The Briefing 01-05-17
Tags: American Religion, Audio, Congress, Gallup, Thomas Sowell
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, January 5, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Religion and politics: Why is the 115th Congress more religious than the American people?
Monarchy and formality go together. So does the pageantry of monarchy, including coronations, thrones and all, of the background scenery of a monarchial form of government. But we also need to recognize that democracy requires a certain pageantry. All that will come very much to a climax on January 20 of this year with an inauguration of a new President of the United States. Democratic habits, this experiment in self-government, also requires the kind of formality and dignity that is attached to these kinds of ceremonies so that we will understand the responsibility of government. But even as we’re looking to the presidential inauguration we also need to look back to something that happened on Tuesday of this week, the swearing in of a new United States Congress in this case the 115th Congress of the United States of America.
Of course, those sworn in on Tuesday included all 435 members of the House of Representatives. Members of Congress serve two-year terms so all of them came up for reelection or for elections in the 2016 election. And of course it was one third of the United States Senate sworn in. Senators serve six year terms, with a third of the Senate coming up every two years. Of special significance was the welcoming in and swearing in of new members of both houses—seven new members of the United States Senate and just over 50 new members of the House of Representatives. As is usually the case, even though both ceremonies of swearing in were dignified, the Senate was a great deal more formal. One of the interesting aspects of the Senate swearing in was the fact that the entire event was presided over by the President of the Senate that means the incumbent Vice President of the United States, none other than Vice-President Joe Biden.
That means that the event will be one of the last responsibilities ceremonial or otherwise undertaken by Vice-President Biden before his term along with the term of President Barack Obama ends with the swearing in of a new President and a new Vice President on January 20. One of the first responsibilities of the House of Representatives was to elect a new Speaker. The Speaker the House is a constitutional office. Those who vote for that office are the 435 members of Congress. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was reelected speaker of the house with 239 votes, only one Republican voted for another candidate.
Elections, as they say, have consequences, but elections also reflect worldviews. And this leads us to a really interesting article that appeared yesterday in the New York Times. The article’s by Jonah Engel Bromwich. The headline is this,
“When It Comes to Religion, Capitol Hill Hasn’t Changed.”
The article begins,
“Despite the steady decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian, the proportion of congressional members who say they are Christian has remained very close to what it was in the early 1960s, according to a new report.”
That report was released the day previous on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center finding that 91 percent of the members of the new session of Congress, known as the 115th Congress, identified as Christian in one way or another.
“More than half a century ago,” he writes, “in 1961, 95 percent of United States representatives and senators said that they were Christian.”
Now note even as there is a great deal of attention to the shifting worldviews of Americans and the increasing secularization of the society, it isn’t really reflected in this particular set of numbers. Going back to 1961, 95% of members of Congress identified as Christian, now 91%. Of course, the shift from 95 to 91% reflects a 4% decrease, and that’s not insignificant. But the big picture is just how small that shift is in terms of the larger picture. We have to be very careful here. This certainly does not mean that American society is not becoming more secular. It doesn’t mean that secularization is not continuing apace. What it does mean is that what we have here is an anomaly. We have a United States Congress that is, at least in terms of official religious affiliation, far more religious than the population it is representing. Recent studies have indicated that at least 20 and perhaps even more than 20% of all Americans have no religious affiliation whatsoever. When it comes to those who are under age 30, it’s fully one third.
But in the recent history of the United States Congress, there has been only one member of the House of Representatives in recent years who identified publicly as a secularist or being atheist or agnostic. In the current United States Congress, the 115th, there is still just one member of Congress, in this case of the House of Representatives, who indicates no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Of striking significance here is the fact that clearly the American people prefer to elect representatives and senators who are if anything more openly religious in terms of affiliation than themselves. Summarizing the Pew Research Center report, the New York Times says,
“In the current session of Congress, 291 of the 293 Republicans identify as Christians. (The two others are Jewish.) Democrats are significantly more diverse: While 80 percent identify as Christian, others are Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim. Representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the only member of Congress to declare herself to be religiously unaffiliated, is also a Democrat.”
