In his new book, One Faith No Longer, sociologist George Yancey looks at the polarization within Christianity that reflects the divides in the broader culture. He looks at what he calls "conservative" and "progressive" Christianity, and concludes that they are not two branches of the same tree, but two entirely different religious trees. Join Scott and Sean for this insightful discussion with this eminent sociologist.

About our Guest

Dr. George Yancey is Professor of Sociology at Baylor University. He is a specialist in the social forces shaping religion, anti-Christian bias, as well as issues of race and diversity. He is the author of several books including, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, and Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here with our guest, Dr. George Yancey, who is professor sociology at Baylor University, had a long career at the University of North Texas before going to Baylor several years ago. He's well known as a sociologist and has been a specialist in some of the social dynamics of American religion and has published a new book that Sean and I both found just fascinating. And we wanted to have Dr. Yancey on with us on several occasions but this provided a great opportunity for us to do that. It's called One Faith No Longer. And it's a study of the divide that it exists today between various factions within Christianity, particularly within the evangelical wing of Christianity. Dr. Yancey, thank you so much for joining us and for coming on with us, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about some of the really insightful stuff that's in your book.

George Yancey: Thanks for having me.

Scott Rae: Let me start with this, if you had to summarize the one main idea of your book that you wanted to get across to readers, what would it be?

George Yancey: I think the notion of Christianity being this monolithic group, where Christians identify with one another is a false notion. If it ever truly existed, it no longer exists and it's probably going to become more divisive in the future. The big idea is I think when we're talking about Christianity and Christians, I think we're seeing two religions, not one, we're talking about Christians here in the United States.

Scott Rae: Okay. Would it be fair to say that the polarization in the culture is also being reflected within Christianity?

George Yancey: Yeah. That's the chicken and egg and I do think it's more the culture impacting Christianity than the other way around but of course it's possible that the polarization of Christianity because this didn't just begin five years ago. The polarization Christianity has impacted larger culture that's definitely a possibility.

Scott Rae: Now you point out there are two different primary branches, for lack of a better term. Although I think you do make it clear in the book that these are not just branches from the same root but actually two different roots but both progressive and conservative roots that both claim the moniker of Christian. And I guess for full disclosure, Sean and I, I don't think anybody would mistake Sean or I for the more progressive side of the Christian faith. We sort of camp ourselves pretty firmly on the conservative side but how are you defining both progressive and conservative when it comes to Christianity, particularly the evangelical branch?

George Yancey: Sure. What my co-author and I did was we use a theological definition in order to separate the two groups. Basically two major issues. First, how do you feel the Bible? Is it the literal word of God? Or is it a book that inspired by God but not God's word? Second, do you see Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation? Do you see him as one of the ways to salvation? And what we found is that that was a useful tool so we could separate the Christians into two different groups. Now, simply because we did this doesn't mean that they are going to become two different religions. They could be the same religion with different emphasis and that's a comeback that you can argue. We think and we think our data shows that these groups have different ways of looking at questions of meaning so distinct that for all practical purposes, even though, as you say, they both claim the Christian name, the Christian identity, they are two distinct religions.

Sean McDowell: Now you described a theological approach to defining progressives and conservative Christians. What are the basic answers to those two questions that you get from the two camps so we know clearly what those differences are?

George Yancey: Yeah. The average conservative Christian by our definition would say that the Bible is the word of God. That is it is a sacred book above all other potential holy books. That Christian would also say that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, you only go to heaven through Christ. The average progressive Christian would see the Bible and they would actually accuse the conservative Christian of worshiping the Bible because they see the Bible as a good book, a valuable book, an honorable book but not the word of God book. And they would look at Christianity as a way to salvation, a way to heaven but it's not the way to heaven. There are other paths one may take. That's in a nutshell, of course there's gradations in between but that in a nutshell separates out conservative Christians and progressive Christians.

Scott Rae: It seems to me, as I read through the book, one of the other ways that you distinguished between those two groups is what you call the, how you measure whether somebody is in or out of one of these particular groups. And you make the argument that conservative Christians measure who's in or out primarily using theological grounds and progressive Christians measure who's in or out of the group primarily using political or social justice grounds. Would that be a fair way of putting another one of the differences between these two groups?

