The Briefing 06-14-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, June 14, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Is your pastor a Democrat or Republican? The fascinating link between denomination & party affiliation
Is your Rabbi a Democrat or your Baptist pastor a Republican? It turns out that’s probably not an accident. And of course when we consider these things in the level of worldview analysis, we can understand the reason why, but the New York Times found it this week very, very interesting. The headline in the story,
“Your Rabbi? Probably a Democrat. Your Baptist Pastor? Probably a Republican. Your Priest? Who Knows.”
Kevin Quealy is the author of the article. He says this,
“America’s pastors – the men and women a majority of Americans look to for help in finding meaning and purpose in their lives – are even more politically divided than the rest of us, according to a new data set representing the largest compilation of American religious leaders ever assembled.”
Now that’s quite a statement, “the largest compilation of American religious leaders ever assembled.” It turns out in context what that actually refers to is probably the largest research base for any kind to study that takes as its concern the relationship between denominational identity and clergy and political affiliation. Quealy continues,
“Like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines. Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues. Those of several Evangelical and Baptist churches are overwhelmingly Republican. If religious denominations were states, almost all of them would be considered ‘Safely Democratic’ or ‘Safely Republican,’ with relatively few swing states.”
Now once again, what we’re confronting here is the radical polarization of American society. What many in the media find most interesting is the political polarization, and of course that shows up over and over again. The disappearing middle is a big story. It’s a legitimate story. But behind that is another kind of polarization, and that is America’s theological polarization. It turns out, and of course we shouldn’t be surprised here, there is an almost direct linkage that is even now recognized by the researchers who conducted the study and also by the New York Times who are reporting on it.
What we find rather stunning in this article is the one-to-one equation that is basically made here. The argument is if you actually know the denominational identity of a minister, you also probably know two things: that is the political affiliation of that minister and also the political identity of the congregation that is served. Now listeners to The Briefing understand we’ve gone over this material before, but this is a new angle. What we’ve looked at over and over again is the fact that theology always has consequences, and theology is determinative of worldview. Worldview inevitably leads to policy positions and political philosophy. So we understand the linkage here, but now the New York Times clearly is concerned about this very reality.
Furthermore, there’s a sense of shock in this article, a shock that the pattern would be so clear, and furthermore, the predictability would be so virtually absolute. Some sociologists have referred to what’s happening in the United States as the big sort. That is, Americans are increasingly sorting themselves out politically, economically, sociologically, religiously of course, and even in terms of residentially, where they choose to live. One of the most interesting things in American life is that neighborhoods tend to be rather politically alike. That is to say, within the neighborhood neighbors tend to agree. They tend to sort themselves out even in terms of the neighborhoods in which they choose to live.
The researchers behind this study, Eitan Hersh at Yale and Gabrielle Malina at Harvard, they according to the New York Times identified about 180,000 clergy, and they were able to match as many as 180,000 to their voter registration records. Now that’s a very significant research sample. If you’re talking about clergy in the United States and you’re in the numbers of 180,000, you’re really looking at a massive sample, and the researchers are very clear about what’s happening here. It’s another evidence of the big sort. Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University’s divinity school, said,
“It's a reflection of the ongoing sorting we have in American life. Why would we think that religion is immune to that?”
Now anytime you see a media report like this and someone who’s a specialist such as Professor Chavez quoted, you have to realize he may well have said a good deal more than is included in the article. But that one statement that is included, he seems to be saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that religion isn’t immune to the sorting that theology somehow matters. That’s where Christians have to turn around and say, actually, that’s more fundamental than any other form of sorting. It is that theology is prior to and foundational to anything that follows, including the politics. Now that raises a huge question, and even the researchers seem to understand the importance of the question: which direction does this pattern go? Does the theology determine the politics or does the politics determine the theology?
Now at this point we could look at it sociologically and try to find some way to measure that. But in terms of Christian biblical worldview analysis, we’re really led to understand that the theology has to be foundational, not because it’s just the first order issue that people consider, but because eventually that theological identity will supersede everything else.
