Tag Archives: religious conservatives

It’s modernity, stupid (Book review of The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith)

Book review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology, by Christian Smith. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Smith Confounding

Christian Smith Confounding Philip Cohen: With (left to right) Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, C. Wright Mills, and Talcott Parsons (Original source: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës, from Wikimedia Commons)*

Note: I am self-publishing this review rather than trying to find another outlet for it because I once (in response to Smith’s email described below) used a single profanity in an email reply, and I don’t want to get some editor in trouble for allowing me to write a review when I have a documented personal animosity against the author. Unfortunately, it’s much longer than it would be if someone else published it. Sorry!

Christian Smith in this book reminds me of a vaccine denier. He is convinced the whole modern world is a Big Lie but, except for a few fellow travelers, he can’t find a way to convince everyone else that they’re the ones who are crazy. Inevitably, out of desperation, he starts to write in italics.

…the secular enterprise that everyday sociology appears to be pursuing is actually not what is really going on at sociology’s deeper level. Contemporary American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project at heart. Sociology today is in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project (x).

(In his frustration, he also clutters up a very short and simple book with endless redundant phrases like “in fact,” “rightly understood,” and “actually.” I haven’t added italics to any of his quotes in this review.)

He’s not being “tricky” with the term sacred: he means it in the strictly Durkheimian sense of, “things set apart from the profane and forbidden to be violated,” things “hallowed, revered, and honored as beyond questioning,” things that “can never be defiled, defied, or desecrated by any infringement or desecration” (1-2). This is not a metaphor, this is “exactly the character of the dominant project of American sociology” (2). Literally.

The book is not just the familiar diatribe against leftist groupthink in academia. What sets this apart is that Smith’s real problem is modernity itself, which I’ll return to. However, this particular expression of modernity – the one that happens to surround him in his chosen academic discipline – is especially grating. So we’ll start with that.

Like a vaccine denier, Smith is more and more convinced of his theory the more all the sociologists around him deny it. In fact, actually, rightly understood, rampant denial is literally evidence that he’s right. By the end of the book he concludes, “Many American sociologists will … find it impossible to see the sacred project that sociology is – precisely because my argument above is correct” (199). This treads uneasily close to the line where common arrogance tips over into a lack of grip on reality.

In the text of the American Sociological Association (ASA) description of the discipline, for example, “none of it admits to advancing a sacred project” (6). Aha! Why not? Two reasons, he figures. First, the sacred project “is so ubiquitous and taken for granted … that it has become invisible to most sociologists themselves” (6-7). Why would we discuss something universal and uncontroversial? Second, admitting its existence “would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legitimacy of academic sociology,” so it must be “misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined” to maintain “plausible deniability,” and therefore “sociologists carefully exempt their own discipline from their otherwise searching sociological gaze” (7). So, we “carefully” keep secret for strategic reasons that which we cannot even know exists. The devil does work in mysterious ways.

Sacred is as sacred does

What is the content of the sacred project? In a bizarre throwback to the 1950s – he even puts red-scare quotes around “the people” [12] – Smith describes “the project” as

about something like exposing, protesting, and ending, through social movements, state regulations, and government programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans (and perhaps animals and the environment (7).

For convenience, we could reasonably shorten this to, “communism.”

But this veneer of egalitarianism “does not go deep enough.” The project is

more fully and accurately described as … the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (7-8).

We might call this deeper goal, “decadence.”

After that, it’s only a matter of a few lines before he starts putting “(so-called)” before “the Enlightenment” (8) and stringing together terms like this: “modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil right-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist” (11). Did I mention this guy was Mark Regnerus’s dissertation committee chair at UNC? (Funny, he forgot to mention that, too.)

