Three Americas? The Stakes of Symbolic Boundaries

We are used to thinking about cultural divisions in the United States in terms of two broad categories which form polar opposites (liberals and conservatives) with moderate Americans “in the middle.” This is the “culture wars” thesis, and many of those who have attacked James Davison Hunter’s original formulation of the thesis in his 1991 book of the same name nevertheless agree with the basic topography he proposed, arguing variously over terminology, the size of the poles versus the middle, or whether the divide is more generalized or issue-specific.

In new research forthcoming in The Sociological Quarterly, a team of us here at the University of Minnesota argue that there are important cultural divisions in the United States, and that they constitute meaningful symbolic boundaries. What does this mean? We argue that there are at least three groups of Americans that have different perceptions of what our society is like and different ideas about who “is like me” and “who is different” — both in everyday life and in our national political life. People in each group have a different understanding of what the United States is actually like — and also what they would like it to be like.

Using data from the 2014 wave of the American Mosaic Project, we find that:

Optimistic Pluralists are comfortable with diversity in general and believe that members of most racial, religious, and other out-groups are, essentially, similar to themselves — and that they are deserving of the same political rights and material resources.

Critics of Multiculturalism are less accepting, in general, of out-groups or people who are racially or religiously dissimilar to themselves. Nevertheless, they mostly desire to see people who are not like them enjoy the same civil liberties as they do, and are okay with policies that redress material inequality even for those they perceive as different.

Cultural Preservationists are willing to draw strong boundaries that exclude groups of people who they perceive as not sharing a particular Protestant Christian cultural heritage. White Cultural Preservationists also associate racial minorities with a range of social problems. All members of this group are more willing to deny civil liberties to those they perceive as different than are other Americans, and to be okay with policies that perpetuate material inequality.

These groups are, we argue, relatively stable at least in our contemporary era (the present analysis is a replication of one conducted earlier with 2003 data).

Why should we care about these cultural divisions? First of all, we think that our analysis points to two different cultural fault-lines that we need to understand better. The first is how Americans react to diversity in general are people comfortable with pluralism and a shifting political landscape in which a wider range of groups lobby very publicly for their interests, and identity-based movements forcefully bring questions about biases rooted in racial, sexual, religious, and gender differences into the public arena?

The second division we highlight is between those who want to preserve the cultural and material dominance of a particular kind of Christian cultural heritage, and those who do not. Over a quarter of our sample — about 28% — are cultural preservationists. And we argue that that percentage is high enough — and this group has been around long enough — to form a strong basis for contemporary expressions of Christian nationalism. It is not that everyone in this group is necessarily a strong supporter of Christian nationalism — but they are sympathetic with both the rhetoric and the specific policy recommendations of Christian nationalist movements and leaders. Nationalist and populist movements do not arise out of nowhere, and they do not thrive unless their message resonates with a fairly large group of citizens, a cultural base that is larger than the movement itself and its most ardent supporters.

Who is like me? Who is different? The answers to those questions, we argue, help people decide what kinds of material resources, civil liberties, and political representation others should have. The stakes of symbolic boundaries, we believe, are really quite high.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment in America

Very excited to announce that Social Problems has accepted our paper using American Mosaic Project data, collected here at the University of Minnesota, analyzing the sources and nature of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Building on recent work in critical race theory and a theoretical approach to national belonging that focuses on symbolic boundaries, we show that Muslim-Americans are excluded on religious, racial, and civic grounds simultaneously. Nearly half of Americans expressed anti-Muslim sentiment in responding to our survey (fielded in 2014) and we show that while social location is associated with negative views of Muslims (gender, education level), cultural factors matter more, especially an understanding of American identity rooted in a white, Christian cultural heritage and a de facto English Protestant civic culture.

