Ask Professor Burge 9: Religion as Behaviour, Belief, and Belonging

by | April 22, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand 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 academic freedom, Christianity, political involvement of some religion, and religion as primarily belonging.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, there are private universities in Canada. There are private universities in the United States. Often, they’re going to be a particular religious denomination. Given the demographics of North America, they are most likely to harbour a denominational status as some form of Christian.

There’s another question there. It has to do with academic freedom. What is the intersection there between academic freedom and religious status for a university? Is there a conflict, in general, in the United States of America?

Professor Ryan Burge: I would say that most Christian schools are of two minds about academic freedom, especially the administration because they realize that they want to get the best faculty that they can get.

At the same time, these schools are attached to national denominations that are wealthy. You have to toe the line of what the denomination wants, which means signing lifestyle statement or covenant statements about how you’re going to behave not only on campus but off campus.

I’ve interviewed at a couple of these schools early in my career when I didn’t know where I would end up. Many of them would be, especially by a Canadian audience, very conservative, even by an American audience.

They are, definitely, conservative Evangelical, not Bob Jones or Liberty, but one step away from that. The tenure concept is an interesting one. They would say, “We have tenure here,” but it can be revoked. “And it has never happened or it is unlikely to happen.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: They would use language like that. You would have to do some clearly a violation of the covenant or the doctrine of the university. There are counterexamples when universities have revoked tenure from tenure professors, Wheaton College.

Some called it the Evangelical Harvard. Many prominent Evangelicals went to Wheaton College. They sign a lifestyle statement that says ‘homosexuality is incompatible with the Gospel.’ Something like that. One of their political science professors during Ramadan on Facebook said, ‘Christians and Muslims worship the same god, belief in the same god.’

It caused quite an uproar. She left Wheaton. She wasn’t fired; she didn’t quit. They “separated.” That’s the language that they would use. She got some kind of settlement that was never disclosed. There are instances where you don’t have as much freedom.

Which is super interesting and way under covered by the media. Especially for people studying Evangelicals in America, the vast majority of those scholars were Evangelicals themselves teaching at Evangelical institutions.

I think there is some pressure there internally or institutionally about not trying to put Evangelicals into too bad of a light for a number of reasons. I think a lot of Evangelical behaviour research in policy was stunted because there wasn’t a diversity of opinions, beliefs, and backgrounds, among those studying Evangelicals.

I can say it is much better now. There are Evangelicals, atheists, and people of other faith groups, studying Evangelicals. I think Evangelicals get a more fair reading, meaning a more honest reading, today than they did 20 years ago – on their political beliefs and voting behaviours.

For a long time, I think it was very one-sided because of the makeup of Academia.

Jacobsen: For clarity of the audience, you did, in a prior portion of life, identify as Evangelical Christian.

Burge: I grew up Evangelical. I do not identify as Evangelical any longer. I am clearly a Mainline Protestant Christian, which has United Methodists and American Baptists (which is what I am), Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutheran Church of American, Episcopalians, Anglicans.

Our church allows women to preach, to lead. Many of the churches in our denomination welcome and accept LGBTQ lifestyle. We are socially progressive. Our church gave a pension to Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, after he died.

Even though, they didn’t have to do it, but racial justice was important to them. We are the more moderate version of American Christianity, polite Christianity, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in a lot of places.

I don’t identify as Evangelical any longer.

Jacobsen: What denominations of Christianity have an explicit orientation towards political involvement, as in wanting that conflation of political life and religious life?

Burge: That’s a good one. I find the black church. The African American Methodist Episcopal Church in America – a lot of black Pentecostals – are political. There are historical reasons for that. Their churches were formed at a time when black politicians could not get an audience at a white church, white community centre, etc.

The black church became a haven. That’s why they became active because they didn’t have access to many institutions like white people did. There are pockets of Evangelical denominations active.

But most churches at the aggregate level are very resistant to being overtly political. There are always the examples like Robert Jeffress. A guy who is extremely politically active. A guy from Dallas, Texas who supports Trump on every issue and had Pence at his church on July 4th.

Those guys are very rare, though. The average Southern Baptist preacher is not overtly political from the pulpit because they realize the vast majority of the American public does not want pastors to be overtly political.

