Evangelicals and Working-Class Politics

According to the popular stereotype, evangelical Christians want little to do with working-class politics.  Instead, we tend to imagine evangelicals as people who are either uninterested in politics or focused entirely on fighting the culture wars, rather than as people who care about issues like unemployment, inequality, and poverty.  If the stereotype were accurate, that would be bad news for people hoping for policy changes that would benefit working-class Americans.  Such changes only come about when the public puts pressure on governmental leaders, and evangelicals make up about one-third of the American public.

There are, however, good reasons to believe that this stereotype oversimplifies what is in fact a complicated topic.  I’d like to review a few of those reasons here, including a survey of evangelical clergy that I conducted last year in Stark County, Ohio.  Stark County, which is located near Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown in Northeastern Ohio, is home to about 380,000 people who are spread across a diverse collection of cities, suburbs, and rural hamlets.  For the better part of the 20th century, the three principal cities of Stark County—Canton, Massillon, and Alliance—were important manufacturing centers, particularly in steel and related heavy industries.  Over the course of the past several decades, however, Stark County has conformed to the postindustrial storyline of manufacturing job loss and deepening economic insecurity for the working class.  By 2008, 27.9 percent of families in Canton were living below the poverty line, a rate that is nearly three times the national average and also the highest among Ohio’s big cities.  In March of 2009, the Stark County job market drew national and even international attention when a whopping 835 people applied to fill a vacant custodial position at the Edison Junior High School in Perry Township.

Because Stark County voting patterns have resembled national ones for a long time, Stark has also earned a reputation as “a bellwether county in a bellwether state,” making it a magnet to campaigning politicians, as well as a better-than-average spot to check the pulse of American opinion with a survey.  Two hundred thirty-one clergy from the 553 congregations in Stark County filled out, at least in part, the questionnaire sent to them last year.  Along with conventional questions about theology, membership, and so on, the survey gave respondents an open-ended opportunity to identify what they considered to be “the most serious issue facing residents of Stark County today.”  The responses to that question don’t quite fit the stereotype.

Evangelical ministers are far more concerned with economic issues than prevailing stereotypes suggest.  Ninety of the Protestant churches that answered this final question self-identified as ‘born-again’ congregations—a very good indicator of evangelical belief.  Eighty-two of these churches were predominantly white, while eight were predominantly African-American.  Forty-two of the 90 ‘born-again’ churches listed an economic problem of some sort as the most serious issue facing Stark County residents.  Thirty out of these 42 identified the need for jobs as Stark County’s number one issue.  The remaining 12 churches identified poverty, food security, and child care, among other things.

Only 22 of the 90 born-again churches, however, identified a religious problem such as “absence of faith” or “spiritual complacency” as the most serious issue facing the county.  Six more identified traditional “culture wars” issues such as family breakdown and declining morality.  Together, these 28 answers accounted for only 31 percent of the total, which is far less than what stereotypes about evangelicals would predict.  In contrast, nearly 50 percent of the born-again churches—42 out of 90—placed an economic issue at the top of their list of concerns.  Others identified crime-related issues, such as drugs and violence, or miscellaneous public issues such as racial prejudice and highway repair.  A few responses were too ambiguous to categorize.

Examining these returns even more closely suggests important differences within the broad evangelical community, especially between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist clergy.  Though both embrace the core evangelical doctrines, fundamentalists tend to be more separatist, literalist, and less tolerant of doctrinal differences, even on secondary issues such as dress codes and alcohol consumption.  Of the 64 clergy that self-identified as ‘born-again’ but not ‘fundamentalist,’ 53 percent identified an economic issue as Stark County’s number one concern.  Meanwhile, only 31 percent of clergy that identified as both ‘born-again’ and ‘fundamentalist’ did so.  It is common for opinion surveys to uncover a divide of this sort between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist evangelical believers.  This divide is rooted in the complex history of American Protestantism, rather than in the core religious doctrines that all evangelical traditions share.

