religion

Over the past few years, Chris Pratt has been more public about his faith in interviews, award speeches, and social media. A few days ago, Ellen Page raised questions about Pratt’s church advancing anti-LGBT views. Pratt has ties to both Zoe Church and Hillsong, evangelical churches that are well-known and influential in contemporary Christianity.

My work doesn’t usually dovetail with celebrity gossip, but this case caught my interest because it raises questions about whether we can or should ask people to justify the political work of their religious groups. Thanks to research in the sociology of religion, we know how political attitudes spread through faith groups, and this can help us make better sense of the conversation.

Photo Credit: Mor, Flickr CC

There is good reason to expect people to have their own beliefs that might differ from their church leadership. Research across the social sciences shows that people generally aren’t consistent in the way they express their religious beliefs in everyday life. Also, churches are not often clear about where they stand on these issues. According to reporting in The Huffington Post,

Zoe’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is unclear, according to Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database that scores churches based on how clearly they communicate their policies on LGBTQ people and on women in leadership. George Mekhail, one of Church Clarity’s founders, told HuffPost he suspects that the ambiguity some conservative Christian churches have around their LGBTQ policies could be intentional.

That last part of the quote gets at the most important sociological point. In these church contexts, people don’t usually get their politics straight from the pulpit. Research on evangelical congregations shows how most of the political socialization in church life comes from lay leaders and fellow members who model their political views for new members. If church leaders want to advocate for a pro-life, anti-LGBT, or other policy agenda, they often don’t have to do it explicitly. The laity has already taught newcomers that this is how “people like us” vote.

Want to learn more about the new politics of evangelicals? There’s research on that!

We also have to consider Pratt’s status as a celebrity congregant. Regardless of his personal views, religious organizations have long taken an interest in cultural influence and worked to foster connections with important social networks in politics, business, and the entertainment industry to legitimize and advance their social agendas.

It might seem unfair to call out a single person for the agenda of an entire church organization. On the other hand, as a sociologist, I come to this debate less interested in what’s in any single person’s head or heart. I’m more interested in where they are in relation to everyone else and what those relationships do. The conversation from Page reminds us that It’s not necessarily about what a person believes, but about what they legitimate with their platform and presence.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

When I teach social statistics, I often show students how small changes in measurement or analysis can make a big difference in the way we understand the world. Recently, I have been surprised by some anger and cynicism that comes up when we talk about this. Often at least one student will ask, “does it even matter if you can just rig the results to say whatever you want them to say?”

I can’t blame them. Controversy about manufactured disagreement on climate change, hoax studies, or the rise of fake news and “both side-ism” in our politics can make it seem like everyone is cooking the books to get results that make them happy. The social world is complicated, but it is our job to work through that complexity and map it out clearly, not to throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything about it. It’s like this optical illusion:

The shape isn’t just a circle or a square. We can’t even really say that it is both, because the real shape itself is complicated. But we can describe the way it is built to explain why it looks like a circle and a square from different angles. The same thing can happen when we talk about debates in social science.

A fun example of this popped up recently in the sociology of religion. In 2016, David Voas and Mark Chaves published an article in the American Journal of Sociology about how rates of religious commitment in the United States are slowly declining. In 2017, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock published an article in Sociological Science responding to this conclusion, arguing that most of the religious decline was among moderate religious respondents—people with very strong religious commitments seemed to be holding steady. Just recently, both teams of authors have published additional comments about this debate (here and here), analyzing the same data from the General Social Survey.

So, who is right?

Unlike some recent headlines about this debate, the answer about religious decline isn’t just “maybe, maybe not.” Just like the circle/square illusion, we can show why these teams get different results with the same data.

Parallel Figures from Voas & Chaves (2018) and Schnabel & Bock (2018) (Click to Enlarge)

When we put the charts together, you can see how Voas and Chaves fit straight and smoothly curved lines to trends across waves in the GSS. This creates the downward-sloping pattern that fits their conclusions about slow religious decline over time. Schnabel and Bock don’t think a single straight line can accurately capture these trends, because the U.S. saw a unique peak in religious commitment that happened during the Regan years and may have receded more quickly. Their smoothing technique (LOESS smoothing) captures this peak and a quick decline afterwards, and doing so flattens out the rest of the trends after that period.