George Yancey: Yes, I do think it is a critical difference. And I think it's one of the ways in which they really have different definitions of reality. I would say for the progressive Christians, I went into this thinking it was going to be more are about politics in a partisan sense. And there is some of that but it's also about politics as a way to achieve social justice goals, goals of inclusion, goals of tolerance, goals of justice. For them, politics is a way of achieving that. It's not the primary goal. Primary goal is their social justice goals. Whereas for conservative Christians, it for them, interpretation of the Bible is the key on how you determine who's in our group. You may disagree on how the Bible is to be interpreted but you argue over that, you don't argue on whether or not the Bible is the word of God. And so they use theological criteria in order to determine who their ingroup is and who their outgroup is.

Scott Rae: Okay. That raises a really interesting question in my view because the vast majority of the conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections, who admittedly had major theological differences and probably according to your definition, it seems to me would've constituted part of the outgroup simply based on those theological concerns. Help me understand how those two things fit together in the way you've framed this.

George Yancey: Sure. First we have to be careful about saying that most consider the Christians voted for Donald Trump, that 81% figure is white evangelicals so automatically excludes conservative Christians of color and also in the United States about 50 or 60% of the people vote so you're excluding the 40 to 50% who did not vote. In a sense, most conservative Christians did not vote for Trump. Now of those who voted, who are white, they did vote for Trump. Why did they do that? I talked to a lot of conservative Christians and the reason they give me is that Trump is not their pastor. He's going to be the president and they look to Trump in order to do certain things they want to do.

When conservative Christians do get involved in politics, especially if they're white, they tend to take the side of Republicans or conservatives of politics. The fact that progressive Christians, that they look towards politics to meet their goals more than conservative Christians does not mean that conservative Christians do not look towards politics in certain ways as well. Of those who voted, of those who got politically active, yes, Donald Trump was their champion.

Sean McDowell: How do you see the Black community fitting within kind of the fundamentalist modern background that you talk about in the book? Since historically most of the Black church been theologically and very conservative, holds conservative views on abortion and sexuality but overwhelmingly votes Democratic, which is a platform that clearly embraces more, let's say progressive social issues.

George Yancey: That's a great question because I think it's a very complicated issue. I think the first thing we have to recognize is the reason why Blacks vote for Democrats is different from white progressive vote for Democrats.

Sean McDowell: Interesting.

George Yancey: Why progressives vote for Democrats and I'm overgeneralizing, so don't shoot me here. White progressives tend vote for Democrats on a lot of issues, especially cultural issues. Black Christians who vote for Democrats are not voting for them for cultural issues. For them, they're voting for Democrats because they see Democrats as a way to survive. And if you look at the history of African Americans and the Black church and their activity in politics and what's important to them, it's not that Black Christians don't care about those cultural issues, they do. But for them, a lot of times there's a survival mechanism that makes them more open to progressives.

Having said all that, I do think there is some movement of African Americans away. In fact, they know there's some movement of African Americans away from progressives towards conservatives. There was even some this past election. And while you really can't prove it counterfactual, I think that if the Republicans had a candidate other than Trump, you would see more of that movement.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

George Yancey: I do think that there is, it is a complicated, it's not easy. I think African Americans ultimately are conservative Christians but they're not going to vote like white conservative Christians because they have a concern, understandably so, about the racism and the institutional problems in our society.

Scott Rae: Yeah, that makes sense. Dr. Yancey, one of the phrases you use in the book that I wasn't super familiar with, was the notion of someone or a group's cultural toolkit. What do you mean by that? And what are the things that are generally in the cultural toolkit of the conservative and progressive Christians respectively?

George Yancey: Yeah. Cultural toolkit is a concept that's been around a while in sociology. I know people outside of sociology probably have not heard of it but it's pretty popular among sociologists. All it means is that your culture gives you ways of looking at things. And then you take those things, the toolkit if you will and you use it to apply to your interpretation of what you're seeing. And so for a, let's say for a conservative Christian, I'll just go ahead and go to a common way, this has been analyzed and it's on racial issues. For conservative Christians when they look at racial issues, they think that the solution because the cultural toolkit emphasizes individualism, win an individual to Christ, this sort of thing. The way to solve racial problems is to win people to Christ and then they won't become racist so we're going to do this one person at a time. That's our cultural toolkit.

A progressive Christian would not see that as the way to deal with racial issues. They would look at their cultural toolkit, which has taught them about institutions and social structures and how they impact individuals regardless of their individual intent. And so you got to change those to make things fairer, to reduce justice for these marginalized groups. And so their cultural toolkit looks at the exact same problem and comes to different answer because culturally they see things differently. That's kind of what we mean by cultural toolkit.

