Tag: Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Inspector Javert is not the hero of Les Mis: Grace and the Future of Evangelicalism

I spent a good part of yesterday doing one of my favorite things: trying to read the tea leaves on the emerging trends in evangelicalism. (Because of this, I turned on the soccer game about 22 minutes late which meant I missed the match!). It was an interesting day. I read a little of Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism and considered his take on Western Cultural Captivity. I watched a great discussion on Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange featuring Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jonathan Merritt, and Trevin Wax. I watched Brandan Robertson’s talk at the Wild Goose Festival on his journey through Moody Bible and evangelical subculture. I finished the day watching Andy Gill’s Skype interview with Peter Enns (which lets you look at Peter close-up for 30 minutes and see his Yankee pennants in the background).

There was a lot to process in here. Questions about what constitutes evangelicalism and according to whose criteria (Bebbington had better be getting royalties for each time his quadrilateral gets trotted out). Seeing Jonathan Merritt using John Wesley’s method to explain religious change. Sensing the tensions between tradition as we’ve understood it and contemporary realities (thankfully, no one referenced “slippery slopes”). Issues of scriptural authority, church attendance, and, of course, millennials.

Not everyone agreed. But what characterized the discussions was a spirt of grace and compassion. Something that is too often missing in religious discussions.

JavertIt made me think of the lead male characters in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean’s life is re-formed through an encounter with unwarranted favor. He lives his life to extend that to others at great personal cost. Inspector Javert is committed to the Law. In fact, the superstructure of his mindset is organized around it (check out the lyrics to Stars).

There are many versions of what happens to evangelicalism over the next decade or so. Some are optimistic, thinking that pragmatism may win out as it has on other forces of social change in the church. Some are ready to give up evangelicalism as representing a past social form so intertwined with culture wars and political parties that there’s no hope.

I tend to see a celebration of gracious faith from all sectors of the Christian church. That means that our old dividing lines may not be meaningful anymore. Dropping labels of evangelical vs. mainline vs. Catholic would be a good place to start. There’s been far too much finger pointing and facile explanation given (I’m amazed at how often we talk of mainline decline or rote ritual even today). We should be offering grace to all those who faithfully strive to follow Christ.

John Armstrong rightly expressed concern yesterday over comments (never read comments!) to an article about charismatic leaders meeting with Pope Francis. The quest for order and law on the part of the commenters was telling. As Ed Stetzer observed,  the focus on our ideas and practices as litmus test issues “obscures the gospel”

It must be admitted that there are Javerts on the progressive side as well. Too many of the comments I read on Facebook and Twitter seem utterly dismissive of traditionalists (who seem utterly dismissive of progressives). Still, if grace is our motto we need to take another look at our practice and open ourselves up to alternative views.

A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Einstein and Eddington starring Andy Serkis (not in motion capture) and David Tennant, respectively. Eddington is a physicist who is intrigued with Einstein’s work and sets out to prove the General Theory of Relativity via a solar eclipse. (I ran across a great quote while researching Eddington. An interviewer said that there couldn’t be more than three people who understood Einstein. Eddington replied, “who’s the other one?”). In the movie adaptation, Relativity is a threat because it undermines the whole of Newtonian structure, which was seen as a means of demonstrating order in the universe. This is even related to the gassing of British Troops at Ypres (which the screenwriter asserts, must have happened for a reason). The tension between the advances promoted by Eddington (a Quaker) and the established Newtonian order was fascinating.

I thought of this again the other day when reading Randall Balmer’s book on Jimmy Carter. Looking back on Carter’s loss of the White House, Ballmer suggests that Carter could have done more to reach out to establishment evangelicals. He had been given a list of possible cabinet candidates by Pat Robertson that got lost and wasn’t remade. The religion advisor Robert Maddox (a Southern Baptist at the time) came too late in the term. It made me wonder if Carter could have maintained alliances, even though he was more progressive, if he’d found ways of sharing his Christian commonalities with those who went before.

In this regard, I’ve been fascinated by the series Peter Enns has been running lately about Biblical Scholars and their “AHA” moments about the Bible. He’s now done six of them (here’s the most recent). In every case, the scholar has great regard for the church of origin and the importance placed on scripture even though questions led each to deep Biblical scholarship.

I’m reminded of a book on Culture Wars that Robert Wuthnow wrote in the late 1980s. After looking at the chasm then separating the conservative and mainline (this was problematic even then) he suggests that it was evangelical academics who stood in the gap and could bridge the chasm. They could affirm the heart of the conservatives while offering the insight of the progressives. Perhaps, he suggested, there was a way forward.

At the close of his interview with Andy Gill, Pete Enns talked of the importance of humility, both spiritual and academic. It was important to maintain that grace when dealing with the social changes around us.

The future of a vibrant Christian faith in this country lies not in battles over orthodoxy or symbols. It is not about who won which political race or court battle. It is about offering the grace necessary to really hear each other, to serve as the midwives who will bring forth whatever next phase of Church the Spirit is birthing.

Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Red State MarriageSociologists made the news this week. Mostly we just do our research and our teaching, wondering if anybody notices. Then word comes out that a study will appear in this month’s American Journal of Sociology that raises questions about the connections between religious affiliation and divorce. The article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, examines patterns in county divorce rates as they were correlated with other factors.

Religion news outlets got on the story. The Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a very good job. The Huffington Post summarized the story, while seeming to gloat a little on red-state problems or support of abstinence programs. One of the clearest summaries is in a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families (operated by Stephanie Coontz, one of the best marriage experts in the country).

There was some spirited dialogue about the study on Facebook and Twitter and I shared what I could. But I realized that it was hard to evaluate the argument without seeing the actual article, which isn’t out yet. But the intrepid Director of the White Library at Spring Arbor, Robbie Bolton, found me a copy of a conference paper Glass and Levchak had done three years ago that looks to be a similar argument and is likely the initial version of what became the AJS paper.

It’s a very interesting paper (if you like ordinary least squares regression). It does a very nice review of the literature, looking at the dynamics impacting divorce decisions, conservative protestantism, early marriage, attitudes toward cohabitation, and so on.

Curiously, it seems that much of the push-back on the internet comes from observations in the lit review. At least one article states, “as the authors wrote in the paper“, which while technically true isn’t the point of their analysis. They site what Mark Regnerus calls the “evangelical anomaly”, in which conservative attitudes against premarital sex don’t impact sexual behavior, resulting in higher than average rates of both teen pregnancy and early marriage. They summarize research that posits a Southern Culture. They discuss the relationships between educational level, economic structure, and divorce. All of these are in their paper but the real focus in on how county patterns co-vary.

This is important sociologically — we must pay attention to units of analysis. You can’t use county level data to explain individual divorces or attitudes of local conservative protestant congregations. Anyone who has done either is using the study in ways that aren’t appropriate.

What Glass and Levchak are doing has a sociological history running back to Durkheim. In his classic study Suicide (1897), he examined how suicide rates vary by region in ways that co-varied with characteristics within the region (protestant vs catholic provinces in the classic example). Obviously, individual suicides don’t vary in the same way (he was quite dismissive of theories of abnormality to explain collective behavior). He suggested that what happens is that there is a general “social current” within a culture that intersects with individuals considering suicide. The result is a tremendous stability in suicide rates over time (not for individuals, of course, they don’t have an “over time”!).

It’s in this context that the Red State-Divorce connection should be read. Their results suggest that counties with higher percentages of the population affiliated with conservative protestant churches contrasted with mainline churches have higher rates of divorce than those counties with lower percentages of the same. (When unaffiliated percentages are compared to mainline, the impact on divorce is three times as high). They then control for standard variables like race, social class, and age of first marriage to see if the initial relationship was an artifact of something else. It persists throughout the analysis.

They had already demonstrated in the literature review that attendance in an evangelical church appears to operate as inoculation against divorce. This maybe be due to the social supports provided by the congregation and/or the social opprobrium against divorce. So they aren’t really arguing that conservative protestants are contributing to divorce. Their argument is more subtle than that.

The data seems to suggest that increased rates of divorce in the counties with higher percentages in conservative churches is due to the behaviors of the non-attending crowd. Theoretically, this would suggest that the churches were helping to shape the norms and values of the local culture (as they might have hoped). However, for those without social supports, the result of premarital sex and cohabitation is to push people into early marriage and early childbirth and avoiding higher education. This, in turn, contributes to one parent working at lower wage jobs. That, finally, contributes to marital dissolution.

Durkheim would love this on both counts — the congregation provides value reinforcement and the social currents impact individual behaviors, regardless of religious preference. The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways. They may provide rationales for beliefs or behaviors that actually run counter to what we were trying to promote. As the values espoused become a part of the social currents, they impact behavior but with little theological content whatsoever. Perversely, the religious values get subsumed into the general civil religion of the society (Durkheim saw that one coming as well).

There’s also a cautionary tale for Christian universities here. While on the one hand, we’ve (thankfully) moved well beyond the old jokes about getting one’s MRS degree, the culture of a Christian university celebrates relationship. We teach courses in marriage and family, in relationship building, and have lots of social activities to bring people together. Of course the 60-40 gender split means that a significant number of individuals won’t be in relationship. For those that are, the lessons about abstinence are taken to heart but run up against lots of close interaction, plenty of free time, and freedom from supervision. It’s been a long-term fear of mine that we encourage young people to pair up and plan weddings long before they are ready. Better to marry than burn. Better to stay together than explain to everybody what went wrong. As emerging adults continue to delay marriage in general, our lessons on premarital sex may have more troubling consequences down the road.

We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals. When we don’t provide the social support involving honest communication, we can become complicit in broader trends without intending to. In Moral Education (published in 1922 after his death), Durkheim suggested that morality involved discipline, attachment, and autonomy. The first keeps ego in check. The second connects us to the group. The third allows us to make moral choices.

While Glass and Levchak can’t get at these factors from their county-level demographic data, it’s good to keep in mind. All three factors are necessary to shape both individual and collective behavior.