Ask Professor Burge 10: Academia and Religion

by | June 3, 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 religion and Academia, and research into religion.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Jacobsen: So there are private universities in Canada, there are private university in United States. Often, they are going to be of a particular religious denomination. Given the demographics of North America, they are most likely to harbor a status, denominational status, as some form of Christian. So, there’s another question there, though. It has to do with academic freedom. What is the intersection there between academic freedom and religious status for university? Is there a conflict there 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 they want to get. But at the same time, they realize that to keep the donor base happy a lot of these schools, are attached to national denominations that are pretty wealthy, a lot of them. So you have to sort of hold the line of what denomination you want. And that means oftentimes saying these lifestyle statements or covenant statements about how you’re going to behave not just on campus, but also off campus. And, I’ve heard even a couple of these schools. I mean, early in my career when I didn’t really know where I was going to end up, I was just sort of casting a wide net. I interviewed at several schools. Many of them would be the first by Canadian audience, which would seem to be very conservative. Definitely, conservative Evangelical, not like Bob Jones or Liberty or places like that, but definitely like one step away from that.

And the conversation I had about tenure was an interesting one because, I mean, they would say things like, “Okay, we do have tenure here, but it can be revoked. It has never happened or it is very unlikely to happen….” They use language like that, that you would have to do something that clearly was a violation of the covenant, the doctrine and theology of our university. But, there are many examples of times when universities have actually revoked the tenure of tenured professors. Wheaton College opened in Chicago, which a lot of people called the Evangelical Harvard and actually a lot of very prominent Evangelicals in America went to Wheaton College. They make you sign a lifestyle statement that also said that homosexuality is incompatible with the gospel and things like that. But one of their political science professors, interestingly enough, one year on Facebook said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and believe in the same God. And that caused quite an uproar. And eventually, she left Wheaton. It is one of those things where, “I didn’t say that she got fired. They got her to say that she quit.” They separated it. That’s the language they would use, and she got some kind of settlement that was never disclosed.

So, there are instances where you really don’t have as much freedom. It was actually, I think, super interesting because it is like way under covered by the media. For a long time, American religion to politics, especially people who are Evangelicals in America. The vast majority of those scholars were Evangelicals themselves, teaching at Evangelical institutions. So I think there was some pressure there, maybe just internally or institutionally that said, “Don’t try to put Evangelicals in too bad of a light for a bunch of reasons.” So, I think for a long time, American research on Evangelical political behavior and policy was sort of stunted. It was sort of held back because there wasn’t a diversity of opinions, beliefs and backgrounds among those studying Evangelicals. I will say today that is much better. There are Evangelicals who are studying Evangelicals, but there are atheists, studying Evangelicals. There are people of other faith groups. It is really the full spectrum.

Now, I think Evangelicals get a fairer reading, meaning a more honest reading now today than they got 20 years ago because the diversity of scholarship around Evangelical beliefs and in their voting behavior. So I think it is better now, but for a long time it was very one sided because of the makeup of academia.

Jacobsen: And 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 mainline Protestant Christian, which is a tradition that has United Methodist and American Baptist; which is what I am, the Presbyterian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopalians, the Anglicans, and places like that. So our church, we allow women to preach. We allow them to all sorts of leadership positions. Many of the churches in our denomination do welcome and affirm LGBT lifestyle. We are socially progressive. Our church gave a pension to Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, after he was assassinated. You really don’t have to do that. They did that because of racial justice work for them. So we are the more moderate flavor of American Christianity. Sort of the polite Christianity, that a lot of people grew up with. It doesn’t seem to exist anymore in a lot of places. I did grow up Evangelical, but 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 don’t think there was. I thought the black church. Okay, so, the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America, a lot of black Pentecostals are very politically active, and unabashedly so. There are all kinds of historical reasons for that, because they grew up at a time and their churches were formed at a time when black politicians could not get an audience in a white church or white community center or white group at all. So, the black church became sort of their safe haven. So that’s why they were so politically active. They really had no other choice. They couldn’t be politically active in any other way because they had no access to institutions like white people did. So, the black church, for sure. And there are pockets of American Evangelical denominations that are politically active. But by and large, most churches, speaking broadly at the aggregate level, are very resistant to being overtly political. I mean, there’s always examples that we can point to, like Robert Jeffress, the first church of Dallas, Texas, who was incredibly political and really become a Trump supporter on every issue it.

Those guys are very rare, though. The average Baptist, Southern Baptist, even the Southern Baptist preachers, are not overtly political from the pulpit because they realize that the vast majority of the American public does not want pastors and denominations to be overtly political. And so that kind of a certain denomination, there are certain churches in denominations or pastors in denominations who are our political, but they are definitely not the norm. They are the outlier cases where they just get focused on a lot in the media.

Jacobsen: And what ones are the most hesitant? We can recall certain cases where individuals like Billy Graham were burned in their political dealings. So, there was a very prominent, if not the most 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 denominations that are the least likely to speak about politics are the ones that are most divided politically. For instance, the United Methodist Church in America is very divided politically. So the United Methodist Church is the largest mainline denomination in America. They’re sort of the counterpart to the Southern Baptists. But United Methodist are like 50 to 55 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrats or so. So that’s a pretty good mix for a church. And so that denomination has tried its best to try to navigate these differences in opinion by trying to be as noncommittal as possible. So what you’ve seen, though, this is sort of the downside of trying to be everything to everybody in the last year. They’ve decided they’re going to split. The conservatives are going to form a new denomination where they’re not going to affirm the LGBT lifestyle and the United Baptist Church is going to stay to what it is and be open and affirming to LGBT people. So, there is a huge downside to being noncommittal like that because it does fester discontent and division just at the lower levels.

And so, I think churches like that; churches that are more divided; you’re going to see less commitment; you’re going to see less overt politics. Churches that are unified, 80 percent Republicans, 80 percent Democrats. You’re going to see a lot more overt politicking. The pastors know while they’re talking about politics. They’re just goosing their base. They’re not making anybody mad and they’re not going to lose the support because of that. So that’s really what pastors are thinking about the most as well, to keep my job safe and to do that.

Jacobsen: Now you use the term “lifestyle” or the “LGBT lifestyle.” This has a lot of meanings, even though it comes in the same term or phrase. What are the different interpretations of this in general?

Burge: Yes, so, there’s a clear delineation in Evangelical thinking about homosexuality. Okay, you don’t say that one standard is created equal to the other standard. No one said, “It is worse than another.” But when they talk about homosexuality, there are homosexual thoughts. Then there are homosexual actions. And I think a lot of Evangelicals have come down on the side that you might have. You only have homosexual proclivities. You might be attracted to someone of your own gender, for instance. But if you don’t act on that, you live a celibate lifestyle, then you aren’t sitting because you’re not acting on that. However, what’s interesting about that, though, is Evangelicals also at the same time will say that if you hold lustful thoughts for someone who is not your partner, then you have sinned.

So this is this really weird gray area where they don’t know what to do with homosexuality? A lot of Evangelicals think that homosexuality is just a simple thought pattern, like alcoholism or something like that. Like you can work your way through it, that your brain has basically been kind of deluded with sin. And that’s what makes you attractive to someone of the same sex as you. And if you turn yourself over to Jesus, then those thoughts will go away; and you’ll be returned back to right thinking, which is, heterosexual attraction, heterosexual activity. So the Evangelicals have a lot of them come down and say, “If you do have homosexual thoughts, or if you feel like that’s the lifestyle 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’ve never done anything that’s sinful.” It is a weird way to get around the issue, but that’s where a lot of Evangelicals come down now.

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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