Tag: Peter Wehner

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.

Evangelical Influencers and Evangelical Populism

I have begun to question whether writing this blog is an exercise in futility.

Like many others, I attempt to use my sociological imagination to understand what is happening within evangelicalism. However valid my points may be, it seems a Sisyphean task. We all seem to be talking to each other and having very little impact either on the broader culture’s understandings of evangelicals or evangelicalism’s limited powers of self-critique.

Over the past week, my social media feed has been filled with references to Peter Wehner’s Atlantic essay, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity.” Wehner critiques the evangelical embrace of Republican/Trumpian partisanship that has so dominated evangelical conversation. He suggests — following Saint Ambrose, Francis Fukuyama, and Fuller Seminary’s Mark Labberton — that urgent change is required to restore evangelicalism’s public witness before a tipping point is reached.

The political alignment between evangelicals and conservative politics has gotten so tight that it is almost impossible to separate out the causal forces. Ryan Burge shared data recently supporting an argument I’ve made over the last couple of years that the two factors have merged empirically. In fact, this 2017 article by Melissa Wilde argues that we should stop trying to pull the factors of race, class, and gender apart from religious views.

Wehner’s essay opened with a reference to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in which Reed celebrated the mutual love evangelicals and Trump have for each other. While that certainly does not ring true of the evangelicals in my social media feed, it does for surprising numbers of others who never read what I write.

At the Faith and Freedom gathering, Natalie Harp (above) was brought on stage to tell her story and the ways in which access to experimental treatments enabled by a law signed by Trump allowed her recovery from bone cancer. She went on say that Trump was like the Good Samaritan. To her, the medical establishment and the political establishment left her “by the side of the road” but Trump was the one to come to her aid. He was the outsider who “gave up his own quality of life” to help others.

My academic brain wants to quickly point out that 1) that is not how the Good Samaritan story goes and 2) the “right to try” bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a 91 vote margin — it wasn’t a major Trump initiative.

But that’s not the point. Trump campaigned on “I alone can fix it.” The evangelical culture, long comfortable with strong leaders, took that at face value. This is why evangelical voices like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Barton, Eric Metaxis, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are more influential that any critiques shared by Wehner, Gerson, Moore (Russell or Beth), Wear, Merritt, or me.

There is a strain of populist evangelical culture that is hard to penetrate. Kristin DuMez observed this trend with regard to Hobby Lobby. That populism is the subtext of Ruth Graham’s excellent piece on the “boy who went to heaven” book and its resulting drama — generalized supernaturalism, publishing entities playing on good news stories that support vague presuppositions, and spiritual warfare alarmists.

That populist strain bleeds easily into Christian Nationalism. You can go on a cruise celebrating Christian nation-ism (a distinction without a difference) where one can celebrate our “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “the importance of self-governance”. The stance taken by the organizers allows those participating to strike a blow against the liberal elites seen as society’s opponents.

Even though Republican mega-funder Miriam Adelson is not evangelical, her suggestion that someday the Bible should include a “book of Trump” would be celebrated, not just by those at the weekly Trump rallies but by rank and file evangelicals.

To return to Wehner’s article, the idea that the Christian cruisers, the heaven-experience readers, or the Hobby Lobby enthusiasts would engage in self correction after reading what Fukuyama, Labberton, or Saint Abrose says about the religion and politics is beyond absurd. Those are intellectuals and not “people of faith.”

Ryan Burge’s post ended by asking why the overlap between white evangelicalism and Republican partisanship is so strong.

That leaves us only two answers: the theological messages and social interactions that white evangelicals experience as part of the religious activity has no impact on their political outlook, or that this religious exposure is so intertwined with Republican politics that the two reinforce each other. 

I understand his first answer. It’s what I’ve been writing about for years — the idea that theology should and must shape religious and political views. But that’s exactly what an academic would focus on.

Ryan’s second answer reminds me of an argument made by Amy Sullivan in 2017. In America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicals, Amy argues that cultural dynamics have significantly more influence that we’ve previously thought.

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. [Roy] Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

I’m struggling to find a satisfactory answer to the problem I’m identifying. I’m sure many of my social media followers will find it helpful. But it will do virtually nothing to influence the populist evangelical culture that has become so much of a factor in the public perception of religion in general and evangelicals in particular.

Perhaps we need to abandon all of our thoughtful philosophical, theological, and sociological reflections and invest our time in making counter-cultural memes with funny gifs. Not my strong suit, but I can learn.