Differing weights and differing measures

Differing weights and differing measures January 31, 2024

There’s an old joke about a businessman looking to hire a new accountant. He brings in three CPAs and lines them up in his office. Says, “I have just one question for each of you.”

He turns to the first CPA and asks, “What’s two plus two?”

The guy says, “Four.”

“Wrong. You’re out.” He turns to the second CPA and asks, “What’s two plus two?”

The second CPA, a bit rattled by what he’s just seen, says “Five?

“Wrong. You’re out.” He turns to the last CPA and asks again, “What’s two plus two?”

Guy says, “What do you want it to be?”

Businessman says, “You’ve got the job.”

When that joke was going around in Jersey back in the ’80s, those telling it would often name the businessman. Sometimes it’d be Michael Milken, but usually it was Donald Trump.

That seems like it still applies, with a bit more urgency today than back then when the name “Trump” was just an easy punchline. One lesson there, I suppose, is that it’s far wiser to listen to and learn from old jokes than it is to elect them.

But that’s not why I’m bringing up this old joke today. I’m thinking more about the evangelical numbers racket.

The business of counting evangelicals — and of deciding who does and doesn’t count — has always been a game involving differing weights and differing measures.* Who gets counted and what they count for tends to be determined by why those asking the question are asking. The answer is usually not determined by a desire for scrupulous accuracy, but by “What do you want it to be?”

It’s a lot like the two sets of books that a crooked real estate dealer keeps for his properties. He wants the lowest possible assessment of his buildings when it comes to paying property taxes, but when it comes to using those properties to secure big, cheap loans from banks, he wants the highest possible valuation. So he keeps two differing measures — one large, one small. He has one set of numbers for the IRS and another very different set of numbers for would-be creditors.

Andy Dufresne kept two sets of books for Warden Norton.

Evangelicals have often used two sets of books to make separate claims about the scope and the scale of their influence. They seek the largest possible number when making claims about their power or entitlement and the smallest possible number when making claims about their responsibility.

So if, for example, you’re trying to show that “evangelical Christians” are a fearsome voting bloc that politicians are compelled to show deference to, then you want the largest, most expansive definition of “evangelical Christians” that you can find. That’s going to include everybody you can plausibly toss into the category, including both Pentecostals and anti-Pentecostal fundamentalists, including every faith-healer and magician, snake-handler and tent-revival charlatan you can find. It’s even going to include evangelical Christians who aren’t even white.

But when it comes to what it is that this massive number of “evangelical Christians” wants or demands, then you want the narrowest, most carefully circumscribed number of select voices to be the only ones who count. You don’t want to be lumped in with all those weird fringe holy rollers and televangelists and ultra-fundies. And you don’t want the voices of those non-white evangelicals to count because you can’t trust them to be of any help when it comes to the truly important Gospel Imperatives of rolling back the Civil Rights Movement, ending public education, lowering capital-gains taxes, deregulating industry, and returning to Gilded Age, Lochner-era jurisprudence. (Non-white evangelicals count when counting for some purposes, but not for others — kind of a three-fifths compromise.)

The corrupt incompatibility of these divers weights and measures was highlighted in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when exit polls reported that 81% of white evangelicals voted for the racist, authoritarian, philandering, pussy-grabbing, failed casino magnate.

Suddenly the same people who’d spent decades proclaiming that they were a massively powerful and influential force in politics were furiously back-pedaling to deny any responsibility for the election of this reckless fool or for the shameful consequences of what they had helped bring about. They did this by desperately trying to “True Scotsman” away that disgracing 81% number.

So there were various attempts to claim that support for Trump was much lower among “real, true, legitimate evangelicals” than it was among the posers and EINOs that they sought to show weren’t really, truly, legitimately evangelical. They tried spinning off only at-least-weekly church-attenders. No good. They tried only counting tithing, twice-on-Sundays-and-Wednesday-night church-attenders. Nope. They tried only counting those who never, ever missed their daily quiet time.** It still didn’t work.

Every new weight or measure, every attempt to redefine and refine the category of “evangelical” confirmed what those exit polls had shown: The overwhelming majority of white evangelicals loved Donald Trump. And they loved him because of, not in spite of, his most vicious and hateful attributes.

It’s now eight years later. Those eight years have included their guy’s crushing defeat in both the popular vote (more than 7 million votes) and in the artifact of slavery that is the electoral college (306-232). That was followed by the failed insurrection of an ugly mob, 91 criminal indictments against Donald Trump, and most recently the ruling that he must pay $83 million to a woman that a jury says he raped. After all of that, Trump still has the support and devotion of the majority of white evangelicals.

