The end of global evangelists?

The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.

Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:

  1. The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
  2. The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
  3. A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
  4. A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
  5. The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
  6. The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.

This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.

 

Pastor: “The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom”

A pastor from South Africa describes what ministry in the suburbs should entail and then concludes this way:

The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom. A place of peace and security here on earth. As such, it is a noble endeavor, but it does it through exclusion and not through the power of God’s grace and truth.

It strikes me that this critique from a conservative Protestant may not be that different from the standard critique of suburbs since at least the early 1920s. This standard critique goes something like this: suburbia tries to make everything look pleasant – from being able to purchase a home, keeping the lawn neat and green, and having a wholesome life centered around your family – but underneath this surface are human beings striving to break free from conformity, dullness, and consumerism. Conservative Christians who critique the suburbs make a similar case that the comfortable suburban life dulls people’s senses to their need for spiritual renewal. Of course, the two groups have very different outcomes in mind: the first critique often hopes for a return to diverse and exciting cities while the conservative Christians place less emphasis on where one lives in the end and care more about their spiritual state wherever they may be.

Evangelicals and sociology: possibilities

The last two posts have explored the patterns in how evangelicals approach sociology and the problems with those patterns. In the third post of the series, here are some ways that evangelicals can begin to solve the problems they have with sociology:

  1. Encourage more conservative Protestants to study, read, and apply sociology. If evangelicals are serious about engaging society, a better understanding of social groups and interactions could prove very helpful. For example, ministry work is more than just theological knowledge and often involves much interaction with people. Couldn’t a required sociology course help prepare Christians going into all fields to better love their neighbors?
  2. Don’t just cherry-pick sociological findings that confirm an evangelical perspective. This is difficult for any group or individual to do as we tend to seek out information that supports our view of the world. However, interacting with sociological work beyond what immediately seems useful would be a good thing.
  3. In recent decades, there have been a number of respected Christians doing sociology whose work is well regarded in the discipline. At the same time, I don’t think sociology as a field has had a transformative figure for conservative Protestants like a James Dobson in psychology. I don’t know the full history of psychology but the field became safe for evangelicals because one of their own helped them see it differently. (Psychology might be unique in other ways; since it is less interested than sociology in groups and societies, psychology might fit better with an individualistic approach favored by evangelicals.)
  4. Develop a stronger idea of what Christian engagement with sociology would be. The approach should be developed further than Christians simply doing sociology or Christians doing work that supports Christian perspectives.
  5. Strive to see the world from a structural perspective. While this may be unusual for many American conservative Protestants, one way to do this would be to try to read the Bible the way those who originally read it would read it. Western modern notions of individuality were not really in play for the original recipients of the sacred texts. Another option to combat the individualistic perspective would be to listen more to Christians around the world who share theological beliefs but interpret scripture through a more structural lens.

In sum, the divide between sociology and conservative Protestantism is not an unbridgeable one even as the two groups often have different purposes and see the world from different perspectives (structural vs. individual, politically liberal vs. politically conservative).

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

 

Evangelicals and sociology: problems

Yesterday, I discussed five patterns I’ve observed in how evangelicals interact with sociology. Here are some problems with these patterns:

  1. The patterns ignore significant areas of research that affect the lives of evangelicals and their organizations on a daily basis. This ranges from research on organizations (why do so many churches and organizations try to reinvent the wheel?) to social problems that evangelicals hope to address (such as development, poverty, health issues, etc.).
  2. Sociology could help evangelicals address certain blind spots. For example, numerous academics as well as evangelicals have written about the group’s problem with race and how an individualistic approach fails to appropriately grapple with structural realities. Sociology written by Christians and non-Christians could help evangelicals move forward in this area.
  3. Sociologists are also interested in the improvement of society. Thus, casting them as enemies may create unnecessary with people who could be helpful to evangelical causes. Evangelicals, more so than fundamentalists, want to engage society. In recent decades in the United States, this has involved taking more public roles and pushing for certain policies and behaviors (at a variety of levels from the federal government to non-profit organizations). Sociologists may have some different end goals than evangelicals but both want to engage society and not succumb to societal apathy and withdrawal. Are there areas in which sociologists and evangelicals could partner (outside of the typical culture war or conservative issues to which evangelicals devote much attention)?
  4. The suspicion of sociology tells evangelicals that is an area unworthy of study. This is odd given the group’s claims that God can work through everything (including non-Christians), there are concepts like common grace, and all truth is God’s truth.
  5. Conservative Protestants sometimes have a limited interest in seeing society as complex and difficult to understand. They can often be reductionistic about social ills, attributing the issues to sin (even as the various forms of sin as well as the consequences can be multifaceted) or bad individuals.

