How a poll about ‘deconstruction’ creates deconstruction

How a poll about ‘deconstruction’ creates deconstruction July 27, 2023

The confused hubbub around the term and/or practice of “deconstruction” has reached the point where it’s producing even more confusing headlines: “Churchgoers less familiar than pastors with deconstruction, more likely to see it in their pews.”

That’s a (Southern) Baptist Press headline based on a poll by the SBC’s Lifeway Research. It’s a “new” story of news, posted yesterday, but it’s all based on surveys taken in 2022 and 2021. Those surveys included questions involving the word “deconstruction” and since that word seems newsy right about now, Lifeway/Baptist Press whipped up this story based on those old survey answers.

Alas, in retrospect, those survey questions about “deconstruction” didn’t define the term. They weren’t asking if people understood what that word meant, or what it was that people thought that word meant, they were just asking if people were familiar with hearing the word. And it turns out that most churchgoers were not:

“It’s not surprising the majority of churchgoers are not very familiar with the term ‘deconstruction,’ since it often describes a person’s private journey or one that’s shared within a limited social set,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “The fluid nature of the term and its affinity among those on social media or podcasts distances it from many Christians. The term can be used both to represent a total abolishing of one’s faith or to describe one’s personal questioning and working out their salvation to greater faith.”

I think McConnell is right about this use of this word being a mostly online thing. But it’s also not the only use of this word or it’s only meaning. It’s not even it’s most common meaning, which is bound to have complicated McConnell’s survey. Ask 1,002 Protestant churchgoers if they’ve heard of “deconstruction” and you’re bound to have quite a few say yes because they once had a lit-major friend who they remember saying something about it.

The same confusion of multiple meanings happens with the word “Reconstruction.” If some pollster asked me what I think of “Reconstruction” I would need to clarify whether the question referred to the extremely brief period of genuine constitutional democracy the United States had in the 19th century or if it referred to the massively influential Neo-Confederate ramblings of white Christian “Reconstructionists.” Because I admire the former, but the latter is repugnant, illiterate nonsense.

So McConnell is certainly right about the “fluid nature” of this new use of the word “deconstruction,” which might convey anything from the “total abolishing” of a person’s religious beliefs to the growth, transformation, or conversion that comes for many once they start asking questions.

Once he acknowledges that fluidity and range of contradictory meanings, however, he seems to lean toward a mostly negative interpretation, saying, “When a culture moves away from God, individuals question the teachings they have received” and implying that this is what “deconstruction” usually means.

“Test everything; hold on to the good,” the Apostle Paul tells us. McConnell sees that as an invitation to apostasy.

This seems to be a frequent response to the current use of the term “deconstruction” to mean the testing and refining of one’s religious beliefs. All that fancy talk, these folks seem sure, is just college-talk for backsliding.

Lifeway’s survey found that “Churchgoers with evangelical beliefs” were less likely to have heard the word “deconstruction” than other Protestants but I suspect that’s due to mainline Protestants being more likely to be vaguely familiar with Derrida and such. Because the rise of this new buzzword for the re-examination of one’s beliefs is, I think, mostly a white evangelical thing.

Scroll down to the “Methodology” notes on Lifeway’s survey at the bottom of the article and you’ll understand why deconstruction, by any other name, is an inevitability for any thoughtful person living within the construct of white evangelicalism.

The survey distinguishes “churchgoers with evangelical beliefs” using the four-question litmus test Lifeway and the NAE rolled out back in 2015:

Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having Evangelical Beliefs.

  • 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.

Note the Uber-rating math used here. Only a 100%, five-star rating is a passing grade. To count as an evangelical, you have to strongly agree with every one of these statements.

Some devout, earnest white evangelical gets through the first three, strongly agreeing, but then hesitates on that last point. He’s suddenly thinking of Emeth, the faithful Calormene in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, and how it seems horribly unjust to think that someone like Emeth would suffer eternal damnation just because that person’s geographic and cultural context meant they never encountered this specific formulation of the Christian gospel.

And then our evangelical respondent realizes, with a bit of genuine horror, that this question also seems to imply that faithful Jews are denied God’s grace and salvation, and surely the question couldn’t mean something so drastically anti-biblical as that? Should he ask about that? Is he allowed to ask about that?

The pollster notes this hesitation and our evangelical friend quickly rallies back around to what he knows is expected or required as the correct answer. “Strongly agree,” he says, preserving his evangelical status through another round of questioning.

But somewhere in the back of his mind he thinks, without daring to cause trouble by saying it out loud, “Well, somewhat strongly agree …” And after phone call with the pollster ends, the question will continue to nag at him. He’ll think about it some more, read about it some more, seek out people it’s safe to discuss such questions with.

And thus — whether he calls it by that name or not — our friend’s journey of deconstruction has begun.



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