Tag: Pew Research Center

On fighting straw men

Earlier today, Lis Smith — campaign strategist extraordinaire behind Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run — made this comment on Twitter: It’s why the “CRT isn’t taught in schools” line that’s parroted on cable tv doesn’t translate to voters. It’s a communications challenge Dems need to confront.

You’ve no doubt read volumes about Governor-elect Glen Youngkin’s pledge to Virginia voters that he was going to stop Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. Parents raise concerns about children being taught to be “woke” and to feel badly about those pieces of American History that would make them feel bad or somehow — in spite of all evidence — to become convinced that white people are all bad and non-whites have been victimized.

Often these concerns are based upon anecdotal reports of an isolated classroom somewhere or an overly aggressive diversity, equity, inclusion workshop for teachers. A state legislator in Texas has come out with a list of 850 books available in school libraries that he believes are indoctrinating.

Some have argued that schools became a battle ground over questions of Zoom school or due to mask mandates (or both). There is also a historic patterns of anti-teachers union sentiments that provide a ready reservoir of concerned and vocal parents (even if they are the minority of parents in the district). Terry McAuliffe fed these concerns in Virginia with his bone-headed comment that “parents have no say in education” and then doubled-down when challenged. (Note: McAauliffe was a pretty weak candidate in 2013 against a much more extreme candidate than Youngkin.)

So how do we respond to these concerns, as Lis Smith suggests we should? I suggest that this is very hard to do because 1) the critics are often arguing in bad faith and 2) the goalposts keep moving. Respond to one particular concern (masks keep schools functioning by protecting vulnerable staff and also protect those at home who may have health risks) and quickly the conversation is about pseudoscience and Hitler and oppression. It’s not that the critics actual believe these metaphors are apt — they just work.

Perhaps there’s an avenue in returning to conversations about the purpose of education. For decades, public education has been about learning but also about citizenship. Those are the lessons begun in Kindergarten — sharing, listening, realizing that it’s not all about you. We have gotten test crazy to make sure “our children are learning” (No Child Left Behind) which has confused much. Those same parents who thought we were too reliant on testing now are suddenly concerned about learning loss.

Here’s another example. My Twitter feed has been full of reactions to Senator Josh Hawley’s Axios interview where he said that liberals are attacking masculinity, defining men as part of the problem in modern society. He says that men need to stop playing video games and watching porn.

In response to a prompt from my friend Napp Nazworth, I tweeted the following:

Hard to respond when Hawley makes claims like this. The choice is not between Withdrawn Men and Toxic Patriarchy. There are literally millions of men, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Secular, who look nothing like the straw man he’s offering up.

Again, I have no idea what data Hawley is using to support his claims. My best guess is that he’s posturing, looking for a signature issue that will make him a potential Presidential candidate in 2024 (in case that other guy doesn’t run). Senator Hawley is 41 years old. Like many of his generation, he would have grown up with readily available video games (I’ll forego addressing the porn question). Probably many of his staffers play video games in their free time. But he wasn’t really talking about men but about his continued attempts to paint tech giants as enemies of society.

Concerns about men have been showing up recently, especially around college attendance. Pew shared data today that 20% of men and 12% of women aged 25-34 had college degrees. In 2021, the comparable figures are 36% for males and 46% for women. The subtext in this any many articles is that somehow this is a problem.

It’s quite likely that the 1970 figures reflect some structural barriers to women attending college and a lower percentage of women headed to the workforce. The percentage of men 25-34 with college degrees nearly doubled as a function of the job market. Sure, the percentages for women increased nearly fourfold over the same period. While it’s tempting to argue that this is a turn away from men, but it’s more likely a reflection of the job market for all players. But this isn’t nearly as much fun as the inflammatory claim of a war against men.

Here’s another example. Today, conservative NYT columnist Bari Weiss announced that she and others were starting the University of Austin, a non-accredited non-profit institution that will be a safe place for conservatives to study. This is claimed as a direct response to the belief “that higher education is broken”, notoriously liberal, and unsafe for anyone who won’t follow the party line laid down by indoctrinating professors. This is on top of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance claiming over the weekend that “professors are the enemy”. {It should be noted that there were bomb threats at three Ivy League schools and one Ohio institution this weekend.)

