MRBlog | America’s Religion Problem



By Thomas J. Whitley

Emma Green’s interview of Michael Wear, the former director of Barack Obama’s faith-outreach efforts, for The Atlantic has many up in arms. Wear is, as Green put it, a “theologically conservative evangelical Christian.” As such he is a bit of an anomaly in the Democratic Party. It is precisely this positionality that Wear has drawn on in his new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. The experiences he told Green about weren’t especially surprising to me. And though they may not have been surprising to Wear either, he does see in them need for reform in the Democratic Party. He tells one story about another staffer not getting a reference he made in a report title to “the least of these” (Matthew 25.40). This is not at all surprising to me given that no matter how familiar such language might be to some of us, it is still insider language. Nor do I think it is evidence of some great failure of the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, as some may interpret it.

The criticism of Wear in the aftermath of the interview, as I saw it in my timeline, was focused on three issues: his call for Democrats to do more to reach out to white evangelicals, his seeming dismissal of people of color, and his apparently calling white Christians in the Democratic Party “cultural Christians.” He clarified the last point later on Twitter and the second criticism is largely a result of the focus of the interview: white evangelicals.

And therein lies part of the problem.

You see, there are two beliefs that have taken hold in American public discourse that are both false and yet seemingly will not die. The first is that Democrats have a religion problem because they do not focus more of their outreach efforts on white evangelicals. This belief is unquestioningly accepted and repeated regularly by many in the media and politics and has enjoyed a prominent place in many of the pieces professing to explain why Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. But this belief is only able to survive because of the persistence of a much larger, yet much less conspicuous belief about what counts as “religion” in America.

America’s religion problem is that the default understanding of “religion” in America is white and conservative.

The real religion problem in America is not that white evangelicals are treated with disdain by some on the left (though they are) or that liberal Christians are treated with disdain by some on the right (though they certainly are too). Rather, America’s religion problem is that the default understanding of “religion” in America is white and conservative. The result is that everyone else’s religion is dismissed, ignored, or rejected as inauthentic. Take this exchange from the interview as an example:

Wear: The Democratic Party is effectively broken up into three even thirds right now: religiously unaffiliated people, white Christians who are cultural Christians, and then people of color who are religious.

Green: And religious minorities.

Wear: Well, right, but because of their numbers — I’m speaking in general terms.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Wear of ignoring everyone that’s not a white evangelical, but this part of his interview prompted such heated criticism for a reason. Wear’s point is these three “legs” of the stool that is the Democratic Party sit rather uneasily together at times and that from a sheer numbers standpoint, it does not make sense to ignore white evangelicals and white Catholics. But I think Wear’s point here actually offers a window into this larger problem.

For only when the default understanding of “religion” in America is white and conservative can a Party that is made up of religiously unaffiliated people (one of the fastest growing “religious” demographics in the country); white liberal Christians; religious people of color; and the vast majority of American Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other religious minorities still be understood to have a religion problem. Yet The Atlantic‘s editors titled the interview, “Democrats Have a Religion Problem.” The religiously unaffiliated (or “nones”) now make up 23% of the U.S. adult population. Compare this to evangelical Protestants at 25% and Catholics at 21% and there is no clear justification for why white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics should be more important groups for a Party to reach out to based purely on numbers.

The picture becomes a little clearer though when you look at the religious makeup of the Congress that was just sworn in. While the religiously unaffiliated account for 23% of the U.S. adult population, they account for only 0.2% of Congress (Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona). Protestants, on the other hand, are overrepresented in Congress, accounting for 56% of Congress, but just 48% of U.S. adults. Catholics are similarly overrepresented, accounting for 31% of congress, but only 21% of U.S. adults. Likewise, only 9% of senators and 22% of representatives are non-white; the U.S. is 38% non-white. Is it so surprising then that the narrative about which religious identities deserve most of our attention will not go away?

Many in the media and politics have accepted the public transcript that (real) “religion” in America is white, conservative, and Republican. This is why, for instance, rumors still persist that Barack Obama canceled the National Day of Prayer and why his relationship with Jeremiah Wright (from whom he distanced himself) was more damaging to him than Donald Trump’s relationship with Paula White (whom he has invited to pray at his inauguration) is to him. This is also why Hillary Clinton’s faith and her discussion of its role in her life was rarely acknowledged during the campaign. Yet, just because one’s religion is less overt and less theocratic does not make it any less important in her life and does not make it less worthy of coverage. In fact, the opposite may well be true. Scholars of American religion have moved past understanding religion in America as basically white and conservative, but their work often does not reach a mainstream audience and is rarely cited by reporters or strategists. Even a quick perusal of the new books published in American religious history in 2016 shows scholars of religion working on Afro-Creole spiritualism, Jewish American identity, the nones, sacred violence, satanism, Japanese American religion, evangelicalism, Buddhism, religion and science, the Southern Baptist Convention, the intersection of Islam and marketing, and black sacred music, just to name a dozen topics.

But this narrative is persistent. Consider that after the Republican and Democratic conventions last summer we were talking about a seeming role reversal in how the parties approached faith. Religion was largely absent from the Republican convention while it was a headliner at the Democratic convention. Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post that “the Republican Party has largely abandoned” talking about how “religious values should inform our public life.” The New Yorker proclaimed, “Tim Kaine Takes Back Faith for the Democrats.” Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II brought down the house with his sermon at the DNC. For a few short weeks in July, the Democrats were the party of religion, but this was always going to be short-lived. This was evident in how Vox covered the role of religion at the DNC: “The Democratic convention’s most surprising argument: Christianity is a liberal religion.” But of course this is only surprising if “religion” — and more specifically “Christianity” — in America is only ever understood as white and conservative. That many people believe Christianity is a liberal religion is only surprising if you don’t know or follow any women ministers (full disclosure: I am married to one) or feminist ministers or queer ministers or ministers of color or queer ministers of color. The list goes on.

There are a host of reasons why this narrative persists, not least of which are evangelicals’ religious and cultural evangelism and the lack of uniformity on the religious left (the latter may change under the Trump administration). But we cannot expect this narrative to be challenged in any meaningful way as long as one newspaper hiring one religion reporter is cause for celebration. Though a few more national outlets have added dedicated religion sections and reporters in the past year (including The Atlantic), on the whole traditional media has not adequately invested in their religion coverage either because they don’t think it is important or because they think that anyone can write about religion. The events of the past few years and coverage of these events tells a different story.

Wear’s criticism of the Democratic Party is legitimate, even if you ultimately disagree with him. And Green focusing her interview on the relationship between Democrats and white evangelicals is also legitimate. But the whole ordeal has only served to highlight the dearth of religion reporting in the local and national media and the lack of scholars of religion engaging with the public. It is these two factors that I think continue to contribute most meaningfully to the pervasiveness of this narrative.

Sure, we could use more politicians who speak the language of evangelicalism, but we could also use more politicians and members of the media who know the language of womanist and queer theology, liberal Muslims, and religious switching. Until more scholars of religion engage the public in their work and more news organizations, politicians, and government agencies hire experts in religion from different backgrounds, America’s religion problem will never get better.


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