The most important lesson from these charts is that they don’t totally get rid of the ambiguity about religious change. Rather than just ending the debate or rehashing it endlessly, this work helps us see how it might be more helpful to ask different questions about the historical background of the case. I like this example because it shows us how disagreement among experts can be an invitation to dig into the details, rather than a sign we should just agree to disagree. Research methods matter, and sometimes they can help us more clearly explain why we see the world so differently.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Every year I see the Fourth of July spark a social media fight. First, the flag swag comes out for the ritual parties and barbecues:

Then, somebody posts the U.S. flag code, especially this part:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

It is interesting that flag apparel has become a quintessential dudebro look for the Fourth. Activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt in protest in 1968, and we still argue about whether flag burning in protest should be legal.

Are the dudebros disrespectful? Are the flag purists raining on the parade? Sociology shows us how this debate runs into deep assumptions about how we show respect for sacred things.

In 1966, the late sociologist Robert Bellah presented a now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America.” The essay is about religion in public life, and how American politicians created a sense of shared national identity around general religious claims. Since then, sociologists and political theorists have argued about how inclusive civil religion really is (Does it include atheists or other minority groups who aren’t Christian? Lots of Americans don’t seem to think so.), but the theory is useful for highlighting how much of American political life takes on a religious tone.

While Bellah focused on religious references in speeches and texts, there is a more general point that stands out for the flag debate:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity…

The American civil religion…borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

It is pretty easy to see the flag as a sacred symbol—one that represents a long history of solidarity and commitment in the United States. The trick is that civil religion focuses on the content of political beliefs more than the conduct of honoring those beliefs. The rich variety of human religious experience shows us that just because people share a sacred symbol doesn’t mean they agree about how best to celebrate it. Sure, the styles of American Christianity might appreciate quiet reverence and contemplation, but other societies partied to show their piety (Bacchanalia, anyone?).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sherrill-Mix and US Embassy Canada via Flickr CC.

Once you consider the range in how people express their deeply-held political and cultural beliefs, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from, even if you completely disagree with them. What starts as an argument about disrespect hides a deeper argument about different kinds of celebration (and, of course, whether it is appropriate to celebrate at all)Political tensions are high these days, but cases like this show how we can have more productive arguments by getting to the core of our cultural disagreements.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

On November 1st, 2017, Muslim YouTube phenomenon Dina Tokio premiered her documentary project “#YourAverageMuslim,” a four-part Creators for Change series produced by YouTube. This documentary is a prime example of the meaningful feminist digital activism being undertaken by contemporary Muslim women. Such activism seeks to reframe the discourse around Muslim women by showing that successful, independent and bold Muslim women are not the exception, but the norm.

For centuries, Muslim women have been subject to the Orientalist gaze, which paints Muslim female bodies as exotic, veiled, and oppressed victims in various visual and written depictions. These depictions have largely shaped the experiences of average Muslim women, who must deal with constantly being stereotyped by the public as victims of their culture and religion. These Muslim women have now taken to the online world to fight against these stereotypes. By using online platforms to make documentaries such as #YourAverageMuslim and music videos like “Somewhere in America #Mipsterz” (both of which received millions of views online) these women have been quite successful in extending their perspectives to wider audiences.

“Somewhere In America” – dir. Habib Yazdi from XY CONTENT on Vimeo.

#YourAverageMuslim highlights the lives of three Muslim women in Europe – Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy. Dalya Mlouk is the world’s first female hijabi power-lifter, who has broken the world record for deadlifting in her age and weight category. German hip-hop dancer Emine dominates Berlin’s underground hip-hop dance world, and is the first hijabi dance teacher in Europe who also owns her own dance school. Sofia Buncy stands out from the other women, in that she doesn’t wear the hijab, but works primarily in an overlooked area of social work, catering to the needs of Muslim women in prisons. 

