Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Religious Right Turns 33: What Have We Learned?

Jonathan Merritt writes an embarassingly wrong op-ed in The Atlantic:  The Religious Right Turns 33:  What Have We Learned? (June 8th, 2012).  In it, he attacks the Religious Right, arguing that the movement into politics of Evangelicals and the Religious Right has diminished interest in Christianity.

Economics has special ways of dealing with time-series theses like "The Christian Right got into politics, and their share of the population went down.  Therefore, it must have been because of the politics."  On its own, this has little empirical content:  post hoc ergo propter hoc.  But a good analysis can be convincing by showing parallel data.  We can examine other religions that didn't get into politics (or didn't change their relative immersion into politics), or look at factions of Christianity that went into politics more.

In other words, we can say "if that thesis is true, then it has testable implications."  Corrections offers two testable implications:

  • Other branches of Christianity haven't gone into politics as much as Evangelicals:  therefore, Evangelicals should be suffering the most.
  • Judaism, a religion strongly tied to the left for more than a century, has not changed its political position very much.  Therefore, it should be untouched by the last twenty years.
Obviously these aren't the only stories one can tell: Corrections is glad to entertain other testable hypotheses of Merritt's otherwise empty theory.  First, we use the Statistical Abstract of the United States to depict the proportions of different religions with a logarithmic scale (otherwise, Evangelicals, Muslims, and Jewish proportions are too small to distinguish) (click to enlarge).
One can see that Christianity and Judaism have declined while Athiests, Muhammadans, and Evangelicals have seen an increase in their proportions.  It would be easier to compare them all to their 1990 proportion, to see the change (click to enlarge):

This figure tells our whole story:  if being political has hurt Christians, then why has Judaism, which hasn't changed its political orientation seen a larger fall, while the subset of Evangelicals in Christianity seen the largest rise?  

As a note, it is true one can begin to tell stories (ex:  Evangelicals rose by draining other Christians while the rest left, Judaism has its own thing going on, etc.) to make sure Merritt's claim is devoid of testable hypotheses.  Such a tack would ironically and safely bring one's own politics into a religious (non-testable) sphere.

1 comment:

  1. More likely is the fact that Merritt's thinking reflected a commonly recognized source of error - you see what you look for. Merritt sees the world through a political prism and consequently looks to correlate the rise or fall of various groups with the independent variable important to him - politics over time. There are of course myriad other ways one could have looked at the rise or fall of Christianity - whether changes in income had more predictive power or perhaps age or region of the country. The data produced by corrections nicely depicts the fact that the Evangelicals - the group Merritt would doubtless have expected to be most adversely affected were, if his framework was correct, benefitted from their political involvement.

    To return to the issue of you see what you look for. Merritt is from the very reasoning he took likely not a strong believer to begin with. As such he may be forgiven for missing the point that for very strong believers their inner faith life is utterly dominant and outward expressions like politics really pall to insignificance. Consider the logic of the situation. If one genuinely believes in heaven and hell, in the concept that your behavioral, thought and belief choices control the difference between an eternity of pain or an eternity of rapture, fullness and fulfillment things like the politics of the moment really do not matter a whole lot. For people like Merritt, politics is all they have in their lives so it seems dominant but if you are truly a believer then your life on earth as a whole, let alone something as petty as politics, is really quite small. This is especially true in religions that demand much on ones focus, have stringent requirements on conduct and typically are associated with a strong group identity and affiliation. Indeed for at least some of these groups, the only reasons to become political at all came from the experience of having seculars force their values on the religious out of the sheer arrogance, busybody-politics, and control of the public school system that seculars enjoy and on the specific rather obvious issue that if one believes, genuinely believes, that each life has an eternal soul from the moment of birth than abortion is murder and as such is a fundamentally bad thing. In that situation while the religious may want to just focus their lives on their own religious observance, the fact of a travesty like abortion forces them to speak out.

    As a final comment on this - the Protestants in particularly are inherently individualistic and as such schismatic. Indeed this is why they became Protestants in the beginning. Left alone, Protestants, especially fundamentalist Protestants are in general quite apolitical as their minds are on more important issues of faith. The emergence of the religious right stems from the fascinating phenomenon of leftist who were completely blind to anything in life other than the political domain poking a stick into the quiet Protestant hornets nest then loudly complaining when the bees eventually emerged to sting them.