Sean McDowell: One thing that fascinated me is that you did not focus on sexuality issues as an example of the difference between conservatives and progressives and I'm curious why because I had a conversation with a pastor who's a progressive, who wrote a book recently on his journey from kind of conservative Christianity to progressive. And the way he defines it in his book is he said four things. He said, "Being a progressive is against white supremacy. They're in favor of egalitarianism. They embrace modern science and last have an affirming position on LGBTQ."

And as I went through those of them, I said, "There's a lot of conservatives who are against white supremacy, of course, depending on how you define it. There's some who are egalitarians and some who are fine with modern science but the dividing issue seems to be affirming or non-affirming on the LGBTQ issue. And that's how he chose to define." He goes, "I agree with you. I think that's kind of at the heart of the difference." Is it that you just defined it differently? Tell me why you didn't choose to use that example, the difference between conservatives and progressives.

George Yancey: Yeah. That's an interesting question. I think we kind of went where the data took us and perhaps with a different dataset, we'd have gone a little bit different. Clearly sexuality issues came up in the interviews. It's not that it didn't come up but what came up more and maybe it's because we focused in on a Muslim population on how these Christians reacted to Muslims and maybe that's why it didn't come up as much. And so I'm open to the fact that that may be more important than we captured. No one's study finds everything. I wish I could say, "This study is it, there's nothing else to learn." I'm not arrogant enough to say that.

Scott Rae: Fair enough.

George Yancey: But what I would say at least at this point until there's more data, is that there's this sense of tolerance and inclusion. And part of that is how they define. And you get into the cultural toolkit. How do you define LGBTQ issues? A conservative Christian would tend to look at those issues and say, "Well, even though people may be born to certain proclivities that ultimately this is an issue of sin, not what you are but what you do with it." They'll focus in on that because that's what the culture tool takes them. A progressive Christian with a cultural toolkit of inclusivity and tolerance would take that and go, "No. The key is God is love and with that love, we're going to learn how to include and love everyone. We're going to learn how to affirm everyone where they're at and that's what our focus is going to be on."

I think that the issue is important and maybe in the future with a more carefully defined study, we can see how if that is a core issue. But right now I think the core issue is just this notion of inclusivity and that's what leads to different conclusions on what to do with sexual minorities.

Scott Rae: Dr. Yancey, one of the most interesting findings that came out in book was that when you looked at how conservative and progressive Christians disagreed with their, what you call their expected consensus, so when the progressive Christian critiqued their own progressive consensus on abortion and when the conservative Christian critiqued their own expected consensus on immigration, what you found was so interesting was how they went about that critique. You found that to be very revealing. Tell us a little bit more about what did that reveal? And why was that so interesting to you?

George Yancey: Yeah, so I knew some progressive Christians who are pro-life and I'd read some of their blogs. And of course I was also familiar with some conservative Christians who disagreed with the Republican party on key issues. Most notably immigration. Not all obviously on either side but there was enough. And so I thought it'd be interesting to look at how these groups manage it when they have political disagreements with their political party of choice. Because we know that conservative Christians tend to support political conservatives, progressive Christians tend to support political progressives. And so I went to blogs of progressive Christians who they announced that they were pro-life. And I went to blogs of conservative Christians who favored immigration reform. And the key differences was that the conservative Christians, they demanded legal change. Most progressive Christians, not all, but most of the progressive Christians who were pro-life, they advocated for not having an abortion but they did not advocate for changing the laws.

Conservative Christians used scriptures much more when it came to justifying their stances on immigration. Progressive Christians barely used scriptures to justify their stances on a pro-life position. In fact, they made an appeal towards their notions of social justice much more so. One of my takeaways from that is that for progressive Christians, even though I think that their notions of social justice is core, their allies are other progressives and so they're in a more vulnerable position about alienating their allies. They want those allies to fight for them on social justice issues. They don't want to be kicked out of the club per se. It's one thing to say, "You're pro-life, you think abortion is wrong." It's another thing to say, "You think abortion is wrong and there should be laws to limit or even eradicate abortion." That gets you more in hot water with progressives in general. Progressives in general can accept a person if they think abortion is wrong morally, as long as you don't get anything legally with it.