How does one respond to these outrageous claims about college professors? Sure, sociologists (like me) are largely left of center politically. We assign books that those parents discussed above might take issue with. But nearly all professors I know, in Christian colleges, state schools, and research universities want their students to engage the assigned material thoughtfully but would never demand that their students adopt pre-determined positions.

A final example, also from today. In promoting the newly passed infrastructure legislation, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg referenced a historic decision by New York official Robert Moses who intentionally designed an underpass too short to allow buses to go through, keeping people from black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods from getting to the beaches.

Naturally, Senator Ted Cruz responded on Twitter that “The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads.

One could easily point to work of prominent historians and journalists who explain how these things happen. Mayor Richard J. Daley had the Dan Ryan Expressway moved to cut off the “Black Belt” from his Irish neighborhood. There’s a reason that the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by the levee failures of hurricane Katrina. I won’t even bring up the housing policies of the New Deal that screened Black families out of the housing boom accompanying suburbanization (this, by the way, is what CRT is really about).

This, then, is the problem. There are rational responses to all of the straw men claims that aim to divide the voting population. And Democrats must, as Lis Smith, argues, find meaningful ways of addressing those concerns. The challenge is that even if successfully addressed, the bad faith actors have moved on to three other outrageous and mostly meritless claims.

Gregory Alan Thornbury calls this “kayfabe“. Performative posturing designed to signal the joke to insiders while making outsiders crazy. It’s what is often called “owning the libs” or “celebrating liberal tears”. They aren’t good faith arguments but positions that are advantageous in the moment.

Responding to kayfabe requires discipline and repetition. At the end of the day, it will require us to address the motivations of those posturers, and maybe pull back the curtain to show man making the great Wizard do his thing.

One more point. This weekend I shared a screenshot on Twitter from James Fallows’ 1996 Breaking the News. I was thrilled when Fallows retweeted my item and added to it. My phone was buzzing all weekend as a result. James wrote about it here. Part of our response to all the straw men is to identify the ways in which they are using the news media and social media to promote their bad faith arguments. There are a number of people tackling the issue but many more are needed.

A Research Note: Evangelicals in Name Only

This week Ryan Burge wrote a guest essay for the New York Times titled Why ‘Evangelical’ is Becoming Another Word for ‘Republican’. He was responding to a Pew Report from mid-September that showed that during the Trump presidency, those who were his supporters became more likely to self-identify as evangelicals regardless of their religiosity. In addition, Ryan observes that people of other faiths are increasingly likely to claim to be evangelicals. Ryan’s subsequently shared data on twitter showing that the percentage of evangelicals who said “religion was very important to them” had dropped by nearly 10% between 2008 and 2020. I responded, “We really need a deep dive on these self-ID evangelicals who don’t think religion is particularly important and never go to church.”

What follows isn’t the “deep dive” I imagined. Consider it splashing about in the kiddie pool,

So I went to the Association of Religion Data Archives to find a recent data set I could explore. Settling on the 2019 American Values Survey from PRRI, I began work. I selected White Evangelicals. I screened by race and then by self-identification as evangelicals. I separated the WE pool by how often they attended church. I labeled those who attended a few times a year or less as “Evangelicals in Name Only” (EINO). This let me compare those WEs who regularly attend with those who do not.

This is cross-sectional data and not longitudinal, so I can’t directly get at what the Pew report suggested. But by using 2019 data, I figured I could possible pick up the political identity embedded in the EINOs. At the outset, I should note that 31% of the White Evangelicals in the AVS are EINOs! I compared EINOs (n=115) with the rest of the WE sample (n=264) through a series of cross tabulations, looking for significant differences between the two groups. My preliminary and somewhat simplistic analysis explored three broad categories: demographics, social attitudes, and political attitudes. (The lower the percentage below the table, the more significant the difference between the groups.)

