Heresy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are you a Christian? Are you sure? A new survey finds that most American evangelicals embrace heretical notions. More evidence that the real meaning of “evangelical” isn’t really theological, but something else.religion as personal belief

Christianity Today reports on new data from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. Even among evangelical believers, majorities of respondents disavowed orthodox theology. As CT reported,

When it comes to Americans with “evangelical beliefs”. . . the survey found that a majority say:

  • Most people are basically good (52%)

  • God accepts the worship of all religions (51%)

  • Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father (78%)

The last point, especially, has a long and contentious history. The ancient church kind of settled it at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but as this survey proves, ideas about a three-part God are still thinly settled.

Why does it matter? Just like other large religious bodies (by way of comparison, ask any self-described Catholic about Catholic theology), evangelical Protestantism in practice is not defined by theology. Rather, American evangelicalism is a cultural identity that includes religious ideas, but isn’t actually based primarily on religious ideas. To make things more confusing, most religious identities assume that they are based primarily on theological definitions.

In other words, when you ask an evangelical what makes her an evangelical, she’ll likely give you a religious answer. But if you ask her about actual beliefs, she is likely not to know or care much about evangelical theology. The reasons she identifies as evangelical are described in religious language, but they are really a bigger mix of family, tradition, politics, and culture.

This was a big part of my argument in Fundamentalist U. If we really want to understand American evangelicalism we need to push beyond and behind the official dogma that evangelicals have used officially to define themselves. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, the leaders of evangelical colleges had to continually prove to a nervous evangelical public that they maintained the standards of evangelical culture—even when those standards weren’t really based in conservative evangelical theology.

To cite just one example, when fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 to open his own, purer Westminster Seminary, he got grief from other college leaders because Machen allowed his seminarians to drink alcohol.

There was no theological reason to ban alcohol, Professor Machen concluded, so he didn’t. Other college leaders were scandalized. The ban on alcohol might not have been a theological requirement–at least for Presbyterians–but it was written so deeply into the cultural bones of America’s conservative evangelicals that it had assumed sacred status.

We can see similar examples everywhere we look today. For instance, why was administrator Randy Beckum chastised at Mid-America? Theologically, there can be little reason to criticize a reminder that Christians need to put their faith before their patriotism.  Culturally, however, that can come as a shocking notion.

Evangelicals like to talk about doing more than just avoiding sin, but even avoiding the appearance of sin. If we want to make sense of the complicated realities of evangelical identity, we need to add a cumbersome caveat. It’s not only that evangelicals need to avoid the appearance of sin, but that they need to even avoid the appearance of things that aren’t really sins but America’s evangelicals think they are. On the flip side, they are free to embrace heresy as long as no one seems to care.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Frost on the pumpkins and the Brewers in the playoffs. What could be better? How bout another week full of ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs?

More teens are abandoning traditional gender categories, at CNN.

genderunicorn1

What do some conservatives have against the unicorn?

Why are tests so hard to kill? New Jersey struggles to get rid of its common-core tests, at NJ.com.

What color is your Jesus? Three-quarters of white evangelicals still support Trump. Three-quarters of black evangelicals oppose him, at Vox.

Going up for tenure? Don’t bother with public scholarship, says a new survey at CHE.

Why so many Catholics and so few evangelicals on SCOTUS? Gene Zubovich says it’s a matter of school history.

By virtue of their 19th-century separationist anxieties and their investment in institutions of higher learning, Catholics have become the brains of the religious Right in the US.

Moody Bible Institute picks a new leader after a rough year, at CT.

Jerry Falwell Jr. explains why evangelicals love Trump, at The Guardian.

Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a good, moral person, a strong leader, a tough leader – and that’s what this country needs.

Kirk on campus. No, not that Kirk. A review of Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk’s new book about conservative campus dreams at CHE.

Dirty tricks, done dirt cheap: Arizona Republicans get busted trying to donate $39.68 to their Democratic rivals, posing as communists. At The Guardian.

Will Liberty Get on the Ozark Train?

For those people who still think evangelicalism should primarily be defined by theological distinctions, consider the news: Yet another conservative evangelical college is considering dropping its Nike contract over the anthem-protest issue. How does theology explain that one?

falwell on nike

Football, America, and God too.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will remember that the College of the Ozarks already announced its anti-Nike stance in the wake of Nike’s Colin-Kaepernick ad. They may also recall our point here at ILYBYGTH that such staunch knee-jerk conservative patriotism was not the exception, but the rule for evangelical universities in the twentieth century.

Some might say that COE’s uber-patriotism is just an odd outlier in the world of evangelical higher education. Today it looks like COE might have more company. According to President Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University in Virginia is considering scrapping its sponsorship deal with Nike. Unlike College of the Ozarks, Liberty is a cash-rich up-and-comer in the world of NCAA athletics.

As Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. told USA Today:

We’re exploring the situation. . . . If Nike really does believe that law enforcement in this country is unfair and biased, I think we will look around. If we have a contract, we’ll honor it, but we strongly support law enforcement and strongly support our military and veterans who died to protect our freedoms and if the company really believes what Colin Kaepernick believes, it’s going to be hard for us to keep doing business with them.

But if it’s just a publicity stunt to bring attention to Nike or whatever, that’s different. We understand that. We understand how marketing works. But they’re going to have to convince us that they’re not proactively attacking law enforcement officers and our military. If that’s the reason behind using this ad, we’re going to have a hard time staying.

For many Americans, Falwell’s defiant conservative patriotism makes sense. For a lot of people, it’s probably even admirable. But how is it part of evangelical religion?

In short, it’s not, if we try to define evangelicalism only by theological notions such as a reverence for Scripture and an emphasis on soul-winning.

But! If we understand American evangelicalism—the Falwell/Liberty kind, at least—as a conservative cultural mish-mash, including conservative ideas about religion, but also about race, the South, gender rules, sexuality, and so on, then Falwell’s aggressive militarism fits perfectly.

Does This Help?

We all know it doesn’t help much to know someone’s religion. That is, just knowing that someone is Catholic, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Protestant doesn’t really tell us much about them. We want to know what KIND of Protestant someone is, what KIND of religious person. The folks at Pew have taken a stab at a new way of grouping religious people. Instead of denominations, sects, or faiths, Pew offers new “typologies.” Do they help you understand American religious and culture better? And do they confirm Professor Hunter’s twenty-five-(plus!)-year-old prediction?Pew typologies

Here’s what we know: The typologies cluster Americans into three categories and seven groups. Some people are “highly” religious, others are “somewhat” religious, and the rest are “non-religious.” The highly religious folks are subdivided into “Sunday Stalwarts,” “God-and-Country,” and “Diversely Devout.” The somewhats are broken down into “Relaxed Religious” and “Spiritually Awake.” The non-religious are cut up into “Religion Resisters” and the “Solidly Secular.”

In some ways, these categories point out surprising facts. For example, as Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta pointed out, the Solidly Secular are surprisingly similar to the stereotype of the GOP: Richer, whiter, and maler than the American average.

In other cases, the categories seem to confirm culture-war stereotypes. As the report notes,

Although no political measures were used to create the typology, arraying the groups from most to least religious also effectively sorts Americans by party identification and political ideology. Republicans make up a majority of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers, while even larger majorities of Democrats comprise the two nonreligious groups. Similarly, self-described conservatives prevail among the two most religious groups, while, by comparison, the two nonreligious groups lean left.

Certainly, when we look at the three “highly” religious typologies, they seem to tilt hard to the cultural right. For example, they are more likely than average to think homosexuality is morally wrong. They are more likely to be leery of immigrants. And the Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country folks are more likely to think racial inequalities are a thing of the past.Pew typologies 3 very religious

To my mind, these typologies are much more useful than traditional labels such as “evangelical.” Lots of self-identified evangelicals, for example, cluster in the Sunday Stalwart, God-and-Country, and Diversely Devout types. But there are also plenty of evangelicals who are more “relaxed” about their faiths.

In part, these types seem to confirm what sociologist James Davison Hunter predicted back in the early 1990s. His claim at the time was that traditional religious labels would become less and less important. It would matter less and less, Professor Hunter argued, if someone was Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim. Instead, people would tend to cluster around the culture-war poles, either “orthodox” or “progressive.”

Does it work for you? Do you feel these types are more useful than traditional labels to understand religious and cultural life in America? Do you fit into one of these typologies, or do they seem too simplistic?

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.

An Errant Evangelical

C’mon….we all know what he meant. But for the president of an evangelical university to make this sort of goof and leave it undeleted still surprises me for two big reasons.

falwell sewed

“…by their tweets shall ye know them…”

Here’s what we’re talking about: The tweeters are aflutter about a statement by Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University. Falwell blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the recent legal hot-water of top former Trump aides.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we’re more interested in Falwell’s scripture goof. Of course, he didn’t mean anyone “sewed” the wind. He’s referring to Hosea 8:7, in which people “sowed” the wind.

On one hand, it’s easy to make a simply typing mistake, especially on Twitter. In this case, though, I’m really surprised Falwell has left it up, mostly because it’s not a simply misspelling. “Sewed” is a totally different word with a different meaning, implying that Falwell doesn’t understand what Hosea was talking about. In other words, it’s not only a misspelling, but a misquotation.

It would be different if Falwell had accidentally typed “sowd the wind” or “sowed teh wind,” but “sewed the wind” makes it seem like Falwell just doesn’t really know the Bible verse all that well.

