Counterpoint: How Evangelicals Are Politicized

Thanks to everyone who commented (here, on Facebook, by email) on yesterday’s post! I quoted from recent posts by historians Neil J. Young and Thomas Kidd, both of whom drew on research and personal experience with evangelical churches to argue that evangelicals are far less concerned with partisan politics than media coverage (and a recent book by Frances FitzGerald) would suggest. But as a counterpoint, sociologist John Hawthorne recommended that I consider Lydia Bean’s book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada.

Bean, The Politics of Evangelical IdentityBean’s research project sounds fascinating. She looked at four evangelical congregations along the New York-Ontario border (two in Buffalo, NY; two in Hamilton, ON) to compare and contrast how “American and Canadian evangelicals talk about politics in congregational settings. While Canadian evangelicals share the same theology and conservative moral attitudes as their American counterparts, their politics are quite different. On the U.S. side of the border, political conservatism is woven into the very fabric of everyday religious practice.” (quoting from the Princeton University Press description)

If you want to sample her findings, consider her December 2014 piece for the Washington Post. Bean argued that the GOP won those midterm Congressional elections in part because”white evangelicals are one of the most effectively organized groups in American politics, and they reliably vote Republican.” But it’s how they’re organized that emerged as one of the most striking findings from her research:

Many outsiders assume that evangelical mobilization is a rather top-down affair: pastors and national elites tell evangelicals to get out and vote for conservatives. But I discovered that a much broader set of volunteer or “lay” religious leaders play a key role in weaving politics into local religious life. The Sunday School teacher who makes off-handed derogatory remarks about “liberals.” The small group host with the portrait of George W. Bush on her fridge. The pro-life friend at church who reminds you to get out and vote this November—and to remember that the Democrats are for abortion, Republicans are for life.

While there’s a lot of attention to Culture War “generals” (in 2014, Bean mentioned Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, and James Dobson; in 2016-2017, perhaps Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and other of John Fea’s “court evangelicals”) and the role of pastors in shaping the politics of their flocks, Bean thinks that it’s the local lay leaders — “captains,” she calls them — who “translate national conservative messages into the everyday social worlds of evangelical churches… who model what it means to be a good Christian, who help you map your political identity against out-groups like ‘liberals,’ ‘feminists,’ and ‘gay rights activists.'”

So in such a church you might not see a voter guide pinned to the church bulletin board, or hear anything “political” from the preacher. But that doesn’t mean it exemplifies Alec Ryrie’s notion of Protestant “apoliticism.” Instead, partisan politics might be advancing through a version of another Protestant ideal: the priesthood of all believers.

(For more on this, see John’s own analysis of white Americans evangelicals’ increasingly strong identification with the Republican Party.)

Bean’s project also serves as yet another reminder that those of us interested in evangelicalism shouldn’t focus so heavily on this country. Comparative analysis might actually help us see more clearly.

For an introduction to the recent religious history of Canada, see Mark Noll’s 2015 essay for Books & Culture. But a few pertinent facts…

Stephen Harper and George W. Bush, 2006
Harper giving a dual press conference with George W. Bush in 2006 – White House

Evangelicals make up a much smaller share of the Canadian population (about 10%) than south of that border (more like 25%).  According to sociologist Sam Reimer, Canadian and American evangelicals are very similar in their theological beliefs and social mores, but they vote differently. By most any measure, since the 2000 election 75-80% of American evangelicals can be counted on to vote Republican. But in Canada’s 2015 federal election, exit polls suggested that Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper received just 52% of the evangelical vote. Though an evangelical who attends a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, Harper generally said little about his faith while in office. And while he worked to curry evangelical support, that slight majority share of a religious minority was not nearly enough to keep him from losing to Liberal challenger Justin Trudeau — who picked up about 20% of Canada’s evangelical voters, with another 10% opting for the social democratic NDP.

Why the difference? Reimer cites Bean’s research, but adds other explanations. Canadian evangelicals are more ecumenical than their American counterparts and tend to have more positive views of ethnic and religious minorities and the poor. Perhaps most importantly, “In Canada Evangelicals also understood themselves to be an embattled minority and saw slippage in moral values, but did not blame liberals or the government. They were more likely to see them as allies.”

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