As this example shows, EINOs are much more likely to be working or lower class. They are also less likely to have a bachelor’s degree, more likely to be male, more likely to be single, more likely to be younger, and less likely to be able to handle a $400 emergency. They are roughly the same as other WEs in terms of region of the country, living in a rural area, or renting vs owning a home.

When I look at social attitudes, significant differences between EINOs and WEs are evident. For example, 46% of EINOs think abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to only 14% of WEs.

These same difference appears with reference to Medicare for All, Legalization of Marijuana, and Same-Sex Marriage. On the most relevant culture war issues for evangelicals, EINOs aren’t especially interested. They are much more likely to favor free college and less likely to support corporate tax cuts.

As we move more into the political realm, some interesting contrasts appear. First, EINO’s were more likely to have supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

They were also more favorable in evaluating Obama’s job performance as president and were more likely to identify as Independents.

Where the EINOs line up with WEs is especially evident when it comes to issues of race, immigration, and nationalism. The AVS has a series of questions where respondents are asked how well a particular word or phrase applies to them. As this cross-tab shows, there is almost no difference in the distributions of the two groups.

Other areas where similar patterns hold for EINOs and WEs include belief that whites are discriminated against, that immigrants are replacing our culture, that renaming/removing confederate memorials is bad, that the confederate flag represents Southern historic pride, and that society punishes men.

This analysis is consistent with the work of Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry. It echoes what a new Pew report found exmplirng the role of Christian Nationalism, especially as it overlays on faith issues.

As I said at the outset, this is a very preliminary analysis and is only indicative. I don’t know that these EINOs said they were evangelicals just because they held nationalist views. But if these positions are what respondents are identifying as evangelical positions, it raises serious concerns about how the evangelical church can respond to the changes going on in contemporary society.

The Bible and Survey Questions

I really like the work of the Pew Research Center. Readers of this blog know that I have often drawn out some of their research for further comment about religion and contemporary society (as I did earlier this month). Sometimes, however, they ask questions that make me wonder what they were assuming about their respondents.

Yesterday, my history colleague Mark Edwards shared a Pew “Factank” article titled “Half of Americans say Bible should influence U.S. laws..”. This was a snapshot from the same March survey that was the basis for my above mentioned post. Here’s the relevant data:

The survey found that Americans were split on the question of whether the Bible should influence laws but that white evangelicals and Black protestants were much more in favor. Furthermore, the data suggests that majorities of both groups suggested that the Bible should be more persuasive than the will of the people.

So what does this data tell us? Without follow-up questions, it’s not clear what respondents were thinking. Is this about supporting “Biblical marriage”? Is it about prophetic passages instructing care for the poor, widowed, and orphaned? Maybe it’s a reference to Matthew 25 and “the least of these”. Or perhaps it is related to proof texting certain passages that seem to support certain policy concerns about welfare dependency.

Are these opinions held by people who regularly read the Bible (and thereby have something specific in mind) or is this simply capturing a naive “Bible is good” sentiment?

To be fair to Pew, I’m being pretty picky here. I’m right at the stage of my research design course where my student research groups are converting their research questions into actual survey questions. I’ve been pushing them to examine their assumptions and ask the question necessary to make sense of the data that they will eventually get.

Yet I wonder if the Bible and law question doesn’t force a frame into which the respondents fit their opinions. If you asked, “what should be the source of our laws?” would the Bible show up as a top response? Why not Lockean philosophy or enlightenment social contract theory?

Asking questions about the Bible is hard, particularly because so much is left to individual interpretation (and Pew’s prior work on Biblical literacy shows how limited those interpretations might be!). One of the common questions about the Bible is that used by Gallup. Respondents are given the option of seeing the Bible as the literal word of God, the inspired but not literal word of God, or an ancient book of fables (highlighting mine).

Even here, we don’t really know what respondents mean by literal or inspired. Some have asked questions about degrees of error or conflict in the scripture. Yet even then, we don’t really get at how individuals are using the Bible in their decision making (if at all).

I once experimented with a question that asked people what parts of the scripture they were most likely to read in their daily devotions using broad categories of history, psalms and proverbs, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation. and the like. In my most recent project surveying evangelical clergy, I asked questions about their method of biblical interpretation.