And that makes me surprised to see it linger, for two big reasons.

First of all, among the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist public, nothing matters more in a university leader than deep knowledge of and reverence for scripture. This sort of uncorrected typo makes it look as if Falwell didn’t understand the gist of the chapter and verse. Or worse, he doesn’t care enough about fidelity to Scripture.

Second, Liberty University has always desperately wanted to win mainstream academic respectability. In recent years, they have spent bajillions of dollars to do so. For Falwell to leave this misquotation undeleted makes his school look even more like the anti-intellectual cloister it has often been accused of being.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International Offices are back up and running after a short vacation. Here are some of the stories that swirled while we sang our vacation theme song:

From the Archives: Mildred Crabtree does her thing, at National Archives.

mildred-crabtree.png

Rockin the library, Crabtree-style.

Larry Cuban remembers creepy Channel One.

Non-white evangelicals in era of Trump: “When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under a bus.” At R&P.

Conservative Ben Shapiro challenges Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, at Fox. Does it count as sexual harassment?

In the belly of the beast: the American Humanist Association continues its fight against graduation prayers in the hometown of Bob Jones University.

The state of civics education in the USA, at Brookings.

Trumpism abroad: Evangelicals rally around a thug in Brazil, at The Conversation.

Peter Greene: Why heartwarming school stories don’t warm his heart.

No school should ever need a celebrity’s help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

The other Benedict Option, at CT.

The oxymoronic quest of academics to build their brands, at CHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

August already! Instead of reading those stupid back-to-school ads, read some of these ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the past week:

Which comes first, God or politics? Michele Margoulis’s new book says people choose their party first, then their pew, at RNS.

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Islam rants miss the point. At The Conversation.

The changing face of private education—the rich get richer. At Atlantic.

Dawkins call to prayer

Are some calls to prayer more violent than others?

Helpful locals donate eight assault rifles to their local Texas school along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in other weaponry. At AP.

Collusion confusion: Is Trump really in cahoots with Nancy Pelosi? At The Hill.

Milwaukee sheriff in hot water for touting toilet-paper doctorate from unaccredited fundamentalist colleges, at JS. HT: NS.

An atheist’s case for religion at RNS.

More Evidence: Christians Don’t Know Christianity

It can be a tough pill to swallow. If we want to be brutally honest, however, we need to acknowledge that religion is about something besides religion. New survey data confirm our hunch that a religious identity isn’t necessarily about religion itself, but about something more complicated.parents-feeling-and-observations

In my recent book about evangelical higher education, I argued that we can only understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism if we abandon our tendency to define these things theologically. After all, there wasn’t really an orthodoxy involved in fundamentalism. There couldn’t be. Although fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism were certainly religious movements, their institutions were not driven solely by theological considerations. Instead, as with every human endeavor, evangelical colleges jumbled together religion, culture, politics, and other factors to come up with a mish-mash of beliefs, beliefs that “felt right” to students, professors, alumni, and parents.

Seth Dowland recently made a convincing case along these lines. As Professor Dowland argued,

what most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics.

Surveys have shown that a majority of evangelical Protestants don’t actually hold traditional evangelical core beliefs. They might call themselves “evangelical” or “born again,” but only a minority of them agree with all four of these notions:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Being an “evangelical,” then, is not a theological position. It might INCLUDE theological tendencies, but it is something more than a religious identity. And, of course, it’s different for different people. Plenty of evangelicals ARE defined by their theological beliefs. Just not a majority.

Today we see more survey evidence that evangelicals and other Protestants don’t restrict their beliefs to evangelical or Protestant theology. A large majority think that God wants them to prosper financially. Among evangelicals, a solid 75% majority think so.

We might think that these prosperty-gospellers simply don’t know because they don’t really go to church. But prosperity beliefs are STRONGER among those who attend church more frequently.

What’s the takeaway? Like all of us, evangelical Protestants are complicated. For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, the vital message is clear: “Evangelical” identity is about much more than simple theology.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the books. Here are some of the ILYBYGTH-themed stories that swirled around the interwebs this week:

Forget Nixon, forget Mussolini: A better historic parallel to Trump, at HNN.

TRUMP CHARLES

The closer parallel?

Why did school-based Catholic priests commit more abuse? At HP.

The ugly truth from Alabama: Evangelicals, racism, and Trump, at WaPo.

Are low-income students being squeezed out of elite universities? Nope. But another group is. At AEI.

Is there a “socialist surge” among Democrats?

Did you see this one? Eighteen Oklahoma teachers explain why they’re quitting, at VICE.

How do elite schools stay so white? At NYT.

Historians wonder what to do in an era of “fake news” at CHE.