations (but only marginally different from Black Protestants), one is left to wonder what exactly that means. In my years as an administrator in Christian Colleges, I found I had to prep prospective faculty from non-evangelical traditions. They had deep faith commitments but didn’t use the born-again language search committees wanted to hear.

Early in their blog post, they share the following insight:

Perhaps sadly, the citizenry does not conform to consistency and academic rules of classification, which leads to some strange combinations of religious attributes. That is, religion is not like a matryoshka doll.

The same day Ryan and Paul wrote their piece, Peter Wehner wrote a reflection on the Noll book for Cardus — I think they landed on twitter within minutes of each other. Peter quickly moves from contemporary politics to Bebbington and then to scripture. He writes of people whose lives were transformed by the Gospel which then gave them the motivation to address power and injustice. Instead we see faith used as a means to gain power and control over others. Yet today:

We are much more tribal than we care to confess, and far too quick to manipulate faith to support our worldly desires. Rather than having our sensibilities shaped by the ethic of Jesus, too many of us use Christianity to validate our preexisting attitudes, what we already believe, what we already want to do.

He then discusses Michele Margolis’ From Politics to the Pews which suggests that we are political first and religious second.

The difficulty in all of these approaches is that we still know far too little about what is happening in people’s minds when they are making decisions as evangelicals. Are they, in fact, acting as evangelicals or, as Peter suggests, are they simply validating prior positions with religious language. (There’s been a debate this weekend on whether abortion is a motivating force in evangelical voting or a rationalization covering other policy preferences).

Because these issues are so multidimensional, it becomes very difficult to make sense of causal order, intervening variables, and triggering factors. In a different series of posts this weekend, Ryan Burge was exploring the relationship between partisan ideology and denominational affiliation (in response to the “religious left” twitter discussions). He showed that there were very few religious traditions in which liberals outnumber conservatives, one of which was the United Church of Christ. Most show more of a mixed pattern. Then there are those like the Southern Baptist Convention was are more heavily on the politically conservative end of the scale.

But that made me think about how hard it is to unpack that descriptive data. I asked myself, where are UCC congregations located? So I went to my trustworthy source, The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), and looked at the geographic distributions according to the 2010 congregations survey. What I found was that UCC congregations predominate in the Northeast and Midwest. I’ll let the reader figure out where the Southern Baptist congregation are.

If you consider what the infamous Blue and Red State maps look like, you’ll see the ways in which these maps would overlay. So are UCC folks politically liberal or do they reflect the dominant values of their region. By the way, the UMC — my own denomination — shows up in Ryan’s data as 25% liberal, 25% moderate, and 50% conservative. The congregational map for the UMC is dominant in the Eastern half of the US but more evenly distributed North and South. (I also looked at these maps by adherents per 1,000 population but it didn’t change much).

One could do the same analysis by age distribution, social class characteristics, or educational level. In any case, it’s very difficult to figure out where “evangelical” fits in the myriad factors influencing political identity and voting behavior.

I don’t have an answer, unfortunately. I simply keep wrestling with the gaps in our theoretical formulations and trying to figure out whether any classification system will give us a handle on this ever-puzzling phenomenon.

The Christianity Today Editorial: Eleven Days Later

When I saw the news that Mark Galli had penned a pro-impeachment editorial in Christianity Today on December 19th, I wasn’t sure what to think. Obviously, it was good to see an evangelical opinion leader speak out on the current political moment. Having read and heard Mark over the years, I knew he was not the kind of evangelical leader who would come to such a conclusion easily. I think it is fair to label him a traditionalist and certainly no bomb-thrower. Sure, he was a never-Trumper early on, but lots of evangelical leaders wrote similar things over the years.

Galli centered his critique on two principal pillars: the illegality of the Ukraine scheme as documented in House Intelligence Committee testimony and the president’s moral challenges (lying, attacking, demeaning, damaging norms). For the first, he recognizes that impeachment is a feasible (if unlikely) remedy. For the second, he is advocating discernment when it comes to the 2020 election, especially in consideration of the witness of the church to a world in need of the Gospel.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that Galli’s editorial would make much of a splash. After all, many others like Micheal Gerson and Peter Wehner have been regularly raising the same critiques for years. In addition, releasing such an important editorial the week before the world shuts down for Christmas suggested that it would make a brief splash and then fade away (I realize that Galli wrote the piece when he did because he was about to retire).

