Ask Professor Burge 16: Family Separation, “Protestant,” and Secularization

by | June 29, 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, 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 “Protestant” as a term, family separation, and secularization.

*Interview conducted on November 23, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin, how unaware are young people of this term, “Protestant”? What is implied in that term first? And why are young people not aware of it as much?

Professor Ryan Burge: “Protestant,” it’s a funny word because it’s a word that if you are a researcher of religion, everyone understands what it means. But if you’re a lay person, you’re an average human being, American bopping around population; you don’t really understand what the word means. You might have heard it a few times, but it’s a term that most people haven’t. Christians in America are Protestant because they’re Episcopalian, Lutherans, Methodists, or Baptists or whatever. They’re not Catholic. If you’re Christian and not Catholic, then you’re by definition a Protestant, including non-denominational people. And that’s the thing with a lot of Christianity now, which has moved away from labels and even the denominational labels. Things like Baptists, let alone terms like “Protestants.” The survey that I have access to asks the question, “What is your present religion, e.g., Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox…?” It has an option that says, “Christian other than above.” And what’s really interesting, is lots and lots of young people pick that option. A quarter of people aged 18 to 25 say they’re “Christian other than above.” Less than 7% say, “Protestant,” which really means that 30% are Protestant, but only seven percent know they’re Protestant, which means that almost three quarters of Protestant young people don’t know they’re Protestant. Which makes it incredibly difficult for us to classify people religiously, if you don’t even know what the heck you are, it adds a wrinkle to like religious measurement in America or across the world. How can we hit a moving target when I don’t understand the target?

Jacobsen: Why does no one support family separation? Why is family integration and maintenance incredibly popular?

Burge: I think American civic religion, which is beyond and above religion, puts a lot of emphasis on family as an important part of American life. Even monotheist, even your humanists, or secularists, these kind of people still put a great deal of emphasis on having a strong family structure. And they think that Americans especially put a lot of emphasis on protecting children and keeping children in a safe, warm, loving environment as much as they can. Definitely separation cuts to the heart of all that stuff because it takes children away from their parents. And I think most of us, when it comes to immigration, understand that it’s a crime, but only in a way that the crime of people trying to make a better life for themselves. So pulling kids away from their parents, for that crime specifically, just seems like a tremendous, tremendous amount of overreach and a lot of variability over you. If you could commit a crime to go to prison, you’re away from your family. But I think most Americans understand there’s a tremendous difference between, rape or murder or robbery than it is with jumping across the border to try to go work and trying to make a better life for your family. So I think it’s a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime for a lot of people when it comes to family separation.

Jacobsen: Now, I want to turn back to the first question before about defining Protestant as a general statistical matter, demographic matter. How do you get around these issues of getting to the facts of the matter when individuals themselves, by and large, may not necessarily know the ideas you have in mind when you’re trying to catalogue things? So, people use the word “Protestant.” They don’t know what the word Protestant means, but people who are studying it professionally to try to get the right answers have a precise definition. That which the public may or may not know about.

Burge: So it’s not easy, but there are ways around it. And one of them is we typically ask for self-identification questions, which is, “What do you consider yourself, Born Again or Evangelical?” And so if you say, “Yes,” to that question, you say you’re a Christian, then we’re going to assume you’re an Evangelical Christian. So, it’s actually about a whole lot of other people who do this kind of stuff and say, “Let’s move away from religious tradition as an idea, and let’s just ask you what you are.” So, if you say you’re Evangelical, we’ll just go, “Okay, you’re Evangelical.” It does work reasonably well. I think it’s a very good question. I think we are struggling, with religious education, religious knowledge goes to the general population. It makes our job harder and harder. But I do think that we can use other kinds of proxies, like going to church live is a pretty good proxy for Protestant, Catholic. Most people who are Catholic know they’re Catholics. That sorts that out pretty quickly. So, I think that because Christianity is the default religion in America and people know that part of it. We can use some identification standards, certain ways that backdoor our way into what like an Evangelical is, for instance.

Jacobsen: Now, 40% of evangelicals in the pew on Sunday were under 40 in the 1970s. In the 2010s, it was 29%. That is the loss of about a quarter. Why?

Burge: Because there’s a generational replacement thing where the older generation is still pretty Christian, overwhelmingly Christian. Actually, very few and probably less than 10% identify religious and political people over the age of 75. But then, they’re being replaced when they die. They’re being replaced by a younger generation where we’re seeing data analysis. Generation Z, which if you’re born in 1995 or later. 40%+ of them are religiously unaffiliated. And that is because they grew up in a culture, America, for a generations was a default Christian country. You were just Christian by your very upbringing. Now, if you grew up, you grew up in a world of religious pluralism. You could go online and research Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or being Atheist or Agnostic. So, it’s become more culturally acceptable, religiously unaffiliated. It’s when you do that, what happens to the people; they just tick what they really are, People who are Nones 40 years ago actually said it. It’s because there’s been no way they can really take that option, because it is not socially acceptable. And so, it’s become more socially acceptable. We do see more and more people not going to church. And, really what you’re seeing, secularization coming to America like it came in Europe, for instance.


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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