And so I think there's a limit that they can do. Conservative Christians have no limit politically because for them, politics is not as important. If they irritate political conservatives for an issue they believe they're right on, so be it. And so they advocated for change in the laws. They did not just say, "Look, we need as a moral issue, we need to be more kinder to the stranger comes into our shores." They said that but they also said, "And change those laws for reform. We need immigration reform." Because politics isn't as important to conservative Christians, they actually have the ability to speak more strongly against their political party than progressive Christians.

Sean McDowell: It's always interesting to me how studies sometimes are surprising. I saw one that said liberals are more likely to try different food. I thought, okay, that might fit if you have this inclusive openness. But on the flip side, conservatives are more likely to spend more of their own money towards social justice issues. That might seem surprising if progressives are viewed as being more compassionate. Well, you showed something very interesting that in your study you found that conservative Christians had a more diversified social circle on other religions such as Islam than progressives yet were more theologically rigid. How do those fit together?

George Yancey: Well let me correct that a little bit. Their diversity is among other Christians. When it comes to other types of Christians, conservative Christians are more diverse. They're not necessarily more diverse when you include other religions. In fact, I suspect progressive Christian more diverse when you talk about other religions. And I think that gets back to for conservative Christians having that Christian identity is very important to them. And so if you're a Christian, I may disagree with you and what is that disagreement? Is it about baptism? Is it about Trinity? But you're still kind of part of me. Whereas progressive Christians, just because as you're a Christian doesn't mean they're going to accept you.

Scott Rae: I think, one of the other surprising findings that I saw was that conservatives tend to be more accepting of progressive Christians than vice versa. And I wonder if part of the reason for that is that at least anecdotally it seems like a lot of people have come out of more conservative backgrounds and migrated to progressive Christianity than vice versa. Is that a factor in that? Or what contributes to this finding that conservatives tend to be more accepting of progressive Christians than the other way around?

George Yancey: That might be a factor. Unfortunately, we didn't ask some questions about their religious background very much. We had some but not enough that I could make a generalization about that. But here's what I think is happening is that progressive Christians, their value system, their overt value system's on inclusion and tolerance. Yet it's very hard for a social group to be totally inclusive. We tend to create outgroups, even if we say our value is inclusiveness. And so while they're very inclusive of atheists and Muslims and spiritual but not religious and such minorities, all the other groups, they're very uninclusive as conservative Christians.

Outgroups play a role for social groups to help us to define who we are by defining who we are not. And so to help them to say that they're very tolerant, they look at the group they define as very intolerant, which is conservative Christians and they say, "We're not you. You're not us. You're not part of us." Conservative Christians, their definition is more theological. And so while they may not agree with progressive Christians, they agree with the progressive Christians more than say Muslims or atheists or other religious groups. And so it's easier for them to see them as part of an ingroup than it is the other way around.

Scott Rae: Now let me follow up on that just for a moment. You maintain the progressives have what you call a flexible theology. That is more stresses on the social justice as opposed to stressing biblical faithfulness. Well, I'm curious, what are the things about conservative Christianity that progressives reject? You mentioned their view of the Bible for one. But other than that, what are some of those things that progressives more explicitly reject about conservative Christianity?

George Yancey: They reject what they see as an exclusive nature of conservative Christians, that they see Jesus as the only way. They see conservative Christians as being intolerant, as being bigoted if you will, if they don't accept everyone. Sexual minorities, but also people of other religions. They can see conservative Christians sometimes. And this didn't come out as much as it might have but they see conservative Christians as not wanting to be very intellectual or go into science that much. They have this image of conservative Christians as these as somewhat backwards, unintellectual, bigoted, individuals who don't accept other folks and that image is what they're rejecting.

Sean McDowell: What do you foresee as the future for both progressive and conservative Christianity? I realize it could be dangerous to ask a sociologist to make kind of a prophetic word into the future but have you seen any trends in your studying and research where you see things pointing towards moving at any point in the future?

George Yancey: Yeah. I don't have any trend data so I can't really use that. What I will say is I do think that both groups want the title of Christians and so they'll fight over it for a little while. I suspect that progressive Christians, they have certain resources, financial resources, cultural resources but I think the numbers of conservative Christians because if you look at things such as mainline churches and mainline churches are not an exact match to conservative Christianity but it is a good indicator. They're declining. Groups of progressive Christians are basically on the decline. There is some research that shows that theologically, progressive churches are not growing or even shrinking at faster rates than conservative churches. I think the numbers is in the disadvantage of progressive Christians ultimately. And also conservative Christians, I think probably would fight harder for the title Christian than progressive Christians also would because progressive Christians are more likely to redefine themselves instead of calling themselves even they call themselves followers of Jesus or part of this nature.