Now two denominations are kind of chosen by the New York Times as illustrative of what’s going on here. They are the Episcopalians and the Methodists, in particular the United Methodists in the United States. Now judged from an evangelical perspective, the interesting thing here is that even though there are some evangelicals still inside the Episcopal Church, there are some evangelicals certainly within the Methodist Church, both of those denominations are overwhelmingly represented by theological liberalism. And so you’re talking about two relatively liberal Protestant denominations in the United States, and both of them are overwhelmingly Democratic, but not equally so—the Episcopalians, as the authors in here indicate, something like the state of Hawaii, tend to be disproportionately, overwhelmingly Democratic. In this sense, the Episcopal clergy are also disproportionately liberal, even compared to the United Methodist clergy, and it shows up in the membership as well.
As the researchers behind this study indicate, on issues such as same-sex marriage it turns out that the Episcopalians are far more likely to affirm same-sex marriage than the Methodists. As Kevin Quealy reports,
“Episcopalians were much more likely than Methodists to express support for issues like gay marriage, immigration and abortion rights. Across denominations, the researchers found that the political affiliation of a congregation’s leader was a stronger predictor of the congregation’s policy views than the political affiliation of the congregation as a whole.
Of interest to me, the secular researchers behind this study seem to be scratching their heads at the reason why the worldview of the pastor is even more determinative of the policy positions of the congregation than the political affiliation of the congregants themselves. I think the easy answer to that at least should be this: leaders are called to an even higher standard of consistency and thoughtfulness on these issues. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that those on the left and the right, theologically and politically, the leaders are more carefully and consistently defined even then there congregants or followers. You’ll recall that the headline in this New York Times story referred not only to pastors but also to rabbis and to priests. And you’ll remember the odd way the headline communicated the distinctions. Rabbis are overwhelmingly Democratic, pastors are more likely to be Republican, and you’ll recall that the headlines said in terms of Catholic priests, “Who knows?”
What’s behind that? Well American Judaism is extremely liberal both theologically and politically, but especially politically. As a matter of fact, the Jewish vote is one of the most predictably liberal votes in America. And what about the Catholics? Well it turns out the Catholics are increasingly, although also largely historically, split over many of these lines: Republican, Democratic liberal, conservative. The Catholics are far harder to predict on these issues. But the headline really does define the pattern: when you meet a Rabbi, almost assuredly politically and theologically liberal; when you meet a Baptist pastor, almost predictably theologically and politically conservative, by no accident; and when you’re dealing with a Catholic priest, well, at that point you better ask some questions. But here’s the clear issue of predictability. When you do ask those questions, you’re going to discover that the theological and the political convictions are tied together, and of course you understand it’s by no accident.
Geography and worldview: Looking closer at America's most churched, unchurched, and dechurched cities
Next, when we look at America and we take the map of the United States and consider which cities and which regions are most secular and those others that are most religious, especially in terms of Christian identity, well, it turns out a new study indicates something of the fact that the picture is a little more complicated than we thought, not so much that the alternatives between deep areas of belief and deep areas of secularity don’t exist, but because the historical story is a little more interesting.
For example, the Barna study recently came out with a study differentiating between major American cities, labeling them in terms of a range of those that are churched, unchurched, dechurched, post-Christian. So you’re not just talking about churched and unchurched, you’re looking at some very interesting distinctions here. For instance, there’s a difference between unchurched and dechurched. Unchurched perhaps would mean never actually churched. Dechurched means, oh, it was churched, but people who had been going to church are no longer going. And then of course, there’s post-Christian regions of the country that are now so pervasively secular that even a Christian memory is receding further and further into the background.
Now we already know this even before turning to the Barna research. We know that there are regions in the United States that help to tell the story. If you look at the American Northeast, what was previously knowns as colonial America, you’re looking at the first region in the United States not only to become American but also to be evangelized and congregationalized. The American Northeast was the very birthplace of Christianity in the United States, in particular English-speaking Protestant Christianity. But then you also look at another region in contrast, that would be the American Pacific Northwest. What makes it different than the Northeast? Well, for one thing the Northwest was never really evangelized or congregationalized. One of the interesting things to note about the Pacific Northwest is that the majority of its population centers didn’t really even exist when the two Great Awakenings became so much a part of defining American religious life. In this sense, you might think of the American Pacific Northwest much as you would think of Australia. It certainly is a continuation of the culture moving westward, but as is the case in Australia, the Pacific Northwest is still pervasively secular. But it never was really pervasively churched.
