Andrew GREELEY and Michael HOUT, The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think And What They Believe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, 180 pp. $22.50. ISBN13:978-0-226-30662-9.
Reviewed by James R. Kelly, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 11209

As their readers have come to expect, Greeley and Hout have written a timely and readable account of conservative Protestant Christians based on survey data mostly, but not entirely, from the longitudinal (since 1972) General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Their indices are lucidly explained as are their many multiple regressions, their usual method of analysis. There is a four page appendix for specialists.

Readers familiar with their previous work will also expect a certain bravado, which pumps up their prose, as the authors somewhat wearily tell us “There is a built-in conflict, we very much fear, between survey analysis and conventional wisdom” (p. 10). Well, they delight in it. The authors find that the data debunk the usual portrayal by punditry (that is, journalists and public intellectuals) of conservative protestants as regressive in their politics, their beliefs, and their role in the “culture war“. That is, sort of. After all, our authors acknowledge early-on (p. 3) “We do not deny partial truths in some of these stereotypes. In many cases we replace absolutes with qualified statements about tendencies.” “There is a whiff,“ they conclude (p. 182) , “of fact behind some stereotypes but no basis for the venomous denunciations one hears so often” . They offer no specific examples of “venom” as opposed to “whiff”.

While all, we can suppose, will opt for empirical complexity over simplistic stereotypes some readers will still find it intellectually difficult to put aside entirely the authors’ findings that “conservative protestants’ commitment to civil liberties comes up short compared to other Americans” (p. 64) and that “Conservative Protestants have more national pride than other Americans and feel more strongly than people of other religions that the rest of the world ought to imitate the US” (p. 83) and that there is too little spending on the military. The authors merely shrug their statistical shoulders over the finding that “Catholics offer significantly warmer judgments about Jews and Protestants than vice versa which hints that ill feelings across religious lines have not gone away and indeed may not be going away” (p. 173).

But, first the numbers, then the definitions, then the findings, then the conclusions.

The numbers. Among the 230 or so specific religious organizations listed under the term “Protestant,” conservative Christians comprise about one-fourth, that is, about one-fifth of all white Americans. For most of the analysis, Greeley and Hout leave out - or analyze separately - the one-third of conservative protestants who are African-Americans since, in terms of their pronounced left-leaning politics especially, they are very different from their white co-religionists. About one-third of protestant conservatives are Southern Baptist and one-fourth United Methodists. About nine percent of conservative protestants are Pentecostals, who best fit, in terms of beliefs and politics, the media stereotypes applied to all conservative protestants. And, yes, conservative protestants are increasing while mainline Protestants have decreased from 34 to 23 percent of adults in the last thirty years (Catholics held steady at 25% and Jews at 2% while “no religion” increased from 7 to 14% of all American adults). But, no, conservative protestants, who have better retained traditional beliefs, have not increased at the expense of mainline protestant liberalism, which, as the conventional analysis would have it, has only a post-modern culturally redundant tolerance to offer. It’s more prosaic. Conservative Protestants simply have larger families - a .3 childbirth advantage, to be exact - and appear to retain the allegiance of their young. It’s the babies, not the beliefs.

What about definitions? The term “fundamentalists” most directly stems from the 1915 - 1920 twelve volumes called, in the context of battles over evolution and the role of science, The Fundamentals and, in opposition to the predecessor of the National Council of Churches, the Federal Council of Churches, the formation of the World Christian Fundamentals Association. The Fundamentalists’ fundamentals harken back to the three “sola” of the Reformation: scriptura, gratia, fide. That is, that scripture is to be taken literally, that Jesus alone and without any mediation is the sole source of salvation, that grace is unearned and unconnected with any human effort or organization. The three “solas” lead into a consideration of some of the authors’ findings.

