Ask Professor Burge 12: Local Versus National-International

by | June 6, 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 the national-international versus the local focus of various Christian denominations.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, Eric Metaxas seems like a nice and reasonable guy, stated, “Jesus was white. Did he have ‘white privilege,’ even though he was entirely without sin? Is the United Methodist Church covering that? I think it could be important.” So, you were mentioning that conservatives like to beat up on their perception of liberal mainline denominations.

Burge: Yes.

Jacobsen: What’s the reality there?

Burge: Yes, the reality is the mainline Protestant churches have always been right in the center. By going back to 1972, they got data. 46 years of data and not a single year, have they moved to the left of Independent? Never. Now it seems like they are drifting more towards the left side. They still have not crossed the midpoint. Yet, they are not. I wrote this post one time. I think American Christianity actually balanced American conservative denominations and liberal denominations, but that’s not true. It’s factually untrue. And there’s no way you can get there in the data. There’s just no way because, if you think about it, the largest denomination in America today, established denomination, is the Southern Baptist Convention. And they are like 75% Republicans.

Jacobsen: They have been declining for a decade too.  

Burge: Yes, correct. Actually, I was just doing work on that today, looking at their numbers over time, checking their future and things like that. But yes, they were 10% of the population in 1988 and now 5% of population in 2018. So, they are half the size. But here’s the thing. Evangelicalism as a whole is basically a point or two smaller today than it was 20 years ago. So, Evangelicals for the whole have not declined that much because this nondenominational Evangelical Christianity has exploded in size. In 1998, five percent of Americans were non-denominational Evangelicals. It is 11% today. So, for 20 years, they’ve doubled in size. And indeed, nondenominational churches now are larger than the SBC ever was. And guess what? They are just as Republican as the SBC was. They are actually in some ways more conservative than the SBC ever was. So, the SBC has basically declined, but they’ve been replaced by nondenominational Evangelical Christianity, which is just as conservative now and growing larger than the SBC never was. So, your counterbalance is the United Methodists. United Methodists are majority Republicans, actually trending more Republican over time.

The Episcopal Church, that’s a liberal church. I’ll buy it. But only 40% of people there are Republicans today. So, there’s no counterbalance. There’s no large denomination in America today that is the size of the SBC and is as one sided to the left as the SBC is to the right. It just doesn’t exist. And so, there’s no balance there. So, the mainline, the liberal. I call it the liberal mainline. I’m like, what are you talking about? Find it for me. I don’t see in the data, because what they do is they look at it like what seminary presidents say, what the national leaders say, and what the people like this say. The average person filling the pews at the center in this church. They don’t buy that stuff. So, there is no large, coherent left leaning group, a Christian group in America today. It does not exist. And I don’t think people understand that.

Jacobsen: Now, the managing editor of Canadian Atheist, has some hesitations and critiques of the term “the Nones” for a variety of reasons[1],[2],[3]. I won’t cover that. However, I want to touch more on what was mentioned, which is the term “non-denominational.” What is meant by it? Because I was reading between the lines in conversations with people who have highly individualized meanings.

Burge: Non-denominational?

Jacobsen: Yes. What is meant by that?

Burge: It just means you’re Protestant, but you don’t align with an established denomination like down here, e.g., Lutheran, Episcopalian or whatever else. But you know what’s funny? Theologically, they’re basically Southern Baptists. We have a book myself. When I call others, we have a good book out now, about non-denominational Christianity. There’s very little difference between a born again non-denominational and a born-again Southern Baptist. They are exactly the same on issues of the Devil and the Bible and gay marriage and abortion and everything else. So, they’re just Evangelicals who don’t like the label Baptist, to be completely honest with you. Very few of them I would even classify as moderate because they’re not moderate. They’re far from the right of center and they look like full Baptists in terms of economics, demography, political ideology and all that stuff.

Jacobsen: It sounds like some pastors and preachers who tapped into some of the anti-religious sentiment in the United States that has grown over time when they’ll say, “That’s not Christianity. That’s religion.” And they use this kind of avoidance language in order to prop up the same ideological or the same theological and sociological commitments while distancing themselves from that which has been critiqued. Although, it is the same thing that has been critiqued. It simply goes by a different name in so far as they’re proposing it.

Burge: Yes. So, there’s something else that goes on there that we’re really into this question of authority in religion: Who do we listen to? Who do we follow? And the reality is that what we found is that most Americans are very reluctant to follow the authority of some national headquarters of your denomination that you’ve never seen before, and you don’t know those people. So, that kind of authority is very weak. Most Americans don’t like that, but they are very willing to accept the authority of their local pastor to tell them what to do. So, if I know the guy and I see the guy and I believe the guy because I see him all the time, I have to follow that guy to hell because that’s where he wants me to go. But if it is some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in some national office thousands of miles away, I don’t want my money to go there because they’re going to waste my money. Right? So, it is not that the non-denominational Protestants are anti-authority. They just like their authority to be right there in their face every day. And they like the fact that no one tells him what to do except the person they see every Sunday. The United Methodist Church in America. Your pastor is decided by the denomination, and they will move your pastor every couple of years without your input, usually at all.

A lot of Americans hate that idea. They want their pastor. They want to choose their pastor, choosing to come, choosing to leave. You know that kind of stuff. So, it is authority. It is just local, local authority. Our thesis is the idea that these known denominations; they have a small radius of concern. They really only care about their church family and then maybe their larger community, but their local community, not state interest or national interest or, God forbid, international interest. They just care about what’s going on in their little bubble. And they want that to devote all their time to that bubble. And actually, we found that they are not doing other political stuff because they spend so much time with church stuff. They’re not as political, let’s say, as an active Southern Baptist because they’re really stuck in this bubble. A lot of non-denominational churches have a very local community focus. And I think that’s a real distinction between them. Non-denominational and Southern Baptist is where the focus of that, local versus national-international.

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


[1] “Ask Mark 1 — Somethin’ About Nothin’: The Nones Ain’t Nothin’” (Hyperlink)

[2] “Ask Mark 2 — Squeezing More Some Things from Nothings” (Hyperlink)

[3] “Ask Mark 3— Peeves, to Nones, and Back Again: A Tale of Marko Gibbons” (Hyperlink)

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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