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!

What is Evangelical Christianity?

Bradley Wright, a sociologist of American Christianity at the University of Connecticut who writes at the Patheos blog Black, White, and Gray, sets out on the unenviable task of trying to define “evangelical Christianity.”  I found his post to be a very helpful introduction.  Here is a taste:

Let’s start with perhaps the most basic of questions: What is Evangelical Christianity?

There is no one answer to even this the most simple of questions, though there are fundamental characteristics associated with it.

Historian David Bebbington defines Evangelical Christianity as having four main qualities (quoted from here):
* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort

Theologian John Stackhouse has a nice discussion of the theological aspects of the term here.

Sociologist Brian Steensland and colleagues point to these characteristics: ”Evangelical denominations have typically sought more separation from the broader culture, emphasized missionary activity and individual conversion, and taught strict adherence to particular religious doctrines.”

As commonly used, Evangelical Christianity refers to Protestants only, and I will follow that convention, though there’s no reason that the general definition of Evangelicalism can’t apply to Catholics as well. In fact, Pope Francis has been labeled an “Evangelical Catholic.”

Here is where things get tricky: How do we measure Evangelical Christianity? That is, how do we know who is one and who isn’t one?

Christian Smith Defends a Sociologist Whose Data Finds Fault With Same-Sex Relationships

According to Christian Smith, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame, Mark Regnerus is being savaged by his fellow sociologists because he has published research that challenges progressive orthodoxy on the question of same-sex parenting.

In an article in Social Science Research, Regnerus, an associate professor at the University of Texas, argued that adult children of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships, including same-sex couples as parents, have more emotional and social problems than do adult children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages.  Social Science Research is a peer-reviewed academic journal and its editor has stood by the piece.

Regnerus’s research has caused a major uproar in the sociology community.  He has even been attacked by members of his own department.  According to Smith, Regnerus’s article is offensive to the guardians of the liberal, progressive ethos of his discipline.  Smith writes:

The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify “problems” with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not “correct” are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—”scholarly weaknesses” or “not fitting in well” with the department.

To be sure, there are many sociologists—progressives and otherwise—who are good people, scholars, and teachers. But the influence of progressive orthodoxy in sociology is evident in decisions made by graduate students, junior faculty, and even senior faculty about what, why, and how to research, publish, and teach. One cannot be too friendly to religion, for example, such as researching the positive social contributions of missionary work overseas or failing to criticize evangelicals and fundamentalists. The result is predictable: Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.

I am not a sociologist so I do not want to rush to judgment against the practitioners of the discipline.  But I do respect the work of Christian Smith and I am inclined to believe that what he has to say about the Regnerus case is correct.  If it is, this is a real shame–both for the discipline of sociology and for academia in general.

Coclanis: Bowlers Started Bowling Better When They Started Bowling Alone

Here is an interesting twist on the whole Robert Putnam “Bowling Alone” argument.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Robert Putnam, he is the Harvard sociologist who argued in 2000 that declining participation in bowling leagues was a sign of a larger decline in American’s commitment to community and social relations.

Now Peter Colcanis, a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a scholar known for his work on economic life in the South Carolina low country, suggests that the decline of bowling leagues in America  have made Americans better bowlers.  Here is a taste:

Whatever one thinks of communitarianism (I, for one, am reflexively anti-communitarian), Putnam might have—indeed, should have—chosen a metaphor other than bowling. Why? Because during the same period that participation in bowling leagues was said to be declining—the 1980s and 1990s—amateur bowling scores in the United States were soaring. 

Improvements in bowling techniques and technology explain part of the scoring surge. Regarding the latter: The shift from rubber to polyester (plastic) to urethane balls facilitated greater surface traction and friction; increasingly sophisticated lane-oiling patterns helped to enhance ball control and the angle of entry of balls into the pocket; and coated pins increased their “action” once struck. And, as in other sports, participants in bowling have been getting bigger, stronger, and more athletic, and, all things being equal, such attributes likely have had some effect on rising scores as well.

