Tag: Pew Religious Landscape Survey

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.

 

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.