Are evangelicals too closely associated with the culture of conservative politics? I was really challenged by this question after reading Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. The book explains how Americans have clustered and isolated themselves geographically and socially by political affiliation. Liberals live and socialize with liberals and conservatives live and socialize with other conservatives. We no longer mix. To my surprise, Bishop expands the discussion by reporting that evangelicalism is now a place where being a Christian and a registered Republican are synonyms for Christian orthodoxy.
Bishop frames the narrative this way: Beginning in the 1970s Americans sorted themselves into neighborhoods and social networks with those sharing similar political views. The conservatives moved to the suburbs and the liberals stayed closer to the city. This sorting also determined the growth of suburban evangelical churches on the principle that "like attracts like." According to Bishop, the "real white flight" of the past two generations was not simply racial but ideological, which created communities and neighborhoods that were more or less either Republican or Democratic. It became more and more the norm by the 1980s for neighbors to share similar political agendas and perspectives. Using voting data, Bishop demonstrates that these neighborhood-based trends hold true today as well.
The "big sort," as Bishop describes in Chapter 7, resulted in evangelicals becoming more and more associated with Republican politics, especially upper income Christians, rather than distinct theological positions. As evangelical churches were planted in the suburbs, combined with rise of megachurches, it's not too surprising that in the past two generations the Republican Party has experienced its largest growth among middle- and upper-class suburban Americans. In 1960, 60 percent of evangelicals identified themselves as Democrats, but by 1988 that number was down to 40 percent. What happened?
Bishop suggests that churches today promote themselves as socially and politically tribal. That is, "You'll like this church. There are people like you already there." Churches are safe spaces to have one's personal social and political values affirmed.
Bishop isn't the only one asking questions about whether or not conservative politics too closely defines Christian orthodoxy. Here are a few other books that have been recommended to me:
- The Rapture of Politics: The Christian Right as the United States Approaches the Year 2000, by Steve Bruce, et al.
- White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, by Alan Lichtman.
- Right Face: Organizing the American Conservative Movement, 1945-65, by Niels Bjerre-Poulson.
- Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr.
- Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism, by Angela Lahr.
These books raise interesting questions for me. For example: Does the conflation of faith and politics explain why evangelicalism's 20-somethings seem bitter to some? Is it possible that evangelicalism's children born in the 1980s and '90s don't know how to be a Christian without being a Republican? If you can be a pro-choice Republican, can you be an anti-abortion Democrat and still be a faithful follow of Jesus Christ? Does being a Christian mean that one should limit one's social network and place of residence to communities dominated by Republicans and social conservatives? Moreover, does this explain, in part, why evangelicalism is so isolated from Christians in the black and Hispanic communities who are not Republicans? Has the GOP taken advantage of the "big sort" in the past? There are more questions to ask for sure, and I'm not certain what all the all answers are either, but it's clear that conservative social clustering is causing many to question whether or not evangelicalism seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ or to grow the GOP.