Saturday, November 28, 2020

A Social Dilemma: Facebook Doesn't Want You to Leave

It's funny. Well, maybe funny's not the right word. A few weeks ago I chose to take a break from Facebook, and after a couple of weeks, I started receiving notifications from Facebook about friends who'd updated their profile, shared a photo, posted an update, shared a link, and so on. Facebook and other social media sites really don't want us not to log on (how's that for a double negative?). And they'll do everything they can to get you log back on. This is detailed in depressing detail in the documentary, The Social Dilemma, which will make you think twice about logging on, or at least logging on as much as you have. It's worth a watch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who are the 81%? (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part II)

According to a Pew Research Center's analysis of exit polls of the 2016 election, 81% of white evangelicals who voted, voted for Donald Trump ("How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis"). The fact that this is only slightly higher than the percentage who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 (78%), John McCain in 2008 (74%), and Mitt Romney in 2012 (78%), suggests there may be nothing new going on here. And that's probably true to some extent, but the enthusiasm that some conservative Protestants have for Trump appears greater than what we saw with Bush, McCain, or Romney. In particular, there are “prophecy voters,” charismatic Christians who believe that Trump is an anointed leader who will play a part in bringing God’s kingdom to earth ("‘Prophecy voters’ forming core of Trump’s evangelical base").

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. People throw around terms, such as "evangelical" and "charismatic," as if everyone agrees as to what they mean, but scholars, who spend most of their time thinking about such things, don't even agree. Plus, how they are captured on one survey can differ substantially from how they are on another. Thus, before continuing this exploration of why so many white Christians voted for Trump, we need to define a few terms first.

Probably the most widely-used classification scheme of religious traditions is the one outlined by Brian Steensland, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, Lynn R. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert D. Woodberry in their 2000 Social Forces article, "The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State-of-the-Art." Popularly known as "RELTRAD" (religious tradition), this scheme sorts people into 7 broad groups: Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, other religious groups, and no religion. The sorting is usually accomplished through a series of questions about the survey respondents' religious affiliation.

Although the RELTRAD classification is quite good, it isn't perfect. Take Mainline Protestants for instance. Mainline Protestants are those who attend some of the more historic denominations in the United States: the United Church of Christ (Congregational), the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, Disciples of Christ, American (Northern) Baptist Churches USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Some count the Quakers and the Reformed Church of America as part of the mainline as well. However, although Mainline Protestants are, on average, theologically more liberal than Evangelical Protestants, there's plenty of individuals who identify as evangelical but belong to a Mainline denomination. For example, the United Methodist Church is in the midst of a split among its more conservative (i.e., evangelical) members and it more liberal ones.

The Black Protestant category includes historical Black Church denominations, such as African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, along with a number of younger Pentecostal churches, such as the Church of God in Christ and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. In other words, they hardly represent a monolithic block and could easily be sorted into a number of subcategories much like Evangelical Protestants. Adding to the confusion is that some Black Protestant churches dually-align with Mainline Protestants. For example, a number of Progressive National Baptist churches (a denomination founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961) also belong to the American Baptist Churches USA.

And then there are the Roman Catholics. Although sorting respondents into this category is relatively straightforward, it ignores the diversity of Roman Catholicism. It runs the gamut from theologically conservative to theologically liberal, and it has its own Pentecostal Christians although they're typically referred to as "charismatic."

And then there are some Christian groups, such as Eastern Orthodox, who are quite similar to Roman Catholics, but because they constitute such a small percentage of the American population, they're sorted into the "other" category, which interestingly also includes Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and more (Note: some scholars consider Mormons to be a branch of Christianity, while others do not).

Finally, let's consider Evangelical Protestants. Ideally, this category should be broken down into three subcategories: Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. As Christian Smith noted in his 1998 study of American Evangelicalism, Fundamentalists tend to be more theologically conservative than Evangelicals and are more likely to maintain a "distance" between themselves and secular society. Evangelicals, by contrast, tend to engage the secular world and, as such, more civically and politically active. Pentecostals share many beliefs with Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but they also believe that the Holy Spirit can move in and through people, leading them to speak in tongues, which can be seen as a form of divine revelation. Moreover, because they believe that the Spirit manifests itself in both women and men, unlike Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations, Pentecostal denominations (e.g., Assemblies of God, Four-Square Gospel) have been at the forefront of ordaining women. It is among Pentecostals that we will find the charismatic "prophecy voters" mentioned earlier. That is, they are a subset of a subset of Evangelical Protestantism.

Where, then, will we find the white evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump? Most will be found within the traditional Evangelical Protestant denominations, but you'll also find them among Mainline Protestants. And there may be even a few Catholics, Eastern-Orthodox, and Mormons who might self-identify as evangelicals. Finally, there are a number of multi-ethnic congregations that are supposedly "white" Evangelical Protestant churches, and there are plenty of Black Protestant congregations that attract their share of white evangelicals.

