Findings & Footnotes – July 2018

  • Political scientist Janelle S. Wong began writing her book Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change (Russell Sage Foundation, $24.95) firmly convinced that the rising tide of non-white and immigrant evangelicals was likely to reshape the evangelical political landscape, given the more liberal positions of these minority Christians on immigration and other social issues. The election of Donald Trump upended that thesis, showing the still enduring political effect of white evangelicals. Wong has reworked her book to now make the case that the white evangelical voting bloc is able to resist challenges posed by demographic changes. Both whites and evangelicals still carry strength in swing states where most political contests are determined, and they are more highly mobilized and organized than ethnic evangelicals. Wong argues that minority evangelicals and the organizations they may support, such as the fledgling group Public Faith, have a mixed agenda, supporting immigrant rights while remaining traditional on abortion and LGBT issues, which does not resonate with either Republican or Democratic parties or their ideological bases. She adds that there is little coordination or centralized leadership among Latino and Asian evangelical organizations and activists. It is also the case that minority evangelical politics are not all cut from the same cloth: Asian-American evangelicals are far more conservative than African-American evangelicals on social issues.

    Among the most interesting parts of the book are the qualitative interviews with members of white and minority evangelical congregations about the political messages they hear from the pulpit and from fellow members. They tend to report not hearing much political content in sermons while noting that political information tends to be shared informally (during discussions or Bible studies). Even in predominantly minority evangelical congregations, Wong did not find uniform views even on issues such as support for a path to citizenship (with some supporting a strict stance on immigration control). One of the book’s key findings, drawn from the 2016 Collaborative Multi-racial Post-Election Survey with 10,000 respondents (randomly selected from Internet voting and commercial mailing lists), was that white evangelicals feel they (and whites in general) are facing discrimination in American society—a view widely contested by minority evangelicals. Wong concludes that white evangelical political identity, combining fears of white endangerment with evangelical solidarity, will make minority evangelical influence limited for the near future.

  • “Post-secularism” has been viewed as a more confusing than clarifying way to refer to the return of religion in the public sphere even while it loses its authority in the same societies. But the new book Postsecular Catholicism (Oxford University Press, $29.95) uses the term more as a way to explain the current conflicts and changes the Church is going through especially under the leadership of Pope Francis as he tries to make faith relevant to modern societies. Sociologist Michele Dillon makes the case that the way Francis has sought to emphasize dialogue rather than confrontation with secular society meshes well with the ideas of philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, who have called on religious actors and institutions to “translate” their language on moral issues into secular terms while encouraging secularists to be more receptive to religious concerns and the contributions of religious actors. Dillon tends to view recent previous popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as limited in their commitment to “mutual self-critique” and “interpretive diversity,” while seeing Francis pointing clearly in this direction through his statements on poverty and the environment and official and unofficial comments and actions on internal church matters, including divorce and remarriage and sexuality and women’s rights (stopping short of women’s ordination).

    Dillon cites survey research suggesting that American Catholics embrace a similar form of moderate Catholicism as they question Church teachings on a host of issues while affirming basic teachings and viewing the Church and its sacraments as important in their lives. She also notes that these same Catholics may praise the pope but remain indifferent and uninformed about his social teachings, even while these are received more enthusiastically by non-Catholics (she does not mention immigration). She acknowledges the tensions and complications of this dialogical approach in that it could soft-pedal or dilute issues central to Catholic identity, such as the importance of the complementary roles of the sexes in Church and family life and its organizational freedom in the face of secularist challenges (such as dissenting on gay rights and contraceptive and abortion policies). Dillon thinks the Church has done better in translating its concerns about abortion to secular society than issues of sexuality and religious freedom, but is nevertheless convinced that the “cat is out of the bag” on many of these matters. Francis has unleashed expectations and institutional energies favoring a non-confrontational approach and recognizing secular realities that correspond to lay Catholic experiences (here Dillon does not differentiate much between active and inactive Catholics views). By the same token, she argues that the “post-secular turn means that the public relevance of religion cannot be denied and contemporary society must adjust to it.”

  • Marta Kolodziejska’s new book Online Catholic Communities (Routledge, $119.96) seeks to challenge the view that religious involvement on the Internet is detrimental to institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church while acknowledging that such technology does have democratizing and individualizing effects. Much of the debate that Kolodziejska chronicles at the beginning of this slim book (141 pages) is similar to that concerning secularization, with proponents arguing that religious authority is being weakened by modern forces such as technology and critics responding that such destabilizing influences may only change rather than secularize religion. Because the book focuses on Catholicism in Poland, where religious authority is still invested in the Catholic Church and its leaders, the researcher has a unique vantage point from which to examine and challenge these well-worn arguments. She studies the activities and discourses of online Polish Catholic forums that have emerged in the last decade, finding that context is important in determining if such technology undermines or reaffirms established communities and authorities. After a long windup introducing communications and sociological theory, Kolodziejska reports that these Internet forums show a definite turn to religious individualism but that the diverse views on these sites did not necessarily have negative effects on religiosity, such as undermining the convictions of the vast majority of users.

    Most participants valued these forums as a way to exchange knowledge and to receive and offer support to others. But on the Internet, those who are seen as authorities are “informal experts” who have demonstrated having the most knowledge (and posting the most); being a priest or nun doesn’t necessarily have much clout in this context. While some users did see their forum involvement as an alternative to Catholicism, most did not seek to replace their offline religious involvement with an online version. Kolodziejska concludes that online religious forums and offline religious institutions each supplemented rather than competed with each other—“the informal experts were the translators of (religious and other) knowledge…[but they] did not usually present themselves as more knowledgeable or competent than offline or top-down forms of authority….”