Of course, Smith has to admit that the sacred project is not something that all sociologists are into. “Most are, I think, being more or less conscious and activist on behalf of it [the project]. But some are not” (23). Who are those more innocent ones? He grudgingly lists five groups of exceptions (23-24):

  • “believers in sociology as purely a scientific study of society … often very fine people”;
  • “just commonplace ‘institution improvers,’” trying practically to make modern society work better;
  • “professional data collectors” who work in various bureaucracies and companies;
  • “ordinary, middle-America college professors who simply like to learn and teach about the family, criminal justice, or what have you”, and, finally;
  • “old-school liberals who genuinely believe in tolerance, fairness, and pluralism.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking this comprises is an important slice of American sociology, however, because they don’t represent “the discipline’s dominant culture, sensibilities, interests, discourse, and project.” And anyway, they are a very small minority. Excluding these five groups, in fact, Smith estimates that 30 to 40 percent are “true believers” and another 50 to 60 percent are “essentially on board, but are circumspect in how they express it” (24). Doing a quick calculation 100-(30+50) and 100-(40+60), it appears that those five groups of exceptions sum to between 0 percent and 20 percent of American sociologists. But it’s worse than even that, because some of the moderates, “when scratched hard enough,” do “show their true colors as sympathizers” with the project (25).

Hardly evidence

It seems shocking that that such an overwhelming majority of American sociologists could be so deeply into something so radical. To make such an extreme claim in a book published by a leading, highly reputable university press, surely one must have some pretty damning evidence? No.

It doesn’t help his case much, but the chapter titled “Evidence” is packed with ammunition for any grad student who ends up with Smith on his or her dissertation committee. Keep these defensive lines handy:

  • “the evidence I can offer is not ‘conclusive,’ at least when the standards of proof are set as the types that count for, say, publication in the top journals” (28). (No offense intended to Oxford University Press, I’m sure.)
  • What is “personally most convincing” is his own experience of many years, which he hopes will help readers “intuitively grasp the truth of my thesis” (28).
  • “There is no practical way to ‘test’ my thesis with standard sociological measures; the issues involved are too subtle and elusive to be ‘verified’ by such means” (29).
  • “I cannot conduct a systematic investigation to ‘prove’ that [some random claim], but I am confident that one well conducted would validate my claim” (66).
  • “Again, nobody, I am sure, has conducted or could conduct a systematic study of such features and reactions to empirically ‘prove’ my point” (87).

Honestly, the required survey design seems pretty simple. First, ask a sample of sociologists if they “are now or have ever been an activist on behalf of the sacred project.” Then, provide them with a list of their friends and colleagues, and ask for them to identify the individuals who would or should answer affirmatively to the first question.

Rather than follow such a straightforward approach, Smith presents “an array of semi-systemic evidence,” beginning with a “stroll through the ASA’s annual convention book exhibit” (29) (presumably senior professors with endowed chairs conducts “strolls” to collect their data, while junior faculty might feel the need to at least jog). From his stroll, he constructs 12 generic categories into which “most” of the books there “could be translated.” I won’t list them all, but these give you a feel:

  • People are Not Paying Enough Attention to Social Problem X, But if They Read this Book they Will Realize that They Have To
  • Women, Racial Minorities, and Poor People are Horribly Oppressed and You Should Be Really Angry About That!
  • Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals, and other Queers are Everywhere and Their Experiences are Some of the Most Important Things Ever to Know About

After establishing the categories, he reprints the titles of about 30 books from NYU Press (which he doesn’t name because “a look at the sociology lists of virtually every other university press and trade publisher would produce a list very similar” [34]). The book list supports his hypothesis that there is a “narrow range of themes and perspectives.”

This is confusing. When you use concepts like, “Social Problem X,” and then put most books into that category, the question really is how many values does X take? This is like saying many history books are the same because they fit into the category, “Something happened during Period X in Place Y.”

The actual list of books he includes covers topics as diverse as factory farming, GLBT people in Islam, mass incarceration, paganism, breastfeeding, fair trade, donor conception, the NRA, school discipline, hip-hop culture, marriage promotion, immigrant health care, deliberate self-injury, and homeless youth. To Smith these are all “these type of books” produced by “activist disciples of the sacred project.” And, without opening a single one of them, he concludes, “So much for celebrating diversity, the proactive inclusion of social others, and welcoming differences” (34). (I’m thinking, “What an interesting body of work!”)

