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.

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

“Tom Brady, sociologist of religion”

A new documentary series looks at how sports fosters belonging and Tom Brady is one of the people behind it:

The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…

In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds…

Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance  of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.

But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.

This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).

I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:

  1. Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
  2. Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)

The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…

 

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.

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

Berger on four benefits of religious pluralism

In First Things, Peter Berger discusses the benefits of religious pluralism for religious faith:

“First benefit: It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary”…

“Second benefit: Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom,” according to Berger…

“Third benefit: If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations”…

“Fourth benefit: Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements,” according to “The Good of Religious Pluralism.”

This would be a more specific version of two arguments made by sociologists of religion in recent years:

  1. Some have argued that religion, as a whole, has positive effects on society as religious people tend to vote more, participate in more religious and civic activities, and give to others. In this argument, religion itself is made better – such as agreeing to basics about the faith rather than fighting over less essential elements – and this would presumably then help the broader society by having religious groups that are softer around the edges.
  2. Competition between religious groups – made possible in the United States by freedom of religion as well as the separation of church and state – actually enhances religious life as groups compete for adherents. Berger’s argument is specifically about a kind of pluralism where religious groups can peacefully interact and enhance each other. It would be interesting to then hear him discuss places where religion is pervasive but pluralism is either tenuous (competition still happens but it is violent or state-sponsored) or nonexistent.