Gigliogate and Evangelical Identity

Fred makes the salient point that Gigliogate and the Chik-fil-A fustercluck are basically the same. Evangelicals wade into the public square, air our their opinion on a social issue, take a beating in said public square, and then crawl back into their holes, wailing that they’ve been discriminated against.

Well, Christian Smith predicted all of this. 

Smith did all of us who follow American evangelicalism a great service with his 1998 book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving.  Therein, he described how evangelicals have developed a “sub-cultural identity,” wherein they told themselves a story about their own position as an embattled minority, even as they became the most powerful bloc in our society.

Christian Smith

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary sociologists, especially since the collapse of the secularization thesis, has been if and how religion can survive in a pluralistic/postmodern context. Several theses have been proposed, including 1) the sheltered enclave or “sacred canopy theory” (Peter Berger, James Davidson Hunter), 2) status discontent theory (Richard Hofstadter, Joseph Gusfield), 3) strictness theory (Dean Kelly, Laurence Iannaccone), and 4) competitive marketing theory (Roger Finke, Rodney Stark).

Smith offers a look at the one strand American religion that seems to be vibrant in the pluralistic American context, and that is evangelicalism.

The Good

By a set of six sociological measurements (including robustness of faith, saliency of faith, and participation), evangelicalism is indeed thriving. Smith and his team performed the most massive empirical study of evangelicalism ever done, including 2,591 telephone surveys, followed up by hundreds of face-to-face interviews and dozens of church visits. The results show conclusively that evangelicalism is doing well in America — that is, its adherents are committed to it, and it is growing.

The Bad

The reason that evangelicalism is thriving is that it has, since the evangelical-fundamentalist split of the 1940s, developed a relationship of “difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat.” One one end of the spectrum, fundamentalists have withdrawn from culture, developed a retreatist attitude (see comments, for example, homeschooling), and are have not negotiated a sustaining relationship with culture. Mainline and liberal Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) are accomodationist, and there is simply not enough difference between them and culture to make a difference to much of anyone. In other words, why join something that looks exactly like what you’re already a part of? All three — fundamentalists, liberals, and mainliners — scored significantly lower that evangelicals in all six characteristics of strength.

Smith then proposes a sub-cultural identity theory of religious strength in the face of pluralism. “In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.” Those are the very tools that evangelicalism has employed, and this has led to a love-hate relationship with culture.

For instance, evangelicals rail against the secular media, and yet they relish every possibility to get a major evangelical figure on Piers Morgan. They repudiate modern rock and rap music, yet they relish contemporary Christian music which is wholly owned by the same mammoth corporations that own the secular labels. You get the picture.

The Ugly

Smith goes on to conclude that the very thing which makes evangelicalism strong in a pluralistic society also dooms it to failure in making any kind of positive change in that society. That is, evangelicalism will never achieve its goals for the redemption of society because the tools in its toolkit don’t work on societies.

For example, evangelicals have an atomistic view of society. In other words, they see society as nothing more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. When asked about social problems, evangelicals overwhelmingly state the answer to these problems is personal relationship. Here’s the theory: if a father is beating his kids, a Christian man should befriend that man, and lead him to Christ, then he’ll stop beating his kids; and once we do that with every child abuser, then the problem of child abuse will vanish from our society. One of the obvious problems with this line of reasoning is that child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, etc. are just as prevalent (or more) among evangelicals as among any other group.

When confronted with the obvious lunacy of this logic, the evangelicals interviewed had a hard time seeing that it was a problem, and when they did, they were often left speechless as to any other response to a social problem (several interviews are printed in the book).

For another example, when polled, the very things that evangelicals are most proud of about evangelicalism are the things most hated by non-evangelicals — not a ringing endorsement from those the evangelicals are trying to convince.

Finally, it actually serves evangelicalism’s purposes to have this conflictual relationship with culture. If culture gets more and more evangelical, then evangelicalism will no longer be a distinct sub-group and, like mainliners and liberals did a couple decades ago, they would gradually lose their identity.

Some might even say that we’re watching that very thing happen right now. Others, myself included, think the opposite: the sub-cultural identity of evangelicals still raises ire and money, but more and more young evangelicals are tired of all the fighting, and they’re simply opting out of the evangelical church.

  • http://nathanjhill.com Nathan Hill

    Tony, I enjoyed reading this and then somehow came across Tim Dalrymples “Open Letter to Barack Obama” which just oozes with this mentality. It was really weird to read:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2013/01/14/an-open-letter-from-barack-obama-to-louie-giglio/

    • Craig

      I blame people like Mr. Dalrymple for perpetuating “The Bad” and “The Ugly.” Of course, it’s because of people like me that people like Mr. Dalrymple can sale themselves as heroes of the “embattled minority.” So I’ve just stopped reading his blog, and the Evangelical Channel generally. I’m open to better ideas.