The connection between voting patterns and worldview is made clear in a comment made by Gregory A. Smith, Associate Director of Research at Pew, who said that it was hard to say why the religious composition of Congress has stayed so steady given that the body’s make up, in his words,
“is really the product of 535 separate elections, all of which have their own characteristics.”
But pointing to the importance of worldview, he said this,
“Lots of Americans tell us, with respect to the presidency, that it’s important to them that the president share their religious beliefs.”
He went on to say that he emphasized that being someone who is not religious could be a political liability. If anything, that’s an understatement. The Times then went on to say,
“A survey released in January 2016 found that about half of American adults said they would be less likely to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who does not believe in God.”
Now even there we have to look at something of what this kind of study represents. It represents probably what Americans think they are supposed to say rather than what they actually believe. To put it another way and to flip these numbers, it simply is inconceivable to think that over 45% of Americans actually would vote for a secular or unaffiliated candidate for president. It turns out that that has a great deal of application to the members of Congress as well and to the recent elections that produced the 115th Congress.
A closer look at the Pew study data, which is available online, reveals the picture is a bit even more complicated than the New York Times article might have indicated. For one thing we’re talking about the vast majority of members of both houses of Congress identifying as Christian, but of course evangelical Christians, defining Christianity biblically, are going to want ask the question, what exactly does that mean? Sometimes it means a great deal. In other cases it might mean actually very little in theological terms.
The reality is that cultural Christianity plays a very big part here, and that has been true throughout all of American history, perhaps more especially so in recent decades. Evidence of this comes in the fact that there is an outsized number, to say the very least, of members of the mainline Protestant churches in Congress, including those who identify as Episcopalian. For example, the actual number of Episcopalians in the United States is very small, almost completely insignificant, compared to their numbers in Congress, particularly historically in the United States Senate. But the Episcopal Church has been a safe place in terms of the history of American politics for a politician to identify without violating the basic rules of both class and a basic amount of cultural Christianity.
But by the same measure, we would also have to understand as evangelical Christians that looking at the number of members of Congress who now identify as members of evangelical churches is almost assuredly outsized to the actual population of evangelicals in convictional and theological terms. And furthermore, it is now in some parts of the country about as much a representation of cultural Christianity to identify as an evangelical as it would be in the northeast to identify as an Episcopalian We also have to recognize that the Pew study basically conflates the category of Christian. One signal of that fact is the inclusion of 13 members of the House and the Senate who are Mormons listed here as Christians and included in the 91% figure. Several things come immediately to mind, as we said, this could mean in the case of the House or the Senate at large or individual members a great deal, or it could mean very little if anything at all.
We are told in the Pew numbers that 299 members of Congress identify as Protestant in one way or another, but of course that could mean a Protestant affirmation of Reformation Christianity, an evangelical definition of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a commitment to biblical Christianity, or it can mean something very much otherwise. When it comes to Catholics, a near record 168 members of Congress are Roman Catholics. But that also demonstrates both the importance of and the limitations of this kind of data. Because after all, what does it mean that someone identifies as Roman Catholic in this data? It clearly doesn’t necessarily imply any particular religious affiliation that is translated into concrete policy.
That’s to say, you take an issue like abortion, and you will find Catholics who are in full agreement with and defense of their church’s historic stand and defense of the sanctity of human life. But you will also find members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, who openly identify as practicing Roman Catholics who stand and vote in defiance of the teachings of their church. These would include, for example, the current Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate, Joe Biden, but it would also include Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the running mate of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket in 2016. Perhaps most famously or infamously, this would also include the recent Speaker of the House of Representatives and the leader of the Democrats in the House, California representative Nancy Pelosi.
