Tag: Ryan Burge

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.

Christian Nationalism and Our Political Moment

Preface: I think this is the longest I’ve every gone between blog posts. I could say I was busy, but the reality is that I wasn’t sure I had anything compelling to add to the various crises swirling around us. That changed the last couple of days as I read Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And so I’m back!

I have been following Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry on social media for some time. I have read with interest the pieces they posted online and heard their presentations at conferences. It is good sociology that adds far more to our social and political moment that nearly all of the “Why did the white evangelicals support Trump?” opinion pieces.

In my own work on the question, I come to the same easy conclusion that Ryan Burge reports: White Evangelicals are Republicans. What has nagged at me for years is the motivation behind that correlation. Is it because white evangelicals are more likely to be rural or Southern? Less likely to have a college degree? More likely to hold a certain social class position? Concern over morality? A deep application of theological/scriptural understandings to their voting preferences?

It has proven nearly impossible to disentangle the mess of causal factors (which, admittedly, we are doing with correlational data). The search for a Grand Theory keeps failing us in the data. And so I was very excited to finally get Andrew and Sam’s book last week and put it on top of my things to do with my spring break.

It’s a quick and compelling read. The data is rich but easy for a lay reader to interpret and there’s an entire appendix on regression stuff for those who want the details.

Andrew and Sam argue that there is something of a central thread that begins to make sense of what we saw not just in 2016, but a host of things related to contemporary society. That central thread is support for Christian Nationalism. This is not a historical understanding of the nation’s founding, although it is related. It is a belief about the primacy of Christianity in our society’s social organization.

They measure Christian Nationalism through a scale made up of six questions. The measures of agreement with CN are 1) the government should declare the US a Christian nation, 2) the government should endorse Christian values, 3) separation of church and state should be minimized, 4) display of religion (read Christian) symbols should be allowed on state property, 5) American success is part of God’s plan, and 6) the government should allow prayer in public schools. They then divide the scale into four groups: Rejectors, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.

Using data from the Baylor Religion Studies, they explore the relationships between these four groupings and a host of contemporary issues. They supplement the quantitative data with 50 personal interviews representing the four orientations.

Notice the division in the chart above. Those distancing from Christian Nationalism make up just under half of their study population (48.1%) while those in favor are just over half (51.9%). It is also interesting that the two extreme categories (Rejecters and Ambassadors) are also nearly equal in size (21.%% to 19.8%, respectively). In the very first chapter, then, we have data that roughly mirrors the polarized socio-political moment we find ourselves in.

The authors unpack this data looking at three broad areas: Power, Boundaries, and Order. The first has to do with voting, legislation, and rights. The second has to do with in-group protections and out-group exclusion. The third has to do with issues of family structure and heterosexuality.

In the Power chapter, they provide a powerful counter narrative to the “white evangelicals and Trump” arguments. They show that Rejectors were very unlikely to have voted for Trump (around 5%) and Ambassadors were overwhelmingly likely to have done so (around 75%).

Moreover, this pattern repeats across a variety of subgroups (though with different percentage magnitudes). For example, 85% of evangelical Ambassadors (regardless of race) voted for Trump but so did 82% of Mainline Ambassadors and 79% of Catholic Ambassadors. Among white evangelicals, there is nearly a 60% gap between support for Trump between Ambassadors (90%) and Rejecters (31%). Even within political parties differences emerge — while 92% of Republican Ambassadors voted for Trump, only 31% of Republican Resisters did

The same patterns hold for attitudes toward refugees, military spending, and gun control. Interestingly, when they examine how a scale of religious practices relates to these same topics, the find that the more religious one is the more positive they are toward refugees, for example. So Christian Nationalism isn’t a mask for religious practice but a separate dimension altogether.

The Boundaries chapter deals with issues of immigration, race, and non-Christian religious groups. In each case, Ambassadors take the most conservative position and Rejectors the relatively liberal one. Again, these patterns are tested against religious practice with the same opposite effect as the previous chapter.

The Order chapter has a “focus on the family“. It deals with questions about mens’ role in leadership, stay at home mothers, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to transgender rights, and belief that divorce laws should be more stringent. In each case, the Ambassadors are highest in these measures and the Rejectors are lowest. In this chapter, as opposed to the others, religious practice does not move in a counter direction. As Sam Perry’s other books (on evangelical adoption and pornography use) show, this may because the family taken a central role in understanding contemporary religious practice.

As I was reading the book, a couple of questions kept recurring. I found myself wanting to do much more about the Accommodators. Are they conscious participants in Christian Nationalism or do they simply take its assumptions as background noise and implicitly act upon them? The same is true about the Resisters. Are they taking their objection to Christian Nationalism seriously or are somehow mildly annoyed at the Freedom Sunday celebration at church?

In the introduction, Whitehead and Perry describe Christian Nationalism as “a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a ‘symbolic framework’ — through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.” I think is an apt description, yet the social psychologist in me wants to know how that symbolic framework is activated and how it is addressed by those whose ideals are at odds with an Ambassador or Accommodator. Specifically, are there mechanisms through which Accommodators become Resisters?

Furthermore, if the church is to be an active yet not fearful part of the social discourse surrounding contemporary politics, how do pastors and congregations begin to reshape these implicit understandings. The data on people leaving the church due to what I would consider inappropriate political posturing is pretty clear. As Ryan Burge pointed out on Brad Onishi’s podcast last week, the alternative is to suffer in silence.

What do I mean by “inappropriate political posturing”? I mean the assumption that 1) we are all on the same side and 2) we can’t talk about broad social issues because that would be “divisive”. If the church is to the body of Christ in the contemporary word, it must be able to model church-state relations in a way that goes beyond hoping our side wins.

Andrew and Sam have provided us with an excellent starting place in terms of conceptualizing Christian Nationalism and how it is operating in contemporary society. Now it falls to other sociologists, political scientists, and religious leaders to figure out how to take their ideas into our everyday worlds in search of a more compassionate society.

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.