      • Craig

        Or “sell”

  • pgregory

    “evangelicals have developed a “sub-cultural identity,” wherein they told themselves a story about their own position as an embattled minority, even as they became the most powerful bloc in our society.”

    I wonder if the same can’t be said for religion in general? I mean don’t most religions in some way or another have this type of metanarrative? I guess evangelicals just take it to the extreme?

    • pgregory

      Actually, I misread the end of the that quote “even as they became the most powerful bloc in our society”. I was referring only the the “story” of being a marginalized group within society. Mark Juergensmeyer has a nice book entitled “Terror in the Mind of God” that addresses this issue.

    • Curtis

      But not all religious expression seeks or attains political power. There must we a word to distinguish religious expression that seeks political power and religious expression that does not, but I don’t know it. I guess popular culture has come to label those who seek political power as “religious” and those who are religious but do not seek power as “spiritual”. But I don’t like that distinction. I am very spiritual AND very religious. My expression religion is not about power or control.

      The Latin root of “religion” has nothing to do with political power. The root means “respect for what is sacred”. That describes me. How can those of us who are religious, but not interested in political power, reclaim the root of the word that describes us? If we do not use the word “religion”, how else can we express who we are?

  • Craig

    Nice post Tony. Sounds like evangelicals have made themselves a malignant cancer of society. There are plenty of reasonable things over which to start a fight, but evangelicals persistently choose the wrong things. And this peculiar selection of all the wrong fights is itself motivated: if evangelicals were instead to fight for more reasonable positions then they’d die by absorption into the rest of society, since their fighting wouldn’t reinforce their special identity.

    • Curtis

      It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t have to drag Christ through the mud in the process.

      • Craig

        I care less about what cancerous evangelicalism is doing to Christ than about what it’s doing to our society, to our families, and to its maligned targets.

        • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

          Amen. If Christ was who many of us think he was, I doubt he needs (or wants) “defending.”

        • Curtis

          Yes, but neighborhood Christian churches, the neighborhoods they serve, and others who identify with Christ are among the collateral damage.

  • Craig

    One of the biggest problems facing contemporary sociologists…has been if and how religion can survive in a pluralistic/postmodern context.

    Maybe the explanation is more psychological than sociological?

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    So, I’m assuming that the real answer is to be truly counter-cultural. But of course, what is that supposed to look like? I suppose that to a certain extent that’s what the emergent movement is about. Sometimes with all the shouting I feel like the best we can hope for is to have pockets of genuine, transformative faith survive through the generations and hope that at some point things will settle down enough for it to be heard anew.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      I’ve become more allergic to this “counter-cultural” language. I know it’s not what many people mean by it, but maybe it’s better to say “we want to be defined by love” – and if that is inherently against the cultural norm, then so be it…

    • Craig

      The real answer to what?

      The emergent movement strikes me as simply a natural, sociological reaction to the cancerous evangelical dynamic that leaves multitudes of young people disillusioned with the faith of their childhood/youth, but still largely alienated from the surrounding culture because of that faith, and entirely unprepared for a life without it.

      Rebecca, why do you sometimes feel that “pockets of genuine, transformative faith” is the best we can hope for? Is it because of some quasi-evangelical belief in the hopelessness of life without faith?

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        The emergent movement strikes me as simply a natural, sociological reaction to the cancerous evangelical dynamic that leaves multitudes of young people disillusioned with the faith of their childhood/youth, but still largely alienated from the surrounding culture because of that faith, and entirely unprepared for a life without it.

        I’ve reread this statement multiple times. Part of me wants to entirely agree with it, but I hesitate…

        For example, many (including Tony) have no evangelical background to react against.

        • Craig

          I think people like Tony wouldn’t have much of an audience without that “cancerous evangelical dynamic that leaves multitudes of young people disillusioned with….”

  • Dan Hauge

    Hmm. First off, I wonder if evangelicalism is indeed still thriving in 2013 to the extent it was in 1998, when the book was published. A lot of things have changed since then with regards to evangelicals’ relationship to the public square.

    And while Tony may well be right about more younger evangelicals jumping ship, the central point about counter-cultural identity still stands, I think, in terms of how faith survives in a secular, pluralistic context. Maybe emergent is poised to be the model for such a counter-culture, but I’m not sure. It actually feels to me like more prominent emergents have emphasized being in step with dominant cultural thought–be it scientific, philosophical, or even how we use technology and consume. I feel like I’ve heard, particularly on this blog, more of an apprehension that the church will be irrelevant or out of step with the broader culture–and a sense that the ‘future of Christianity’ requires more integration with the culture rather than a distinct counter-cultural identity.

