For the full paper including GSS syntax codes, click here aftertheresurrection-working
Contesting the Measure of American Religion: Darren Sherkat and Derek Lehman
The new generation of conservative Christian incumbents in the field of the sociology of religion prefer their individual and collective identity as “evangelical”—an identity which is not wedded to identification with specific organized religious denominations or families of denominations. However, the adoption of evangelical as an identification is problematic because evangelical is also a sociological concept signifying groups with proselytizing behaviors and soteriological theologies (Weber  1993; Sherkat 2014). Notably, the identity of “evangelical” will likely also be jettisoned by partisans as it becomes spoiled (as happened with “fundamentalist” and “born again”). Now that “evangelicals” have been identified as the key constituency that helped elect Donald Trump, even sectarian Christians like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore are disavowing an evangelical identity.
Conservative Christian religious sociologists are opposed to the established sociological concept of “sect”–denoting religious groups and movement impulses that claim exclusive access to and understandings of supernatural understandings, rewards and compensators. The concept of sect versus “church” (indicating more universalistic organizations and impulses) is rooted in nearly a century of sociological research and theorizing from Weber to Stark to the contemporary era. The sect-church-sect cycle of H. Richard Niebuhr is empirically verifiable, and rooted in organizational and demographic processes identified in works by Stark, Bainbridge, Finke, Iannaccone, and others. Operationalizing religious diversity was a key to the resurrection of the sociology of religion, yet the system now favored by conservative Christian religious incumbents in the field of the sociology of religion instead collapsed the middle—placing moderate Protestant denominations in both the “evangelical” and “mainline” religious categories. This conforms with their narrative of a “collapsing middle” and a culture wars between “orthodox” and by implication “unorthodox” Protestants.
This scheme also ignored the distinctiveness of ethnic and quasi-ethnic denominations, and lumped all African American Protestants together. Worse still, it linked religious participation to “evangelical” identifications among respondents who do not claim a specific Christian identification (Steensland et al. 2000). Using the RELTRAD mode of classification in General Social Survey samples collected since 2000, 25.3% of the “evangelicals” are misclassified. The misclassified “evangelicals”, include liberal Protestants (“other Presbyterians” are .9% of the “evangelicals” in RELTRAD), Lutherans (Missouri or Wisconsin Synod, comprise 6.2% of RELTRAD “evangelicals” ), and respondents with no denominational identification but higher than average religious participation (who are a whopping 18.2% of those classified as “evangelical” in RELTRAD). This huge group of unidentified Christians may well include many in fundamentalist sects, but it also includes people who participate in more moderate megachurches, or even people heavily involved in non-denominational gay churches and other non-traditional liberal churches. There is simply no sociological justification for selecting identifications based on religious participation. For many applications, this is simply selecting on the dependent variable. This coding scheme served to increase the size of the “evangelical” group, while also making them more educated, higher income, and less extreme in political and religious orientations.
We advocate a more sociological operationalization of religious identification for use with contemporary data. In our paper, we provide the full coding scheme for this operationalization applied to GSS data. Religious identifications should be as specific as analytically possible. Christian denominations in America are marked by a history of unions and schisms which sometimes complicates boundary drawing and often tests the capacity of respondents to accurately place their identifications. Added to that are differences in ethnic history and also of liturgical and ritual practice. Table 1 presents our classification of identification groups, breaks down a few of the groups by even more specific classifications, and compares them on select religious, status, and social orientations. Our coding scheme avoids conflation with politicized religious identities and facilitates analyses of change over time.
Table 1 shows that Protestant denominations are clearly arrayed in terms of exclusivism, indicated by subscription to biblical inerrancy, and these identifications are salient for structuring political and social values and social status. Liberal universalistic groups and Episcopalians are substantially less prone to believe in biblical inerrancy, participate less frequently in religious services, and have substantially higher levels of educational and income attainment compared to other Protestants—including the moderate Protestants and Lutherans with whom they are often lumped. Table 1 also shows that Liberals and Episcopalians are significantly more supportive of abortion rights, less patriarchal, and less likely to condemn homosexuality. Sectarian Protestants and Baptists are significantly more likely to subscribe to inerrant beliefs about the Bible when compared to all other groups—and notably the Moderate Protestants and Lutherans. Indeed, while the dominant measure of religious identification places Wisconsin and Missouri Synod Lutherans in the “evangelical” camp, their beliefs about the Bible are much more similar to other Moderate Protestants than to sectarians or Baptists. Notably, people who embrace Christianity but do not specify a denomination fit more with the Moderate Protestants and Lutherans in their religious beliefs and participation, as well as their educational attainment, income, and social values. Baptists and other Sectarians have the lowest incomes and levels of education compared to all other religious classifications. Ethnicity intersects with religion to structure values and social status (particularly among Catholics), however the sect/exclusivist-church/universalist distinction remains for African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans (Sherkat 2014). Obviously, the grouping of denominations will be determined in large part by the sociological question and the size of the sample available—however distinguishing sectarian Protestants clearly is a key for virtually all sociological examinations involving religion, and mixing them with liberal Protestants and moderate Protestants is sociological malfeasance—and the gaggle of conservative Christians who concocted this misclassification did this for their own divine purpose, not for sociological clarity.