In short, who "counts" as a white evangelical is hardly straightforward, suggesting that although there's little doubt that conservative Protestants voted overwhelmingly for Trump, we should take the 81% stat with a grain of salt.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump? (Part I)

Over the last 4 years, I've been puzzled, no, disturbed, no, appalled, by why so many Christians support, and a handful seem to worship, Donald Trump. His presidency will almost certainly be remembered as one of the most corrupt in American history, but a wide-swath of Christians, and in particular evangelical Christians, seem fine with excusing away his many sins. What sins? Consider the following litany by my colleague, B.J. Strawser, an Air Force veteran and philosophy professor, explaining why he would vote for Biden (and not Trump) in this year's election (all of which he posted on Facebook on November 2nd):
  • Biden 2020: He understands and respects our military profession. (He won't pardon convicted war criminals.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a kind and empathetic human being. (He won't mock disabled people.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't defraud charities.)
  • Biden 2020: He will not tolerate hatred and bigotry from his staff. (He won't have an unrepentant White Nationalist as a senior advisor.)
  • Biden 2020: He will fight for both needed, proper police reform and the countless good men & women who serve in our police departments. (He won't encourage police mistreatment of detainees.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects women. (He won't brag about committing sexual assault.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects the American sacred ideal of peaceful protest. (He won't tear gas peaceful protestors so he can pose for a shameful photo-op.)
  • Biden 2020: He will tell us the truth. (He won’t promote dangerous QAnon conspiracy theories.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect our military; as the father of a soldier can. (He won't disrespect our military, war heroes, veterans, & former POWs.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be dignified and represent us respectfully on the world stage. (He won't be an international embarrassment... that is, he won't suck up to Putin while disavowing our own IC. Sorry, this one really sticks in my craw.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect the press, even when they represent him in a way he doesn't like. (He won't call the free press the 'Enemy of the People.')
  • Biden 2020: He will act like an adult. (He won't call people names when someone hurts his feelings.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be financially transparent, and has already released the past 22 years of taxes. (He won't refuse to release his taxes.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect all citizens as equal peers, no matter race, creed, or color. (He won't tell brown-skinned Congresswomen to "Go Back" to where they came from.)
  • Biden 2020: He will respect and heed our nation's intelligence experts. (He won't throw our nation's intelligence community under the bus.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't run ads calling for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't separate migrant families and put kids in cages.)
  • Biden 2020: He is a decent human being. (He won't prostitute porn stars & then keep them quiet with hush money.)
  • Biden 2020: He respects the rule of law and spirit of the power of the pardon. (He won't pardon a man convicted of lying to cover up his own crimes.)
  • Biden 2020: He will be a calm, reassuring leader in this impossible time. (He won't incite violence against his fellow citizens.)
  • Biden 2020: He will listen to the scientists. (He won't reject science.)
  • Biden 2020: He will take responsibility. (He won't say the buck stops elsewhere.)
  • Biden 2020: He will win honorably. (He won’t lie about supposed voter fraud in a craven plan to throw out legitimate votes.)
What is stunning is that many of the same Christians who blindly support Trump in spite of his many sins, targeted Bill Clinton for his moral failings. Consider, for example, what William Bennett, currently one of Trump's biggest supporters, said about Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal:
It is said that private character has virtually no impact on governing character,” but the truth of the matter is that “a president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct … cannot be a good president.” (William Bennett, "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals")

Clearly, in Mr. Bennett's mind, character is no longer a relevant criterion for being President, at least not if they're a Republican. Consider also the Southern Baptist Convention's 1998 Resolution On Moral Character Of Public Officials

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge all citizens, including those who serve in public office, to submit themselves respectfully to governing authorities and to the rule of law; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge Southern Baptists and other Christians to fulfill their spiritual duty to pray regularly for the leaders of our nation (1 Timothy 2:1-4); and

Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.
It appears that such resolutions only apply to Democratic Presidents.

Aside from the possible harm Trump has caused to American democracy and how for political reasons he exploited the partisan divide rather than heal it, I'm also concerned what damage he's wrought on Christianity. Or rather, the damage that the support of theologically conservative Protestants for Trump has wrought on Christianity

Robert Jones, a former professor and now head of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), has argued that long before Trump's election, the attitudes of younger Americans toward Christianity were becoming increasingly negative and pushing them toward other faith traditions. He notes "that the top three attributes young Americans associated with 'present day Christianity' were being antigay (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent)" (Jones, "The End of White Christian America," pp. 131-132). In short, as David Kinnaman, the President of the evangelical polling firm, the Barna Group, has put it, "Christianity has an image problem" (quoted in Jones, p. 132).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Christianity's image problem has only become worse during the Trump presidency (e.g., see the book, "The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity," ed. by Ronald Sider). Thus, while evangelical Christians may have scored short-term gains (e.g., Supreme Court appointments) by supporting Trump, the long-term damage they have inflicted on Christianity could take several generations to fix.

My plan over the next series of posts is to consider various explanations for why so many theologically-conservative, (predominantly) White Christians supported and continue to support Trump. Some of the causes are demographic. Some are economic. Some reflect pragmatic choices made by Christians who can't stand Trump but see him as a vehicle for pursuing certain policies. Party affiliation also plays a role. But those explanations don't account for everything. There are some who see him as God's anointed agent and come close to worshipping Trump as if he's the Messiah (which, of course, means "anointed one").

I make no promises on how quickly I'll turn these posts out. But I will get them out eventually.