    I could be overstating this, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a sharp either/or, but it does seem like there is a real tension here–the evangelical ‘hostile sub-culture’ model seems to be precisely what many emergents dislike, and wanted out of, but it seems to be a factor in the sustainability of a faith movement. What does that mean for Emergent’s sustainability?

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      More prominent emergents have emphasized being in step with dominant cultural thought–be it scientific, philosophical, or even how we use technology and consume. I feel like I’ve heard, particularly on this blog, more of an apprehension that the church will be irrelevant or out of step with the broader culture–and a sense that the ‘future of Christianity’ requires more integration with the culture rather than a distinct counter-cultural identity.

      Exactly! I think the only truly Christian identity-marker is that we love.

      Maybe emergent exists to help us learn how to love in the midst of our current “situation” (a la Tillich).

      • Dan Hauge

        I think that’s a perfectly good marker, Rob, but I think it takes some real and painful discernment of our own lives, and cultural trends, to see if they are truly loving or not. And this discernment may well bring us into real conflict with the broader culture. Are we willing to engage in such conflicts of values? Or do we assume that the 21st century American progressive-capitalist culture around us pretty much has the love thing down pretty well? If so, maybe there’s no real need for a distinct church (and maybe that’s part of your point?)

        • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

          For real. That’s what I said in my response to Rebecca above – if love is counter-cultural, then so be it. But, rather than define ourselves with “WE’VE GOT THE TRUTH AND YOU DON’T, STUPID OUTSIDERS,” if we just focus on love, we won’t care about a lot of other things. Like…most theology and philosophy?

  • Phil Miller

    I think the word “Evangelicalism” itself is very unwieldy. I mean, what exactly are we talking about anymore? It seems Smith is primarily thinking in political terms, and that seems to be the battlefield in which these fights get played out still. But what gets tricky is that conservative Republicans include a lot of Catholics who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as Evangelical otherwise. I also have some close Eastern Orthodox friends who are much more politically conservative than many people sitting in Evangelical churches.

    Sure, some Evangelicals were pissed off about the Giglio thing and some of them are taking it as persecution. That seems totally stupid to me. I think a lot of them have persecution complexes. The thing is, politicians know this too, and they use it to their advantage. Politicians see us all as pawns to one degree or another.

    • Craig

      Self-identifying “evangelicals” constitute a fairly distinctive population, and one that’s aptly characterized by Tony’s post. As with any population like this, there will be individual outliers. What term/characterization would you prefer?

      • Phil Miller

        I just think that the overlap between those that self-identify as an Evangelical and those that are lock-step with the Republican party is getting smaller, especially when it comes to those under 35. I’ve been attending a somewhat large Vineyard church, for instance, and I bet if pushed, most of the people who attend would call themselves Evangelical still, but I don’t think a lot of them would fall into the conservative Republican category. Some of them may have strong feelings about certain issues – abortion, homosexual marriage, or so on. But I just don’t see the type of attitudes described in this post as being the norm for most evangelicals anymore.

        Certainly many would fit the stereotype, but my experience is that the stereotype if becoming less true. That’s just my anecdotal evidence, though. Beyond my current church situation, I was a campus pastor at a large state school and many of the kids I knew grew up in very conservative Evangelical churches. Some of them maintained their parent’s view on things, but I’d say most don’t. I still am friends with many of them on Facebook and my anecdotal evidence is that most of them do not tow the party line.

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  • Ric Shewell

    great post Tony. I really like Smith’s work. I know you know I’m a Methodist, but don’t you think that Hauerwas might be right about the American Church being all but decimated and this being a good thing? It seems that when the church loses its place of privilege and power, it can begin to resemble Christ better. I know you have strong feelings about Hauerwas and are more read than I am. What do you think will happen to Christianity in America in 100 years?

  • T.S.Gay

    I agree with the tone of Rob in his love perspective. Although it’s unfortunate that the “all you need is love” 1960′s tangent has muddied that perspective. There is a spiritual part of life as recognized by billions of people. I think we need a fresh look at the Christian virtues/as contrasted with the vices. The Kansa State University map of the vices in the USA was interesting( the Bible belt was a hotspot of the vices). Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist, research is interesting. He sees through the stances taken by left and right. David Brooks’ talk at the Aspen Intitute was on the moral code, how we are losing it, and how to inculcate it. There are spiritual aspects to life that do truly promote love of neighbor. When it comes to satisfaction, mercy, comfort, peace, kindness, sanctity, and gentleness it’s still amazing how refractory we can be to the way Jesus talked about how to be blessed with them.


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