Tomorrow: possible solutions to these problems.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

Evangelicals and sociology: patterns

Based on my experiences with conservative Protestants, discussions of sociologists or sociological research tends to follow several patterns. (A typical caveat applies: these are not true in all circumstances.) Here are some ways this plays out:

  1. Sociological work on religion tends to be cited more than the work of other subfields. This makes sense for people of faith yet fails to acknowledge the place of sociology of religion within the discipline of sociology (it is a low priority and not very influential) and ignores a lot of useful work in other areas.
  2. Sociologists who are known conservative Protestants or Christians receive a lot of attention. This includes people like James Davison Hunter, Christian Smith, Mark Regnerus, and Peter Berger. It is as if their status as Christians makes their work (a) safer – they are not secular researchers – and/or (b) more valid – they are insiders who understand what it is to be a person of faith and the threats evangelicals face.
  3. Sociological research that supports evangelical perspectives is championed. The work of James Hunter on the culture wars is a good example: as a religious group that wishes to engage society, Hunter helped evangelicals make sense of the broader American cultural landscape and the forces they perceived as pushing against them. Another example is Christian Smith’s work on moral therapeutic deism: Smith’s suggestion that many American emerging adults have a vague and self-serving religiosity fits with the evangelical view that many Americans need a stronger and more exclusive faith. A third example involves research that could be used to support nuclear families and abstinence outside of marriage such as research undertaken by Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox.
  4. Sociological research can be useful for pragmatic purposes including bringing people to faith and growing the church. Pastors, in particular, are often interested in wanting to interpret societal trends for their congregation and sociologists can help identify these trends (though this is often restricted to #2 and #3). Outside of particular evangelical aims, sociological research may have little use.
  5. Outside of the way sociology is used as identified in the four patterns above, sociology is often perceived as a field full of liberals, secularists , and postmodernists who if are not actively hostile to conservative Christianity are to be at least held at arm’s length.

On the whole, these patterns appear to serve one purpose: to further the perspectives already held by conservative Protestants. Sociology is a tool that can be used to support the aims and beliefs of people of faith. But, a conservative Protestant must choose wisely which aspects of sociology to apply.

Tomorrow: the problems with these patterns.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

How white evangelicals define themselves – and what is missing

Yesterday, I highlighted a sociological argument about who white evangelicals are. Recently, evangelical leaders came together to provide their own definition for evangelicals. This included input from sociologists, theologians, historians, and others. Here is the four part definition:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

This is a theological definition. With a few well-worded survey questions, evangelicals can be separated from other religious and Protestant groups.

From a sociological perspective, what does this definition miss? At least a few things:

  1. Social/cultural context. Theological beliefs alone cannot capture the cultural dimensions of being evangelicals. If we define culture as “patterns of meaning-making” (a definition preferred by sociologists of culture), making sense of those four theological views and putting them into practice is a whole additional ballgame to consider. What is it like to worship in an evangelical setting? How are evangelicals encouraged to live their day-to-day lives? What kinds of media do they consume? What institutions do they celebrate and contribute to? And so on.
    It is not enough to cite a particular religious history for the group that could be dated back to 1600s American Protestants or 1700s-1800s British Protestants. Those theological paths were also significantly influenced by social events including the Enlightenment, evolution and the rise of science, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the western democratic state.
    In other words, others can hold similar theological views – particularly black Protestants – but they do not share the same social dimensions with white evangelicals.
  2. Engagement with race. As has been explored in the last two decades, particularly in still-relevant Divided By Faith, American evangelicalism has a sordid history with race. While some evangelicals have fought for the rights of non-whites, many have not. When white evangelicals today are asked about race, they tend to stick to color-blind approaches (“we don’t see race”), argue that talking about race issues makes it worse, and that evangelicals should be united in Christ. The argument in Divided By Faith is that evangelicals have an individualistic approach to all of life – including theology – and can’t see structural issues like racism. If evangelicals do try to address race (or other less popular issues), some evangelicals exercise their individual abilities to join new churches or groups.
  3. Politics. This has probably received the most public attention since the 1970s as evangelicals emerged as a recognizable group, had their first President (a Baptist and Democrat), and formed their own political groups (The Moral Majority, etc.). Evangelicals do tend to vote a certain way – with Republicans – and have coalesced around certain moral issues (like abortion) while saying little about others that are clearly Biblical concerns (like poverty and immigration, as just two examples).
    A recent plenary session at a sociology of religion meeting I was at noted a more recent trend: evangelicals (and other religious groups) as a whole are not really voting with religious convictions in mind. It is all about party identification.
  4. Forming their own institutions. Once the modern-fundamentalist split occurred around the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals created a whole new set of institutions: TV and radio stations, colleges, magazines, parachurch ministries (think Focus on the Family), publishing houses, celebrities (from Billy Graham to Tim Tebow), movies, and more. And perhaps the most notable institutions are non-denominational churches as well as the suburban megachurch.
  5. Limited interaction, engagement, and work with Christians around the world, let alone other Christian groups in the United States. The evangelical tendencies toward drawing boundaries based on theology (as well as cultural characteristics) can make it difficult to work with others.
  6. Where did the fundamentalists go? They were subsumed under the evangelical umbrella after World War II. Few Christian groups choose to use this name given its connotations today but it can sometimes be hard to determine the fundamentalists (who typically advocate more separation with the world) and evangelicals (who typically advocate more engagement with the world). Insiders can tell you clear differences between Bob Jones and Wheaton College but outsiders may not be able to (and may not care to).

All this said, it is not as simple as defining a religious group solely by their theology. To their credit, LifeWay and others acknowledge that this four point scale only gets at evangelical belief. As sociologists of religion often note, religiosity includes belief, belonging, and behavior. Perhaps evangelicals themselves want to primarily emphasize theological positions but this does not fully capture who they are nor is it the way that those outside the group will regard them.