So after those white evangelicals again registered their devotion to Trump in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, the would-be definers of white evangelicalism are again cooking the books to claim that these Trump worshippers are not real, true, legitimate evangelicals. They’re using all the same, failed True Scotsman arguments and it’s still all just dishonest weights and measures, as pollster Robert P. Jones explains here, “Dispelling the Zombie Myth of White Evangelical Support for Trump.”

Despite its zombie-like resurrections since Trump’s rise to power, the assertion that unchurched white evangelicals are the most supportive of Trump is not supported by the preponderance of evidence. …

Since Trump first garnered the GOP nomination and was elected president in 2016, there is no basis for the claim that Trump’s support is higher among White evangelicals who are not connected to churches. In fact, the data have consistently shown the opposite: that support for Trump has been lower among White evangelical Protestants who seldom or never attend church. …

In both the 2016 and 2020 election years, White evangelical Protestants who attended church weekly or more were, by double digits, more likely than those who attended seldom or never to hold favorable views of Trump. …

Historically, when higher church attendance levels have made a difference among White evangelicals, they’ve been positively correlated with higher support for Trump and his core MAGA appeals. At best, church attendance may modestly blunt the appeal of Trump’s most xenophobic rants among White evangelicals, but it ultimately makes no difference in White evangelical support for his candidacy as president.

I’ve been talking here mainly about the bad-faith actors and the crooked accountants involved in the various white evangelical numbers game, but there are still plenty of good-faith actors among those who study and try to measure white evangelicalism. There are some honest CPAs out there who will still tell you that 2+2=4.

One such honest accountant is Furman University political scientist Dr. James L. Guth. Dr. Guth goes by “Jim Guth,” but I was a graduate student when I met him and his collaborators — Drs. Smidt, Kellstedt, and Green — and first began following their work some 30 years ago. So I’m sticking with “Dr. Guth” here.

Guth et. al. have long been a reliable source for those looking for honest weights and honest measures of white evangelicalism. Their work has been aided by the fact that they’re from that world, and so have a native speaker’s intimate understanding of its subtleties and nuances. (Lyman Kellstedt is/was at Wheaton and Corwin Smidt is/was at Calvin. John C. Green, of the University of Akron, is the kid from public school who still goes to youth group.)

Dr. Guth was quoted recently in a Tom Edsall column in The New York Times, excerpted at length over at Lawyers Guns & Money by Paul Campos.*** This is from Campos’ discussion of the paper Edsall cites:

Guth wrote that his “findings help us understand what many have struggled to comprehend: how can white evangelical Protestants continue to provide strong support for President Donald Trump, whose personal values and behavior trample on the biblical and ethical standards professed by that community.”

The most common explanation, according to Guth,

is that white evangelicals have a transactional relationship with the president: as long as he nominates conservative jurists and makes appropriate gestures on abortion and sexual politics, they will support him.

“The evidence here,” he wrote, “suggests a more problematic answer”:

White evangelicals share with Trump a multitude of attitudes, including his hostility toward immigrants, his Islamophobia, his racism, and nativism, as well as his “political style,” with its nasty politics and assertion of strong, solitary leadership. Indeed, Trump’s candidacy may have “authorized” for the first time the widespread expression of such attitudes.

That’s not what we might want it to be. But that’s the 2+2=4 truth of it.

* The chapter-and-verse Bible citation there is Proverbs 20:10, “Differing weights and differing measures — the Lord detests them both.” That’s an aphoristic spin on a commandment repeated throughout the books of Moses, as in Leviticus 19:36, “Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt,” or in Deuteronomy 25:13-15:

Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

There are plenty more variations of that same commandment elsewhere in the Bible too. This is kind of a Big Biblical Deal.

So it was frustrating, back when I worked for “Evangelicals for Social Action,” to realize that the Bible-citing, Bible-memorizing, chapter-and-verse, infallible-authority-of-the-scriptures folks in our target audience usually didn’t recognize that “differing weights and differing measures” was a biblical refrain. Or to understand what it meant for those of us living here in our land of capitalist Christianity.

I even tried using “divers weights and divers measures” hoping that archaic KJV language would tip them off that I was quoting scripture. But still even the folks who read Proverbs 20 on the 20th of every month as part of their daily quiet time devotional didn’t seem to pick up on the citation. Devotional reading tends not to see what it’s not looking for.

** Real, true white evangelicals are not Christians who never miss their daily quiet time. They are Christians who feel guilty about missing their daily quiet time.

*** A bit of a jarring, worlds-collide moment for me seeing a scholar I know from my days at Evangelicals for Social Action being quoted in The Times and discussed at LGM. That was almost as jarring as realizing that, despite taking its title from a Drive-By Truckers’ lyric, the post in question wasn’t from Loomis.

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