This paper builds on our earlier project work using data from our 2003 survey. In an article published in 2008 in Social Problems, Eric Tranby and I found that those who value and want to preserve a white Christian cultural heritage were more willing than are other Americans to exclude a wider range of ethnic, religious, and other minorities. A team of project researchers has replicated this analysis with data from our 2014 survey and found that this applies not only to symbolic exclusion, but willingness to deny civil liberties to a range of minority groups. And in our research on anti-atheist sentiment we develop the symbolic boundaries framework that articulates the intersection of repertoires of beliefs about American identity and religiosity.

Taken together, this research helps us to understand the origins and resonance of Christian nationalist appeals in the public arena today. Such appeals resonate with a broad cultural understanding of the nature of American identity that goes beyond the confines of a conservative White evangelical subculture. This understanding excludes Muslims on multiple dimensions simultaneously, which helps to explain both the scope and durability of anti-Muslim sentiment and which reveals the intersection of religion, race, and understandings of citizenship and American identity that motivate much of conservative religious expression in the public arena today.

Why Christian Nationalist Discourse "Works" -- And for Whom

It is one of the great satisfactions of the career that I've chosen that I get to work with and mentor bright young scholars and see them develop their ideas and find their own voices.  It's particularly satisfying to then have a chance to work with them on research that matters.

Just last week, Jack Delehanty, Evan Stewart and I had a paper accepted for publication in Social Forces that highlights research we've conducted here at the University of Minnesota as part of the American Mosaic Project. Jack is the lead author.

In this paper, we tackle two questions at the heart of the larger AMP project, which focuses on how Americans think about and experience diversity, particularly religious and racial diversity, and with what social consequences.  First, we examine the question of which Americans favor and support Christian nationalist ideas -- both in terms of symbolic expressions of religion in public life, and in terms of institutional practices that favor Christian nationalist principles.  Second, we examine which Americans feel included when they hear Christian nationalist claims in the public arena, and which Americans feel excluded.

We often conflate Christian nationalism with White evangelicalism.  And this is not inaccurate; White evangelical leaders have historically upheld and promoted Christian nationalist views.  But research on the effects of White evangelicalism on our public life can't just focus on the evangelicals themselves, we argue. It must expand to focus on the question of which other Americans find Christian nationalist discourse compelling and resonant, and in what ways.

You can find a link to a .pdf version of the article here. The main takeaways:  It is not just White evangelicals who are sympathetic to Christian nationalist claims in the public arena -- Christians, in general, including those we might think of as moderate or even liberal, are sympathetic to symbolic expressions of Christian nationalism in American public life, and some of them support institutional practices that favor Christian nationalist positions.  Who is left out?  The non-religious and religious minorities, who do not support Christian nationalism or view it as legitimate in the public arena. 

This suggests that those who are hopeful that White evangelical Christian culture -- symbols, discourses -- can form a basis for a kind of inclusive civil religion are going to be disappointed.  Instead, Christian nationalism is divisive, in a landscape in which partisan alignment is already solidifying along both racial and religious lines.

Spirituality, Nostalgia, and "Is This All There Is?"

Most of the academics I know have a secret (or not so secret) yearning to be "a writer," and if you ask them what that means, over coffee or a glass of something stronger, they'll tell you that they'd like to have a chance to do a different kind of writing than that required for journal articles, scholarly books, or (dreaded) professional and administrative communications.  Something that allowed them to write more freely, directly, whimsically, creatively.

Last year I got a chance to do just that. I received one of the nicest invitations that I've gotten in a long time, from editors working on a special feature for The Immanent Frame, a blog sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. They were starting a new feature, and soliciting posts from a wide range of scholars on the very general theme of "Is This All There Is?".  The resulting collection of essays is fascinating and worth browsing through, featuring, above all, some truly excellent writing about spirituality, longing, activism, purpose, meaning, and (in some cases) religion.  

I had a lot of fun writing my post, "Announcing Your Place in the Family of Things," using the poetry of Mary Oliver - a favorite contemporary writer and thinker - to articulate an approach to engagement with the "really real" that rejects nostalgia and is open to connections with believers and skeptics, the ardently religious and the ardently secular.  

