Progressive Methodists, Welcome to the World of Fundamentalism

Conservatives are celebrating. Progressives are lamenting. From a historical perspective, we can’t help but notice that today’s liberal Methodists are likely feeling the same sort of betrayal and dismay that fundamentalists felt in the 1920s and 1930s.

methodist poll

American Methodists: More conservative than you might have thought…

Here’s what we know: The United Methodist Church (UMC) has long faced a dilemma. Its large US contingent has tipped to the liberal side of the spectrum, with some congregations ordaining LGBTQ ministers, even bishops. At the church’s recent special conference, however, conservatives won the day, powered in part by the surprising strength of American conservatives, but even more so by international conservatism.

In a recent poll, for example, 44% of American respondents called themselves conservative-traditional. In African churches, an even stronger traditionalism dominates. As one African leader scolded the conference,

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.”

As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, progressive Methodists are stuck. Do they stay or do they go? As I read her report, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of conservative Methodists in the 1920s. Back then, conservatives felt their church was being pulled away from them. Like today’s progressives, they often articulated a sense of both surprise and betrayal when they discovered the strength of their 1920s rivals.

To give you a taste of those feelings among early fundamentalist Methodists, I dug back through my files on one of the most famous American fundamentalists, Bob Jones. The founder of Bob Jones University was raised in the Southern Methodist Church and he felt a strong attachment to it his entire life.

However, he chafed at the attempts of the church to limit or control his preaching and institution-building. Most of all, like other fundamentalists of his generation, Jones Sr. believed that liberals had unfairly seized control of denominational institutions and used their power to crush legitimate differences of opinion.

As Jones liked to tell the tale, back in the early days of his career he had donated $300 to a Methodist college—he said it was “all the money I had on earth.” In Jones’ telling, that institution took his money “under false pretenses. They stole it. They are dirty rotten thieves.”

Jones liked to say that his experiences with the Methodist hierarchy led him to found an interdenominational fundamentalist college, one that would “never sell out.” As he put it in 1950,

I couldn’t conceive of anything as mean and low-down as to go out and raise money to build a certain type of school and then build another one…. That’s getting money under false pretenses.  That’s playing with the spiritual life of people.  That’s making capital out of the humble faith of humble saints.

Despite his antagonism toward the denominational hierarchy, Jones Sr. remained in the Methodist church through the 1930s. When a Methodist magazine refused to carry advertisements for Bob Jones College, the Joneses finally threw in the towel. As Jones Sr. wrote to a former editor in 1939, he had long hoped

there might be some hope for Methodism.  Since receiving your letter, I give up.  I say this kindly, and I love you just as much as ever, but I feel sad around the heart.

Eighty years later, we might change the reasons, but the language could remain exactly the same. I can picture a liberal Methodist minister sending in their credentials, saying that they had long hoped there was some hope for a progressive Methodism. After this week’s vote at the special conference, however, they might “give up,” even if it makes them feel “sad around the heart.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Are colleges addicted to the internet? Are charter schools “public?” Do Satanists pick up litter? We read with interest the answers to all these questions and more, in our weekly round-up of news ‘n’ views:

Fancy college finds out it can’t live without technology, at IHE.

Walmartification of college, at CHE.

  • Why are evangelical universities over-represented in the mega-online world? Here at ILYBYGTH.

    college enrollment trends

    The sawdust trail moves online…

NJ passes mandatory LGBTQ curriculum, at WNYC.

Why white evangelical women still love Trump, at TC.

White evangelical women . . . rally behind Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump and equate their conservative version of traditional femininity with grace and elegance. . . . The seeming paradox of white evangelical women backing Trump really isn’t a paradox at all. In fact, their support says more about the state of white evangelical Christianity in the US than it does about anything else.

Not just polarized, but…Emma Green on “the bubble:”

a significant minority of Americans seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. . . . When asked how they would feel about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party, 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy, compared with 35 percent of Republicans.

More strikes and rumors of strikes: Oakland ‘n’ West Virginia, at NPR.

Fundamentalist U leading from behind: More universities assert in loco parentis authority, at CHE.

