Pundits who have heralded the rise of evangelical, red-state, "values" voters may awake one morning to find a large chunk of those voters missingand not because the pundits were left behind.
Analysts who say they can predict voting patterns simply by knowing where people stand on "God, guns, and gays" will discover their stereotype is badly overdrawn. Contemporary wisdom overestimates the evangelical bloc by assuming much too strong a link between what people say they believe and what they do. Neither fervent belief in God nor biblical literalism automatically translates into moral or political conservatism.
For the past two years, I've been interviewing people who sell in Indiana's flea markets. Most of the flea market dealers have a deep, unshakeable belief in God. The dealers are also biblical literalists, if by that we mean that they believe Adam and Eve were historical figures and that Jesus was born of a virgin and raised bodily from the dead. But they don't refer to themselves as born again, are ambivalent about both gay marriage and abortion, and distrust churches almost as much as they distrust government and big business. They are no more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. Only one in six claims the label "liberal" or "conservative"; even fewer express a party preference.
Flea market dealers are a relatively small group, but they offer a window onto a much larger cross-section of Bible believers whose ideas are not forged in, or nurtured by, the traditional institutions of evangelicalism. A closer look at the dealers helps us see how institutions like churches, media, and nonprofit organizations link people's ideas to social actions.
My flea market research occurred at the crossing of two distinct paths in my life. On one path, I have spent my entire career studying the institutional effects of religious and political culture, writing books on Southern Baptist politics, faith-based welfare reform, and the public role of urban religion. On the other path, I'm well recognized at flea markets across Indiana, especially the two huge ones that surround the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association championships in Friendship, Indiana. I've attended these events for 20 years. I am nearly too humble to mention that I am a nine-time NMLRA champion in knife and tomahawk throwing.
In my academic life, I became interested in the large gap between the 50 to 60 percent of Americans who are affiliated with congregations and the 85 to 90 percent who say they believe in God. Some have suggested that religious individualism accounts for the roughly one-third of Americans, approximately 100 million people, who believe but do not participate. These folks are sometimes characterized as adherents of New Age movements or Eastern religions or some eclectic combination of their own making. Some of these 100 million are so inclined, no doubt, but I knew most of my flea market friends considered themselves to be traditional, Bible-believing Christians who simply do not like church. Yes, they work on Sundays, but they do not miss church because they work. Rather, they work on Sundays because they steer clear of institutions that assign priority to 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Monday through Friday or 11:00 A.M. on Sunday.
I have had many informal conversations about these issues, but a generous grant from the Louisville Institute allowed me to design, record, and transcribe formal interviews. Although many of the dealers are distrustful of nosy strangers, I have long-time friends who introduced me around. And I paid $20 for a 45-minute session, which greased the skids. With a few exceptions, I interviewed people who (a) work for themselves in the markets and (b) attend worship less than twice per year. This kept my focus on people who have little connection to organized business or religionself-made, self-professed individualists.
Miracles and Wonders
The depth of their religious belief was stronger than I expected. Out of 60 interviews, only 2 people told me they did not believe in God. But the real proof was the number of people who recounted detailed stories of miracles performed on their behalf. There were many tales of recovery from serious illnesses or supernatural good luck in automobile accidents, but beyond those were incidents that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
One older gentleman described how depressed he was after his wife's death. He was visited in a dream by a white-haired, white-bearded, white-robed stranger who led him to a mansion where he was comforted by his wife. When he awoke, his depression was gone, and he began the process of recovery. But there's more: The same angelic stranger had appeared to him in dreams twice before, once when he was a young soldier in Korea on the verge of nervous breakdown and once just before his first son was born. Both times he was calmed and restored.
Another fellow had two supernatural stories, one in which he was miraculously saved while being crushed during a crane accident and another in which his friend's departed spirit visited him in the form of an eagle while he was fishing. He was certain the eagle spoke to him, letting him know his friend was in heaven.
I have known the two men who told these stories for more than 20 years. There is no chance they were pulling my leg. They were describing what they interpreted as acts of divine intervention on their behalves. Whatever really happened with the white-robed angel or the eagle, my respondents experienced the events as instances where God was willing and able to act in their lives.
This is not some generic belief in a vague concept of God. My flea market subjects believe in the God of the Bible. In fact, the large majority of them believe the Bible is God's word-for-word revelation. More than 50 of my 60 respondents said Adam and Eve were real people who lived in a real garden, and more than 50 confirmed that Jesus was born of a virgin and raised bodily from the dead. They told me their grandparents and parents believed these things, so they did, too.