Stock photo, free for download at, accessed 4/3/18

Stock photo, free for download at, accessed 4/3/18

Check out the post, and check out "Wild Geese," the poem that inspired the post.  .  . Also check out the other fine work by the editors, Courtney Bender and Nancy Levene.

And for readers who might themselves be academic writers, consider seeking out opportunities to write in this kind of format. It's freeing, and it focuses your mind and fosters creative connections you wouldn't make in other formats.  



Religious Claims in the Public Sphere

Some Americans believe that being a good American means being religious; some believe you have to be Christian to be a good American, which is not a term they understand to encompass the broad array of Christian denominations but to denote a particular kind of contemporary evangelical Protestantism. The Americans who believe that are also likely to support prayer in public schools and prefer political leaders who are religious or who publicly defend and promote specific religious commitments.

In new research using data from the American Mosaic Project, Evan Stewart, Jack Delehanty and I show that attitudes toward public religious expression predict both general intolerance and prejudice toward specific religious minorities.

We find that Americans who understand a particular kind of (white, Protestant, evangelical) Christianity as essential for good citizenship, who want political leaders who share and defend their faith, and who are comfortable with religious discourse in the public realm are more likely to be generally intolerant, and to be prejudiced toward specific religious minority groups.  Our research found prejudice toward a wide range of groups, including atheists, the spiritual-but-not-religious, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. 

We did not find the same relationship between private religiosity -- one's own religious faith or identity -- and prejudice/intolerance.  This  makes sense -- as Jacqui Frost and I have argued elsewhere, religious identities do not automatically lead to a particular stand on a social or political issue.  Rather, social location interacts with religiosity to shape the links that people forge between particular faith identities or religious beliefs and how they view those from different backgrounds and how they think about social policy (our research focused on attitudes toward racial others and racial inequality).

There has been a meta-narrative in mainstream social science -- especially political science and sociology -- about increasing religious pluralism and tolerance in American life.  And those who favor a revival of civil religion, and who hold out hope that such a revival could ameliorate the political and cultural divisions that plague us, often draw on this meta-narrative.  That is, normative claims about civil religion fostering inclusion, like those developed by Phil Gorski, often depend upon empirical claims that overall in the United States religious commitments have not been dogmatic and religious expression has been tolerant -- increasingly so.  This is the claim of Robert Putnam in American Grace. 

The problem is that a body of evidence is piling up that suggests that while private religious commitments  may be generally tolerant and civil, religious claims-making in the public arena is associated with intolerance and prejudice against minority religious groups and the non-religious.  In other work (under review) with a team of graduate students here at Minnesota, I show that it is also associated with a willingness to tolerate material inequality and deny civil liberties to unpopular groups.  And other analyses with Jack Delahanty and Evan Stewart (under review) show that the non-religious and members of minority religious groups knows this, and read religious expression in the public arena as exclusionary. 

It is hard to see how, in such an environment, we can continue to embrace the meta-narrative of increasing religious tolerance without emphasizing the distinction between private religious faith and public religious claims and acknowledging the exclusionary nature of the latter.

The Civic-Minded Atheist? Well, in Fact, Yes.

Among the most common stereotypes of atheists is that they are selfish and immoral - not constrained by the same values and social connections as you and me, just in it for their own good.  More generally, Americans tend to view the non-religious with suspicion, and scholars, too, tend to worry about this group ("Do they not have meaning in their lives?") or to express concern about the social impact of their lack of religious commitment ("What about the important social benefits of religion? If churches decline, what institutions will draw people into civic engagement, or do outreach to the poor?").

New research with Jacqueline Frost at the University of Minnesota, forthcoming in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly and based on American Mosaic Project data, shows that everyone can heave a sigh of relief.

It turns out that atheists volunteer for community groups at the same rates as church-goers do, and they are just as likely to care about politics and community affairs.  That's right - atheists are just like church-goers on these measures.  I'm not a person who writes with a lot of italics and bold letters, but this cannot be over-emphasized -- the stereotypes of atheists are just flat-out wrong on this.