And so I do think the progressive Christians are probably going to lose ultimately when it comes to definition of Christianity. Of course, who knows that's really going to happen, that's what I see right now. They may actually take up a different name to become official different religion in due time. That's a possibility as well. Or they may kind of fade away. One last thing that I think is really interesting when we talk about secularization and the declining numbers of Christians and the increasing number of nuns in our society, one thing that we're finding, it's not that people with a strong faith in Christianity are declining significantly.

What we're finding is that people with a more moderate or weaker sense of faith are becoming more of the nuns. I think to the degree that progressive Christianity, and of course this is not true for all progressive Christians, to the degree that progressive Christianity becomes a place for individuals who don't feel quite as strongly about the Christian faith, that up too is going to make them more vulnerable to shrinkage and to a loss of numbers. And so that would be my guess. And I guess in 30 years we can see how wrong I am.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, right. That's a good point. It might not even take 30 years. Well, so because I'm a conservative Christian, it makes sense to me why the title Christian matters so much. I think this is what Jesus taught, the apostles, nice in creed, pass on what was passed on to you. Yet progressive Christianity in many ways, there certainly are some beliefs that progressive Christians hold that you will find scattered throughout the history of the church, seems to be more of a modern phenomena. What would be the reason that you've heard or you would suspect that many progressive Christians would really want to defend and hold onto that Christian title if like you said, it's an entirely different religion than conservative Christianity?

George Yancey: From what I've talked and heard from them, a lot of them think that conservative Christians are not really Christians. That what they have is true Christianity, the religion of love, the religion of tolerance, of inclusion. And so they want to show people that Christianity does not have to be this image that they have of conservative Christians. And that is I think, a very strong motivator for them to want to hold onto the title of Christianity. Is it strong enough? I have my doubts as to whether it's strong enough given their shrink in numbers but it does motivate many of them to not walk away from the title of Christianity.

Scott Rae: Dr. Yancey, let me ask you one final question that's not related to your book if you'd indulge me on this. I've read several of your works on race and have appreciated the general approach you've taken, what you call your mutual obligations approach to race. Could you just briefly summarize what you mean by that and why you think that's a good approach today?

George Yancey: Okay. Do you have another 25 minutes? No, I'll just say it this way. And of course I'm oversimplifying and I actually do have a book coming out in February that I think a little more detail on that.

Scott Rae: That's good to know and we'll have you on for that.

George Yancey: Hey, I know how to get the plug.

Scott Rae: There you go.

George Yancey: I think there's two major ways in which our society's taken on racial issues is either to ignore racial issues or to go to the anti-racism approach, which really is to cut off conversation from certain people. I think the solution and I can make the argument this is a biblically based solution is to encourage a what I would call a collaborative conversation with people of other races. Where we put our cards on the table, we're honest with one another, where we're respectful of one another. We learn how to listen to one another and try to find solutions that we can all I live with. And I think that's a biblical approach. The research bears out that this is more likely to work than anti-racism or ignoring racial issues. I think that's the direction that if we want to make headway on our racial strife and alienation in our society, that we as society need to go.

Scott Rae: Great. That's a really helpful summary and we'll have to be sure and keep in touch with you when that book comes out because I'd like to hear a lot more about that. Particularly from someone in your position who's studied race like you have. Dr. Yancey, thank you so much for joining us. I want to commend your book to our listeners entitled, One Faith No Longer. It's a very insightful study of the state, I say the state of Christian faith.

And the conclusion I think that you've drawn is an especially stark one that progressive and conservative branches of Christianity are not really two branches but two different roots. They don't come from the same root but they're actually two different trees, two different religions. And it seems to me, I think both conservatives and progressives would tend to see that about each other. That's not a big surprise that they would view each other in that way. There's a lot in the book. I wish we had another two hours that we could get too a lot more of that because it's just such an insightful work. And so Dr. Yancey, thank you so much for being with us and we look forward to having you on again, when your book on race comes out.

George Yancey: Thanks for having me.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast cast is brought to you Talbot School Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including those in our Institute for Spiritual Formation. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. George Yancey, give us a rating on your podcast app and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.