Do Evangelicals Have a Porn Problem?

AddictedYes and no.  Or at least this is the argument of Oklahoma University sociologist Samuel Perry in his new book Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants.

Perry argues that evangelical men who take their faith seriously and try to practice it in everyday life view porn less than non-evangelicals.  The real porn problem is the church’s perception that is has a serious problem.

Here is a taste of Jana Riess’s interview with Perry at Religion News Service:

There are several. Drawing on numerous studies, Perry finds that:

Despite the statistical finding that conservative Christians are less likely to use porn, the perception within evangelical churches is that this has become an enormous problem for the faithful. To them, the fact that only 40% of conservative Protestant men under age 40 have seen porn in the last year is not cause for rejoicing but for alarm—and the alarm itself may be creating, or at least exacerbating, psychological and marital problems for those Christian users.

Whereas many other Americans seem to be able to view porn without it causing significant mental health problems, for conservative Christians it’s different. The church’s zero-tolerance policy for porn means those who consume it only occasionally might see themselves as addicts from the first viewing. Even though conservative Christians use porn less than other Americans, they are statistically twice as likely to consider themselves “addicted” to it. Their shame can be soul-crushing.

Read the entire interview here.

Christian Nationalists Love Guns

Guns and Bibles

A team of sociologists have published a study arguing that those who believe America is a Christian nation are less likely to support gun control.  Anyone who studies evangelicalism knows this instinctively, but thanks to Andrew Whitehead, Landon Schnabel and Samuel Perry we now have evidence that our hunches are true.

Here is a taste of their piece in The Washington Post:

In our newly published and freely available study, the connection between Christian nationalism and gun control attitudes proves stronger than we expected. It turns out that how intensely someone adheres to Christian nationalism is one of the strongest predictors of whether someone supports gun control. One’s political party, religiosity, gender, education or age doesn’t matter.

You could be a mainline Protestant Democratic woman or a highly educated politically liberal man — the more you line up with Christian nationalism, the less likely you are to support gun control.

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Nationalism and Evangelical Support for Donald Trump

RevisedI wish I would have seen this study when I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  It provides statistical evidence for an argument I have been making ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy.

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have found that evangelical support for Donald Trump is directly related to the belief, common among conservative evangelicals, that the United States is a Christian nation.

This supports my argument that evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on some pretty bad history.  As many of you know, I have been writing about this bad history for a long time.  A good place to start is my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste of Whitehead’s, Baker’s, and Perry’s piece in The Washington Post:

The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump

First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations…

No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump

Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.

Read the entire piece here.

These sociologists used the following questions to decipher the ways that evangelicals think America is a Christian nation:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state” (reverse coded)
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”

Now here is how people like David Barton and other Christian nationalists try to historicize these questions:Believe Me JPEG

  1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation because it was founded as a Christian nation and secular liberals have been steering it away from its Christian roots since the mid-20th century.
  2. The federal government should advocate for Christian values because the founding fathers advocated for the role of Christianity as a way of bringing morality and order to the republic.  (This, I might add, is only partially true).
  3. Separation of church and state is a myth because it is not in the Constitution.  The doctrine of separation of church and state was created by the Supreme Court in 1947 when Hugo Black said that there is a “wall of separation” between church and state and it is “high and impregnable.”
  4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols because America has always allowed for such symbols.  Just look at the Rotunda of the Capitol building or coins.
  5. America is exceptional because God is on its side more than He is any other nation.  The United States is the New Israel–a chosen people.  And because George Washington and other founders talked about God’s providence this must be true.
  6. The Federal Government should allow prayer in public schools because prayer has always been part of the American education system, separation of church and state is a myth, and many of the Founding Fathers were men of prayer.

There are, of course, serious historical problems with all of these statements, but my point here is that all of these points must be addressed from the perspective of American history.  They must be pulled-up from the roots.  In many ways the evangelical support for Donald Trump is a historical problem and the failure of evangelicals to study it. This is something akin to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

The Author’s Corner with Rebecca Barrett-Fox

God HatesRebecca Barrett Fox is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University.  This interview is based on her recent book God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University of Kansas Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write God Hates?