But another factor may have played a role as well, one with implications for Putnam’s thesis. It just may be that with the decline in bowling-league participation (presuming such a decline occurred), bowlers who were serious about bowling qua bowling rather than about bowling as a casual adjunct to drinking, cutting up, and deepening their “webs of relationships” every Tuesday or Wednesday night may have spent more of their time at the lanes actually practicing—with improved average scores the result.

Coclanis offers an intriguing argument about how being anti-communitarian may make us better at what we do.

Christian Smith on "Liberal Whateverism"

Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, wants to move beyond patronizing and dismissive declarations of “tolerance” and move toward a more robust understanding of religious pluralism.  He explains:

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that “all religions are ultimately the same.” That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private “opinions.” It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated. 

Jon Butler on Putnam and Campbell, "American Grace"

Jon Butler, one of the deans in the field of American religious history, reviews Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us.

Butler notes Putnam and Campbell’s failure to historicize religion in America.  Here is a taste:

…I admire the complexity and fascinating ethnographic excursions American Grace offers. I wish I could write as cleanly as Campbell and Putnam do across more than 500 pages. I appreciate the effort at keeping the big picture constantly in focus. At the same time, for a historian, American Grace‘s many and complex “beliefs” float too free from their historical moorings, and not just because I like history, but because history is embedded in contemporary behavior—as in contemporary Mormon views on heaven—even when it doesn’t seem to be.  Maybe part of the general problem is taking the irenic 1950s as the departure point of its historical backdrop. We could debate whether or not the religious peacefulness of the 1950s is itself over-rated, but that’s a different discussion.  Instead, I would suggest that, even if the 1950s weren’t entirely peaceful, they may still have been the most unusual, and indeed relatively irenic, years in American religious history.

But for three centuries, tumult, disputation, and anger— i.e., “polarization” —characterized much of American religion. It is hard for a historian not to remember the hangings of Quakers in Boston in the 1660s, the jailing even of Quaker dissidents by other Quakers in Philadelphia during the Keithian schism of the 1690s, the suppression of much traditional African religious practice among enslaved Africans, even after emancipation, plus virulent American anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism, and both polite and impolite ridicule of evangelical fundamentalism, to highlight only some of the contentious, polarizing substance of America’s long spiritual history.

Campbell and Putnam acknowledge this historical religious polarization on the penultimate page of American Grace. Yet they not only trumpet its rarity but assert that “from its founding, America has had religious toleration encoded in its national DNA.” Our DNA?  Here, the episodic, conditional past is annihilated in a paroxysm of essentialist rhetoric. Most historians would say that religious toleration emerged fitfully in America but certainly wasn’t present at its founding; it’s the point of William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. We might hope it’s present now. But religiously based homophobia, anti-Muslim tension, and even the quietly continuing evangelizing of Mormons by Wisconsin Synod Lutherans suggest that America’s genetically assured triumph of religious toleration hasn’t yet arrived.

What is Happening to the Institution of Marriage?

Last month the Brookings Institute released a report on the state of marriage in American society.  It was co-authored by Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins.  Wilcox is a conservative.  Cherlin is a liberal. 

Wilcox and Cherlin argue that the institution of marriage is in trouble, especially among the lower classes.  Here is a taste of their diagnosis:

In the affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule. Young Americans with college degrees, once thought to be a cultural vanguard, are creating a neotraditional style of family life: although they may cohabit with their partners, nearly all of them marry before having their first child. Furthermore, while most wives work outside the home, the divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s. In contrast, marriage and family stability have been in decline in the kinds of neighborhoods that we used to call working-class—home to large numbers of young adults who have completed high school but not college. More and more of them are having children in brittle cohabiting unions. Among those who marry, the risk of divorce remains high. Indeed, the families formed recently in working-class communities have begun to look as much like the families of the poor as of the prosperous. The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America. Take divorce. Today, moderately-educated Americans are more than twice as likely to divorce as college-educated Americans during the first ten years of marriage, and the divorce divide between these two groups has been growing since the 1970s. Similar trends are apparent in nonmarital childbearing, a category that includes both single and cohabiting women. By the late 2000s, moderatelyeducated American women were more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage as compared with their college-educated peers. Indeed the percentage of nonmarital births among the moderately educated (44 percent) was closer to the rate among mothers without high school degrees (54 percent) than to college-educated mothers (6 percent).

