Yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel featured an interesting commentary on the latest Pew study on the U.S. religious landscape. Written by David Steinmetz, a professor of Christian history at the Duke Divinity School, the Sentinel essay applauds the Pew study for its ambitious effort but cautions the Pew organization and others to not overlook the many nuances of identity found with the Christian community. He writes:
Pew divided American Protestants into three groups: Mainline (the older Protestant denominations like Methodist and Presbyterian); Evangelical (the more recent Protestant groups like the Assemblies of God and the Nazarenes); and the Historically Black denominations (like the National and Missionary Baptist churches). Unfortunately, these categories, while intellectually defensible, are not sufficiently nuanced to fit the reality they describe.
For example, African-American Protestants are overwhelmingly evangelical in their religious faith and practice, but rarely classify themselves as “Evangelicals.” “Evangelical” often means to African Americans “a white guy who doesn’t get it.”
Denominational labels decline daily in importance as they have become increasingly devoid of meaning. A century ago, a Presbyterian was a Protestant Christian who stressed predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God, while a Methodist rejected predestination and opted for the priority of human freedom.
Today the situation is far more diverse. A conservative Methodist parish may have far more in common with a conservative Episcopalian parish around the corner than with a liberal Methodist parish downtown.
Changing churches in a new city from evangelical Methodist to evangelical Episcopalian may be less a sign of religious “conversion” (or even fickleness) than an example of intense loyalty to one’s original vision of Christianity. In each case, the relatively stable mind-set (“evangelical”) trumps the relatively unstable brand name (“Methodist”).
I think Steinmetz makes some helpful points. And I’m hoping his commentary gets a good reading among sociological observers outside the Christian community, as well as those of us within who too easily accept the labels and generalizations often placed upon our fellow believers.