Why RELTRAD Sucks: Contesting the Measure of American Religion

I've got you now, Bunny.....

Jesus says: “The Bunny Asked for it”, but of course…..

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 [1922] 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.


6 Responses to “Why RELTRAD Sucks: Contesting the Measure of American Religion”

  1. Ryan Cragun Says:

    Is this paper forthcoming somewhere?

  2. sherkat Says:

    No, like it’s namesake, it will likely never be published…But, I’m expanding it…..who knows, maybe I’ll turn it into a book…..

  3. grumpyactivist Says:

    I’m reading “Changing Faith”. Great info.

  4. landonschnabel Says:

    Short version:
    I like where you’re going with this and think what you’re doing needs to be done, but I think you need to pare down the number of categories if you want to create a new standard measure to replace RELTRAD.

    Long version:
    I’ve been thinking RELTRAD—which I think has served an important purpose—needs to be updated for many of the same reasons, and I like where you’re going with this more specific classification. But in thinking about implementing it, I worry you’ve got too many small categories for a survey with the GSS’s sample size. I know you mention this issue, but your suggestion of varying classification method by study circumstances would just leave RELTRAD as the standard classification scheme because people don’t want to figure out what to do (or have reviewer’s question them). Especially if we want scholars who don’t study religion to measure it, we need a straightforward and standard measure.

    I agree that we really need to separate out the sectarians, but I think a large part of why they are so distinct is because most of them are literalists. If someone takes the bible (and what their minister/leaders/extra texts say) literally, they are, at least in my perspective, a functional sectarian. A literalist Presbyterian is more of a sectarian/fundamentalist/conservative Protestant/whatever than many non-literalist Baptists (e.g., Wayne Grudem vs. Tony Campolo).

    Also, getting rid of the Black Protestant category (which, I agree, is a problem because it improves prediction power by also measuring race) would probably require interacting race/ethnicity by religious categories for many research topics. (Such an interaction matters not just because of the difference between Black and white Protestants on politics, but also because of similar differences between Latino and non-Latino Catholics.) But you can’t interact lots of small categories with race/ethnicity. If you have fewer groups of Christians (e.g., Catholics/Orthodox, literalist Prots, and non-literalist Prots), you can then interact by race/ethnicity.

    Now, if you have a huge sample and a question about how much different groups earn, their level of education, where they live, etc. you should break it down more. But if you want to find out who holds intolerant attitudes, doesn’t believe in science, and votes Republican, it’s going to be literalist Protestants regardless of whether they’re Baptist, Presbyterian, or whatever.

  5. sherkat Says:

    I’ll be posting more on this soon. But, Thanks, Landon. Of course my classification, has been around longer than that goofy thing concocted by a gaggle of conservative Christian graduate students at a Pew-funded special gig for conservative Christians. My point here is that their scheme has not served a purpose. If you read the original article, you will see that it did worse than what it replaced, which was Tom Smith’s very elegant classification system. They can barely explain the SAME amount of variation on key dependent variables compared to Tom Smith’s scheme, and they do this by essentially inserting a second variable—race. That’s cheating. And, so is putting a bunch of moderate protestants in the sectarian group, and adding to that “nondenominationals”, but only if they are highly active (which means they have jobs and higher education, and are probably as likely to be going to liberal non-denominational churches (even gay ones…) as conservative ones)….And so, religious identification is conflated with both race and religious participation in the construction of their scheme. The paper should have never been published. It sucks.
    The point of our paper, though not of my age-old classification system—which you can see in my 2001 Social Forces paper published less than six months after that deplorable effort (and mine was probably accepted sooner than theirs….more on that later). Is that these conservative Christian graduate students were brought together with considerable funding to be mentored by senior conservative Christians and concoct a paper that would help all of their careers. And, it was published in a journal where another conservative Christian professor, Christian Smith, was mentor to coauthors Mark Regnerus and Robert Woodberry. Christian held a senior position on the Social Forces board, and UNC owns Social Forces and grants(ed) considerable affirmative action for their students and faculty.
    And so they concocted a classification system that made sectarian Christians more educated, more tolerant, more numerous, more involved in their congregations…..And, it also adulterated the liberals, making them more conservative, more numerous, less educated, less tolerant…..and, who cares about those Black Lives, right?

    • landonschnabel Says:

      I’m glad your working on this and am looking forward to your future posts on the topic. I think it’s one of the most important issues in the sociology of religion.

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