Aug 25, 2011

The problem of distancing in religious identifications

I heard a joke, when I was a kid, with the punchline: sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

The joke itself fades, but the punchline stands alone pretty good.

There's another about a matador and a restaurant, which I remember in too much detail, that has the same punchline: sometimes the man kills the bull, sometimes the bull kills the man.

It happens, seems to be the point.

It happens, too, with interpretations of data.

From the way some of Duke professor Mark Chaves' findings in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, are being reported, it looks like this may be a case where the data has eaten the man.


The most popularly reported finding of the soon-to-be-out book is about the public's reaction to clergy mixing politics and religion, and the apparently declining levels of public trust in religious leaders. The finding that seems problematic, though, and which seems like it might be a misinterpretation of the data is that Americans are "less religious" than they used to be.

As the AP report has it:
"over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a 'softening' that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don't belong to any religious tradition today than in the past ...."
And:
"Today, as many as 20 percent of all Americans say they don't belong to any religious group, Chaves found, compared with around 3 percent in the 1950s ... 'It used to be that even the most marginally active people wouldn't say they have no religion, they'd say I'm Catholic or I'm Baptist or I'm Methodist or whatever,' Chaves said. 'That's not the case today.'"
The conclusion seems to be -- the book's not out yet, so I'm basing this on the reports -- that a weakening of denominational identity equals a weakening of religiousness. That is, that it's the people whose spirituality is totally private, an eclectic and ad hoc mix of personal practices and ideas from a range of traditions (from which they are disconnected), who are most likely to now say they don't belong to a specific religion, and that this group is growing in number. That while Americans still believe in God, angels, heaven, etc., they increasingly eschew actual institutions of religion.

And certainly there is some of that. The group known as "the nones" has grown in past decades, as has been thoroughly documented. It's been clear for a while there's a sizable section of Americans who say they're "spiritual but not religious," who aren't likely to self-identify with a denomination, who distance themselves from specific religious labels.

But: There's another sizable group of Americans who are also increasingly not likely to identify with a denominational label, and they're not the "marginally active," not those who seem less religious than they did in the '50s or whichever period we decide to make the baseline of religiousness. A good number of that 20 percent that say they don't belong to a religion could well be exactly the same people that seem the most religious in America today. These are people who distance themselves from the academically-accepted labels of religious identification, but in a dramatically different way.

That is, the evangelicals.

The fastest-growing segment of Protestants is non-denominational. Many of these congregations self-identify as "Bible churches" or "Bible-believing churches," and are squarely in the tradition of evangelicalism, come out of the Second Great Awakening, etc., but are more likely to say they're "just Christian" than identify themselves with a tradition, and they don't actually belong to a denomination such as "Baptist, Methodist ... or whatever." That makes at least 3.4 percent of Christians who aren't likely to say they belong to a specific religious group, and yet it's not right to conflate them with those who aren't religious. This isn't the "softening of religion" that Chaves seems to take it to be.

Another .9, according to the Pew Landscape survey, belong to mainline "non-denominational" churches, though I don't know what that actually means.

In addition to that, though, it's increasingly common for evangelicals with a denominational connection to distance themselves from that identity. For example: both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann belong to megachurches that are, officially, Baptist, but that have dropped "Baptist" from their name.

Bachmann's Eagle Brook Church used to be First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake. The name changed in '97, according to the church website, and attendance grew that year to an average of 1,400 per week, and went up, in the next two years, to an average of 3,000. This is Minnesota's largest church, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the name was changed specifically because "Baptist" was seen as as limiting for potential growth. "[T]he group changed its name to Eagle Brook," the Star Tribune reported, "because it felt that having Baptist in the title kept away people from other denominations."

The same thing happened at Rick Perry's church, where Lake Hills Baptist Church became Lake Hills Church in '99 because, the pastor wanted "to remove what he regarded as a barrier."

It's pretty well documented that this happened at a lot of places around 2000. It's not just at would-be presidents' churches where denominational identity is downplayed. This is a standard part of evangelicalism today -- it could actually serve as part of the definition of what "evangelical" is.

Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell detail this with some elegance in their book, American Grace, pointing out that those who are called "evangelical" don't generally self-identify in a way that would make things simple for scholars. They write:
"The label [evangelical] is not one people willingly adopt for themselves, even if their belonging, believing and behaving all align with the standard scholarly usage of the term. This was brought home to us when we interviewed members of the Saddleback megachurch .... We asked a number of people at this high-profile church, widely identified as quintessentially evangelical, how they describe their religious affiliation. Overwhelmingly, they said 'Christian,' not 'evangelical.'"
Presumably, like the people at Saddleback, quite a few of the thousands of church-goers at Lake Hills in Texas, and the thousands at Eagle Brook in Minnesota, or the thousands upon thousands at, Fellowship Church, Gateway Church, Harvest Christain Fellowship, etc., would say, when asked, that "they don't belong to any religious tradition," identifying neither with the denomination they technically belong to, nor the historic religious movement they're a part of.

I don't know how much percent of Americans who don't identify with a religious tradition this makes up, but surely it's some.

Even at evangelical churches where the denominational identity is still important to church leadership, it's often the case that those in the pews aren't aware of the affiliation. They don't think of their religious identity in those terms.

There's a Quaker church near where my parents live in Washington State where more than a few people were surprised, in membership classes, to find out they'd been going to a Quaker church and couldn't be members unless they were Quakers and signed on to a Quaker statement of faith. I once talked to a college student in Michigan who told me he belonged to just a "normal church," that taught "just what the Bible said," and only when pushed would admit it had a specific denominational affiliation and history and statement of faith (it was, I finally got him to say, an Evangelical Free church).

For churches where denominational specifics are downplayed -- with statements such as "we just believe the Bible," or "we follow Jesus" -- this is going to be even more true.

This is backed up by the numbers from General Social Survey, one of the surveys Chaves used in his book. When asked, "When it comes to your religious identity, would you say you are a fundamentalist, evangelical, mainline, or liberal Protestant or do none of these describe you?" 35.9 percent said "none." Drill down a little bit, though, and you find that number increases with respondents identified by the study as Protestant: 45.6 percent of study-identified Protestants said "none" in one set of answers, 88.1 percent in another, and 75.8 at another time, given the choice of Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline, Liberal, or Other, said "none." I don't know what to do with that wide range of answers, but it seems clear that "none" doesn't necessarily mean non-religious.

The "softening of religion" might be, in many cases, a matter of the rhetoric and the self-descriptions of evangelicals. That is, not a softening at all, but a kind of masking, the way this particular religious traditions constructs itself as normal and other traditions as modifications or deviations. I am a Christian, you are a Catholic Christian, e.g. It may that categorizing American Christians by doctrine and dogma, that is, denomination, is no longer as useful as it once was, and it will be increasingly necessary, going forward, to distinguish by style, and cultural profile.

In the way that it's reported, at least, American Religion: Contemporary Trends seems to have unable to distinguish between the complicated way that many devoutly religious people religiously self-identify with the self-descriptions of the non-religious and less religious. It looks like two different kinds of distancing have been conflated in one of Mark Chaves' reported conclusions.

That's the danger of data, though: the nuances can have teeth.

Update: it occurs to me there is a statistic that could have bolstered Chaves' (apparent) claim Americans are less religious than they used to be: the percent who, when surveyed, say religion is not very important to them. The number doesn't seem to support the idea, though. Over the last 25 years, there's been a bit of an increase in the percentage who say religion is "not at all important" to them, but that seems to be about polarization, as Bradley Wright explains, rather than softening religiousness.