Sam Perry recently explored the way different Bible translation versions related to assumptions about gender roles in the family and in the church. His comments near the end of his article do a nice job of summarizing a broader and richer approach to the Bible than we normally see:

While American sociologists are well aware of the Bible’s importance to understanding Americans’ beliefs, values, and behavior, I have advocated a more critical approach to the Bible’s content, one that understands it as a product of ideology and not merely a producer or platform. 

If we really want to understand how Americans view the Bible and its role in the broader society, we simply have to ask better and more in-depth questions.

Linking Sociology of Religion and Religion Journalism

I have followed religion writers on Twitter for years. I find their stories wonderful illustrations for classes and significant building blocks for my own research. Being on sabbatical this fall, and finding that the Religion News Association Conference was in fairly close Columbus, Ohio, I asked my friend Bob Smietana if it would be worth my time and money to join RNA and go to the conference. Bob was enthusiastic in his encouragement, so I took the plunge.

Religion News Association I’m very glad that I went. It was wonderful to interact in person with people I had only interacted with 280 characters at a time. They were remarkably welcoming in spite of my lack of journalistic bona fides. I told people how my parents met on the Butler University newspaper staff, so there’s that.

The conference sessions themselves dealt with a variety of important topics. Religious establishment and religious freedom, responses to gun violence, immigration and sanctuary, #MeToo in the church, religious nones, religion in science fiction, and others topics were seriously engaged. Most of these were plenary sessions, which gave people the common points of conversation that are often lacking in my normal conferences.

Sitting through the presentations, it became clear to me how sociology asks slightly different questions than a straight journalistic treatment would allow. When dealing with the trauma of gun violence and how churches might respond, I had questions about the distribution of gun violence in schools and churches and the challenge of preparing for such remarkably rare events. In hearing Vonda Dyer tell the story of her abuse by Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels (as covered first by Manya Brachear Pashman in the Chicago Tribune), I talked with her about the secondary abuse generated by a congregation’s show of support for the accused leader (standing ovations given in support of mild statements of regret). In hearing from the two dominant religion research sources (Pew and PRRI), I had questions the went deep below the top-line summaries.

The journalists’ views were on telling deep and true stories. The sanctuary presentation involved a pastor of a church that has allowed a woman to live in his church for nearly a year, a local immigration activist, and a national religion immigration activist. Centering the story on the mother and the church was a needed view that stands in contrast to national discussions of numbers and policy and court decisions. When Bryan Alexander read from his book Glass House (see my blog post on it here) about Lancaster Ohio, a rich story of how the financial changes of the last three decades impacted real people in a real town became clear.

The religion journalists — even though operating across the country, many as the only religion reporter in their workplace — build solidarity at conferences like this. Maybe even more than we have in sociology because everyone regardless of beat shares a common view that religion stories are important and worth telling. We had networking breaks five times a day and open seating at the sponsored lunches. Meeting new people and having follow-ups on earlier conversations was really wonderful.

One of the reasons I went to Columbus was to talk to religion journalists about my book project on the shifting nature of evangelicalism. I did so with some serious trepidation as I might get the dreeaded “already done that” response. But I was pleased that nearly everyone I talked to not only thought that the thesis has value but that they would look forward to reading the book whenever it comes out.

I also got to talk to people about issues in Christian Higher Education, the linkages between evangelicalism and partisanship, and balancing religious freedom claims with LGBTQ non-discrimination. I realized that one of the hidden values of teaching at a liberal arts institution is that it requires me to be a generalist knowing a little bit about a number of broad trends.

Saturday night was the RNA awards banquet. Because religion reporting also requires some generalization, the audience seemed to know everyone else’s work. Recognition was given to honorary mention, third, second, and first place winners in a variety of categories. Recipients were able to reflect on their honor and their craft to enthusiastic response from their peers. While I only knew a few of those stories given my twitter habits, I had my share of “I loved that piece” moments.

While sociologists of religion and religion journalists have somewhat different approaches and questions, there is still a tremendous affinity. While I haven’t been to a lot of family reunions in my life (we have small families), Columbus felt like hanging out with a bunch of cousins that sort of know you but you only get to connect with occasionally. Even though I was from that “other branch of the family”, they made me feel welcome.