RBF: I graduated from Juniata College, in rural central Pennsylvania, in 2000. During my time there, I was spent a lot of time visiting and observing conservative churches, many of which were very worried with the upcoming turn of the century and Y2K. We giggle at that now, but, at the time, people were concerned enough to stockpile supplies. I knew people buying land in the area and building bunkers and cabins in preparation for the impending end of the world. I found it just fascinating. And so, when I moved to Kansas to pursue graduate school at the University of Kansas, I knew I had to add one of the country’s most conservative and fringe churches to my list of observations. In hindsight, I should have been more intimidated than I was, because the theology was relatively unfamiliar and also because the church is frequently the target of vandalism as well as violence.

I wasn’t prepared for the level of vitriol coming from the pulpit. I’d seen it on the picket line, but I didn’t expect it in sermons, which are, after all, directed at people who presumably share your beliefs. I didn’t understand why someone would keep coming back, and I wanted to figure that out. So, first, this was a project micro in scope, focusing on the interaction of church members and how the church worked. Very quickly, though, I saw the need to put it in the bigger context of American religious history and culture. It is easy to dismiss Westboro Baptists as lone weirdos. But they are actually within a long line of American religionists. Fred Phelps, the founding pastor, liked to say that the church hadn’t changed–America had changed. And he was, to a great extent, right about this. I wanted people to understand that this kind of thinking and behavior didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted to help people see that none of our beliefs really do, even the ones that seem bizarre.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of God Hates?

RBF: Westboro Baptist Church, a church of under 100 people, nearly half of them children, has outsized influence on conversations on how Christians do and should engage with questions of queer sexuality and LGBTQ rights–and not because they are so loud, media savvy, and resilient (though they are). The part of this book that is about Westboro Baptist Church is interesting (especially for those of us who geek out on religious history and theology), but the more important part is about how people who see themselves as much more civil, kind, faithful, and loving respond to Westboro by invoking a more civil and kind but, in the end, just as damning, rejection of LGBTQ people.

JF: Why do we need to read God Hates?

RBF: Westboro is often used as a foil by Christians who do not want to fully welcome or include queer people in civil or religious life, people who say, “We’re not like those Westboro Baptists” but can do even more harm to LGBT people because they are more respected in our society. Every Christian who sniffs at Westboro and says, “They’re not a REAL church” or “They’re not REAL Christians” should read this because, I hope, the book lays out the argument that Westboro Baptists occupy a line in America Christianity that is very old and that continues to share much in common with more mainstream Christianity.

I hope, too, that the book humanizes the members of Westboro Baptist Church, many of whom are kind, gentle, generous people who genuinely believe they are doing the work of God. These two parts of the story–that this church is not unique in American history but rooted in it and that its people are, by and large, wonderful, with the huge exception of when they are absolutely terrible–is a reminder to me that it is very easy for many of us to do awful things in the name of our religious traditions. Many of us hold opinions and prejudices that hurt people–we’re just not as committed to living them out as Westboro Baptists are. I hope this books helps some of us to be a bit more self-aware.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a scholar of American religion?

RBFThe summer between fourth and fifth grade. I’m fairly sure it was just to get out of the house, but my mother sent my siblings and me to every Vacation Bible School in a 15 mile radius. I hated Vacation Bible School, but I was intrigued by why there were so many different churches in a place that seemed so homogenous. (Of course, I didn’t know the word “homogeneous” at the time. I just knew that some of my friends were Methodists and some Presbyterian and some Mennonite and that they were all my friends but went to churches that saw themselves as distinct.) I was at VBS at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church, which had been founded in 1727, and I thought, “I want to know why people have been going to this church for 250 years.”

JF: What is your next project?