To supplement the NYU list, Smith adds 30 books reviewed in one issue of Contemporary Sociology. And now he’s in the territory of Sen. Tom Coburn – just listing research topics which, if you already think social science is stupid, sound stupid.

While one cannot always judge a book from its cover (title), my discussion above provides the right interpretive context for knowing what these books are about. Collectively, they are focused on threatening social problems (about which sociologists are the prophetic experts), injustices committed (about which sociologists are the whistle blowers), abuses by economically and politically (especially ‘neo-liberal’) powerful elites (ditto on whistle blowing), and mobilizing social and political movements for sociopolitical and economic change (about which sociologists are the experts and cheerleaders) (40).

To supplement his evidence, because titles don’t tell you everything, he includes five “exemplar” books, into which he delves more deeply – which means quoting from the book jackets and random reviews posted on Amazon.

And then Smith spends four pages – more than he spends on any other research in the book – attacking one book (which he didn’t read) about religion: Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. He writes, “Between the book itself and the reviewer’s presentation of it, American sociologists are generally confirmed in their standard stereotypical fears about and negative mental associations with evangelicalism” (43). He refers to the book as a “sociological ethnography,” which reflects attitudes held by “sociologists” and the practices of “sociologists far and wide.” He doesn’t even show the courtesy of identifying the author (Omri Elisha) and citing the book properly. If he had, he might have noticed a slight problem with his evidence: the author is an anthropologist! Details.

To analyze research articles, Smith turns to American Sociological Review, based on the method of reading the next issue that arrives (Vol 78, No 3) for evidence of the “sacred project.” Except for one methodological piece, “the raft of articles in this issue tilted clearly in the supportive direction of the sacred project to which, explicitly or implicitly, subtly or obviously, the ASR, the ASA, and American sociology as a whole are committed” (58-59). The evidence he finds is basically that most of the articles study inequality, and when they do they sometimes describe it in negative terms. In essence, the existence of any sociological work describing any aspect of inequality confirms his hypothesis. (And somehow he thought this was too subtle to study empirically.)

Mo’ better modernity

The extent of his disillusionment finally becomes clear in a brief discussion of Horne et al’s, ASR article on bridewealth in Ghana. They investigated “normative constraints on women’s autonomy in the reproductive domain.” Smith objects to the value-laden perspective by which autonomy for women is assumed to be a good thing. He virtually sneers, “Here ‘improving the lives of African women’ is equated, as a good western feminist presupposition, with expanding ‘women’s reproductive autonomy’” (57).

Smith may not know that reproductive autonomy usually refers to a broad suite of decisions about childbearing within families, and it’s an important predictor of such vital outcomes as seeking medical care during pregnancy and delivery (e.g., in Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and India), reduced unintended pregnancies (e.g., in Bangladesh), and children’s adequate nutrition (in India). If the big problem with sociology is that we assume those are positive outcomes, then I think I’m OK with that.

But Smith is presumably thinking of autonomy in the modern American sense of, “I’m bored, let’s get a divorce”; or, “I love myself, I think I’ll masturbate instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen.” And in that he has reason to worry, as it appears the majority of the world may be headed that direction.

smith-wvs

But surely – given the weak influence of sociology on global culture – he misdirects his irritation over modern life in general onto the sociologists who merely reflect it. This is especially clear in the discussion of sociology’s roots, which reveals the origins of the sacred project he is trying to describe:

As a project, sociology [originally] belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society. It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts to create a secular, rational, scientific social order … Sociology was not merely about piecemeal reforms but world transformation guided by a radically new sacred vision of humanity, life, society, and the cosmos (122).