The Stark County data are illuminating for what they tell us about evangelical clergy, but they may not reflect the views of the ordinary believer in the pew.  For several decades, however, scholars have been tracking the opinions of ordinary evangelicals through surveys and polls.  Although these studies have added a lot to our knowledge of evangelical opinion, they have not demonstrated a clear link between evangelical belief and economic attitudes.  In fact, these studies are often inconsistent with one another.  Many of them—perhaps even a small majority—do indicate that evangelicals tend to be slightly more conservative on economic issues than non-evangelicals.  Others, however, find no significant difference between evangelical and non-evangelical attitudes toward the economy.  Some very good studies even show that evangelicals tend to be more liberal on economic issues than non-evangelical Americans.  And to complicate the picture even more, some studies show that evangelicals in other countries are more liberal than their fellow believers in America.

In any event, data from Stark County and elsewhere indicate that many evangelicals are alive to the importance of economic issues in contemporary America.  This fact is not enough to demonstrate that evangelicals will support specific policy proposals.  What these results do suggest, however, is that support may exist among evangelicals for economic ideas that depart from the conservative to moderately conservative American mainstream.  Making the most of these openings and building support for economic strategies that benefit working-class communities will, however, take political work.  Both evangelical and non-evangelical conservatives undertook this kind of work for more than a generation, and it turned out to be pivotal in delivering electoral victories to Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and in driving the Democratic Party to the right.

Today, however, more and more evangelicals are working to convince their fellow believers that struggling on behalf of decent living standards for all people is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian.  They are reinvigorating currents of evangelical protest that were once prominent in American life, as in the early labor movement and during the agrarian populist upsurge.  These evangelicals—many of them young people—have been inspired by prominent believers such as John Perkins, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, as well as the Scriptures themselves.  Already it is becoming evident that young evangelicals are more liberal on economic issues and less preoccupied with the culture wars than their parents and grandparents.  Because evangelicals account for such a large segment of the public, we should be encouraged by these developments.  They have the potential to affect the course of future economic policy in ways that benefit all working-class Americans, regardless of their religious background.

Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle is a Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at the City University of New York whose research interests include political economy, class, and religion.

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17 responses to “Evangelicals and Working-Class Politics

  1. Hello Mike,

    I recently published a nationwide empirical study that lends support to your work.

    “How Do Religious Groups Respond to Class and Inequality?: Religion, Socioeconomics, and Political Behavior in the 2000 Election”

    You can download the article at:

    http://lsj.sagepub.com/content/35/1.toc

    best regards,
    Roland

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  2. “Any effective strategy for uniting working Americans to challenge powerful corporate interests must place economic concerns above divisive social matters like abortion rights and gay marriage.”–RD

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to part company with you here. It’s exactly this type of “back of the bus” nonsense that can derail progressive struggles. Unless the “labor movement” (such as it is) are seen as reliable allies, then they will continue to be dismissed as purely “special interests” by tens of millions of working Americans.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

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  3. One reason why so many working class Americans have aligned with conservative politics is that progressives for many years focused heavily on social issues. Any effective strategy for uniting working Americans to challenge powerful corporate interests must place economic concerns above divisive social matters like abortion rights and gay marriage.

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  4. To organize well takes creativity and a willingness to step outside ones comfort zone and self definition. Many Evangelicals come from areas of historically high levels of union participation, e.g. Appalachia. A good union organizer would be aware of this history and how to relate it to the specific needs a of particular organizing campaign. Conservative Protestants may be uncomfortable with the aim of saving the environment. Put it in terms of saving Creation and you will get a positive response. I agree that the concept of gays rights is a difficult issue for the religious literalists. Well, then remove from a theological context. I would try to build agreement with fundamentalists around the fact that discrimination against these groups on the shop floor hurts families and undermines workplace solidarity. In all of this, I think we need some new thinking that gets us outside the box of who’s progressive and who’s not.

    The labor movement of the early years of the 19th century was stuck as long as it failed to see the benefits of organizing groups it felt were undesirable or impossible to work with. Let’s not turn away people based on our own preconceived notions.