I’ll probably do RNA again, especially after the book comes out. These are good people who care about the stories they tell and it was wonderful to hang out for a few days.

Millennials, Post-Millennials, and New Copernicans

Yesterday the Pew Research Center declared that Millennials were old news. Maybe it’s time to move on.

They point out that we can firmly fix the beginning and ending dates of the millennial generation starting with those born in 1981 and ending with those born in 1996. The youngest of them are now leaving college and the oldest are going to PTA meetings. They explain that we’re now looking to the next generation:

Since the oldest among this rising generation are just turning 21 this year, and most are still in their teens, we think it’s too early to give them a name – though The New York Times asked readers to take a stab – and we look forward to watching as conversations among researchers, the media and the public help a name for this generation take shape. In the meantime, we will simply call them “post-Millennials” until a common nomenclature takes hold.

Events of the past two months have put this post-millennial group in the spotlight. January was dominated (especially here in Michigan) by the horrible stories of Larry Nassar and the young gymnasts he victimized. February saw the terrors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida. The activism and presence of the young people arising out of both stories suggested something new on the horizon.

Back in January, the Public Religion Research Institute released results of a survey they had conducted on 15-24 year olds (they let some millennials sneak in). The PRRI survey provides context to some of what we’re seeing play out in the media. The rising generation has little tolerance for discrimination against Muslims, LGBT populations, or other racial groups.

This is not to suggest that the post-millennials are homogeneous in their views. There are conservative pockets worried about “reverse discrimination”. Young evangelicals stand out from their peers over concerns that evangelicals face discrimination. (Last week I proposed a paper for the fall SSSR meeting exploring what that means among a group of millennial pastors.)

Regardless of their political views, these young people see social media as part of their social expression. As PRRI reports:

The gender gap in online social and political activism is generally modest among black young people, but stark among white and Hispanic young people. Forty-four percent of white young women signed an online petition within the last year, compared to 34% of white young men. Nearly six in ten (58%) Hispanic young women report having signed an online petition, while 47% of Hispanic young men say the same. Nearly half (47%) of white young women have posted on social media about a cause that matters to them; only 31% of white young men report similar activity. Close to six in ten (57%) Hispanic young women report posting on social media in the last 12 months, compared to 43% of Hispanic young men. White young women (50% vs. 35%, respectively) and Hispanic young women (58% vs. 44%, respectively) are also far more likely than white and Hispanic young men to report having liked or followed a campaign online.

The combination of a strong sense of justice and social media advocacy contributes to a desire for more rapid substantive change. I see these patterns repeated among my own students on issues raising from money and politics to LGBT treatment within Christian Universities. They are simply unwilling to wait for things to get better and they are using their social media voices to advocate (which seems to be a shortcut to appearing on CNN!).

At the same time, there’s a real sense that generations are less important that the frames people are using to engage the broader world. As I’ve written before, there is a change underway in terms of how evangelicals are engaging their broader social location. The former model focusing on institutional structures and boundaries in giving way to a new perspective based on engagement across boundaries and willingness to consider alternatives.

New CopernicansI spent last Saturday reading David John Seel’s The New Copernicans.  Seel explores the same changes I have been describing over the last four years. While not as data-driven as my explorations, it has some real resonance with my own project. One helpful clarification Seel makes is that the shift to a new way of thinking isn’t endemic to millennials but it is carried by them. In other words, there are older New Copernicans and younger ones. But millennials have perhaps “normalized” the conversation.

Next week I’m unveiling some survey data I collected back in December. The results are very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to successfully distinguish between my two frames which I label as Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. Second, the presence of Identity Evangelicals raises real questions about the next phase of evangelical thought.

Generational analysis isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it provides us some key indicators of changes underway. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was about millennial evangelicals.

I’m writing this post following the funeral of Billy Graham. His impact on American religion cannot be overstated, as a quick review of articles written over the past week will show. And yet, his passing signifies precisely the kind of generational shift in perspective that Seel and I are talking about.