Indeed, the latest version of the sacred project focuses on “the moral centrality of the autonomous, self-directing, therapeutically oriented individual,” but “this is merely a new emphasis, the seeds of which were planted long ago and have been growing along with the progressive unfolding of western modernity” (130). Thus, “the sacred project that dominates mainstream sociology today is a natural, logical development of the inheritance of liberal, Enlightenment modernity” (131).

Given the worldwide magnitude of this project, and its global success over several centuries, in which American sociology has played such a small role, its seems useless to single out today’s idealistic graduate students and young researchers for blame. They are mere cogs in the modernity machine. This is the deep incoherence of the book: he pours his scorn so superfluously on the leftists who annoy him even though the details of contemporary politics seem tangential to his existential concerns.

Into ASA

Smith extends his superficial empirical analysis into the subject of ASA sections, the organizations sociologists use to develop affinities around their interests and expand their institutional influence. This analysis consists entirely of Smith separating sections into three categories by title based purely on his own inimitable expertise. No content, no text, not even a mocking list of conference presentation titles – just section titles.

The first category is those that are “at the vanguard of sociology’s sacred project.” Naturally, this is the largest category, with some 13,000 members (many people belong to more than one). These include, obviously, Sex and Gender, as well as, less obviously, Mental Health; Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco; and Disability and Society. Next are those that are “less obviously but in many ways still promoting sociology’s sacred project.” These sections have about 11,000 members, including those covering Culture, Theory, Law, and Population. (Oddly, while Mental Health is in the seriously-bad category, Medical Sociology is only in the pretty-bad category. He said it was subtle.) He would “venture to say” based on his experience, that the “majority” of research and teaching by those in this second category “ultimately feeds into support for and the promotion of” the sacred project (66). Finally, there are only four sections, with less than 1,000 members, that are “seemingly not related” to the sacred project (History of Sociology, Mathematical Sociology, Rationality and Society, and Ethnomethodology).

To cover teaching, Smith discusses selected portions of John Macionis’s best-selling Society: The Basics. I have never used one, but I hear that intro books are often frustrating for research university professors, so I am sympathetic here, although my concerns would no doubt be different. I don’t mind criticizing the triumvirate theoretical framing of functionalism-conflict-interaction, but I’m OK with discussing the limits of “free will” (versus social influence), quoting Tocqueville on how excellent the French Revolution was, and even using of BCE/CE instead of BC/AD for dating eras (so touchy – who knew?).

Anyway, there is an extensive literature about introductory sociology textbooks, and since Smith ignores it I mostly ignored this section. However, I did like this: “I could also conduct the same kind of analysis of the other best-selling introductory sociology textbooks, and again, the results would be extremely similar” because “these textbooks are almost identical to each other” (85). I love that he knows this before conducting the “analysis.” But I also don’t doubt that we would reproduce similar conclusions regardless of what he read.

Tall tales

Smith concludes the crucial “Evidence” chapter with “some less systematic [!] but still I think revealing illustrations” (86). These are extended anecdotes that nicely illustrate his ability to harbor a grudge – including cases in which sociologists vehemently reacted to violations of the sacred project (mostly sociologists mistreating his friends).

For some of the anecdotes, Smith does not name names. This is supposedly to underscore his larger points, but since he is not a reliable reporter this is a very bad practice. One he discusses anonymously is obviously the reaction to the book by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. His description is completely misleading, characterizing it only as a “book about the many benefits of marriage, the lead author of which was a very highly regarded University of Chicago sociologist and demographer.” Excluded is the fact that the book was not published by a university press (Doubleday), and that the second author was a conservative activist, a non-academic “affiliate scholar” working with the Institute for American Values (IAV). Gallagher was already known as a right-wing nut (the author of Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution Is Killing Family, Marriage, and Sex and What We Can Do About It), who went on to become perhaps the most famous American anti-gay marriage fanatic.

