Recently, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC, SBC) released a 72 page written report of a research project commissioned and supported by The Fetzer Institute, a non-Christian religious organization devoted to "helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world." Entitled "Faith and Healthy Democracy" (FHD), the report has been widely distributed online through social media and the ERLC website.
According to the author(s), the report results from a compilation of an evangelical survey poll commissioned by LifeWay Research, dozens of interviews with evangelical "thought leaders" (FHD, Appendix C), and consultation from many "academic and historical work[s] on evangelicals and American politics" (FHD, Appendix D). While the report has no "central thesis or argument," the hope-filled purpose of the report is to "engage Christians on what healthy democratic participation looks like: how do we love our neighbors politically, and how might our faith lead us to advocate for human flourishing in the public square?" (p.3).
The author(s) claim to offer no solutions in the present report to the many issues surrounding the incivility of dialog among Christians in the public square. Nevertheless, they do "hope to kick off a dialogue among churches, seminaries, with the public, in the media, and with the academy," a dialog engaging "our friends, supporters, and critics across the range of issues covered" in the report (p.3).
Both the ERLC and the Fetzer Institute are to be commended for their rightful desire to stimulate healthy dialog among evangelicals in the public square. We welcome their combined learned insight into a socio-political problem that most observers have discerned—a continued decline in the quality and civility of public discourse especially in those spheres where politics play a more pronounced role. What is more, the timeliness of the released report could not have been better planned since we are about to cross the threshold to a presidential election year.
The following review breaks into two main sections. First, I will mention what I find to be positive concerning the FHD. Rarely will one find a document compiled and written by distinguished individuals that deserves no mention of some positive features. The same is true for the FDH. Second, I offer what I view as weaknesses of FHD. Afterward, I offer a conclusion about the ERLC study.
I. Some Strengths of the Faith and Healthy Democracy Report
Cited as the Lead Researcher and presumably primary author of the report is Paul D. Miller, an accomplished academician, practitioner, and author. Dr. Miller additionally serves as Research Fellow with the ERLC. Along with Miller, other ERLC researchers included Andrew Walker, Brent Leatherwood, Palmer Williams, and Alex Ward (Appendix A). Included also among researchers was Sharif Azami, an employee of the Fetzer Institute and evidently a practicing Buddhist. Hence, diversity, at least in part was achieved if that was the goal of the researchers.
Secondly, the report is well-structured and reasonable in length. Writing style makes the report accessible to most adults. Broken into five main sections including the Introduction and Appendices, the heart of the report contains two chapters: one surveying the increasing problem of public incivility especially among evangelicals, and another addressing the question if a Christian political agenda exists. Perhaps in some respects the numerous declarations of incivility in public dialog could be considered overkill—virtually every thought leader examined expressed nothing less than contempt for the degraded state of public conversation among evangelicals—nonetheless, the author(s) demonstrated what apparently most evangelical thought leaders conclude.
Following the chapter on political agenda among evangelicals is a much shorter chapter offering what the author(s) call(s) "initial recommendations" for future conversations. Brevity was necessary to comply with the stated objective in the very beginning:
"This report shares what we heard from our interviews and learned from the public opinion poll. We do not have a central thesis or argument; we do not (yet) delve deeply into solutions or recommendations. This is only the first of many steps we aim to take over the following year" (p.3).
The recommendations are broad and applicable to a variety of contexts. They include what both individuals and families can do to forge healthy civility in public life. Practical suggestions like primarily using print media rather than visual and social media for news may be a wise choice. And restricting children from too much exposure to the overwhelming amount of digital media seems also a positive recommendation. The researchers also offered recommendations to churches and seminaries to better equip members and ministers for civility in public discourse. Most of the recommendations are practical in nature and, if tried, could offer a spike in better communication in the church.
The appendices section was especially helpful. It included personal information on all researchers, interviewees, and included a section on polling methodology. Included was a bibliography exposing readers to works for further reading on the issues discussed in the report by well-known authorities. And while some of the works may be out of reach by non-experts, there remains plenty of reading for most adult readers.
Appendix C listed five "reviewers" of the report: Michael Emerson, John Fea, Thomas Kidd, George Marsden, and John Wilsey, scholarly names with whom many in the public arena are familiar. "This report was peer reviewed by several scholars…[and] is stronger for their input…" (p.63). In scholarly circles, peer-reviewed research normally remains standard. Hence, since FHD includes that the report has peer-review status by a number of respected scholars in the field, one may presume the report possesses a higher degree of credibility than non-peer-reviewed papers.
Though a qualification might need to be added concerning authors and "peer-reviewers." Michael Emerson is listed as a peer-reviewer but is also quoted extensively and positively throughout the study. It seems one might arguably cry "foul" on assigning those quoted favorably in the study as "peer-reviewer." While no formal rule or academic protocol was breached in doing so, still it perhaps would have eliminated any possible suspicions of bias had the researchers simply recruited reviewers not directly connected to the content of the study.