In response to these problems, the authors offer six specific policy ideas.  You can read about them in detail in the brief, but I have summarized them below.

1.  Increase training for middle-skill jobs.  The economic benefits could lead to more stable unions.

2.  Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers and reduce the marriage penalty.  The EITC “imposes a substantial marriage penalty because the higher joint earnings of a married couple reduce the benefit below what they would have each received if they had remained single.”

3.  Start a social marketing campaign that encourages young people to “follow a success sequence characterized by finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, and then having children.”

4.  Expand the child tax credit to $3000 per child.

5.  Invest in preschool children’s development.

6.  Reform divorce law.  No-fault divorce has reduced “the public’s confidence in marriage and willingness to invest in their spouse, insofar as no-fault divorce weakened the marital contract by allowing a unilateral divorce for any reason whatsoever.”

Educated People Tend To Be More Religious….Sort Of

According a recent study by University of Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel, educated people tend to be more religious than non-educated people.

So much for the theory that people give up religious faith when they become more educated.

But wait….

According to Schwadel, if you define “religious” in terms of simply attending church services, then highly educated people are indeed more religious than others.

But if you define “religious” as “saying the Bible is the literal word of God and saying that only one religion is the true religion,” then highly educated people are less religious than others.

Read more here.

Anyone want to bite on this one?

Populist Evangelicalism vs. Cosmopolitan Evangelicalism

D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist of religion best known for his book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the America Elite.  He is also the newly installed president of Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

Over at Evangel, Gayle Trotter interviews Lindsay about his recent book.  In the course of the interview Lindsay distinguishes between populist evangelicalism and cosmopolitan evangelicalism:

GT: What is populist evangelicalism versus cosmopolitan evangelicalism?
ML: This is one of the things that I encountered when I was working on Faith in the Halls of Power. Most of the time when people study evangelicals they say, “Oh, it’s a generational difference.” The old evangelicals are very conservative. The younger evangelicals are more progressive or liberal. Or they say it’s fundamentally about political division, so you have evangelicals on the left and evangelicals on the right. What I found is that actually the dividing lines don’t work nearly that neatly. I found that there was a whole group of evangelicals who had this sort of worldliness about them — worldly in a very positive sense. They were people who were rubbing shoulders day in and day out with people of other faiths and people who have no faith at all. They were people who read the New York Times, but they also read Christianity Today. They could listen to contemporary Christian music but also were big fans of NPR. And this worldliness influenced the way that they approached their faith. It shaped their understanding about evangelism and about church involvement. It shaped their priorities in their life of faith. You compare that with what I call populist evangelicalism which is principally the image that most people have when they think of evangelicals. This is the arena of the megachurch, of the Christian subculture, and that’s a very vibrant and important dimension of contemporary religious life, but I actually find that many of the people that I interviewed fit into the cosmopolitan category as opposed to these more populist evangelicals.

Are you a populist evangelical or a cosmopolitan evangelical?  I would like to think I am a little bit of both.

By the way, Trotter and Lindsay also explore whether or not “Christian” is the new “gay.”

People Outside the United States Are Bowling Together

Some of you may recall Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam argued that community is declining in America.  His primary evidence was the significant membership decline in civic organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis and other community groups and activities such as bowling leagues.

While people continue to “bowl alone” in America, community and civic organizations are thriving outside of America.  In this Washington Monthly article, John Gravois traces the rise of organizations such as Rotary, the Boy Scouts, Lions, and Toastmasters in places like Uganda, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates.

Here is a taste:

In a radio interview earlier this year, the former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee sniffed at President Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.” Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got one thing precisely backward. Indonesia has more than twice as many scouts as we do. In fact, with around 17.1 million badge-seeking, uniform-sporting, oath-swearing youth, Indonesia has the largest scouting association in the world. The United States, whose scout numbers are steadily dwindling, is not even a close second. And for the record, Rotary has around eighty-nine clubs in the country as well.

OK all you blog-reading pundits.  What does this mean?

American Grace

The Hedgehog Review is running an interview with Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us. (I picked up a copy at a Borders Books going-out-of-business sale, but have not read it yet).

