THE THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL FRAGMENTATION OF EVANGELICAL ELITES
Burger, Matthew Joseph
Morris, Iwrin L
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This inquiry reassesses the theological and political conservatism of the white evangelical tradition, a settled assumption in the academic and popular literature, in view of changing political rhetoric and priorities among the movement’s mainstream elites. It is contended that: 1) There is growing fragmentation among evangelical elites precipitated by a departure from the hallmarks of evangelical theological orthodoxy in a liberal direction by some elites. 2) Four distinct elite types have emerged from this theological fragmentation with distinct theological assumptions and characteristics, including, traditional evangelicals, marketers, emergents, and unmoored marketers. 3) Given the relationship between theology and politics (Green 2010), less theologically orthodox evangelical elite types should also exhibit less conservative political attitudes and behaviors. 4) The emergence of politically progressive social justice priorities among mainstream evangelical elites do not represent an inconsequential adjustment in political rhetoric, nor merely a broadening of the evangelical political agenda. (Pally 2011; Rogers and Heltzel 2008; Steenland and Goff 2014) Rather, it evinces real changes in the theological commitments of these elites that manifest in real changes for their politics. Employing pastor interviews, content analysis of sermons, and the examination of congregation-specific media, this study finds substantial evidence of theological liberalism among a significant segment of evangelical elites that is strongly correlated with a politically leftward migration in the personal political attitudes and behavior of pastors as well as the political priorities they advance in their congregations. Likewise, there is persuasive evidence that this liberalization is driving fragmentation among evangelical elites suggesting a future schism within the movement. It is argued, however, that the changing theological and political commitments of many evangelical elites is unlikely to produce large changes in the partisanship or voting behavior of those in the pews. Nevertheless, these findings do have important implications for how evangelicals are measured in survey research, the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party, and evangelical exceptionalism (Smith 1998) to the numerical decline experienced by other religious traditions. Indeed, it is contended that liberal evangelical elites, like their liberal mainline brethren, may increasingly be catechizing those in the pews to become religious “nones”.