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.
In early October, a district court in California dismissed a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary brought by two students. Both students were dismissed from FTS for being in a same-sex marriage — thereby violating Fuller’s Community Standards. One student, Nathan Brittsan, was about to begin classes online in 2017. He submitted a name change form to indicate that he had recently been married and his admission was rescinded. The other, Joanna Maxon, was already a Fuller student studying online. During her time as a student, she divorced her husband, began a same-sex relationship, and married her partner after Obergefell. Upon submitting a joint tax return supporting her financial aid materials, FTS noticed that she was in a same-sex marriage and dismissed her from the school. The Sexual Standards part of the Community Standards website reads as follows:
Fuller Theological Seminary believes that sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman, and that sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried. The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. Consequently, the seminary expects all members of its community–students, faculty, administrators/managers, staff, and trustees–to abstain from what it holds to be unbiblical sexual practices. (emphasis mine)
There are three things I want to unpack in this case. First, I want to explore the legal understandings of religious belief within religious organizations. Second, we need to reframe our understanding of community standards with a decentralized population. Third, we need to see this case from the context of a changing student body.
Inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture
The heart of Fuller’s defense, as expressed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is that Fuller is a religious institution that has a right to protect its religious views. The institution holds that its sexual standards are the only possibility consistent with Scripture and that to force them to operate counter to those is a clear first amendment violation.
Courts have a very long history of not wanting to rule on the validity of particular religious positions. As a result, the challenges have tended to go to whether the organization fully supports the claimed position. One of the matters raised in the case was whether FTS is a religious organization or an educational institution. (Under the Obama DOE Office of Civil Rights, exemptions were granted to institutions sponsored by denominational bodies but not nondenominational bodies like FTS. That interpretation changed early in the Trump administration.)
In the dismissal, the court ruled that FTS was both a religious and educational institution and could set standards accordingly. This may be a win in the short term but I’d argue that its status is more uncertain in the long term.
Council for Christian Colleges and University (CCCU) president Shirley Hoogstra wrote the week after the decision that “Americans cannot rely solely on the courts to defend their right to exercise faith in the public square.” She goes on to argue for the need for legislative responses, advocating (as she has for years) the Fairness for All act in contrast to the Equality Act passed by the House. The former, built on the Utah compromise, would pair nondiscrimination legislation with robust religious freedom protections.
For the record, I think the world of Shirley Hoogstra. I have had the pleasure of knowing nearly every president the CCCU has had (missed the first one). She is by far the best, most forward thinking, leader of the bunch. Her skill at navigating the 2015 Goshen-Union fight — which could easily have destroyed the CCCU altogether — was extremely impressive.
Yet, I don’t think her read on the current situation is taking into consideration other changes coming down the pike. First, if Biden wins and the Democrats take the Senate, the Equality Act is far more likely to become law. Second, since the DOE policy reflects the administration, I’d expect the Title IX rule to revert back to where it was in the Obama administration, making nondenominational religious organizations better articulate their positions — the assumption being that if they decided that marriage was only between a man and a woman, they have the freedom to revisit that.
Additionally, the default assumption of validity of religious views on same-sex marriage may get harder to maintain as time goes on. According to the most recent American Values survey from PRRI, majorities of every religious group except White Evangelicals now support same-sex marriage. That would make future litigation against evangelical educational institutions more likely.
I do agree that a win at the Circuit Court level is not a final victory. Whether these students appeal or not, similar cases will be likely and will draw upon lessons in this case make stronger arguments.
Community Standards and In Loco Parentis
A second aspect of this case that was curious to me was that these two students were taking FTS courses online and lived in Northern California and Texas, far from the Fuller campus in Pasadena.
Fuller is not unusual in this regard. Christian schools across the country would not survive without their online operations. But what does it mean for a student to abide by community standards? Is their behavior reflecting poorly on FTS? Does anybody even know that they are taking Fuller courses?
Christian schools adopted Community Standards for a variety of reasons. Part of this was to draw separation from the broader culture. Another was to provide a safe space to study where students could assume that others are like them. (There is a substantive educational critique to be made here but I’ll let it go.) One can argue (as Becket did) that the students knew the rules when they enrolled and so they should have foreseen their removal from the program.
That Community Standards shape a particular community relates to the old principle of in loco parentis — that the school is providing a trusting environment parents would have provided. The whole notion of in loco parentis changed over 50 years ago when students were determined to be of legal age, but its echoes remain. I’d argue that it’s particularly problematic when you only offer graduate programs to adults.
To me, the steps taken by FTS regarding Brittsan and Maxon were legitimate but selective. How often does an institution act upon a name change form, a tax statement, or a social media post? What is the protection here against capricious actions on the par of the institution?
There are, no doubt, remote students currently enrolled at FTS (and like schools) who are living with — and having sex with — their significant other. But there is no form that asks who else is living at your address. Nobody is perusing Instagram posts to see the lovely hotel room the student and the other shared on their recent vacation.
I’m no legal scholar, but I think that there are major 14th amendment equal protection problems exposed in this case. If Christian educational institutions are going to presume that all students are in harmony with Community Standards Statements, much more oversight and intervention will be required. At least if they are to be able to defend the claim that they aren’t singling out queer students.
“The Call is Coming from Inside the House”
Which brings me to my third observation — Brittsan and Maxon were Christians who desired the educational opportunity FTS provided. Brittsan is a minister in the American Baptist Church, an affirming denomination. He was pursuing his MDiv from FTS to qualify for ordination. Clearly, he would take issue with Fuller’s claim that their sexual policy is the only Scriptural one. I recently read Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmon’s Just Faith, in which he shows his theological and scriptural chops while fully affirming the legitimacy of his sexual orientation and his marriage.
There have been other significant developments since the FTS case was dismissed. One week after the decision, Calvin University’s student paper led with this headline — “I am Calvin University’s first openly gay student body president.” Last week, the Baylor student senate approved a resolution to support the official chartering of a LGBTQ+ group, Gamma Alpha Upsilon (if the administration agrees).
This is not particularly surprising. Similar stories can be found at a variety of Christian educational institutions. LGBTQ+ students are claiming their right to study in the faith based environments that have been offered to them since they were young. They know it can be a difficult road, but research shows that a majority of evangelicals between 18 and 35 supported same-sex marriage in 2018. So their peers are supporting them.
So while leaders like Hoogstra and organizations like the Becket Fund are focused on incursions on religious liberty claims from secular groups, the much larger challenge will be the shifting attitudes on the topic among the very people schools like Fuller hope to serve.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.
The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.
Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.
I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.
The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.
That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.
Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.
On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.
I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?
As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.
Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.
Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.
Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).
I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.
In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.
In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:
Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose. He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.” I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.