The great churchgoing regions of the United States at least over the last century have been three. First of all, in the upper Midwest where immigrant Protestant groups and Catholics dominated, just think of cities such as Chicago or Minneapolis and St. Paul. But then secondly, the American South, the so-called Bible Belt where institutional Christianity and specifically evangelical Christianity took hold and helped to define the culture from the very beginning. The third area of deep churchgoing in the United States is the so-called Sun Belt, especially looking at Southern California. Just take for example Orange County California, all the major churches that developed there and in the larger Los Angeles area, and then move eastward through Arizona, New Mexico, into Texas, and in that area very strong patterns of churchgoing including both evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
But big changes have been taking place in the United States. The Pacific Northwest had been the most secular region of the United States. It would be classified in the never fully evangelized category, but it’s very sad to note that it is now the American Northeast, the very cradle of Christianity in United States, that’s now the most secular region, the area where there is the lowest rate of church participation and where any register of theistic belief comes in at the very bottom. Barna’s research that was released just a few days ago is focused on “DMA”s or Designated Market Areas. That’s something of a replacement for the old “SMSA” or Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. Those are census defined. But we’re talking about major cities. We recognize them by name. But they include not only the city center, but also the connected suburbs. Now, according to the Barna data the most churched areas in United States, the most churched DMA’s or cities are Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Now here, you’ll note there’s no theological definition here. We’re talking about religious identity and participation. So in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it’s overwhelmingly evangelical Christian. When you talk about Salt Lake City, Utah, well, to state the obvious, it’s overwhelmingly Mormon. But it’s still interesting to note the levels of intensity. But in terms of the unchurched cities, at the very top are San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, California at about 60% unchurched.
Other cities that made the top 10 list in terms of unchurched include: both Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada, Springfield and Boston in Massachusetts, Manchester, New Hampshire. Well, it turns out those cities are on the top 10 list of the unchurched. When it comes to the dechurched, well, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, appears right there. Now those were on the unchurched list too. How did it get on the dechurched list? Because an awful lot of the population there in that region is made up of people who once attended church or whose family once attended church but they do so no longer. Other cities in the top 10 of the dechurched include Seattle/Tacoma in Washington, and Portland/ Auburn in the state of Maine.
Now the last of these categories, post-Christian, indicates the part of the population and the regions in which they live that are most distant even in terms of memory from historic Christianity. As the Barna organization identifies,
“To qualify as “post-Christian,” individuals must meet nine or more of our 16 criteria (listed below), which identify a lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. These factors include whether individuals identify as atheist, have never made a commitment to Jesus, have not attended church in the last year or have not read the Bible in the last week.”
Now in the list of the top 10 post-Christian areas, metropolitan areas in the United States, you’re looking at Portland, Maine showing up in the very high list, along with Boston and Manchester, also Albany and Schenectady and Troy, that area of New York State, Providence, Rhode Island, Bedford, Massachusetts, and Burlington, Vermont. So as evangelical gospel minded Christians here in the United States thinking about our own country as a mission field, it’s important that we recognize that metropolitan area by metropolitan area, city by city, we’re not looking at exactly the same challenge. We’re looking at that sorting that takes place in America now coming down to which cities are most and which are least secular.
But I think the most interesting dimension of this research is to remind us that there are different ways of being secular. There are the unchurched areas. There are the dechurched areas. And then also there are post-Christian communities and cities. Now you’ll notice there was an overlap of some of these cities and metropolitan areas in these lists, and we can understand that too. These metropolitan areas don’t always represent just one of these patterns. But what does this mean for gospel minded Christians? It means that we need to understand the enormity of the challenge we face in the United States.