Finally, the researchers made it a point throughout to insist that to sustain civility in public dialog, evangelicals must learn to and practice often exchanging ideas and perspectives outside their normal circles of influence. For example, after quoting Ray Ortlund's surprise to encounter so much Christian immaturity on social media, the researchers lament "Our social media community is entirely self-selected: we only follow or engage with the clicks, posts, friends, Tweets, and articles that we like or find interesting" (p.11). In the same context, they quote Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, as dubbing social media as "echo chambers" in which evangelicals "tend to pay attention to our own set of facts and not facts that are not accommodating to our viewpoint." Later on, the researchers again conclude, "We blind ourselves to our own faults, listening to echo chambers that confirm our existing biases" (p.19).
Besides specifically lamenting the "echo chamber," no less than 11 times did the researchers either insist evangelicals dwelt in "bubbles" or caution them against it. For example, they describe evangelicals "comfortable with their news bubbles" (p.8), later concluding that those "who are comfortable with their self-imposed bubbles have lower civility scores" (p.10). Though "We talk to each other within these bubbles, but we talk at, and about, people in other bubbles" (p.16; see also, pp. 13, 16, 18, 20, 54, 55).
Hence, if the report had a clear cautionary thread interwoven throughout it would be evangelicals apparently spend far too much time talking to one another. To individuals, they advise: "If your friends are of the same race or ethnicity, the same political party, or the same income and education level as you are, you live in a bubble and are depriving yourself of the opportunity to grow" (p.54). Similarly, to both churches and clergy, do they counsel: "If your church members or seminary students are all of the same race or ethnicity, the same political party, or the same income and education level—and especially if your demographic makeup is disproportionate to your neighborhood or your city—you have created a bubble and are depriving yourself and your members of the opportunity to grow" (p.55).
II. Some Weaknesses of the Faith and Healthy Democracy Report
While positive factors exist in ERLC's report on civility in the public square, numerous deficiencies remain troubling.
First, I found the report to be surprisingly narrow in its overall perspective, especially in light of the spirited insistence throughout the research on maintaining diversity of view and avoiding at all costs "bubbles" and "echo chambers" of evangelical thought (see above). Over and over again the researchers insisted one of the main culprits to civil dialog in the public square is the "echo chamber" or thought "bubble" allegedly followed or self-created by too many evangelicals. However, when one examines a bit deeper into the backgrounds of both the researchers and thought leaders quoted in the report, an insular perspective appears to potentially take shape that overall undermines their call for diversity.
In Appendix A, six researchers are listed. All but one researcher (Sharif Azami) are either affiliated with or promoted by the ERLC. The exception is Sharif Azami who is affiliated with the commissioning organization and apparently is a dedicated Buddhist (see above). However, four of the six researchers are affiliated with and/or promoted by both the ERLC and The Gospel Coalition (TGC). Lead Researcher, Paul Miller, is one of the four. Palmer Williams is affiliated with and/or promoted by the ERLC only. While the liaisons are not objectionable in themselves (yet), recall the continued insistence upon avoiding "echo chambers" and "self-created bubbles" within the report.
More troubling is Appendix B, however. After compiling 130 names the researchers believed to be evangelical thought leaders, the list was narrowed to 100 to whom invitations were sent (p.60). Apparently out of the 100, they interviewed 47 for contributions to the study (pp.61-62). It is not clear if the remaining 53 were interviewed, or, if not, why.
Even so, out of the 47 interviewed for the ERLC study, thirty-two interviewees were directly affiliated with and/or promoted by the ERLC (leadership council, resources, speaker, etc.). Moreover, thirty-five were directly affiliated with and/or promoted by TGC (leadership council, resources, speaker, blog, etc.). And, a whopping 30 were directly affiliated with and/or promoted by both the ERLC and TGC. Only a mere seven out of 47 interviewees researchers included in the report are directly affiliated with and/or promoted by neither the ERLC nor TGC. That means only 15% of evangelical thought leaders the researchers interviewed came from outside either the ERLC or TGC. Indeed, the vast majority of the evangelical thought leaders interviewed came from both. How this obvious imbalance favoring the views of a particular evangelical community escaped the researchers deserves explanation.
In making the impression for inclusion and diversity in their quest to understand incivility in the public square, the researchers explicitly claim, "This team talked and debated amongts [sic] one another. And we prayed for wisdom…We want to engage our friends, supporters, and critics across the range of issues covered here" (p.4). Given that most of the participating thought leaders were from either the ERLC or TGC or both, it remains reasonably germane to ask, "And just whom did they debate?" What ERLC thought leader among them would honestly offer candid critique of ERLC's president, Russell Moore?