You cannot make statements about specific denominations, but can about particular pastors in specific denominations who get focused on a lot in the media.

Jacobsen: What ones are the most hesitant? People like Billy Graham were burned in their political dealings. There is a prominent example of an individual who was clearly a very religious man, a Christian religious man, who took a step back in a number of ways due to being burned around Nixon.

Burge: Yes, I would say that the denominations that are the least likely to speak about politics are the ones that are most divided politically, e.g., the United Methodist Church in America. The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline denomination in American.

They are the counterpart to the Southern Baptists, but they are 50%-55% Republican and 40% Democrats. That’s a pretty good mix for a church. They have tried their best to navigate these differences by trying to be as non-committal as possible.

What you see as a downside of trying to be everything to everybody, they decided to split in this past year. Conservatives are going to form a new denomination where they are not going to affirm the LGBT lifestyle and the United Methodist Church is going t stay what it is, which is open and affirming to LGBT people.

There is a downside there. It festers discontent and division at the lower levels. I think churches like that, churches that are more divided; you are going to see less commitment, less overt politics. 80% Democrat or 80% Republican churches will talk politics, goosing their base, not making anybody mad, because of that.

That’s what pastors are thinking about the most. What will keep my job safe? What will not?

Jacobsen: You used the term “lifestyle” or the “LGBT lifestyle.” This is where a lot of meanings come but with different terms or phrases. What are the interpretations of this in general?

Burge: There is a clear delineation in even the thinking about homosexuality. Evangelicals say that one sin is created evil for another. No one sin is worse than another sin. When they talk about homosexuality, there are homosexual thoughts and homosexual actions.

I think a lot of Evangelicals have come down on the side of “you might have homosexual proclivities. But if you live a celibate lifestyle, don’t act on it, then you aren’t sinning.” However, what is interesting, Evangelicals will also say, ‘If you have lustful thoughts for someone who is not your partner, then you have sinned.

It is a grey area, where they don’t know what to do with homosexuality. A lot of Evangelicals think homosexuality is a sinful thought pattern like alcoholism or something like that. You can work your way through it. Your brain has been deluded with sin.

That’s what make you attracted to someone with the same sex as you. If you turn yourself over to Jesus, then those thoughts will go away. You will return to right thinking, which is heterosexual thoughts and activity.

Evangelicals have said, “If you have homosexual thoughts or feel as if that’s the lifestyle that you want to live, if you don’t act on that, then you can still be a member of one of those churches because you have never done anything that is sinful.”

It is a weird way to get around the issue, but it is where a lot of the Evangelicals get down on this issue now.

Jacobsen: If American religion was 200 people, you have some big categories with Protestants and then Nothing in Particular, then Catholics, atheists, agnostics, etc. If we look at some of the other data around forms of bigotry and hate, the three that came to mind when I looked at Statistics Canada.

There was a rise what has been termed Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholic prejudice. Those are the three big ones. What are the rises and falls of this in American society? Who is experiencing better in the recent history of the United States? Which ones are experiencing things worse in terms of the ways those trend lines are going?

Burge: So, anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in America, used to be higher 30 or 40 years ago compared to day. There is a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in America going back to immigration. 100 years ago in America, Italians and Irish people came to America. They were Catholic. America was largely a Protestant country at the time.

It was like, ‘If you are going to come to America, you need to assimilate to our religion. We are Protestant.’ So, the Catholic piece was tied into the immigrant piece. They were anti-Catholic, but anti-‘Other,’ where the ‘Other’ is “Catholic.”

Post-Vatican II, there is a weird détente. For a long time, Protestants in America had an enemy, Catholics. They were outsiders. Then the next 20 or 25 years, the enemy has become Islam. Now, Protestants and Catholics look at each other saying, ‘We are a lot closer. Islam is the real enemy.” We are one team now.

The ‘Other’ is not Catholics, but Muslims now. Like I said, in Vatican II, they said Protestants are not sinners. They get into heaven just like we will, “You’re okay. We’re okay.” Even though, many Protestants don’t like the Pope in theology.

Sociologically, they see Catholics as distant cousins who are still part of the team. The enemy is Muslims. We are seeing a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment, but a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. But I think is actually waning in America over the last couple of years because 9/11 has faded and the same with Iraq and Afghanistan, but it still doesn’t have the same fevered pitch as before.

