In the Orlando Sentinal, David C. Steinmetz, a professor of the History of Christianity at Duke, offers a critique of the recently released Pew study – “Impressive data, but flawed conclusions.”
I think he makes a very good point.
Pew divided American Protestants into three groups: Mainline (the older Protestant denominations like Methodist and Presbyterian); Evangelical (the more recent Protestant groups like the Assemblies of God and the Nazarenes); and the Historically Black denominations (like the National and Missionary Baptist churches). Unfortunately, these categories, while intellectually defensible, are not sufficiently nuanced to fit the reality they describe.
For example, African-American Protestants are overwhelmingly evangelical in their religious faith and practice, but rarely classify themselves as “Evangelicals.” “Evangelical” often means to African Americans “a white guy who doesn’t get it.”
Furthermore, the boundary between Evangelical and Mainline Protestants is frequently blurred. A substantial number of lay and clergy in mainline churches (including some members of the leadership) are in fact evangelical. “Evangelical” is therefore not a synonym for “a member in good standing of a traditionally evangelical denomination,” and never has been. Rather, evangelicals are the spiritual heirs of a traditional Protestant Christianity influenced by Puritanism and the American Revivalist tradition.
Denominational labels decline daily in importance as they have become increasingly devoid of meaning. A century ago, a Presbyterian was a Protestant Christian who stressed predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God, while a Methodist rejected predestination and opted for the priority of human freedom.
Today the situation is far more diverse. A conservative Methodist parish may have far more in common with a conservative Episcopalian parish around the corner than with a liberal Methodist parish downtown.
Changing churches in a new city from evangelical Methodist to evangelical Episcopalian may be less a sign of religious “conversion” (or even fickleness) than an example of intense loyalty to one’s original vision of Christianity. In each case, the relatively stable mind-set (“evangelical”) trumps the relatively unstable brand name (“Methodist”).
. . . Critics are unlikely to overturn Pew’s central thesis that the American religious landscape is diverse, fluid, changing and competitive. But what that thesis means requires analysts to ask questions as nuanced and complex as the reality they are studying — in short, some better questions than they have asked thus far.
After all, no amount of data, however impressive, can wrest good answers from questions never asked.
The referenced Baylor Study: American Piety in the 21st Century is here.
Thanks to Edward Gilbreath, Reconciliation Blog for publicizing this.