RBF: I’m working with Dr. John Shuford, the director of the Hate Studies Policy Research Center, to edit The Encyclopedia of Hate: A Global Study of Enmity, Forgiveness, and Social Change, which will provide an overview of the major hate groups operating in the world today as well as essays on the state of hate studies today. I’m also editing a special issue of The Journal of Hate Studies, which is housed at the Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University. My focus remains on religion and hate–specifically in conservative and fringe Christian groups, with an interest in gender and sexuality. For example, I’m currently an investigator on a grant from the National Institute of Justice to study the online presence of the Army of God, a violent anti-abortion effort. My next book-length project will focus on the place of women and families–and especially white womanhood–in religiously-inspired hate groups and extremist movements. And I remain interested in how those extremist groups overlap with more mainstream groups, especially in theology and politics.

JF: Thanks Rebecca!

Robert Wuthnow on the Limits of Polls for Understanding American Religion

Over at Religious Dispatches Andrew Aghapour interviews Robert Wuthnow, the prolific sociologist of religion at Princeton University, on his most recent book Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith.  According to Wuthnow, polling and surveys have influenced and distorted how we understood religion in America.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Andrew Aghapour: How did polls become a significant tool for understanding American religion, and what made them so attractive?
Robert Wuthnow: Broad commercial polling began in the 1930s, when George Gallup, Sr. paid for polls by getting a couple hundred newspapers to pay for his columns. Religion was something that was of personal interest to him, but the pieces about religion would simply occur from time to time, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. The rest of the polls were about political topics, including the Depression, what was going on in Washington, and so forth.
There really wasn’t much interest [in religion] at the time, even though Gallup tried to make the poll results seem interesting, and the newspapers were carrying them. Even in the 1940s when he started asking questions about belief in God, there wasn’t much response—the limited response there was came mostly from church leaders, who were skeptical. What does it mean to say that 95% of the public believe in God? That doesn’t tell us much of anything, and so it took a long time for Gallup and his competitors to sell the idea that polling about anything, including religion, was of interest or importance.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, during the Cold War period—with the idea that America is a religious country and the Soviet Union is a godless Communist country—that people started gravitating to the idea polls are telling us something interesting. This was also rooted in the notion, increasingly prominent in the 1950s, that science was the big wave of the future. Since Gallup and other pollsters claimed that their polls were scientific, that also attracted attention, at least in the media if not in the general public.
Then, in 1976, there occurred what you call “the most notable instance to date in which polling played a major role in defining a significant feature of the religious landscape.” Could you tell us about the year of the evangelical?
The year of the evangelical was 1976, when Jimmy Carter achieved election to the White House and the role of polling was to greatly expand the number of Americans who were evangelicals.
How is that possible that a poll could do that? George Gallup, Jr. was now in charge of religious polling at the Gallup Organization. George Jr. was a born-again Episcopalian himself, and had started doing more polls about Evangelicals. When Jimmy Carter came along, journalists were asking themselves, “What does it mean to be a born-again Evangelical?” George Gallup, Jr. had the answer, because he’d asked questions in his polls about whether people considered themselves born again, had ever had a born-again experience, what they believed about the Bible, whether they considered themselves Evangelicals, and so forth.
Gallup said there might be 50 million American who are evangelicals, and journalists ran with that. It was a much higher number than had been assumed before, [which were based on counting members of those denominations within] the National Association of Evangelicals.
In addition to changing the numbers, polling also changed political perception, [by implying] that evangelicals were a voting bloc. That made sense to journalists because Catholics were a voting bloc for John F. Kennedy in 1960—so surely evangelicals must have been a voting bloc for Jimmy Carter. That wasn’t the case at all. Some of the leading, most powerful, influential evangelical leaders were actually for Gerald Ford. There was a lot of diversity among evangelicals themselves that got masked by being lumped together in the polls as if they were all the same thing.

Peter Berger on Denominations and Atheists

Worship at an atheist mega-church

According to Peter Berger, denominations are not dead.  In fact, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all embracing various forms of denominationalism.  So are atheists. This is how Berger explains the development of so-called “atheist mega-churches.”

A taste:

The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family.  This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety).  Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”.  This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.