Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.
I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, Representation, Politics, Groups, and Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review.
In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.
Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”
Here we talk about some of the religious diversity of America and growing concern on polarization across generations and within generations, and a threat to a democratic society in America.
*Interview conducted on July 20, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk about Christianity in general with the research for you. We’ll be talking about Evangelicals and Catholics. What are some interesting variables where you can parse these sub-demographic populations of the religious population in the United States?
Professor Ryan Burge: So, a lot of people don’t realize. We are religiously diverse and regionally diverse inside that diversity as well. For instance, places like New England are highly Catholic and highly mainline Protestant with Episcopal and United Methodist churches. If you go to the South, it is almost impossible to find a church in the counties. You will find a Southern Baptist church on every corner and a megachurch. If you go out West, Seattle and Portland and the Pacific Northwest, they are incredibly religiously unaffiliated.
With America, we are religious as a country, but not every state is religious and not every region is religious in the same way. People in SoCal, you can have a mix of Hispanic Catholics, White Evangelicals, Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons who migrate from Utah. America is religiously diverse. The other thing, Catholic is New England is not the same as a Catholic in the South or in California or in the Midwest.
Regional influence plays a role in doctrine, theology, and partisanship. A Baptist living in Alabama will be a MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter. An Evangelical in New England will be more moderate on immigration and same-sex marriage. If you go out West, you will get a special type of Evangelical one might find in Colorado or Montana. Those Evangelicals are more Libertarian.
They don’t care about abortions or two guys getting married. They want a government staying out of the way and as small as possible. It is hard to create equivalences between this or that Evangelical or this or that Catholic. So, you can’t really make those equivalences.
Jacobsen: Millennials have more liberalized opinions. At the same time, there are islands or pockets of some of these demographics of Millennials who can be conservative and ultra-conservative in contrast to the general trends that we see over generations in America. What are those trends?
Burge: A piece came out in Social Forces, which is a sociology journal. On the issue of abortion, they found that Millennial Evangelicals and Millennial Protestant Christians as a whole are more conservative on abortion than Gen X when they were the same age or the Boomers when they were the same age. What is even more interesting to me, Millennials as a whole are more liberal on abortion than Gen X when they were the same age and Boomers when they were the same age.
So, we are seeing a polarization among Millennials. I think we will see this with Gen Z, but they are too young for the data so far. If you are Christian and young, you are incredibly conservative. If you are young and not a Christian, you are pretty liberal. The gap between religious and non-religious people is getting bigger with every generation. It is pretty scary. It makes it harder to govern and navigate social media, even relationships.
If you want to be a Christian and get along with people, good luck, your positions are now very far from their positions. It portends a scary future for America with polarization getting bigger with each successive generation.
Jacobsen: Is it an even weight in terms of the bifurcation?
Burge: So, younger people, we know are trending towards being not religiously affiliated. The data that we have shows Millennials and Gen Z are 35 to 40% religiously unaffiliated, which is much higher than Boomers at 20% or so. Gen X falls in the middle. What I think we are seeing here, for younger people, there’s a fusion in their minds between conservative politics and Christianity.
If you are going to be Christian, mainline or Evangelical, you’re going to have to be conservative because that’s what the predominant voice is in those traditions. If you aren’t conservative politically, then you are defaulted into being a None or religiously unaffiliated. Older generations did not grow up that way. You can be Democrat and a Catholic or a Democrat and even a Protestant 30 or 40 years ago.
Today, you can’t be those things. It is the fusion of conservative politics and Christianity with those two images fusing to the point of young people not realizing liberal Evangelicals out there, not many, but they’re out there. You don’t have to vote for Donald Trump if you want to go to church and want to believe in things.
That is drawing a lot of young people away from the church. It is the politics. They are okay with the theology, Jesus, the smells, and tbe bells. They just can’t deal with the religion because they see religion tied with conservative political ideology.
Jacobsen: What are some unexplained phenomena?
Burge: There are so many weird little things that I see. I constantly look at how Evangelicals behave by level of church attendance. A lot of people will say, “The Evangelicals who elected Trump are the Evangelicals who never go to church.” That is patently false. There is a clear positive relationship between church attendance and Trump voting amongst Evangelicals. Meaning, the more that you go to church; the more likely you are to vote for Trump in 2016 in the general election.
There is a weird thing happening, recently, where Evangelicals who go monthly, which is the middle category of 6. They consistently show lower levels of support for Trump than people who go one category less, which is once or twice every couple of years or who go multiple times a week. To me, those are the Evangelicals who are like, “Yes, I’m Evangelical. I’m not going to give up my Republican-roots.” I take it as a protest vote.
They back away from going to church. They are a weird aberration. I am still trying to figure out. Why haven’t they gone to church, yet? Why wouldn’t they walk away from that identity, yet?
Jacobsen: What do you think is the scariest trend of Millennials and Gen Z coming behind them with increasing polarity on religion and politics?
Burge: I think everything feeds back up to that. We talk about policy and things like that. Everything is downstream from partisanship now. I think the average person underestimates how important and how strong partisanship is in the lives of everybody. You pick a side. You pick a team. You pick a team on policy across the board. I know people who I grew up with who were not religious at all.
If you invited them to church, they got mad. Now, they post Christian memes on Facebook because they have become hardcore Republicans. They know to become Republican is to be hardcore Christian. The issue is how to navigate a society in which you think your party is all that’s good about America; and if the other party is elected, then that’s the end of America. I find this so poisonous in America.
Both sides do it, but especially Donald Trump. ‘If Joe Biden is elected, then there will be chaos in the streets. You won’t survive four years of that.’ We had four years of Obama. It is continual. How do you turn up the volume and raise the stakes every four years? People have gotten so entrenched; there is no way through.
Here is my bigger worry, the one thing that I worry about is when Donald Trump says things to questions like, “If you don’t get enough votes and lose the electoral college, will you recognize that?” He says, ‘We’ll see.’ That’s the scariest rhetoric that exists today.
Because the peaceful handing of power from one party to another party is literally the hallmark of democracy. Without it, you don’t have democracy. When George Washington willfully gave the presidency up, it was the most important point in the history of American democracy, because never do leaders willingly give up their power.
No one assumed that that would happen. For him to cling to power when it no longer belongs to him anymore, it would tear at the foundations of what American democracy is. It would put us in a very bad place, where people will be stuck with a cult of personality versus what they know to be right and the rule of law.
That’s not a place where I want to be.
Jacobsen: Professor Burge, thanks so much.
Burge: Always a pleasure, man!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.