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How We Think About Religion and Why it Matters for Social Movements

Last month, a new Pew report confirmed what many of us suspected: that the rise of the nones is not abating; that religious disaffiliation is continuing or even accelerating. Besides disaffiliation, we also have a situation of deep religious polarization: as Robert Wuthnow first argued a long time ago, religion’s influence on people today comes less through denominations and pastors than through its affinity with competing systems of meaning – orthodox, or conservative; and modernist, or progressive. These trends are amplified by a third: internal secularization, wherein people who are still in a church often ascribe less authority to that church and its institutional guidance than they might have in prior generations. Disaffiliation, polarization, and internal secularization – all of these trends would seem to point toward a diminished role for religion in the public sphere.

And yet it’s clear that’s not happening. Amid these signs of declining institutional religious authority, there is plenty of evidence that religion as a system of public cultural authority is not receding at all. Rather, there is a set of strong cultural claims about belonging, citizen competence, leadership, and social order which have religious roots, but have diffused out from their denominational  and institutional moorings and continue to shape the political and civic preferences of a wide variety of social actors – not only religious people. In previous work, co-authors and I called this a secularized evangelical discourse. Other, more parsimonious authors label it Christian Nationalism. Whatever we call it, it’s real, it’s powerful, and it’s persistent.

It’s also something that scholars of social movements need to account for. Christian Nationalism is a key driver of contemporary conservative movements in the US. It predicts conservative attitudes about race, gun control, gender, sexuality, and more. But theoretically, Christian Nationalism is also something more: a culturally derived response to changing structural conditions (namely the ongoing diversification of the US population and the perception that white, Christian culture is under threat). In these terms, it’s not the only way that religion motivates responses to social change – it surely has to be a case of something. And what I think it is a case of is a desire among people to anchor their political and cultural identities in a narrativized sense of belonging that has connection to sacred values. Christian nationalism is one such narrativized sense of belonging, as Phil Gorski shows so well in his analysis of evangelicals’ voting for Trump. But there might be others too. What they are, who they appeal to, and how they manifest in politics are questions that social movement scholars need to think about going forward.

The reason this is so important is that many researchers, not only in sociology, but also in political science and psychology, are satisfied with throwing a few measures of private religious behavior into their analyses and saying that they have considered religion’s effects. Even in the sociology of religion, where people are aware of the complexities of measuring and analyzing religion, measures have not yet caught up to the empirical reality that cultural authority is where the action is. The key question is, why are religious claims persistently powerful in public life in contexts where fewer people are religious?

A new working paper by Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry identifies four responses to Christian Nationalism in the United States. There are rejecters, resisters, accommodators, and ambassadors, but the demographic composition of the groups is a little surprising. By looking granularly at who exhibits different levels of support for Christian nationalism, they make some important findings. I will highlight two. First, 1/5th of ambassadors are Democrats! This is something one would never find if looking only at the news media or even at most studies of conservative Christianity. And yet there it is, suggesting that that even among political progressives there is appetite for belonging to something that is both sacred and farther-reaching than a congregation.

Second, and related, nearly half of African-Americans are accommodators, but few are ambassadors. This, combined with the previous finding, makes a key point about the Democratic party coalition – the ethnic and racial minority groups that comprise almost half of it have a much stronger appetite for religious claims in public life than do its white components. We need to recognize that these racial minority Democrats favor some religious language in the public sphere. This should be obvious to anyone who listens to the way Black leaders talk. Even those who don’t mention God specifically often tap into the prophetic discourse of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. William Barber. They imbue these values into the way they talk about politics; both the politics of national belonging, as Barack Obama did, and the politics of everyday life, as they mobilize on issues related to incarceration, debt, voting, education, and access to health care. But too many people don’t recognize this kind of talk as religious, because, as Penny Edgell has written, when it comes from people who aren’t white, we tend to assume it is about interests, not values. Here’s a strong example of why we need to think about religion as a system of cultural authority, more than a system of private beliefs. When we think about who makes up the Democratic coalition, distilling that coalition down to just interests, and ignoring the appetite for sacred values, isn’t only empirically wrong, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes that make us even more wrong the more we do it.

For anyone still thinking that religion is simple, consider a paradox pointed out recently by Sam Perry: Christian nationalism and private religious practice almost always have opposite effects when included together in multivariate models. Christian nationalism drives people toward opposition to redistributive social programs and support for immigrants, while private religious practice is associated with stronger support for these things. How could this be? Well, one interpretation that interests me is that both Christian nationalism and religious practice are organized around religious authority, but the objects of that authority are different. Christian nationalism looks toward strict security, strong social boundaries, and militarism as core values to which fidelity is owed, while religious practice is more closely associated with charity and stewardship. This seems to align with the moral schemas theory posited by George Lakoff, which points to opposing family metaphors – strict father and nurturant mother – to explain political differences. It seems possible that Christian Nationalism is essentially tapping, or is at least highly correlated with, this strong father sense of morality, and that we in fact lack equivalent measures of how nurturant mother morality, if we accept Lakoff’s term, is projected into questions of public life.

Let me give an example. In late October I was at a gathering of community organizers, and somehow it came up that I was doing research on this topic. I described how I saw the difference between private religiosity and public religious authority, and one of the organizers said, but what about people like me? I’m a Jew, but my Judaism is almost entirely about social justice. I believe in God a little bit, but really what I believe in, and why I am in a community of believers, is pursuit of the common good. So I have strong conceptions of public religious authority, and weak private belief, but I’m not a religious nationalist.

This community organizer is a person that sociologists’ models of the intersection of religion and politics can’t explain very well right now. He would likely show up in Whitehead’s model as a rejecter (nearly half of Jews do). And he does reject Christian Nationalism, but he also has a keen sense of public religious authority that our measures don’t pick up on, and this drives his social activism in a community organization. One reason we don’t notice this kind of public religious practice is that it’s not tied to a strict racial identity and it doesn’t share in the history of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right, so it’s much less institutionalized and not as heavily politicized. But it’s there, and it’s real, and we’re missing it.

I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of questions to prompt reflection on how social movements research can build on this emerging research agenda on public religious authority. First, what is religious nationalism really a case of, in both empirical and theoretical terms? And what other authority systems might fit into whatever it is a case of, and how might we measure those?

Second, what are we missing when we limit our analysis of religion and public authority to white conservatives, as most of the research has done so far? Are we missing something really important about other racial-religious traditions? Omar McRoberts has a chapter about Black civil religion in a forthcoming book by Penny Edgell and Grace Yukich that would suggest we are. I think he’s right, and I can’t wait to see his remarks about this in print.

Third, what implications might this way of thinking about religion have outside of the world of politics that we have mostly been discussing today? Practically all of the work on public religious authority to date has involved attitudinal studies. What about its civic effects? Its behavioral effects? How it drives movement formation or dissolution, or inform what movements can and can’t do in different contexts? The possibilities seem vast, but I’ll stop here.

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