To round out the Pew data, Jewish members of Congress include 30 members, and that once again is an even more exaggerated way outsized to the Jewish population in this country. There are three Buddhists, two Muslims, three Hindus, one Unitarian Universalist, one identified as unaffiliated.
Before leaving this issue, however, the most important worldview analysis comes down to this: voters by the pattern of their voting indicate that it is still very important to them that American candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate and of course the presidency and the vice presidency have a very clear, declared, and understandable religious faith one way or the other. In the end, this must certainly reflect a certain continuing understanding that worldview really matters, and that being translated into votes means that citizens are fundamentally even if they do not understand why unwilling to support a secular candidate when it comes to high office in government.
The American religious landscape: A closer look at Gallup's 5 key findings on religion in America
Next also released in recent days is something of an x-ray, religiously speaking, of the American people, this time from the Gallup organization.
“Five Key Findings on Religion in the U.S.”
was the title of a report released just before Christmas. Frank Newport, the head of the Gallup organization, tells us that the first key finding is this:
“America remains a largely Christian nation, although less so than in the past. Seventy-four percent of Americans identify with a Christian religion, and 5% identify with a non-Christian religion.”
Now notice again, that’s 74% who identify as Christian, 5% who identify in any way with the non-Christian religion.
“The rest of the U.S. population,” he writes, “about 21%, either say they don't have a formal religious identity or don't give a response.”
Now just stopping at this point, it’s very, very clear that most Americans don’t understand this picture of the American religious landscape. The vast majority of Americans seem to believe that there is a significant percentage of those in America who hold to something other than Christianity as their religious identification. But as this makes clear, that’s only true if you include those who are unbelievers as one of the categories. And in that sense, we should. Twenty to 21% of Americans identify as having no religious affiliations, but only 5% of Americans identify with any religion other than some form of Christian identity. Once again, this is saying nothing about the state of their hearts, but only about the condition of their religious affiliation as they report it.
The second key finding:
“The trend away from formal religion continues.”
I don’t think that’s a particularly well-written sentence, because formality is not really the issue here. It’s formal religious affiliation and participation in a church in terms of membership. By any measure, that is decreasing as a percentage of the American population. On this point, thinking Christians need to think particularly carefully. Let me read to you this paragraph,
“Gallup's longest-running religious service attendance question asks, ‘Did you, yourself, happen to attend church, synagogue or mosque in the last seven days, or not?’”
Gallup then writes,
“In 1939, when Gallup first asked this question, 41% said "yes." That percentage dropped to 37% in 1940 and rose to 39% in 1950. It continued to climb, reaching as high as 49% at multiple points in the 1950s. Attendance then settled down to figures around 40% for decades, before dropping to 36% for the past three years.”
Now that’s a lot of numbers, but let’s think about it for just a moment. We’re told that the current number is 36%. We are told that in 1940 the number was 37%. So by that measure, you can say that from 1942 to 2016 the number fell only by one percentage point, but that simply doesn’t add up. No doubt several factors play a part in this, but one of them has become especially clear in recent years. And that’s this: Americans evidently are prone to lie when they are asked by a researcher whether or not they attended religious services the previous week. The math is simply very clear on the issue. Those who say they attended church vastly outnumber the church attendance reported by congregations across the country in any given Sunday. It’s not even close. Furthermore, we have evidence here of what sociologist Peter Berger discusses when he talks about secularization happening not just outside of the pew but amongst those who are sitting in those very services. It turns out that attending some services is no indication whatsoever of any change in worldview in contrast to the secular society around us. There are those who attend church services, but their worldview is just as secular as those of the larger society and culture.
The third finding from Gallup is that a vast majority of Americans say that religion is still a very important factor in their lives. But the fourth finding is that Americans say that they believe that religion is losing its influence in society. The fifth and final finding gets back to that interplay between worldview and politics.
“Religion remains intertwined with political self-identification.”