Now just at the level of what we discussed in the first story, you should also note there’s an almost absolute overlay between the level of secularity and the political affiliation of those various regions. But our ultimate concern must be reaching the persons in all of these communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we think about our challenge as gospel minded Christians looking to the future, well, it’s very clarifying to understand that increasingly we’re going to be facing people who have not so much heard the gospel and rejected it or not responded to it, we’re going to be increasingly talking to people who’ve never heard the gospel before.
This anxious age: Our modern struggle with the ancient problem of anxiety
Next, in trying to understand the culture around us, I want to refer to a story that ran Sunday in the New York Times, a headline story in the Style edition. Here’s the headline,
“An Anxious Nation.”
“To doctors it’s a medical condition, but anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological one, too.”
Alex Williams writes,
“This past winter, Sarah Fader, a 37-year-old social media consultant in Brooklyn who has generalized anxiety disorder, texted a friend in Oregon about an impending visit, and when a quick response failed to materialize, she posted on Twitter to her 16,000-plus followers. ‘I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore.’”
And she added the “#thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike.” Now if that sounds extreme, well just hold on for the rest of the story. As Williams writes,
“Thousands of people were soon offering up their own examples under the hashtag; some were retweeted more than 1,000 times. You might say Ms. Fader struck a nerve. ‘If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious,’ she said on the telephone, ‘there’s something wrong with you.’”
What’s going on here? Well, some have argued going back to the beginnings of what we call the modern age that with the modern age comes anxiety, to be modern is to be anxious. It was the poet W.H. Auden who 70 years ago described the modern age as the age of anxiety, and the poet put his poetic finger on something that most people do recognize is real. There is an anxiety in the modern age. Furthermore, it’s an anxiety that is now generalized where it hadn’t been expressed before. The anxiety of which the poet is speaking about was the anxiety experienced by the elites who supposedly were on the cutting edge of modernity, and they were likely to be the most anxious. But now anxiety seems to be driven to the entire culture. People in every dimension of the culture seem to be marked by anxiety. This is perhaps driven through the culture by Hollywood and entertainment as well as the psychotherapeutic industry that continues to profit by telling us just how anxious we are.
The New York Times article begins by reminding us that for psychiatrist, anxiety is actually a diagnosable syndrome and illness. The person who is identified in beginning of the article has what’s defined and diagnosed as “generalized anxiety disorder.”
Of course, the poet Auden would tell us, that’s just about everyone. In this sense we are all anxious. Anxiety as a matter of fact and its disorders are being diagnosed to an increased number of young persons. As the Times article says,
“According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students…. Meanwhile,” the Times tells us, “the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends.”
One of the points made in the Times analysis is that the rise of social media has magnified and multiplied the opportunities to be anxious. Remember that story that began the article in which a woman decided that someone really didn’t want to be her friend if they didn’t respond in social media within 24 hours, thus leading to even greater anxiety.
Christians need to wonder if all of this can really be so modern as it appears. Because when you think about the Scripture, we come to understand this: human nature really hasn’t changed. Even though we might be using new labels to diagnose the problems that come with the human condition, the reality is that it’s biblically defined in ways that are very consistent over time. It’s easy to say we can find anxious people in the Bible, and we certainly find anxiety dealt with in terms of the experience that is recorded in Scripture.
In John 14, verse one Jesus speaking to his disciples says,
“Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in me.”
We should simply also insert here that if so many of our children, teenagers, and young adults are anxious, perhaps at least a part of that is because we are failing his parents to protect them from the very sources of that anxiety or to ground them in such a way that they would not be like so many of their peers so increasingly anxious. And even historians can step in to say maybe this problem isn’t so modern as it appears, Scott Stossel is the editor of the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book “My Age of Anxiety.” As the New York Times says “helped kick off the anxiety memoir boom three years ago.”
Well if you missed that boom, don’t miss this quote from Stossel. He said,
“Every generation, going back to Periclean Greece, to second century Rome, to the Enlightenment, to the Georgians and to the Victorians, believes itself to be the most anxious age ever.”
Every age though does have its distinctive way of making its spiritual hunger and need for Christ most evident. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing here, that the way this society is making that need so clear is by the skyrocketing rates of anxiousness and even anxiety about anxiety.
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 Phoenix, Arizona, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.