Explaining white evangelicals: American Evangelicalism, Embattled and Thriving

With all the talk of white evangelicals in the postmortem of the 2016 election, it is useful to return to a 1998 sociological book about this group: Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Here is one way we can understand white evangelicals from a sociological perspective:

1. Smith adopts the subcultural theory to explain the group’s success and current standing. This has two dimensions:

“The subcultural identity theory of religious persistence is this: Religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic, modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying morally orienting collective identities which provide adherents meaning and belonging.” (118)

“And the subcultural identity theory of religious strength is this: In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.” (118-119)

In this perspective, pluralism can actually help religious groups by fostering a sense of shared identity compared to the broader society and also providing opportunities for engagement with others.

2. The vitality of the group often depends on drawing strong distinctions between the group and the outside world.

“The evangelical tradition’s entire history, theology, and self-identity presupposes and reflects strong cultural boundaries with nonevangelicals; a zealous burden to convert and transform the world outside of itself; and a keen perception of external threats and crises seen as menacing what it views to be true, good, and valuable.” (121)

3. Evangelicals want to engage social issues but are ultimately limited in what they can accomplish because of their approach.

“the only truly effective way to change the world is one-individual-at-a-time through the influence of interpersonal relationships.”(187)

“they routinely offer one-dimensional analyses and solutions for multidimensional social issues and problems.” (189)

4. When it comes to political action, evangelicals support government intervention in some areas (like abortion, gay rights, and prayer in schools) but not in other areas. This leads to an unresolvable tension.

“By this we mean, in short, that many evangelicals think that Christian morality should be the primary authority for American culture and society and simultaneously think that everyone should be free to live as they see fit, even if that means rejecting Christianity.” (210)

5. Thus, the problems with evangelicalism come from within.

“Evangelicalism’s problems, in other words, are largely subculturally indigenous, difficulties of their own tradition’s making.”(217)

While the data for this book came from the culture wars era (comprehensive surveys and interviews conducted in the mid 1990s with ordinary evangelicals), a lot of this still rings true today.

A follow-up post tomorrow will contrast Smith’s understanding (as well as other sociological emphases) compared to how white evangelicals understand themselves.

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