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.