Here a few things I culled from the inteview:

  • Americans “overwhelmingly believe that people of other religions can go to heaven.” Even evangelical Protestants believe this.
  • Most American believe that truth can be found in all religions.
  • People make choices to attend church or not to attend church based on their political convictions.
  • People who are religious are more engaged in their communities.
  • More religious diversity is on the horizon.
  • One-third of all Americans are “worshipping in a faith tradition other than the one that they were raised in.”
  • There has been a “sharp increase” in interfaith marriages.
  • Denominational borders have broken down.
  • There are a growing number of “nones”–young people who have no religious affiliation, but want a spiritual life.

Present-Oriented History vs. Past-Oriented History

Cliopatria is running a short essay by noted sociologist Herbert J. Gans entitled “Some Uses of History.”  Most historians will find this a rather basic introduction, but it seems that Gans is writing to his fellow sociologists, trying to convince them that they might benefit from the study of history.  Whatever the case, Gans piece would certainly work in an undergraduate seminar on historiography or historical thinking.  Here is how he defines his terms:

Present-Oriented History:
Present-oriented history recounts historical events, processes and other social situations that are useful for understanding what is happening now, even if such comparisons are risky when incompletely done or decontextualized. This kind of history also reports and analyzes the origin of present organizations, institutions, social processes etc. with special attention to how their pasts continue into or shape the present…

Past-Oriented History
Past-oriented history is about events and people that are not relevant in any way to the present, for example a history of Lake Michigan area Native American settlements during the 15th century. I suppose one could even write a history of Reconstruction that makes no connection to the present, although given the continuing interest in the subject, not to mention the role it played in the arrival of Jim Crow, that would be a difficult task. However, who would find a study of the farm tools of 19th century sharecroppers helpful in understanding the economic condition of today’s poor urban African Americans.

Who is the Host of the Price is Right?

 If you can’t answer this question you are probably one of the “New Elite.”

Who are the so-called “Elite” that the members of the Tea Party despise so much?  Do such “Elite” really exist?  Charles Murray, writing in yesterday’s Washington Post, argues that these Elites do exist and they are largely out of touch with most of America.  Murray writes:

We know, for one thing, that the New Elite clusters in a comparatively small number of cities and in selected neighborhoods in those cities. This concentration isn’t limited to the elite neighborhoods of Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It extends to university cities with ancillary high-tech jobs, such as Austin and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle.

With geographical clustering goes cultural clustering. Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows — “Mad Men” now, “The Sopranos” a few years ago. But they haven’t any idea who replaced Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.” They know who Oprah is, but they’ve never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they’ve never read a “Left Behind” novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn’t be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven’t ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn’t count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don’t count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn’t count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

McClay on American Grace

Check out Wilfred McClay’s review of Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us.  McClay writes:

Perhaps the best and most interesting chapter in this respect is “Religion and Good Neighborliness,” which convincingly argues that, contrary to the stock depiction in popular culture, religious Americans make better neighbors by almost every index. They are more generous, with both their time and money; more civically active, in community organizations and political reform; more trusting; more trustworthy; and even measurably happier. The only exception to this list of positive traits: religious people tend to be less tolerant of views that clash with their own. These results hold even when the authors control for such factors as gender, education, income, race, region and age.

To what do the authors attribute this extraordinary edge among the religious? “Theology and piety,” they say, have “very little” to do with it. Instead, the explanation has to do with the social networks that grow out of religious commitment, networks offering “morally freighted personal connections” combined with an “inclination toward altruism.” If this seems a rather predictable conclusion for social scientists to reach, it is not without its uses, if only as a stimulant to reconsidering settled ideas.

To what do the authors attribute this extraordinary edge among the religious? “Theology and piety,” they say, have “very little” to do with it. Instead, the explanation has to do with the social networks that grow out of religious commitment, networks offering “morally freighted personal connections” combined with an “inclination toward altruism.” If this seems a rather predictable conclusion for social scientists to reach, it is not without its uses, if only as a stimulant to reconsidering settled ideas.