Reverend Graham’s final crusade took place in 2005. The oldest millennials were 24 and the youngest were 9. Few of the post-millennials have any idea who Billy Graham was or why his style of evangelicalism was significant to so many. And the post-millennials are far more likely to know him, if they know of him at all, as the father of that Franklin guy whose tweets they respond to so readily.

The Pew Religious Landscape Report: Complications and Questions

Last Tuesday, the good folks at the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s Religious Landscape. Predictably, the internet went crazy. Some argued that the growth in the nonaffiliated marked the end of Christianity. Others argued that this was actually good news for evangelicals because they didn’t suffer losses are great as other religious groups. Still others used the data to continue the never-ending saga of “mainline hemorrhage”.

I watched all this from a bit of a remove because it was finals week and I had a pile of grading. But I submitted grades for my last class this morning, which freed me to explore these questions for myself. I don’t have access to the 2014 Pew data (if someone wants to give me access, I’d be thrilled!), so I played around with the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape data to test some assumptions.

What I’ve explored below are the key questions we ought to be asking before writing opinion pieces that simply read a narrative into the data. When I do get access to the 2014 data, I’ll repeat the analysis I did today.

1. The Problem with Pie Charts

Pew Religious Landscape

One of the first things I did was examine various “religious families” across the two survey periods. This comparison has been the basis of many of the blog posts about the 2014 data. The percentage of respondents who are nonaffiliated jumped from 16% to 23% while other groups took small losses. It is true that the mainline took a bigger hit than evangelicals, reflecting an actual loss of population over time.

But this kind of analysis is what happens when we rely on percentages. The pie charts have to add to 100%, so if the percentage of nonaffiliated goes up, other percentages must go down. It’s not religion; it’s just math.

An alternative interpretation that relies less on parsing changes to pie slices would look at the percentage of respondents who represent the four primary Christian families. In 2007, those families made up 75% of the total, which fell to 66% in 2014. However we look at this, dropping from 3 of 4 Christians to 2 of 3 Christians doesn’t mean Christianity is dying by any stretch.

2. The Challenge of Self-Identification

The Pew Survey asks people about their religious group identification (in denominational terms) and then collapses those into the religious families shown above (a variable they call RELTRAD). In doing my analysis today, I only focused on the primary four families: Evangelicals, Mainlines, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

Pew also asked whether respondents claimed to be “born again”. As commenters on the 2014 data have reported, a substantial percentage of respondents identify with the label.

In my analysis of the 2007 data, slightly less than half (46%) are born again. Most of these are Evangelicals. But four in ten of those “born agains” come from the other three families, with 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines agreeing. If over one in four Mainline respondents say they’re born again, the “mainline doesn’t stand for anything” narrative might need to go.

This may suggest that there are certain cultural dynamics related to labels that evangelicals like to claim as their own. This cultural identification may be consistent with those other surveys that show attitudes toward the historicity of the virgin birth. It may simply be that “that’s what we say” in certain situations. What people mean by born again will need much more analysis.

3. The Problem of Attendance

Things get more complicated when we look at attendance patterns. Since the Mainline Hemorrhage thesis depends on a simple cultural identification that now isn’t needed, it’s important to see what’s really happening in congregations. If one needed to go to church in the past to prove you’re a good community member and religious non-affiliation is now more accepted, we’d expect a lot of members on paper but not in real life.

There is some truth to this, but it cuts across religious families. I broke the attendance data into two sets; those who attended once a month or more and those who attended less than once a month (I used the “once a month” cutoff in my dissertation research as the minimum level of engagement in the congregation). Here are the percentages of each by religious family.

Attend Not Attend
Evangelical 75 25
Mainline 57 43
Black 77 22
Catholic 67 33

If the “Cultural Christian” thesis holds then we’d get data like we see for Mainlines. But that narrative fails to account for the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Mainline respondents are active in their congregations. Nor can it explain the 1 in 4 Evangelicals who rarely attend church.

A related story told in commentary involves the aging of the Mainline church. We can call that the “Blue Hair Thesis”. If that were to be supported, we’d see a gradual pattern of an aging population that fails to generate sufficient replacement populations to handle losses through death. Related to this pattern is the differential birthrates by religious family (which limits replacement in some traditions).