This research also shows that there's a great deal of variation among the non-religious in community involvement.  While atheists, agnostics, and the spiritual-but-not-religious all show some form of robust civic engagement, those who identify as "nothing in particular" are less likely to volunteer and express less interest in politics and community affairs.

This suggests that what matters for drawing people into community life is having a stable identity and value commitments, whether those are religious or secular.  Those in the "nothing in particular" category may be indifferent not only to religion, but to a range of other commitments. 

We end the paper with the usual call for more research, and in this case, I really hope others follow up on this.  We need to debunk these stereotypes and understand the mechanisms that foster community involvement, civic-mindedness, and political awareness.  We can no longer use religion as a "proxy" for being a good citizen, a good neighbor, or an involved community member. Our measures and our research have to evolve with the shifting religious/non-religious landscape.

Distinctiveness Reconsidered, or Writing About Religion from a Sociological Perspective

I've been fortunate to be involved now in two waves of the  American Mosaic Project here at the University of Minnesota, with my terrific colleagues Joe Gerteis and Doug Hartmann. Working with people who primarily research race, political culture, and solidarity has been generative for my own thinking, as has the opportunity to work with first-rate graduate students who approach the study of religion from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and empirical research interests.

Recently, I've realized that my work for this project, along with research with Kathy Hull on how Americans think and talk about social controversies, has led me to a broader insight about how sociologists understand the nature of religious commitment and the role it plays in everyday life. 

The short answer?  We often get it wrong, for two reasons.  First, we have tended to treat emic (insider) understandings of religious commitment as analytically sufficient.  Second, we have confused the way that members of particular groups understand and enact their religious commitments with the more general question of the role that religious commitment plays in the lives of a religiously and racially diverse population.  These two ways in which we get it wrong are related, and they stem from a tendency to focus too much of our analyses on the study of White Evangelical Protestants and to treat them empirically as a "bellweather group" and theoretically as inhabiting the ideal-typical form of religious commitment.  This approach has been critiqued elsewhere, and you can find a review of those critiques in my 2012 Annual Review of Sociology piece.

So if we often get it wrong, what does "getting it right" look like? What are the models out there for doing a different kind of sociology of religion?  In a recent series of publications using AMP data and working with graduate students in my department, I'm developing an argument about what it means to try to "get it right" when it comes to religion.

  • First, getting it right involves taking an explicitly intersectional approach to religious effects on social behavior and social attitudes.  In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion on religious effects on attitudes toward racial inequality, with Jacqueline Frost as the lead author, we show that race, gender, income, education, and age all have larger effects on racial attitudes than religion does.  We also show that religious effects on racial attitudes are dependent upon social location.  In a recent paper with Jacqueline Frost and Evan Stewart, we show that choices about non-religious identification -- the particular labels that people adopt and use -- are driven by social privilege, as less powerful social actors seek to insulate themselves from stigma and avoid the social costs of taking on a stigmatized identity.
  • Second, getting it right involves expanding our understanding of religious culture beyond a focus on individual religiosity, religious subculture, or religious tradition.  In two papers with Evan Stewart and Jack Delehanty, we show that it is not only, or even primarily, private religiosity that drives attitudes towards religious minority groups, or that determines whether members of non-religious or minority religious groups feel included in American civic life and public culture.  Instead, we find that it is attitudes toward public religious expression that matter -- attitudes that cannot be deduced from private religious beliefs and behaviors.  One paper on this is now forthcoming in The Sociological Quarterly, while another is under review. 

What these papers add up to is an argument that builds upon the work of other scholars like Mark Chaves and Melissa Wilde, who argue that we cannot any longer treat religion as a unitary identity and set of beliefs that has a straightforward effect on social attitudes in a way that is independent from social location.  