But it is indicative of a bias in the book, in favor of easygoing, temperate, smoothly functioning, non- threatening, non-boat-rocking religion, whose health is judged only by external and measurable factors. American religion is found praiseworthy by the authors chiefly for its too often underrated moderation, its appreciation of diversity and its good “social” effects. Much of “American Grace” attempts to provide support for that view. The religious category that the authors label, with ill – concealed disparagement, as “true believers” is small and diminishing—and a darn good thing, it would seem.

In this way, Messrs. Putnam and Campbell, while cutting against the conventional wisdom about religion’s divisiveness, devalue the very thing they are trying to defend. They reprise the view lambasted by Will Herberg, more than a half-century ago, in his searing critique of American religious flaccidity, “Protestant Catholic Jew.” Surely there is something ironic about preferring a form of religion that asks us to admire and study the great prophets and preachers while warning us against imitating them and their true-believing faith.

This is interesting in light of recent discussions on this blog about neo-Anabaptists.  While McClay is certainly no neo-Anabaptist, his essay shows that conservative and Reformed thinkers can still embrace a prophetic religion that critiques the flaccidity of the kind of civil religion that Putnam and Campbell apparently celebrate in their book.

The Lonely Crowd Turns 60



In October 1950 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published The Lonely Crowd, a sociological analysis of the “American character.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education has a short piece, authored by Rupert Wilkinson, on the significance of this landmark work in sociology and American studies.  Here is a taste:

The book spoke to middle-class concerns about conformity and softness in the new, standardized suburbs of postwar America. For all its moralistic rigidities, the inner-directed type looked more individualistic, hence more attractive to many Americans, though Riesman insisted that in other-direction he did not depict more conformity but rather a change in “modes of conformity”—the way people were induced to conform…

…It was the first book to stress a change in modern society from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption as a social act—from making things to relating to people, from “the hardness of the material,” as the authors put it, to the softer touch of consumer-focused sales and services. In politics Riesman coined one of his many engaging labels, the “inside-dopester,” to describe a person drawn to political life as a consumer, eager to be in the know rather than to make policy. (At the time of writing the book, Riesman and Glazer were much concerned about voter “apathy,” which they connected to a passive, consumer view of politics.)

Read Wilkinson’s full and insightful analysis here.

What Do Emerging Adults Believe?

Over at Text-Patterns, Alan Jacobs writes about sociologist Christian Smith‘s new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Here are a few snippets from the book, culled from Alan’s post.

Voices critical of mass consumerism, materialistic values, or the environmental or social costs of a consumer-driven economy were nearly nonexistent among emerging adults. Once the interviewers realized, after a number of interviews, that they were hardly in danger of leading their respondents into feigned concern about consumerism, the interviewers began to probe more persistently to see if there might not be any hot buttons or particular phrases that could tap into any kind of concern about materialistic consumerism. There were not. Very many of those interviewed simply could not even understand the issue the interviewers were asking them about….

…The majority of those interviewed stated . . . that nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people. . . . Most of those interviewed said that it is nice if people help others, but that nobody has to. Taking care of other people in need is an individual’s choice. If you want to do it, good. If not, that’s up to you. . . . Even when pressed — What about victims of natural disaster or political oppression? What about helpless people who are not responsible for their poverty or disabilities? What about famines and floods and tsunamis? — No, they replied. If someone wants to help, then good for that person. But nobody has to.

It would seem that this book should be required reading for all college professors.

In the end of the post, Jacobs suggests that his Christian students at Wheaton College are different from the American norm. As he puts it: “Not that they’re untouched by the movements Smith and Snell describe, by any means; but by and larger their characters have been formed by quite different forces.”

Is Jacobs right about this? To what degree have Christian college students resisted the American norm and to what degree have they conformed to it? I hope some Christian college professors and students might weigh in here.

How to Change the World


James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, has been getting a lot of attention lately. (I would probably not have used the word “world” in both the title and sub-title, but that is just me).

I am a couple chapters into the book and I hope to devote a post to it sooner or later, but in the meantime Christopher Benson has posted a nice bibliography of reviews and interviews with Hunter (including his own at Christianity Today).