I was able to examine attendance patterns using the four age cohorts that Pew used in reporting the 2014 data: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 plus. It is true that the senior category has a higher attendance percentage than other groups, but what surprised me was the relative stability of the 18-64 groups.

Evangelical Mainline Black Catholic
18-29 75 56 76 58
30-45 73 52 72 60
50-64 74 54 82 61
65+ 77 64 82 74

Again, the data from the 2007 Religious Landscape study raises questions about our preferred narratives. While it’s true that attendance patterns run higher among Evangelicals and Black Protestants, every age cohort within every religious family shows a majority attending church at least once a month.

Working out my logic this morning, I played with a Baylor Religion Survey, also done in 2007 (thanks to the folks at The Association of Religion Data Archives). Attendance may also be a necessary qualifier in making sense of “switching data”. Those questions (which are in Pew) compare childhood religious family with current religious family. But the Baylor survey also asks about attendance at age 12. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents didn’t make the once a month attendance threshold (a pattern with surprisingly little variation by tradition). To treat infrequent attenders as “switchers” seem like a distortion of the data.

In the Pew data, I was able to compare the “born again” data to the attendance data without separating the four religious families. I found 20% claiming to be born again and attending church less than once a month. Not everything is as we so easily suspect.

4. Religion is Important

Another of the popular narratives is that religion is become increasingly irrelevant to modern society. This may be true in the sense of lessened hegemony over cultural dynamics but it doesn’t show up in the data for those who regularly attend church. (And data on the non-affiliates show some curious patterns in reporting religion is important.)

As the earlier data showed, there are differences across the four religious traditions but these differences pale in light of the importance of religion to those who attend.

Attend Not Attend
Very Somewhat Very Somewhat
Important Important Important Important
Evangelical 89 10 54 35
Mainline 74 24 29 46
Black 91 8 66 28
Catholic 73 25 31 47

If we take the “very” and “somewhat” options together, the patterns on religious importance for those who regularly attend range from 98% to 99%. On the other hand, the nonattenders show the cultural dynamic of arguing that religion is very important in spite of their non-attendance. (This isn’t an artifact of seniors who simply can’t get out; it cuts across age categories.)

Sometimes it seems that the sociology of religion moves very slowly. It hasn’t been that long ago that we stopped dividing everything into Will Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew. We understand that there are larger dynamics of religious tradition in play.

But these patterns are clearly mitigated by attendance. We would do far better in understanding the role of religion in postmodern society if we paid more attention to the legitimate faith of those who regularly attend church instead of perpetuating our favorite version of why our particular tribe is better.

Thoughts on Ferguson: Living the Nightmare

I was in Canada when the news of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson broke on my media feed. I was aware of the rough outlines of the story, thanks to updates and retweets by many friends on twitter. I haven’t actually watched any mainstream media coverage as it tends to make me pull my hair out. So my information comes inductively from the internet, primarily from progressive and POC friends. Other voices seemed silent.

I’m not the only one to notice this pattern. Yesterday, my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wrote “From One Middle-Class White Person to Another: Why We Struggle to Get It.”  He talks of the isolation we have from those different than ourselves. More importantly, he describes the differing realities the issues of race and class construct in American Society:

As a middle-class, white person, the fact that I have to try to imagine what it would’ve been like if a police officer rolled through my neighborhood and shot me or one of my teenage friends is telling in itself.  It means I do not have a frame of reference or standard of comparison from which I can draw to construct Mike Brown’s story in my own life.

As Ryan argues, we’re far more likely to expect Officer Friendly to come visit our classrooms than to see an Officer as Potential Threat.

As I reflected on Ryan’s post, I found myself thinking of Alan Noble’s Atlantic article on Evangelical Persecution. Alan’s thoughts are further elaborated in an interview he gave with American Baptist Press (along with others). It’s evident that American Christians do not know persecution when compared with Christians in other countries like Iraq. (By the way, we should be as concerned about Shia on Sunni violence as we are Isis on Christian — we don’t just root for our team when it comes to justice.)