And why not? Evolution, as they understand it, seems much less plausible than creation. As I heard over and over, "We had to come from somewhere. You can't tell me something as beautiful and complicated as this world just happened." As for the Resurrection, if God the Father could take care of them in their trials, surely he could raise his own Son.
The dealers are believers and literalists, but are they conservative evangelicals? I think not. Only a handful of my interviewees could name their favorite Bible stories. When asked directly, "Do you read the Bible regularly?" fewer than ten said they did. It appears that my flea market respondents "believe" the Bible in a general sensethey think believing it is the right thing to dobut they do not know much about what is in it, because they neither read it nor pay much attention to others who do.
When I asked whether their religious beliefs shaped their economic and political actions, most assured me they did. But when I asked how, their answers were, again, vague: They treat others fairly, do not lie or steal, and are as kind and generous as practically possible. Virtually no one drew a direct connection between religious beliefs and specific obligations. Most importantly, they do not feel the obligation to attend church. They say they can experience God in nature, in their cars, or even right where they sit at the flea market. Not only do they not read the Bibledespite its literal truthbut they are also wholly unfamiliar with biblically based media. Very few could name a single television preacher other than Billy Graham. Exactly 3 out of 60 told me they had read any of the bestselling books by Rick Warren or LaHaye and Jenkins. By contrast, I imagine nearly every person reading this essay immediately grasped my Left Behind reference in the first sentence.
When I asked whether they considered themselves "born again," only a dozen said they did. While most would say they have a personal relationship with Jesus, they are uncomfortable with the born-again label because they are not part of the born-again culture. I doubt very seriously that many of my respondents would recognize "The Romans Road" (in which verses from the Book of Romans outline the plan of salvation); I wish I had thought to ask. In my recent Hartford Seminary course, "Flea Market Jesus," an evangelical student requested that we not refer to the dealers as "biblical conservatives." He acknowledged their literalism, but wanted to reserve the term conservative for those who sought to study the texts constructively and to shape their lives accordingly. He was right; I now use believer and literalist separately from conservative.
This distinction makes the dealers' political and economic beliefs easier to understand. They are about evenly split on the controversial questions of abortion and gay marriage; few expressed very strong opinions, usually guarding their responses with statements like, "Of course, I can't tell somebody else what to do."
For the most part, their attitude toward government is much like their attitude toward churches: It is not something they do, but something done to them. They say churches are full of hypocrites who want to impose rules on them and take their money for more big buildings. They think government is full of self-serving bureaucrats in cahoots with big business. They believe the rich avoid paying taxes while the little guy foots the bill.
Just as they are Bible-believers in principle, so are they patriotic Americans and hard-working capitalists in principle. They believe in these ideals, but they think the rich and powerful subvert them to their own ends. And on this score, Republicans fare no better than Democrats. True, Democrats have been linked in the public imagination with an East Coast, academic liberalism of big government, but Republicans are equally linked to Big Oil, which appears to be benefiting from a war whose geopolitical logic is complex. The dealers are populists. They may respond positively to some of the cultural populism currently embraced by the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, but they are much more in the mold of William Jennings Bryan, who was as concerned about the gold standard as he was the teaching of evolution. The older of my respondents are probably the last Americans left who admit to having voted for Ross Perot.
Without the institutional connections provided by churches and media, these biblical literalists do not become red-state Republicans. Many evangelicals probably would not even consider them Christians, because they cannot pinpoint the time of their profession of faith and do not study the Bible as their guide. Their religious beliefs are not the foundation for their other views, but are mixed with folklore of what I have called "the myth of the common man."
Is this merely an anomaly limited to several thousand flea market dealers? I think not. According to the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), 17 percent of Americans say they never attend worship, with another 7 percent saying they attend less than once per year. So approximately one-fourth of Americans, roughly 75 million people, effectively do not participate at all. Among these who do not attend, 13 percent say the Bible "is the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally." This group of people who do not attend yet also take the Bible literally constitutes 10 million people, a number larger than the United Methodist Church. Add in people who say they attend less than once per month, and the number nearly triples. Add in those who take the weaker view that the Bible is the "inspired Word of God," and it grows even more.
Who are these literalist non-attenders? The intertwined trails of money and education point toward the answer. The GSS reports that roughly half of those who have family incomes of less than $10,000 per year believe the Bible is God's literal Word, a percentage that goes steadily down as income goes up. Correspondingly, almost 60 percent of those with less than a high school education take the Bible literally, a percentage that goes down even more rapidly as education increasesonly 10 percent of those holding graduate degrees would say the same.