First, and of considerable importance to their anti-punditry conclusions, they note that only 40 percent of conservative protestants endorse all three “solas”. They plunge the statistical sword more deeply into the heart of punditry by further pointing out that “Those who measure in on all three of the ‘fundamental’ items are a more modest 18 percent of the population - hardly the mass of Reformation zealots that both the enemies and the friends of conservative Christianity pretend to see” (18). True enough, in recent presidential elections conservative protestants voted republican by a significant margin whereas mainline protestants split evenly (while Catholics preferred democrats). But in terms of an “impact score” (that is, the republican edge of 6.3% times the conservative protestant voting share of .26) this comes, in their estimation, to a mere 1.6 percentage points. Greeley and Hout claim that their objective numbers analysis “calls into question the equation of biblical Christianity and conservative politics” (4). But here even an imprecise but attentive view of American politics would point out that in the primaries - where party leaders are chosen - the committed voter far more than the pragmatic voter turns out and thus a smallish percentage point difference can make a huge real political world difference.

The authors, in this reviewer’s opinion, make a better case when they prioritize class over religion with regard to voting (which is the advice they proffer to the Democratic Party in their conclusion). “The Republicans’ real base is not the religious right but the affluent”, they write. Using $30,000 per year income as the cut-off for “bottom-earners” and $75,000 for “top-earners” they find that family income affects the votes of conservative protestants almost 50 percent more than it does other voters (p. 49). Pentecostals - “the ultimate conservative protestants” - were more likely to have voted for Clinton in 1996 and Gore in 2000 than were other conservative protestants (p. 171). Working class conservatives are more likely to vote democratic than working-class mainline protestants (p. 179) and conservative protestants are more likely than mainliners (81% to 73%) to support maternal leave and are about as likely (45%) to support child care support programs (p. 147). And, of course, the vast majority of democratic-party voting Afro-American conservative protestants - comprising one-third of this religious population - shows that there can be no inexorable link of “logical or doctrinal consistency between conservative religious belief and conservative politics” (p. 69).

The authors do well to point out that a generation ago white conservative protestants were New Deal Democrats, that in the 1970s 25% of democrats described themselves as conservative and that by 2000 conservative democrats and economic liberal republicans “became all but extinct” (45). “In part,“ they continue, “the drift to the right in American politics came about because abortion conservatives who take moderate or liberal stances on most issues now call themselves conservative because their abortion views are in line with those of conservatives” (53). Unfortunately, the authors do not mention - much less investigate - the inner world of evangelically inspired politics where these left-right tensions are contested by their national elites, such as James C. Dobson vs. Jim Wallis, and discussed among the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. There is no mention of Evangelicals and Social Action, which like Sojourners, preach and practice a consistent ethic of life approach that cracks the liberal - conservative straitjacket.

Their overall finding is that Protestants in general are less likely than Catholics to think that social problems - especially economic inequality - have communal as well as individual solutions. Indeed, they wonder if “a preference for the government taking egalitarian action is one of the irreducible Catholic-Protestant differences (p. 85)” which stems from this communitarian - individual emphasis rooted in their different ecclesiologies and social teachings. For such reasons they entitle Chapter 12 "Conservative Christians and Catholics: Too Estranged for Alliance."

Indeed, Greeley and Hout downplay both the reality of and the political significance of any “culture war” that prompts such an ecumenical social conservative alliance. But in this context there is a finding that they say surprised them and which certainly warrants more exploration, both sociologically and religiously. While conservative protestants, and especially Pentecostals, are more likely than others to say that premarital and extramarital and homosexual sex are morally wrong, there is a growing but undiscussed “partnership revolution” involving nonmarital but faithful sexual partnering among the widowed, the divorced, the separated, the single. Although in terms of traditional moral teaching these unions, just like premarital sex, mean “living in sin” the authors report that “those who, for one reason or another, have lost a spouse or who never had one and enter into a partnership, have little doubt that their permanent nonmarital relationship is morally acceptable. Women and men differ little on this issue; 64 percent of women and 67 percent of the men agree that such partnerships are ‘alright’” (129). The authors conclude that “Apparently a different set of absolutes governs such ‘regular’ sexual unions than judges abortion and homosexuality” (132).

So, in addition to their usual contribution of empirical complexity, in this book the authors leave us with a parallel moral complexity. As the saying goes, a good book, but the issues warrant more thought.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books