Still, the persecution mythology is alive in many quarters. A little bit of internet research finds cases where local police departments come and arrest pastors “in front of terrified church congregants”. The story explains that the arrests were staged and that the pastors were arrested for “defending the faith”. They would then be put on trial and have to prove they were REAL Christians. Add to this the fear that the state would FORCE pastors to marry same-sex couples. Or that THEY want to take away our rights to worship as we please. Then there are all the isolated stories of uninformed school teachers or principals who put limits on student expression or the local zoning commission who interferes with a house church.

In all these cases, it is secular authorities set against the religious faithful. The religious faithful must remain true to God regardless of circumstances and in spite of the fact that they no longer believe in the legitimacy of the state apparatus.

To pick up Ryan’s question, “we fail to get it” on one level because we have to try to imagine scenarios where we’re oppressed by officials of the state. But for those worried about religious persecution from secularism, we have imagined it all too well.

The people protesting in Ferguson have been living the imagined persecution scenario for a long time. 

They know what it’s like to be arbitrarily picked out and subject to intrusive questioning with an assumption of “guilty until we determine otherwise”. This is the reality behind Driving While Black, New York’s Stop and Frisk practice, differential drug sentencing, and the like. Not for everyone, of course. But for enough friends and relatives for everyone to have the knowledge of the possibility.

Fifty YearsThis picture from the Huffington Post shows the striking and disturbing parallels between riot police lines in 1963 and those in Ferguson last week.

I have never seen a line like this. But folks in the protests in Ferguson received training in how to stand non-provocatively. Not all got the message. Some isolated shots were fired. Stores were looted. But the overwhelming majority of protestors in Ferguson did none of those things. They stood for justice. The expressed their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. They cleaned up storefronts that had been damaged the night before.

They did these things precisely because they have doubts about the legitimacy and altruism of the police force and the state government. They know that the scales are tipped against them and that self-control is essential when confronting that imbalance.

A year ago, the Pew Research Center did a study of attitudes toward institutional arenas when it came to issues of race. Blacks and Whites in urban, suburban, and rural areas were asked if certain institutions were less fair toward Blacks than Whites. Institutional arenas were from police, courts, work, stores, schools, health care, and voting. The chart below summarizes the perceptions across all institutional arenas (scores range from zero institutions discriminating to seven).

http://www.pewresearch.org/files/2013/08/FT-racial-fairness-02.png
http://www.pewresearch.org/files/2013/08/FT-racial-fairness-02.png

Only 1 in 10 urban Blacks thought there was no institutional discrimination compared to nearly half of all suburban Whites.

This, as Ryan observes, is what we don’t get. For us, the institutions work as intended. For “them”, they cannot begin with such assumptions — the world is just too dangerous.

We like to imagine scenarios that have the state calling us out for our faith as a badge of our faithfulness. The citizens of Ferguson know too well that the state calls people out regardless of their motives or their faith but because of their race, class, and neighborhood.

Too often, the coverage of events like Ferguson seems to be looking for ways of justifying the legitimacy of the state’s action. That’s why news sources post troubling photos (check out the hashtag #IfIWasGunnedDown to see how this happens) and use words like “thugs” to make sure that we have good cops acting against bad actors.

As I was finishing this post, Christena Cleveland added this remarkable piece: The Cross and The Molotov Cocktail. Here’s a paragraph that puts the Pew data in its visceral context:

As someone who has walked alongside black men, witnessed their suffering firsthand, lamented with them and fought for justice with them, I can see why black men who have lived under the oppressive boot of society for their entire lives would decide to stop turning the other cheek, to refuse to see the police as anything other than the Red Coats, and to reject “respectability.”

If we were to face serious persecution as evangelicals (as unlikely as that is in our contemporary environment), you can be sure that there wouldn’t be pictures of happy families accompanying the roundups. You can be sure that we would be called names and marginalized in hundreds of ways. It is certain that we’d have little recourse against the power of the state with all of its hardware and assumed legitimacy.

Maybe we need to identify with the protestors in Ferguson to see what it means to stand for justice.