Are charter schools “public?” Peter Greene says no, at Curmudgucation.

More evidence: 1970s’ hijinx have become 2019 felonies.

On the highway to hell: Satanists adopt a mile in Arkansas, at FA.

Highway to hell

…wow.

 

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another doozy of a week. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed news stories you might have missed:

Pro-lifers love the new science, by Emma Green at The Atlantic.

What happened to Crusade University? David Swartz tells the tale of the evangelical flop at Anxious Bench.Bart reading bible

Ohio teacher suspended for telling an African American student he would be “lynched,” at NYT.

How can universities promote intellectual diversity? Some presidents are hanging out with campus conservatives, at IHE.

UK report: Evolution acceptance lower among less-talented students. HT: VW.

What does Queen Betsy think went wrong? Politico describes her latest address.

The danger of homeschooling: LA finds “emaciated children chained to furniture,” at NYT.

Cultural bridge or soft censorship? UMass Boston protests against Confucius Institute, at Boston Globe.

Continuing crisis at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute:

A new Bible bill for Iowa public schools, at Des Moines Register. HT: MC

Who can still love Trump?

Science and the Action Flick

It’s been said by enough smart people that we should start listening. Religion and science aren’t at war. This morning, a recent story about science and abortion suggests a new analogy for understanding the role science has always played in our hundred-years’ culture war. It has more to do with Jackie Chan and Bruce Willis than Galileo and John Scopes.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH won’t be surprised to hear it. Historians like Ronald Numbers and sociologists like Elaine Howard Ecklund have long since punctured the tired old myth that religion and science have always been on opposite sides of our culture-war trenches.

The old story is that religious conservatives fear and loathe science. They insist—the myth says—on anti-scientific ideas about a young earth because they don’t like science. They fight against scientific progress using stem cells because they prefer God to knowledge. They put their heads in the sand and bat science away with a swat of their annotated Bibles.

It’s just not accurate. As Professor Ecklund writes in her recent book, her surveys of evangelical Protestants found very different attitudes. They like science and they think science and religion can get along. For example, evangelicals are actually slightly less likely than the general population (13.9% of evangelicals compared to 14.9% of all respondents) to think that science does more harm than good. And, as Ecklund puts it, evangelicals

are actually significantly more likely than the general population and significantly more likely than any other religious group to see religion and science as having a collaborative relationship.

News from the abortion front shows how the religion/science dynamic actually works. As Emma Green reports in The Atlantic,

New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives.

Nor is this conservative religious fondness for science new. As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s anti-evolution leaders counted on mainstream science to disprove Darwin’s ideas about natural selection. At the Scopes Trial, for instance, proto-creationist William Jennings Bryan assumed he could put leading scientists on the stand to disprove the atheistic pretensions of false evolutionary science.

It was only when Bryan couldn’t find credentialed scientists (except for one impressive gynecologist) willing to take his side that he decided to fight against the use of expert scientific testimony.

Today’s pro-life activists are on the other side. They’re finding proof for their claims from mainstream science, and they’re thrilled. These conservative religious activists don’t fear science. They don’t loathe science. Rather, they desperately want to use science to prove themselves right. Science is only bad when it seems to go against them.

To our ILYBYGTH eyes, this situation suggests the need for a new way of thinking about the culture-war relationship between science and religion. They are not at war. We don’t see religious conservatives fighting against science. Rather, we see both sides eagerly glomming on to any science-y sounding proof of their position.

So here’s my humble suggestion for a better way of imagining the real relationship: Science is like the gun in the big fight at the end of action movies.

Hear me out: In any decent action flick, the final fight between the hero and the main villain takes a ridiculously long time. Each combatant will sustain enough blows to fell a charging rhino, yet they continue to battle. In a lot of the good fights, one or the other of the combatants will pull out a gun at some point. He or she smugly thinks the fight is over, but the gun will inevitably be batted away. As the fight progresses, both combatants desperately strive to reclaim the gun, to end the fight once and for all.

The way I see it, science is the gun. Both sides want it. Both sides recognize its power. Both sides hope that they can use it to end this too-long conflict by seizing it and using it against the other side. The gun is only bad when the other guy has it. From abortion to creation to sexuality, everyone wants to claim that science is on their side, no matter what that side is.

