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