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.

 

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.

Evangelicals recommend four beliefs that should identify them on surveys

The National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research suggest evangelicals should be identified by agreeing with four beliefs:

  • 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.

More on the reasons for these four:

The statements closely mirror historian David Bebbington’s classic four-point definition of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. But this list emphasizes belief rather than behavior, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research.

“Affiliation and behavior can be measured in addition to evangelical beliefs, but this is a tool for researchers measuring the beliefs that evangelicals—as determined by the NAE—believe best define the movement,” he said.

A few quick thoughts on this:

  1. On one hand, it can be helpful for religious groups to identify what they see as unique to them. Outsiders may not pick up on these things. On the other hand, outsiders might see beliefs or other characteristics that mark evangelicals.
  2. Measuring religiosity involves a lot more than just beliefs. From later in the article:

    “Identity, belief, and behavior are three different things when it comes to being an evangelical,” McConnell said. “Some people are living out the evangelical school of thought but may not embrace the label. And the opposite is also true.”

    So this is just one piece of the puzzle. And I think sociologists (and other social scientists) have contributed quite a bit here in looking at how these particular theological views relate to other social behavior from race relations to voting to charitable activity and more.

  3. The suggestion here is that research shows the “correct” number of evangelicals identify with these four statements – identifying evangelicals in other ways seems to get to similar percentages as working with these four beliefs. Yet, I wonder how many evangelicals would name these four statements if asked what they believe. How exactly are these statements taught and passed on within evangelicalism?

The benefits of institutions over charismatic authority for evangelicals

American evangelicals may often prize celebrity pastors and figures but sociologist and college president Michael Lindsay argues institutions provide more lasting impact:

Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You’re on top of a major bureaucracy, and that’s how you get things done. And then there’s charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It’s the authority that Jesus had. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Charismatic leaders are rare and it can often be difficult to take the better things they do and imbue that into institutions. Yet, institutions can have incredible staying power and operate at a broader level of society.

While evangelicals may be showing more interest in institutions, such a viewpoint rubs against the typical evangelical tendency toward individualism. The charismatic leader can fit the American story of working hard and making something of oneself. The attractive leader can pull in individuals through new technologies as evangelicals effectively used the ascending radio and television scenes. (Interestingly, I’ve seen much less about evangelicals effectively harnessing the Internet for their ends. Perhaps such an analysis can come with time.) Appealing to institutions requires both leaders and adherents to turn their focus more to the communal than their own interests. This is a difficult switch, particularly in certain areas like Smith and Emerson demonstrate in Divided By Faithwith the inability for white evangelicals to beyond the individual to the social dimensions of race in America.

Bigger gap in viewing race between white and black Christians

A new study looks at how white and black Christians in America view race – and the two sides are still far apart:

“The new findings … lay bare the dramatic and growing gap in racial attitudes and experiences in America,” writes David Briggs in releasing the second wave of results from the Portraits of American Life Study (led by Michael Emerson of Rice University and David Sikkink of Notre Dame) via the Association of Religion Data Archives. “We do not live in a post-racial nation, the [new 2012 results] suggests, but in a land of two Americas divided by race, and less willing than ever to find a common ground of understanding.”…

1) More evangelicals and Catholics have come to believe that “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” In 2012, 64 percent of evangelicals and 59 percent of Catholics agreed with this statement, up from 48 percent and 44 percent respectively in 2006…

2) More evangelicals now agree that “it is okay for the races to be separate, as long as they have equal opportunity.” In 2012, 30 percent of all evangelicals agreed, up from 19 percent who said the same in 2006…

In 2006, more than 4 in 10 white non-evangelical Protestants agreed that the government should do more, versus only 3 in 10 white evangelicals and white Catholics. But in 2012, researchers found that “the religion effect disappeared” thanks to “substantial declining support” among white mainline Protestants (dropping from 42 percent to 21 percent) and white “other” Protestants (42 percent to 20 percent). Thus, “regardless of religious affiliation, whites were statistically identical to each other” by 2012.

5) More Americans now say they have been “treated unfairly” because of their race. And moreover, the increase from 2006 to 2012 was statistically significant for all groups: blacks (36% to 46%); Hispanics (17% to 36%); Asians (16% to 31%); whites (8% to 14%); as well as all Americans (13% to 21%).

Looks like more evidence for continuing to assign Divided By Faith to my Introduction to Sociology classes…

Quick Review: When God Talks Back

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann examines how evangelicals relate to God in this new book titled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Here are a few thoughts about this fascinating read:

1. Luhrmann’s main argument is that evangelicals are trained to perceive the world in particular ways and this reinforces and upholds their belief in a personal God who cares about them. For example: evangelicals learn to pray in such a way that they believe they are interacting with God and can “hear” God. Another example is that evangelicals tend to read the Bible in such a way that every passage has an immediate application or relevance for their current circumstances. This kind of prayer and Bible reading does not necessarily come naturally: people have to be trained and it can take years to learn the process. Luhrmann spent more than four years in Vineyard churches listening to sermons, participating in small groups, and talking with and interviewing evangelicals.

2. The historical argument is interesting but underdeveloped. Luhrmann argues that the more individualized approach to Christian faith common in evangelicalism developed in Vineyard type (more charismatic) churches in the late 1960s and 1970s and then trickled down to all of evangelicalism. I have little doubt that most of this is true; I recently heard a sermon in an Episcopal church that shared many of the same themes of God’s immediacy and power. At the same time, the main mechanism by which Luhrmann suggests this approach spread is Fuller Seminary. While Fuller has had an impact, I wondered about several things: how did all evangelicals respond to this? Was/is there a backlash against this approach? What about evangelicals who wouldn’t claim this Vineyard/Jesus People background?

3. Luhrmann is an anthropologist but intriguingly is a psychological anthropologist. This means that there is a lot in this book about perceptions, thoughts, and how the brain adjusts to different ways of seeing the world. There even is a chapter that involves an experiment Luhrmann conducted on prayer to see if people can be trained to perceive God more vividly (and they could). Throughout the book there is a mix of anthropological observations, psychological experiments and explanations, and historical context.

4. The book is pretty evenhanded about the question of whether evangelicals believe in something real. There is a chapter that suggests that evangelicals (and other religious people) are not crazy for perceiving supernatural forces. I suspect this will help the book gain some traction in the religious world though it will be interesting to see the reactions. At the same time, I wonder if some will see this book as an attempt to explain away religious belief as a psychological trick that people can learn. Additionally, wow would theologians respond?

5. I suspect this book could be one that helps evangelicals understand themselves better.

6. This was not mentioned much in the book: how are children trained in this approach? The book contains a number of stories of teenager or young adult converts to faith who then have to learn this particular approach to God. However, it has little to say about people who grow up with this approach to God and how this affects adult spirituality.

Overall, this book discusses how evangelicals come to see the world in a certain way as they learn to talk to and hear from God and how to interpret events as God’s intervention. This is the value of this text: it goes beyond describing the evangelical viewpoint and argues for how this viewpoint is developed and maintained. This is an example of what good social science can do: explain why things are the way they are.