As Gallup reports,
“Religiosity continued in 2016 to significantly correlate with partisan identification. Slightly more than half of Republicans this year are "highly religious," based on a combination of their self-reported religious service attendance and the importance of religion in their daily life. That compares with a third of independents and Democrats who say the same. By contrast, 20% of Republicans are not religious, compared with 37% of the two other political groups.”
What that tells us is that Democrats and Independents tend to be significantly more secular in terms of their religious identification and practices than those who identify and vote as Republicans. This simply affirms what we already know and should always keep in mind, and that is this: the partisan divide in this country is now not merely a political divide. It’s not merely a policy divide. It’s not even merely an ideological divide. It is increasingly a theological divide, and Christians understand that when it comes to divides, the theological divide is the very deepest of all, and it fundamentally explains worldview, and it comprehensively explains why people who disagree in terms of the most basic issues of religious convictions will almost inevitably disagree on an array of other issues as well.
Thomas Sowell, one of the most insightful conservative voices of our generation, retires at 86
And that brings me to the final consideration of The Briefing today, and that is honor I wish to pay to a man who has recently retired from his writing career at age 86: Thomas Sowell, the economist who for many years has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Thomas Sowell has been writing a column since the early 1970s, but he announced stunningly and without any warning just before the end of the year that he was writing his final column. I mentioned Thomas Sowell for this reason: when it comes to thinking in terms of worldview Thomas Sowell, has been one of the most significant figures now alive. Of particular interest to Christians in this is that Thomas Sowell does not write as a Christian believer. He writes in terms of a rather secular perspective. But when it comes to the importance of worldview, what he calls the conflict of visions, Thomas Sowell has offered us invaluable ammunition and material for thought. He has furthermore helped to provide the framework for understanding ideas in terms of worldview. He’s also a man who has been a very keen observer of the society around us.
Famous quotes attached to Thomas Sowell include this:
“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”
Reflected in that is Thomas Sowell’s function as a public intellectual one of the most famous and influential in America, but also an understanding that intellectuals as a class are invested with far too much authority in our society. Another statement by Sowell is this:
“Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
Now this has to do, as he makes clear, not only with matters of national and international policy, but also with matters related to the family and parenting—once again, to use his words, “replacing what worked with what merely sounded good.”
In terms of worldview analysis by any estimation, his most important book was 1987’s A Conflict of Visions. Sowell began, and I quote,
“One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education, yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again.”
“It happens too often,” he wrote, “to be a coincidence, and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises, often implicit, are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues.”
“They have different visions of how the world works.”
That’s Thomas Sowell’s way of saying they have different worldviews, and that worldview is so fundamental that it determines everything else. Sowell the economist and public intellectual is noting that people tend to show up disagreeing with each other on unrelated issues. That’s because, as Sowell said, at the basic level of worldview, what he called vision, they actually differ in terms of their understanding of reality. The conflict of visions Thomas Sowell described was between what he called the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. The constrained vision is modern conservatism, believing that human beings need certain social institutions and that human nature is by its very reality constrained. That’s to be opposed to the more utopian, unconstrained vision of modern liberalism. The analysis is brilliant, and Thomas Sowell’s work, A Conflict of Visions, becomes fundamental reading for anyone who wishes to understand worldview.
In the preface of A Conflict of Visions, Sowell wrote this:
“Visions are not mere emotional drives. On the contrary, they have a remarkable logical consistency, even if those devoted to these visions have seldom investigated that logic. Nor are visions confined to zealots and ideologues. We all have visions. They are the silent shapers of our thoughts.”
There could be perhaps no more important sentence for Christians to ponder today. What are the silent shapers of our thoughts? To be a faithful Christian those silent shapers must be the very fundamental principles set out in Scripture, the truth of God’s Word. One final word of warning from Thomas Sowell,
“We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them.”
That word of warning serves to remind Christians that we must think about our worldview. We must think about our vision. We must give heed to the silent shapers of our thought lest we be unfaithful. Thomas Sowell has ended his writing career at age 86. He will be missed.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from West Palm Beach, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.