Few will be surprised to hear that the poorest and least-educated Americans are the most likely to be biblical literalists, but they might be surprised to learn that these Americans are also the most likely to be unchurched. Among all income groups, those making less than $10,000 per year are the most likely to say they never attend worship. I believe they are also unlikely to be influenced by religious magazines, television, or lobbying groups. They believe deeply in God and accept the Bible literally, but those ideals are less tightly moored to economic, political, educational, or familial commitments than they are for the middle class.
Dormant or Different?
As an academic, I am trained to be cautious in my generalizations. Still, the distinction between evangelical conservatives and self-identified Bible believers outside evangelical culture has clear implications for church leaders, researchers, journalists, and politicians.
It would be natural for church leaders to assume that unchurched believers are ripe for harvest since they already share some underlying ideas. But I doubt many of these people are seekers. They are not unchurched because no one ever invited them to church, but because they have negative impressions of churchesalongside other institutions. All the contemporary worship styles and non-traditional worship spaces in the world cannot fix that. Churches might start by asking themselves whether anything they do systematically excludes this group, but even that strategy is likely to have limited success.
Researchers must be precise about the designation evangelical. People's stated beliefs must be linked to the institutional channels from which they get their information and through which they act, or slippery conclusions will follow. Brad Wilcox's Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands offers an excellent example of research that embraces this distinction. In a 2004 Christianity Today interview, Wilcox said, "I find that some of the worst fathers and husbands are men who are nominal evangelicals. These are men who have, say, a Southern Baptist affiliation, but who rarely darken the door of a church. They have, for instance, the highest rates of domestic violence of any group in the United States. They also have high divorce rates. But evangelical and mainline Protestant men who attend church regularly are significantly more involved with their families."
Pollster George Barna, on the other hand, explicitly does not include church attendance or familiarity with religious media in his definition of evangelical, choosing to focus instead on seven core beliefs in addition to the two he uses to define born again. His methods are defensible and circumspect. Rather than overestimating evangelicals, he limits the definition so severely that most people would not recognize it. Only 9 percent of Americans14 to 16 million adultsfall into his evangelical camp, compared to the 39 percent he regards as "notional Christians."
Barna recognizes that self-identification is a problem: What if you and I mean different things when we say "born again" or "evangelical"? But by focusing on core beliefs, he misses the ways that character, and thus social action, is shaped by a common culture grounded in shared institutions. Even Barna's substantial research on the number of unchurched Americans focuses on what they believe rather than on what they do.
Journalists must also be cautious, especially when drawing implications from the big numbers. In March 2005, The American Prospect noted that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) represented a membership of 30 million to 40 million. In the same article, the NAE's own document, For the Health of the Nation, claimed that evangelicals constituted one-fourth of all voters, a far cry from Barna's 9 percent estimate. Striking an alarmist chord, The American Prospect warned that "the evangelical political movement is just getting started" because only half of those evangelicals currently vote, which is precisely why the NAE is trying to mobilize them.
But what if they will not mobilize, at least not as evangelicals? This is not a definitional or statistical quibble about who gets called what or how they are counted. If evangelical is understood not as a set of beliefs but as a lifestyle that links ideas to institutions to actions, then perhaps the other half of those 30 million to 40 million people are not simply dormant; they are fundamentally different.
The most immediate lesson is for politicians and their advisors: Republicans should not assume they have all Bible-believers locked up, and Democrats should not count them a lost cause. The millions of believers outside of conservative evangelical culture have very different motivations and are more concerned about systemic advantages for powerful elites than about moral issues like abortion or homosexuality. They may gravitate toward Republican cultural populism, but they can be swayed by those who promise to challenge the system.
How much difference could they really make? It is hard to say, because this group, by its very nature, would be difficult to mobilize. These folks have few investments in the everyday institutions of church, school, work, and family. Their lives are designed to stay outside those boundaries. But in any tightly contested race, this group is big enough to mean the difference, at least in the short run.
Analysts of all types need to distinguish between Bible-believers who participate in evangelical culture through its many institutional forms and those who do not. Or as one of those groups, but not the other, might put it: They need to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Arthur E. Farnsley II is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. His most recent book is Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion (Indiana University).
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Farnsley directs the research component of the Project on Religion and Urban Culture at the Polis Center.
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