I think it is waning as well. The group Americans don’t like the most is atheists, even Democrats.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: People are amazed by that. I ask, “Why don’t more Americans like atheists?” Honestly, Democrats don’t like atheists ether. It is not faith versus no faith. It is not a palatable thing to be in America today.

Jacobsen: What about Independents?

Burge: Independents are weird. They hate everybody.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: They don’t even wear masks now. They’re weird. They are disconnected from society or people who are really weird. When I look at the thermometer score – 1 to 100, 1 being cold, 100 being hot, atheists score amongst Evangelicals score below 30.

For Catholics, they score 42 for Democratic Catholics and 33 for Republican Catholics. Here is what is even more fascinating, amongst the religiously unaffiliated, atheists score a 54 among Democrat Nones and a 45 among Republican Nones.

So, there’s not even a warm feeling there among Nones towards atheists. So, they are a very disliked group.

Jacobsen: What is the source or set of sources for this “very disliked group”? Why do Americans dislike atheists or hate them?

Burge: Because America is inherently a Christian country. Okay, so, there is this thing call Civic Religion in America. This has a long history in America and in social science. It is the idea that the flag is sacred. Arlington Cemetery is a place of reverence.

Going to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument is like walking in a sacred space, it is almost like a religious site. American national identity is deeply intertwined with American religious identity.

The default in America is “You are a Christian.” Every president that we have had, at least as far as we can tell, has aligned himself with American Christianity. It is how we see ourselves, even amongst the Nones. They still defer to the idea of Christianity as the default, right or wrong.

I think a lot of it is tied up in this idea of civic religion. We say, ‘God help America. So help me God.” There are people who swear on the Bible who don’t even believe in the Bible. Atheists don’t. They reject all of that stuff. It is tough.

They might not be devoutly Christian themselves. “I don’t hate Christianity. You hate it.” I think that’s what that is about.

Jacobsen: You commented on Andrew Sullivan who is a prominent commentator in American life. He has done the rounds of various media. He was noting, ‘You can’t be a Christian and an atheist at the same time. Black Lives Matter defines itself as atheist and neo-Marxist. Fundamentally incompatible worldviews.’

You replied with a contextualization of the interesting phenomenon among self-identification and then some of the apparent conflicts in the content, typically, associated with the identification. What was the response? I think was an interesting part of the research by you.

Burge: Most people don’t think as much as I do or like I think about it. They think about religion as what you believe in your head. I don’t think that’s how religion works at all. I think the beliefs in your head are downstream from other stuff. They are called the Three Bs. Religion is behaviour, belief, and belonging.

Behaviour is going to church, praying, giving a tithing or offering, or a religious activity. That’s behaviour. Belief is “Do you believe in Jesus?”, “Do you believe in the Virgin Mary?”, “Do you believe in thePope?”, “Do you believe in Allah?”, “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?”. Those are belief measures.

I think the last is most important called belonging or affiliation. It is on a survey when I ask, “What is your present religion if any?” You saying that you are Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, atheist, etc. It is a meaningful statement, to me, as a social scientist.

Because what it says, ‘I am publicly declaring on this survey that those people who I am associating with are people like me.’ For instance, I wrote a post two or three months ago. People always give me a hard time on Twitter, “How can you be an Evangelical that never goes to church?”

I showed that Evangelicals that never go to church are more conservative than Catholics who never go to church. By casting your lot with Evangelicals on a survey, it says you affiliate with them for good or for ill.

Evangelicals have gotten more rightwing and caught more flack from the American public and the general public. It is to say, ‘I still see the world like that. Even though, I don’t think Jesus is the Son of God and don’t go to church. I still cast my vote with those people over there.’

To me, religion is more about how you orient yourself in social space. To me, those are material that you still choose to be Evangelical. It tells me something about you as a person. It tells me you’re different than a Catholic who doesn’t believe in the Bible and doesn’t go to church.

Belonging is first and the others are below it. Going to church, it makes you more of that thing. So, if you are part of a liberal denomination and go to church more often, it should make you more liberal; if you are part of a conservative denomination and go to church often, it should make you more conservative.

But you are still casting your line, your vote. That’s how I think about religion as behaviour, belief, and belonging, and belonging is most important by a long shot.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Burge.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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