Asking the Right Questions about Creationism

Is America a “creation nation?” Or have polls tended to inflate the numbers of creationists out there? In an effort to give a more nuanced answer to these questions, BioLogos has published Jonathan Hill’s survey results. Hill offers some powerful insights into central questions:

  • How many Americans really believe in creationism, evolution, or some mix?
  • Who cares the most about it?
  • Who cares at all?
  • And, most important, what factors go into making someone a creationist or an evolution supporter?

You may have seen this report referred to in Emma Green’s recent Atlantic article. Until now, however, you wouldn’t have been able to read the report for yourself. Green’s article had the provocative title “You Can’t Educate People into Believing in Evolution.” True enough, but that’s not news to readers and contributors to ILYBYGTH. Those who take time to read what’s out there about creationism know that creationism is not simply a lack of knowledge about evolution. Rather, creationism is better understood as part of a religious identity.

Professor Hill was funded by a BioLogos grant to conduct a large representative survey in the USA. He found that the typical Gallup polls seem to distort the numbers. In those repeated Gallup polls, respondents have three options: (1) humans evolved guided by God, (2) humans evolved on their own, and (3) humans were created within about 10,000 years. In those polls, since the 1980s about 40-45% of respondents have chosen the “young-earth creationist” answer (3). Somewhere between 9-19% have selected the “atheistic evolution” answer (2), and the rest chose number one, the theistic evolution model.

Gallup Questions and Answers

Gallup Questions and Answers

As even the Gallup folks would likely agree, these positions are not very subtle. They don’t allow respondents to explain or describe their own beliefs. Rather, they push people to pick one of three limited options. Professor Hill’s survey allowed people to say they were unsure. It also asked respondents to address different aspects of these beliefs separately. Finally, Hill asked Americans to say how certain they were about their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, those questions yielded very different results. When people can respond to different aspects of creationism differently, they tend to be more nuanced in their responses. For example, in Professor Hill’s survey, only eight percent of people affirmed their belief in both six literal days of creation and the recent creation of humanity.

When taken together, Hill found that 37% of respondents were “creationists,” 16% were “theistic evolutionists,” and 9% were “atheistic evolutionists.” The rest held mixed beliefs or were unsure. When you limit these numbers to those who said they were “very” or “absolutely certain” of their views, then only 29% of respondents were creationists, 8% were theistic evolutionists, and only 6% were atheistic evolutionists.

Also intriguing, only those who hold creationist or atheistic evolutionist beliefs tend to be sure they are correct. They also tend to think it matters to be correct. About three-quarters of creationists said they were sure about their beliefs, and about two-thirds of them said that it mattered a great deal. Among atheistic evolutionists, about 70% were sure of their beliefs, and about half thought it mattered a good deal. In contrast, among those who were unsure about humanity’s origins, only about one quarter thought it mattered a great deal.

In our continuing sniping at one another over the issues of creation and evolution, these numbers themselves matter a great deal. Since large numbers of Americans don’t know about these issues and don’t really care, the debates quickly become dominated by those on either end who feel confident about their own beliefs and who feel sure that it is important to be correct on these questions. We might see a debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and creationist impresario Ken Ham, but we won’t be as likely to see a round-table discussion between people in the middle.

Professor Hill’s survey also buttresses another conclusion popular here at ILYBYGTH: creationism and evolution are not mainly about what you know. Rather, they are questions about who you are. People do not simply pick creationism or evolution out of a neutral grab-bag of ideas. Creationists do not tend to abandon creationism in large numbers when they learn the ideas of evolution. Rather, creationism and atheistic evolution both seem most prevalent among people with recognizable clusters of identity markers. As Professor Hill concluded,

The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

Read the results for yourself. There’s far more in the report than we can discuss here. For example, the survey raises a host of questions that we want to know more about:

  • Why are atheistic evolutionists so white?
  • Is certainty more important than knowledge?
  • How can we motivate those who don’t really care about creationism to get more involved in public policy debates?