And who are the critics the thought leaders and researchers sought to engage? If the researchers genuinely desired dialog on the issues they raised, why not seek outside feedback from thought leaders who were/are a part of neither the ERLC nor TGC? Franklin Graham surely meets the criteria for evangelical thought leader as does Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, and Richard Land, among many others that could be named of whom predictably might not offer the same perspective as those affiliated with or promoted by either the ERLC or TGC.
Did the researchers attempt to engage any single thought leader among the hundreds affiliated with The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel? Among the initial signers are John MacArthur, Tom Ascol, and James White all of whom fit the profile of evangelical thought leader as much as many of those included in Appendix B, and truth be told, fit the profile more than many.
Craig Mitchell also initially signed the statement on social justice. Mitchell is a Black evangelical, a Southern Baptist, an accomplished theologian and ethicist, and was a prominent scholar for the ERLC a decade ago. Now, however, Mitchell's many contributions to the ERLC have been scrubbed from the site and may only be found at old.erlc.com › erlc › archive › author › CraigMitchell.
Many more names could be mentioned that could perhaps offer a perspective contra the views of the many names the researchers listed. So, how does excluding perspectives differing with ERLC and/or TGC fit the researchers' goal for listening to those outside one's own tribe? Have the researchers not created their own "bubble" of evangelical thought, an "echo chamber" they and the vast majority of participants in the study condemn over and over in the report?
Incidentally, I found it interesting that Al Mohler was not among the evangelical thought leaders interviewed in the report. Mohler is and has been for the last 25 years or more one of the leading evangelical voices on moral and cultural issues. Yet he was neither among the interviewees listed nor were any of his books listed in the extensive bibliography (one footnote exists in the report referring to a blog post by Mohler on a peripheral issue, p. 34).
Frankly, one would be hard-pressed to find an evangelical thought leader today who possesses more civility in the public square than Al Mohler. Agree with Mohler or not (it's fairly common knowledge I don't agree with Mohler on some issues and have stated so publicly), Mohler retains a reputable, genuine, and gentlemanly voice, a veritable model in public discourse for evangelicals to consider. Hence, how entirely odd he is absent from the researchers' report.
On the other hand, included among the thought leaders are Thabiti Anyabwile, Pastor, Anacostia River Church and Jemar Tisby, President and Co-Founder, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. Both these men are highly provocative and are the source of much conflict among evangelicals. Enough is publicly known about both of these men to know that they stir the pot when it comes to racial issues and can easily be tagged as part of the problem of not the solution to incivility among evangelicals in the public square.
Besides the apparent self-created "bubble" of evangelical thought easily discerned in the study published by the ERLC, the report occasionally drifts off course and becomes quite "preachy."
- "Part of the reason citizens talk past one another and act as if reasoned discourse were impossible is because we have been taught to do so and some of us have college degrees in how to do it best" (pp.15-16).
- "We talk to each other within these bubbles, but we talk at, and about, people in other bubbles" (p.16)
- "Our information bubbles surround not only the media's coverage of current events but what we believe about our common history" (p.16)
- "Our retreat from civil society into our self-selected informational bubbles and tribes means we are not taking even the first step necessary to know and love others made in the image of God" (p.18)
- Political tribes turn us from democratic citizens into mindless culture warriors. Simply put, we are making ourselves stupider and meaner" (p.20).
- In our current moment, we cannot escape the conclusion that political tribalism is idolatry. If our political convictions line up entirely with the platform of one or the other party, when both so clearly advocate different forms of injustice, we betray our public witness and undermine the gospel" (p.22).
Are these claims borne out by the empirical data, or are they opinions of the researchers? It is very difficult to tell where Miller's view begins and ends in this report.
What is more, while the researchers denied they had either a thesis or a solution at the present time, the final section has plenty on the to-do list for evangelicals in the public square if they desired civility in dialog. Included among the initial recommendations are:
- Avoid TV, Talk Shows, You-tube. Only use print media for news. The difficulty for the researchers is, arguably the most visible evangelical community specializing in social media (Twitter and Facebook), podcasts, interviews, and overall digital media are those affiliated with and/or promoted by both the ERLC and TGC!
- Put down the smart phone. See above.
- Try not to have opinions about everything. Good advice. Perhaps the ERLC and its president, Russell Moore, should lead the way. On Aliens. On Halloween.
In conclusion, the FHD has both strengths and weaknesses as I have discussed above. But while one can appreciate the time and money the ERLC put into publishing a study on healthy democracy, the research cannot be taken as a serious look at evangelicals and its thought leaders on a broad scale. Rather the study reflects what the ERLC and TGC thinks about incivility in the public square while lecturing the rest of us what we're doing wrong.
Thus, we encourage the ERLC to broaden its understanding of what constitutes an evangelical thought leader and, in the future, include those evangelicals who might not possess the same perspective on the issues they raise about securing a healthy democracy among us. It would also be beneficial for dialog if the ERLC and TGC would not preach to the rest of evangelicals to put down their cell phones and avoid digital media while daily producing hundreds, even thousands, of digital audio/visual pieces for public consumption.