Dina Tokio with Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy

While all these women are doing exceptional work, whether it be individual or community based, the aim of this documentary is not to showcase how exceptional these women are. Rather, its priority is to normalize the idea that your average Muslim woman may come from diverse backgrounds and is successful, multi-talented, and determined to live her life the way she chooses. Western media representations of minority groups play a large role in shaping how the public conceptualizes its notions of such groups. When these conceptualizations are depicted repeatedly, they become normalized and shape the experiences of minority group members. #YourAverageMuslim seeks to disrupt those representations by normalizing an alternate conceptualization that refrains from reducing the complex nature of the Muslim female experience in the West. This project is unique as it is dedicated specifically to showing amazing women who are not breaking any stereotype, but are instead leading #YourAverageMuslim life.

Inaash Islam is a PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech. She specializes in the areas of race, culture and identity, and focuses specifically on the Muslim experience in the West. 

Originally Posted at There’s Research On That! 

Photo by Tom Lee, Flickr CC

If you like Halloween, you know that witches are a popular costume choice and decoration this time of year. But the history of witches involves much more than bubbling cauldrons and flying broomsticks. Social science shows us that witchcraft has a long history of empowering marginalized groups, like women and sexual minorities, who question more traditional religious practices.

While popular images of witches often focus on magic spells, brooms, and pointed hats, witchcraft and other forms of neo-paganism have historically been used by women to push back against male-dominated religions. More traditional, hierarchical interpretations of religions like Christianity and Islam often place women in a subordinate role to men, and research finds that many women are drawn to witchcraft and other alternative spiritualities because they emphasize female empowerment, embodied rituals, and sexual freedom.

People who practice witchcraft and neo-paganism typically see sexuality and gender as key sites for social transformation and personal healing, pushing back against the Christian idea that sex and bodies are sinful. Since neo-paganism values sexual freedom and sexual diversity, LGBTQ folks and people practicing polyamory often feel a sense of belonging that they don’t find in other religious spaces.

This has also been true for young adults. In general, young adults practice religion and spirituality differently than do older generations. For example, millennials are the least likely to participate in traditional religious institutions or identify with one single religious belief system, but many still desire some combination of spirituality and community. The increase in portrayals of witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions in popular media has exposed younger generations to these communities, and research finds that teens are more often drawn to these alternative spiritual practices as a means of self-discovery and community, rather than the promise of magical powers.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and a member of The Society Pages’ graduate editorial board. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and the managing editor at The Society Pages. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement.

Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of last week’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.

ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They’re not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.

Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”

 Cosmopolitans:

  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation

Locals: 

  • high on loyalty to the employing organization
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.

Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

Jeff Greenfield put it this way at Politico: “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing:

The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false).  For the anti-Semites, the website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews.

Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And finally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

During the colonial era, class-privileged citizens of colonizing nations would travel to colonized lands to, as I wrote in a previous post, “enjoy reveling in the seemingly bizarre and unfamiliar people and customs of these Other places…” Human beings, in other words, were among the objects of this tourism, along with gorgeous vistas and unfamiliar plants and animals.

Today many citizens of wealthy nations still yearn for “authentic” and “unique” travel experiences. It is somehow more prestigious to go where others do not. And human beings are still, often, the object of such tourism. This kind of travel, always ethically problematic, has become increasingly disruptive as fewer and fewer places are inaccessible and more and more people are able to afford to get there. For those humans identified as worthy of the tourist gaze, this may sometimes mean constant and overwhelming objectification.

A new documentary, Camera, Camera, documents the crushing weight of tourism in Luang Prabang, Laos, where monks make a traditional sacred procession each morning. Seth Mydans, reviewing the film, writes:

…this sacred ritual is now swarmed by scores of bustling tourists, some of whom lean in with cameras and flashes for closeups as the monks pad silently past.

Screenshot from Camera, Camera.

Frustrated, artist Nithakhong Somsanith says:

They come in buses. They look at the monks the same as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theater… Now the monks have no space to meditate, no space for quiet.

This clip from the documentary captures Somsanith’s concerns beautifully and hauntingly:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons?

The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.

The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.

The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%.

How to explain the “La La Land” – Latter Day Saints connection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it.

Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.