We've had some very welcome pushback from readers. One notes:
Chaves misses and Carter obscures the nature of white political evangelicalism. The referenced study examined "congregations" without grasping that for white evangelicals, the Sunday morning "service" represents a much smaller percentage of total religious activity than for the mainliners, blacks and Catholics. The hours spent listening to Dobson and "Christian radio," or reading Family Research Council mailings and "Going Rogue," or meeting in "small groups" that assume assimilation to the echo chamber, greatly outweigh the politics-free hour on Sunday morning. The "congregation" is not the appropriate unit of measure, and Carter is entirely disingenuous in calling the herd of Fox-watchers on which he has made his living a "herd of unicorns."
And, of course, the political outreach from the GOP to evangelicals is absent from Chaves' analysis, as is the religious injunction to favor certain specific policies (and parties). Another reader:
I would like to see Nate Silver dig into that study on political activism in churches. Something tells me the sheer volume of white protestant churches is doing a lot of skewing.
I live in a standard-issue mid-western town of 20,000 or so in Indiana. We have 20 white protestant churches, one catholic (the only one in any of the 5 nearest towns), and zero "black" churches. The fact that our one church-o-plex (a massive, monolithic building with a regular Sunday congregation of a couple thousand and which utilizes several members of our on-duty police force for their security on Sundays) is intensely political, while the other 19-plus churches in the area are either unable or unwilling to muster much political ambition, does not come as a surprise to me.
That means that my town is very Christian, very protestant, and almost entirely non-political. Unless you count the biggest and most influential church in town, which is easily ten times larger than its closest competitor.
Chaves carefully avoids the kind of conclusions that Douthat and Carter draw from the survey, because I suspect he knows it's not a sufficient basis of comparison. Hence the emphasis on how over how much. The survey asks what percentage of attendees belong to a congregation that participates in a political activity, not what percentage of attendees participates.
Interesting data here, but not surprising to me, as I spent many years in a "white evangelical" church. The church with which I was involved is non-denominational, fundamentalist, almost entirely white middle and upper middle class and located in a major metro area in the Mid-Atlantic. A majority of the congregants are politically engaged, very conservative, and certainly organize together in many ways. However, there is a distaste for outward or obvious politics coming from the church itself.
Many evangelicals in this country are not institutionalists (they leave that to Catholics and the mainline Protestant churches) -- they don't produce "voter guides" because they don't bother with that kind of centralized messaging. The radicalism in religious groups like that (both political and theological) is forged on a much more grassroots level.
People outside this world like to think that the Joel Osteen/Rick Warren/Ted Haggard megachurch model neatly explains how fundamentalists worship, but that's not an accurate picture. Smaller, decentralized groups of people in quasi-non-denominational settings proliferate, and these types of organizations often lack a church hierarchy or governing body, and therefore also miss the often moderating influence of those kinds of structures.