Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

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Billy Graham’s Addiction to Political Power

“The framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

That is from the infamous Billy Graham. The argument is that the founders weren’t serious when they talked about the separation of church and state. It’s amusing in its silliness. It would be like saying that the framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of oppressive monarchy and aristocracy, not freedom from oppressive monarchy and aristocracy. He is playing a word game to push an agenda. But many of the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were quite clear in what they meant about separation of church and state. Religious freedom most definitely does not entail the constitutional right to enforce theocratic laws onto others.

Graham has a long history of political involvement and influence. This has been true across every presidential administration since the 1950s. He was particularly close with Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s scandalous resignation, Graham expressed more wariness toward politics. He went so far as to later on criticize Jerry Fallwell’s politicized “moral majority” (Parade Magazine, 1981), stating that:

It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person.

Referring specifically to Falwell, he made himself even more clear:

I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.

That didn’t stop Graham from continuing to play the political game. He stayed close to the Washington establishment in the decades since. In 2011, he once again expressed regret for his complicity in the politicization of religion. Yet the very next year he jumped into another political fight over gay marriage in North Carolina. The culture wars are simply too thick in his blood. The attraction to political power is an addiction. He can’t help himself. John Becker wrote that,

The fact that the 93-year-old Graham, who was born during the final days of World War I, supports marriage discrimination is not, in and of itself, surprising, when one considers both his age and his evangelicalism. What is rather surprising, however, is the fact that he’s made such a public anti-gay pronouncement at all. After all, the man has been essentially in retirement since 2007. Since that time, he’s left most of the right-wing craziness to his son, Franklin “President Obama may or may not be a ‘son of Islam’“ Graham, and his daughter, Anne “9/11 was God’s way of getting back into the government and our schools“ Graham Lotz. Waggoner notes that William Martin, an authorized biographer of Graham, cannot recall any effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association similar in size and scope to its current pro-discrimination push in the organization’s entire 62-year history. And according to Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University, this can only mean one thing: that the source of this bigotry is not Franklin Graham, who heads the BGEA, but Billy Graham himself. Says Martin, “I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand. In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. Franklin has been more outspoken about it, but it sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”

It appears the Graham family ministry has become ever more politicized as the patriarch ages. Billy Graham is no longer heeding his own advice, hard earned from his earlier life experience. This can’t be blamed on his family taking over the ministry. It’s obvious the elder Graham is still fighting the culture wars in very much politicized form.

It’s with this in mind that we should take note the political support of Donald Trump by family members and key figures close to Billy Graham. Even though Franklin Graham promised not to endorse a candidate, he posted a photograph of his father with Donald Trump right before the election. He described those photographed with his father as “a few special friends,” implying the relationship between Billy and Donald isn’t a casual association. Acknowledging the support he had been given, Trump stated that he was “a big fan of Billy Graham” and then thanked some of the family members.

It’s not clear what Billy Graham thinks of Trump. But one thing is clear. This new administration has been extremely divisive among evangelicals, even among those surrounding the Graham family. Consider the warning of “21st century idolatry” given by Ed Stetzer. He is the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.

Trump’s narcissistic buffoonery and anti-Christian sociopathy will make many evangelicals rethink their position on the politicization of religion, specifically in its present partisan divide. It will weaken the ties between evangelicals and the Republican Party. It might also weaken the ties with the religious right as well, since younger evangelicals are increasingly liberal and progressive. It is the decades of politicized religion by religious right figures like Billy Graham that have turned so many away from the old culture wars. That might not have happened if Graham had taken his own earlier advice to heart.

Backfire Effect, Oppressed Minority, & Political Divide

Here are just a few thoughts, but I won’t offer any complex analysis. This is just some info I’ve come across recently: (1) the backfire effect demographics, (2) the most oppressed minority, and (3) the main US political divide.

(1) The backfire effect is very interesting. It’s the cognitive behavior of someone’s beliefs becoming stronger when confronted with facts that contradict those beliefs. When dealing with such a person, rational discussion is impossible.

Anyone can be prone to the backfire effect at times, but only certain groups are consistently prone to it.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that conservatives are most prone. Liberals, on the other hand, may or may not change their beliefs when confronted with new info. However, most liberals tend to not becoming stronger in their beliefs in reaction to facts that counter their beliefs.

Looking at the research, there was only one other demographic I noticed that was also prone. This other group are those who are highly educated, specifically experts. For different reasons than conservatives, an expert believes he already knows more than others, at least when it comes to certain subjects. The expert is probably often right, but this often being right can lead the expert to not as seriously consider new info.

(2) The most oppressed minority isn’t what most people would guess. Researchers have asked Americans who they’d vote for as president. A majority would be willing to vote for a Mormon, for a woman, for a racial minority, and even for a homosexual.

Who wouldn’t most Americans vote for? Atheists. There has never been an openly atheist president and openly atheist politicians are rare.

I was listening to a radio show where a novel was being discussed. The novel apparently involved an atheist character. This led to several atheists to call in to express the prejudice they’ve experienced from Christians, especially in rural areas. The prejudice included ostracization and hate mail.

Atheists, and the non-religious in general, is a growing demographic. But Christian institutions continue to wield immense power in the US. Too often religious freedom simply means the freedom to be religious but not the freedom to be treated fairly as an atheist or non-believer.

(3) The strongest divide in US politics may not be what is portrayed in the MSM. The most loyal base of the Democratic party isn’t the progressive/liberal movement. In fact, it’s social conservatives who are minorities.

These Democratic party minorities are traditional conservatives, not right-wing conservatives as seen in the Republican party. These minorities are social conservatives who largely are evangelical protestants. As traditional conservatives, they believe in social solutions to social problems and they support social institutions to maintain social order. Traditional conservatives, unlike right-wingers, aren’t against government.

The major divide isn’t between liberals and conservatives. Rather, it’s between minority evangelical protestants and white evangelical protestants. The former is a growing demographic and the latter is a shrinking demographic, and at the moment they are at a balance point that hasn’t yet fully shifted. Most interestingly, the Democratic minorities are more socially conservative than the Republican whites, but the Democratic minorities are socially conservative in a traditionally conservative way. The Democratic party, oddly, has become the defender of traditional conservtism.

So, the actual political divide right now is between traditional conservatives and radical right-wingers. Liberals have for various reasons chosen to side with the traditional conservatives.