Call for Papers: Divided By Faith: A Decade Retrospective

This call for papers just came in from Rusty Hawkins, a loyal reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective

The John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University invites proposals for an
interdisciplinary conference commemorating the tenth anniversary of Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s groundbreaking book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, to be held on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, on October 15-16, 2010. The conference will begin Friday evening with a dinner and panel discussion with Michael Emerson on the impact Divided by Faith has had on scholars and church practitioners. Professor Emerson will also present a closing address Saturday afternoon.

Divided by Faith’s influence has been felt among a variety of academic disciplines. Over the past decade, scores of historians, sociologists, and theologians have produced scholarship intersecting with the book’s theme of the power of race in American religion. American religious historians have explored the roots of segregated churches, sociologists have undertaken further investigations into ethnic and racial divisions of American congregations, and theologians have produced works suggesting that the days of racialized evangelicalism are numbered. Ten years after its publication, the scholarly ground initially tilled by Emerson and Smith’s book remains fertile for researchers from multiple disciplines.

In recognition of the growing scholarship being generated in this area, the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University invites scholars working broadly on the overlapping topics of race and American religion to participate in this conference marking the tenth anniversary of Divided by Faith’s publication.

Successful proposals may consider a variety of topics related to the general theme of the
intersection of religion, race, and American society. Proposals should include an abstract of
approximately 500 words and a CV. Submissions from scholars and advanced graduate students working in sociology, history, theology, or other relevant fields are encouraged. Presented papers may also be considered for publication in an anticipated interdisciplinary volume on the influence of race in American religion. A limited amount of funding for travel may be available to students and scholars who are unable to obtain funding from their own institution.

Proposals must be received by July 15, 2010, and should be sent by email to rusty.hawins@indwes.edu or by post to John Wesley Honors College c/o Rusty Hawkins; Indiana Wesleyan University; 4201 S. Washington; Marion, IN 46953.

Church Decline and Population Decline

Why is church membership and church attendance declining? Is it because of increasing secularization? Perhaps. But according to sociologist Michael Emerson, it may also have something to do with population decline. Here is a snippet from his short piece at Duke’s Faith and Leadership blog.

The recent release of the National Council of Churches’ annual “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” adds fresh details to a familiar story: Membership is declining in the majority of Protestant denominations.

Compared with the previous year, Catholic membership is up 1.5 percent, but Protestant membership is down. For the second year in a row, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — has reported a decline. And most black denominations are no longer growing.

The commonly cited reasons for this pattern are likewise familiar: Americans’ increasing secularization, postmodernism, competition from other activities, the aging of the baby boomers and churches’ lack of responsiveness to a changing culture.

No doubt all of these are part of the story. But there is another part of the story that gets overlooked: population decline. Although many people believe we’re in the midst of a worldwide population explosion, demographers and sociologists have known for quite some time that a couple of key factors actually lead to lowered birth rates: urbanization and the rising education and labor force participation of women.

In nations where those two factors exist, birth rates drop, precipitously. So much so, in fact, that soon those nations do not have enough children to replace themselves. And historically, nations whose fertility has dropped below the replacement level have not been able to bring it back above that threshold, no matter the policies instituted to do so.

In developed nations — which have low infant death rates — it takes 2.1 births per woman to exactly replace the population. Short of that, populations shrink, unless they are bolstered by immigration. Using the conservative 2.1 cutoff, about 70 nations are no longer having enough children to replace themselves, including the United States, with a fertility rate of 2.05, Iran (2.04), Ireland (1.96 ), Chile (1.94), Brazil (1.90), France (1.89), the UK (1.82), Australia (1.79), China (1.73), Canada (1.53), Cuba (1.49) and Japan (1.27).

Many others will join this group soon. In fact, using the low fertility assumption, United Nations figures indicate that in just 15 years the world as a whole will no longer replace its population. Given a lag effect, this means that in about 40 years, the world population will begin declining. This, in turn, means that relying on immigration to keep economies running will become increasingly difficult.

These demographic realities have vast implications for the church. My colleague George Yancey and I are only beginning to explore the implications, though some of them are becoming clear to us. Shrinking population will mean shrinking attendance figures. In the United States, population continues to grow for now because of immigrants, who also tend to have high birth rates. But native-born Americans of all races and ethnicities are not currently replacing themselves…