Instead we have to investigate how race and class and gender -- and in some cases, age and region -- fundamentally shape which religious (and non-religious) beliefs and symbols people find resonant, compelling, and relevant.  Moreover, we have to focus more on how religious elites engage in "coherence projects" -- attempts to tell individual religious persons how to "bundle" religious beliefs with stands on particular social and political issues.  Even for White Evangelicals, about whom it has been argued that they have a highly bounded and coherent subculture, it is race that drives political attitudes and affiliations. Moreover, what matters more than religious tradition is the centrality of religious belief to one's own identity and one's willingness to endorse the public expression of discourses and symbols that embrace a Protestant, white, Judeo-Christian heritage as a marker of cultural membership

Getting this right - being willing to step beyond an understanding of religion as a central aspect of identity, one that makes a person a part of a coherent and bounded subculture, one that has the same effect on all those who share a particular tradition - getting it right has real stakes. For one thing, not getting it right can lead us to unintentionally support and reproduce a central cultural underpinning of white supremacy -- one that views White, Protestant Americans as capable of the moral individualism required of good citizenship, while others (historically Jews and Catholics, now Blacks and Latino/as) are motivated "only" by interest or race.  For another, it can stymie attempts to come up with empirically valid measures of religiosity that are relevant for the whole population -- an essential element in survey work that seeks to be both valid and representative.  It can also get in the way of having meaningful dialogue with sociologists who study politics, national identity, and nationalist movements.

It is my hope that this work that we are doing here on the Mosaic project can serve as a resource for scholars who want to get it right, who are working on the links between religion and political identity, religion and social attitudes, and related topics.  New work on Christian Nationalism, for example, is only helpful if it gets beyond the straightforward assumption built into our analytical categories that religious action is always moral action.  What if, in the case of certain White Evangelicals, a language of religious moral action is embraced because white privilege allows it, or because it is more socially acceptable than claiming white privilege directly?  Not even being able to ask the question seems to me like a poor place to start.  And the inability to ask this and other tough questions is rooted, it seems to me, in a particular emic understanding of religiosity that takes the White Evangelical understanding of religion as its starting point.  

What would be different if we started instead with the primacy of one's structural location in a society with long-standing and historically persistent structures of inequality organized around race, gender, and class?

I'm hoping we do the work, collectively, to find out the answer to that question.

And This is how Feminism Dies in the Academy

Not from conservative attacks from the Right.  Not from evolution-from-within to a broader humanist or critical theoretical philosophy. But from people with real power, real influence, simply ignoring its claims.

Just this week I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that proceeded as though decades of scholarship on work and family and decades of feminist critique of masculinist workplace practices had never existed.  [Turns out, the author and the male faculty he interviewed are dismayed by the lack of "collegiality" of those who work at home or won't stay till 9 pm for evening activities. . . and yes, before you double-check your calendar, it's 2017.]

I said most of what I wanted to say about the Chronicle piece in my letter-to-the-editor, which they published online today.

What I was thinking about while driving in to the office was how often this happens in our scholarship, too.  In my own subfield, decades of feminist scholarship on religion is generally overlooked by the more influential scholars who do not cite it in their work or take its theoretical critique into account in formulating their own analytical approach. Everyone is happy the feminists are there, of course.  They congratulate themselves at the number of feminist and queer theoretical sessions on the conference program -- sessions they never go to, profiling books and articles they couldn't be bothered to read. 

How do we fix that problem? How do we create graduate training programs that don't segregate critical theoretical approaches into an "oh-by-the-way" ghetto?  How do we train journal editors to expect more of their reviewers, their most influential authors?  Because this granting of a small territory on the side (not the good ground, mind you, not the ground by the river, but highlands, where it's hard to grow things) -- it's not enough anymore.

There was no "evangelical" vote - Sociological Silence about Race in the Study of Religion

Recently, I've had two opportunities to write about the role of religion in mobilizing voters in the 2016 Presidential election. In an earlier blog post, I discussed a piece I wrote for The Society Pages on why reporters and other commentators tend to talk about "evangelical" or "Catholic" voters, missing the importance of race in shaping how religious beliefs and identities affect political behavior (voting, party membership) and attitudes towards social and political interests. 