Of course, my supposition that this would be an important but soon forgotten editorial was way off the mark. Here we are, over a week later, and the story has been the center of both broadcast and social media discussions. By the end of the first day, a number of what John Fea calls “Court Evangelicals” plus the president himself, had pushed back. They argued that Christianity Today represented “cosmopolitan evangelicals” and the magazine was “left-leaning” and “progressive. Another common refrain was to suggest that somehow CT was arguing that Democrats would better match evangelical values (which nobody had suggested). CT President Tim Dalrymple, himself no liberal, wrote a wonderful follow-up underscoring that the real issue presented by the Trump-aligned evangelicalism is the diminution of the witness of the church itself. He concluded, “We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high.”

What is also intriguing to me is that it is the CT critics who have kept this story in the center of the media narrative. They regularly list the imagined harms that would come if Democrats were to win election. As John Fea said on MSNBC the other night, this is the result of 40 years of rhetorical excess that resulted in the current political alignment. The letter from the 200 pastors identified themselves as “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”, which is one of the clearest statement of Christian Nationalism I’ve seen in print. The critics have also argued that Trump has accomplished many things that directly benefit these political evangelicals: pro-life judges and justices, support for Israel (including moving the embassy to Jerusalem), fighting for “traditional” stances in terms of religious accommodation (Masterpiece and Hobby Lobby), and standing for Christian values in the public square (Merry Christmas, everybody!).

But nearly all of those anti-Democrat and pro-Trump arguments seem focused on what primarily benefits conservative evangelicals. This view, which last week I labeled “evangelical ethnocentrism”, suggests that these evangelicals are less concerned about the common good than on protecting their own interests. Today, Grudem’s response focused on the promise of liberty in the Declaration of Independence which is distinctly different than the Constitution’s “in order to create a more perfect union.”

They have also adopted right wing talking points verbatim. They dismiss Galli’s concerns about Ukraine, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the July 25th call. Never mind that the Ukraine incident ran from May to September and involved attempts to subvert normal governmental process through private, non-accountable actors. They list Trump’s accomplishments in ways that sound as if they came out of the White House press office (Record Stock Market! Low unemployment! Executive Orders! No Iran Deal!).

Every Court Evangelical response to the CT editorial has resulted in careful analysis by scholars and opinion leaders identifying the challenges evident therein. It has caused moral stances like that of Napp Nazworth who left his role at Christian Post upon learning how that site was responding to CT. The news of Napp’s courageous resignation made news and launched another media cycle.

It encouraged a fascinating and disturbing analysis from Paul Djupe in which he identified an “inverted golden rule. Expect from others what you would do to them.” It spurned PRRI’s Robbie Jones to update his argument of demographic change among religious populations and how that relates to the fears the Trump Evangelicals have.

It must be noted that most evangelical churchgoers may not be paying any attention to these conflicts. They are happy to go to their Sunday Services and worship Jesus in song and word. Emma Green had a great interview with former head of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson. He argues that evangelicalism is about faith and not about politics. Emma tries valiantly and compassionately to get him to address the conflict therein, but he never gets there. Sarah McCammon interviewed a pair of Southern Baptist pastors (note: lots of evangelicals are not Southern Baptists!) on Saturday’s Weekend All Things Considered. The pastors argued that while there are broad social conflicts, people “at the level of the pew” don’t experience that division.

It needs to be recognized that the privatization of faith is what has allowed a public political stance that is largely divorced from deep theological insight. If we ever need serious work on political theology, it is today. Even though it runs the risk of causing short-term discomfort within local congregations, it would create a more healthy body of Christ as it interrogates matters of politics and public policy.

The most intriguing outcome over the last ten days is that way in which the media has begun to be more articulate on the definition of evangelicalism, what the core values ought to be, and how we square the circle of public and private belief. While they are often stumbling in their coverage (at best), the fact that we have been talking about morality, politics, and faith within the public sphere has been a net positive.

For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that the Galli editorial will change the forty-year alignment between evangelicals and the Republican vote that John Fea mentioned. There are many correlates of voting (rural, education, age, race) that disproportionately represent evangelicals.

And yet, there is a sense that something has shifted in the last week and a half. There is a conversation underway about how evangelicals should relate to the broader culture, especially in this pluralistic age. The coming weeks likely will prove to be just as problematic, but I’m moderately hopeful that these dialogues will strengthen religion in the public square. As Dalrymple suggested, this could be good for the witness of the church to the broader culture.