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    • Thanks for the comments, Ben. I couldn’t agree more that organizers have to make their ideas and their narratives friendly to the people they are trying to reach. That’s true whether the aim is to reach evangelicals or any other segment of the population. In my view, a great deal of the right’s success over the past several decades can be attributed to its skill in crafting narratives that resonate with the people they are trying to reach. Over the same period of time, however, groups to the left of the center have been less willing or less able to do this. Here’s to hoping that will change.

      Mike

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  6. Well, Ben, I guess it depends on what you mean by “put aside our larger differences to work together to make some progress.” If you mean by that that in a united front effort on, say, raising the minimum wage we don’t make support for other issues preconditions to supporting a wage hike, I’d agree with you. If, on the other hand, “putting aside our larger differences” are simply code words for labor’s abandonment of lesbians, gays and women and their issues, I’m afraid I’d have to part company with you.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

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  7. Episcopalian here, too. I’m well aware of the havoc that conservative members of my faith wreak in the Anglican Communion. Significantly, in Philadelphia, it was the liberal Episcopal congregations that organized with Pentecostals and other fundamentalist churches to address working class issues. The key organizing on specific issues is to find areas of mutual self-interest. If we progressive Christians had said at the beginning to the fundamentalists that we can’t work with you because of your position on gays, then nothing would have been accomplished. What are the areas of mutual concern that hit the working class? There are a lot of them in these tough times. Let’s put aside our larger differences to work together to make some progress.

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  8. Evangelicals brought freshness to the political scene, then stumbled their way into positions unsupported by Biblical comprehension, or even plain old biscuits ‘n’ gravy conservatism that many claimed to espouse. Cal Thomas and Pastor Ed Dobson offer a critical insiders’ view of the Religious Right in “Blinded by Might”.

    One Cincinnati evangelical group with a statewide following and partisan ties supported so-called medical malpractice tort reform in copybook language that differed little from that of the Ohio State Medical Association, which sought to “overturn 1000 years of Anglo-Saxon tort law”, according to Youngstown (Ohio) attorney James Callen.

    Evangelicals with the stomach for it and the technical background may want to look at an American institution that’s been slowly undermining notions of work, employer, property, family, organized labor, and much more for eighty years. That institution is America’s group health insurance, which weighs in at somewhere around $3/4 trillion annually. If you’re not gasping for oxygen after examining insurance, if you’re not wondering what sort of distorting glasses everyone’s wearing—you haven’t dug deeply enough.

    Getting health care for sick people is a good thing. What if the means for doing that, the method of selecting patients, is deeply flawed?

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  9. I am both a committed Christian as well as a committed radical. However, I have little use for evangelicals, whatever their formal positions may be on some issues of interest to the working class. My Church (The Episcopal Church–TEC) has been laboring over the past few decades to undo the damage caused by the post-Sixties infestation of conservative evangelicals. These con-evos have tried (with some success so far) to split the Anglican Communion over the issues of welcoming women clergy and gay people in committed relationships. I don’t trust–or like–most evangelicals. I see no good reason that pro-working class radicals should trust them either.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

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  10. Pingback: Evangelicals and Working-Class Politics « Working-Class Perspectives | americantoday

  11. There is a resource source of justice literature in the Bible , especially in the books of the prophets. In local organizing in Philadelphia with the Industrial Areas Foundation evangelicals such as the Pentecostals played an active part in winning affordable owner occupied housing, community policing, job training, and neighborhood renewal. I agree that we need to get rid our preconceived notions about fundamentalists. There is a powerful and mobilizing cry for justice and reform to be found in the words of Jeremiah and other prophets.

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  12. This has been one of my specific research interests over the past several years. I am pleased to see that the Stark County data supports the notion that not all evangelicals toe the line of rigid, conservative economics.

    Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement are certainly a breath of fresh air. However, the roots of evangelical political engagement are rooted in the “Protestant Ethic” (Weber); there is an intensely capitalistic aspect to practical evangelical theology. We saw a resurgence of the Protestant Ethic in the 1980s with the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, etc.

