How Historians of Religion Get It Wrong

More proof, if any more were needed. If we want to understand religious identity, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking only about religion itself. A new LifeWay poll finds that a lot of church-going Americans, and a majority of young ones, prefer to pray with people who share their politics. Too often, religious historians (I plead guilty) tend to ignore the obvious implications.

lifeway politics poll

It’s no coincidence: For most of us, our religion matches our politics and vice versa.

Most important, this poll reminds us that people define their religion in all sorts of ways. For a lot of us, other factors play at least as big a part in making up our religious identity. For many people in this poll, for example, politics were as much a part of their church identity as religious factors.

If course, the notion that “religion” means more than “religion” won’t be any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. There are a million factors that go into making up a person’s religious identity. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, for example, what makes a college “Christian” is much more than a fierce commitment to any particular theology. Where schools stand on political issues, sexual issues, and even humdrum pedagogical issues played at least as big a part in whether or not a university was considered reliably “fundamentalist” in the twentieth century.

What do the new numbers tell us? A small majority (51%) of church-going Americans of all sorts thinks they agree politically with other members of their church. A larger majority (61%) of 35-49-year-olds thinks so. Evangelicals (57%) are more likely to think so than, say, Lutherans (31%).

Almost half (46%) of respondents like it that way. And MORE than half (57%) of young (18-49-year-old) churchgoers do.

So what?

As we’ve harped on in these pages, understanding religious people means understanding more than just their religion. But when historians or journalists read the self-conscious writings of religious people themselves, especially religious intellectuals, we tend to get a skewed perspective. Religious people, for obvious reasons, tend to explain their own thinking in religious terms. They tend to explain why they support or oppose trends or ideas based on religious justifications.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, morally or otherwise. The problem comes when historians or other writers take those religious explanations too plainly at face value. We end up misunderstanding everything.

Let me offer one painful example. In Fundamentalist U, I tried to trace the history of race and racism at white-dominated evangelical colleges and universities. Some of those schools, most famously Bob Jones University, justified their racial segregationism in religious terms. Jones asked, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” His answer in 1960 was an insistent “yes.”

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, it would obviously be an egregious error if we only looked at Jones’s theological rationalization of his segregatory practices. Much more was at stake, including Jones’s Southern roots, the school’s Southern traditions, and the ferocious racial politics of 1960.

In short, as these poll numbers remind us, if we really want to understand religious life, we can’t limit ourselves to religion alone. If we want to understand American culture at all, we need to start with the knowledge that religious identity is only one slice of what makes a religious person. And we need to be willing to contextualize–though it feels disrespectful and impolite–the actual assertions of religious people themselves, when they talk as if religion and theology are the only things that matter to them.

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3 Comments

  1. Religion is more about community than it is about theology.

    Reply
    • Absolutely. In my archival work, though, I tend to spend all my time reading the letters and publications of religious intellectuals. And when they explain a position or make an argument, they tend to do so in exclusively religious terms. Bob Jones didn’t say he was a segregationist because he was a Southerner. He said he was a segregationist because he loved the Bible. That’s an easy case to see through, but everywhere we look we see community values expressed and explained as religious ideas.

      Reply
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