Sociologists, too, have a disturbing tendency to ignore the "White" in "White Christian America," and have provided much of the research that informs how journalists and other commentators write and talk about religion and politics.  Schooled in Durkheim and Weber, sociologists focus on religion as an independent locus of identity and community, or look at how religious ideas and beliefs motivate social groups to act.  This is not wrong -- religion influences a variety of social behaviors and anchors meaningful identities for many in the late-modern world.  People draw on religious beliefs and symbols to make sense of their world, and doing so shapes understandings of social policy, community life, and political alignments.

But it is essential to move beyond thinking of religion as a set of beliefs or an aspect of identity that is divorced from race, gender, and social class.  Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the study of religion and politics.  Sociologists cannot afford to ignore the facts or twist the evidence.  To take the 2016 election as a case in point, sociologists of religion must lead the way in critiquing popular discourse about "the religious vote" or "the evangelical vote" and do our best to place front-and-center in public discourse the stark fact that it was White evangelicals and Catholics who supported Donald Trump.  Black and Latino evangelicals and Catholics did not, despite having the same concerns about abortion that motivate White religious conservatives (if not more so, in the case of religiously conservative Latinos).

It is very clear to anyone who is willing to take an honest look at the data that social location -- a person's race, her gender and social class -- shape how religious beliefs are interpreted and applied to social and political life.  In a forthcoming piece in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, authored with Jacqueline Frost, I show that attitudes toward racial equality can only be explained by understanding the intersection of religious belief and identity with race, gender, and other aspects of social location.  In a new editorial, just published in Sociology of Religion, I use the case of the coalition of support for Donald Trump in 2015-16 to argue more broadly for an intersectional approach to the study of religion.  In new work with Jack Delehanty and Evan Stewart, we develop an argument that it is a commitment to Christian nationalism that affects how people interpret the link between specific religious beliefs and identities and understandings of the public good.

What does an intersectional approach  mean, and why is it so controversial in the sociology of religion?  Theoretically, it means that we have to stop thinking of religious beliefs and religious identities as master statuses that override gender ideology, class interests, and racial interests in forming attitudes about the social world and one's place within it. Practically, it means moving away from thinking of a unified "evangelical effect" or "Catholic effect" on people's attitudes and behaviors and asking how and why particular religious beliefs are appealing to particular people because of their gender identities and racial and class interests.  Ethically, it means upholding our promise to maintain our "outsider" status, and to take Weber's Verstehen approach seriously -- understanding insider religious discourse on its own terms, but also interpreting it through a critical theoretical lens.  

Fortunately, in this, we do not have to reinvent the wheel.  The work of Patricia Hill Collins and  Dorothy Smith, pioneering feminist social scientists, offers us a good model for the work ahead.

And move ahead we must, or risk becoming irrelevant to some of the more critical issues of our day.

If you want to read more, check out the editorial, in the latest issue of Sociology of Religion.


Gender Differences in Atheist Identification -- From Existential to Social Risk

I am excited to share with you new research, online now at Social Currents and co-authored with Jacqui Frost and Evan Stewart, that uses American Mosaic Project data to analyze gender differences in atheist identification.  In this article, we show that non-religious women experience more discrimination than non-religious men and we argue that this is why non-religious women avoid the more stigmatized forms of non-religion -- especially identifying as an atheist -- and instead claim more socially acceptable non-religious identities such as "spiritual but not religious."

This work continues a strand of research published elsewhere, including new work with Jacqui Frost forthcoming in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, that argues for an intersectional approach to the study of religion, race, gender, and other aspects of social identity.  I'm particularly excited about this new Social Currents piece, though, because it also centers the study of religious identification firmly in a consideration of power and privilege, a focus too often ignored in the sociology of religion, which tends to unproblematically reproduce talk about religious "choices" as though choices were unconstrained.  We also take on and critique the argument that women are "naturally" more religious because they are "naturally" more risk averse, and are unwilling to take the existential risk of nonbelief.  Instead, we offer a new concept -- social risk -- that we believe will be useful in answering a broader set of questions about how power and stigma influence religious identification.