    One of the aspects of this debate that I’ve written about is the fact that evangelical ecclessiology is essentially free-market. There is little ecclesiastical oversight: churches are primarily congregational in polity and “he who markets his church best, makes the most money”. Brian would recognize that this is quite contrary to the parish concept of Roman Catholicism.

    I recently wrote an essay applying Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” to our current economic situation. Incidentally, one of the peer reviewers insisted that I eliminate the word “evangelical” and replace it with “religious conservatives” so as not to portray evangelicals pejoratively. I was discouraged.

    Sider, Wallis, et al. are leading the way toward reforming evangelical economic orthodoxy, but the sad fact is that they are marginalized by the majority of evangelicals. Mention “Jim Wallis” to a faithful evangelical and you will be greeted with a gasp of suspicion. Nevertheless, I think all of us who hold moderate to left economic views or at the very least, those of us who support the labor cause, should applaud Wallis and Sojourners for attempting to bridge the gap.

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    • Thanks for the feedback, Joshua. A number of your points are right on, but you seem to be suggesting that our perspectives are at odds. As I read your comments, though, I think that your insights and my notions are consistent with one another rather than contradictory.

      Take, for example, your point that evangelical churches tend to be structured along free-market lines. That is an accurate and useful point, especially when evangelical churches are compared against non-evangelical Protestant traditions or Roman Catholicism. But I’m pretty skeptical that we can draw any solid conclusions about evangelical attitudes toward the economy from these institutional configurations. Time and again throughout American history, evangelicals have abandoned individualistic orientations toward social issues and joined movements that advocated collective action and collectivistic goals. This was true in the case of abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement, but it was also true of movements aiming to regulate property such as those seeking to ban alcohol and those seeking to uphold the Sabbath. That these last two movements seem dated to us now doesn’t change the fact that evangelical faith was, in those movements, reconciled with non-individualistic approaches to social problems.

      Moreover, an individualistic, free-market approach to congregational life is easily as prominent among African-American churches as it is among white ones. And yet African-American believers (the great majority of whom are evangelicals) consistently hold more progressive attitudes on economic issues than white believers. In other words, then, I think that the support for free-market policies that does exist among evangelicals is deeply rooted in American history and society. But it’s not rooted in the essential nature of evangelical religiosity, even though this support is often expressed through a religious idiom.

      Mike

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      • Thanks for your personal response to the post, Mike.

        I am in agreement with your assessment that evangelicals have historically abandoned individualistic orientations to join collective action toward social change: eventually. We may also observe that such transitions were often slow.

        I believe that part of the reason for the individualistic orientation is that evangelical theology is rooted in personal faith. For instance, the “born again” experience is a personal experience and to evangelicals, “salvation” is personal. In other traditions, religion itself is bound up in much more ritualistic and collective experience. It may be expressed in the values of charity or justice, with evangelicals and mainline churches emphasizing each respectively.

        This is certainly true for the African American churches, whose emphasis on community and cultural identity is much stronger. Many of the evangelical churches have suburbanized — commonality is found not in cultural identity (such as being an “Irish Catholic” or “Black Baptist”) but in a common personal spiritual experience, namely, the “born again” experience. I think you are correct that African American congregations, while essentially evangelical in their doctrinal positions, express much more socially-concerned sentiments; I would suggest that this is because their community identity effectively trumps dogmatic commitments.

        Nevertheless, it is good to see the lines blurring — in reality, the lines between evangelicals and mainline churches are not always as dichotomous as they appear to be.

        I appreciate the dialog! Perhaps we can collaborate on a more formal basis as well.

        Thanks,

        Joshua

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  14. Brian R Corbin

    Thanks for this reflection/analysis. As a Catholic, I am glad that we all share in a similar perspective regarding the needs of the unemployed.

    Jim Wallis is planning to visit Youngstown in May 2011. Hopefully that will engage the religious community to “Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

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