Waite was also working outside of academia to advocate policy. She was writing for IAV, and served on the research board of the National Marriage Project, an academic-activist organization promoting pro-marriage policy. Waite said she and Gallagher kept their politics separate and out of the book. Others disagreed. Clearly, Waite was moving in a more activist direction, as she acknowledged herself, couching her advocacy for marriage in public health terms, and comparing it to the campaigns about smoking and for exercise. A lively debate ensued. Smith describes an author-meets-critics session at the ASA conference in 2002, and says an eyewitness told him that one of the critics “literally frothed at the mouth” and shouted, “You have betrayed us!

But why is Waite different from the other activists who use social science research to promote social agendas – a similarity hidden by Smith’s selective description? And how is this debate so much more damaging than any other? To show the harm done by the sacred sociologists, Smith reports that Waite, who had been on the ASA Council and chair of the Family Section (incidentally one of Smith’s “vanguard” sacred project sections…), has not since held elective office in ASA. That’s true, and I doubt she would be elected if she ran, because of her politics. She has, however, continued a very successful career, holding a named chair at the University of Chicago and serving in important positions at the National Institutes of Health, among other distinctions. Being president of ASA is a privilege, not a right.

Another anecdote concerns Brad Wilcox’s tenure promotion at the University of Virginia, also hardly anonymized (93-95). As a non-public personnel matter, however, this case is poorly suited for weaponization. I don’t know the facts first-hand, and Smith doesn’t offer any documentation or reveal his source for the story. The gist of it is that Wilcox’s department at the University of Virginia voted to deny him tenure, but they were overruled by the top level of administration (Smith says it was the provost that saved the promotion, while Wilcox colleague Robert George reported it was the president). I don’t know the extent to which Wilcox’s religious affiliation or political positions played a role in the department’s decision, and I certainly wouldn’t take Smith’s word for it. Simply counting the publications on a CV is not enough to judge a tenure decision; the quality and impact of the work matter, too, as do ethics and character. For example, regardless of his publication record I might vote to deny Wilcox tenure on the basis of his dishonesty and incompetence (which I have documented voluminously – although my stories begin after he was tenured).

Regnerus reflux

All this is setup for Smith’s rant about the Regnerus affair (overview here; archive of posts under this tag). When the scandal was unfolding in 2012, Smith made an unintentional appearance in the blogosphere when some of his outraged email to sociologists (including me) was posted on the Scatterplot blog (here and here). He followed that up with an essay defending Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which accused academic sociology of perpetrating an auto-da-fé (which is similar to being criticized on blogs, except in every possible way).

Obsessed readers will recall that, in the original version of that essay, Smith wrote, “Full disclosure: I was on the faculty in Regnerus’s department and advised him for some years, but was not his dissertation chair.” That was later corrected to read, “Full disclosure: I was chair of Regnerus’s dissertation committee.” This seems not a minor detail to forget, considering (by his accounting) Smith and Regnerus co-authored eight articles together, and Regnerus was one of only six dissertations Smith chaired at UNC.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Regnerus dissertation signature page.

Smith is still having trouble with the details of the story, and forgets again to “fully disclose” this fact.

He also tells this story as if everything Regnerus said initially was true and nothing substantial was subsequently uncovered. For example, it hardly seems relevant anymore that, “Regnerus was clear in his article that his findings did not point in any specific policy direction” (102), now that Regnerus and his colleagues did use his results to press the case against marriage equality, in both briefs and expert testimony. We also now know, confirming the early conspiracy theories, that Regnerus and his colleagues – principally Wilcox – did indeed plan the study as an activist endeavor to influence the courts. (This doesn’t mean they faked the data, only that they were sure they would find a way to find something in the data to make gay and lesbian parents look bad.)

Smith quotes from Regnerus’s paper, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality,” but we now know that Regnerus grossly does exaggerate his results and draw causal conclusions when speaking to like-minded audiences, including by presenting unadjusted results while discussing his statistical controls, and by speculating about mechanisms for the patterns he found. The original published paper, with its caveats and disclaimers, proved irrelevant to how the movement against marriage equality used it for their ideological ends.

In any event, Smith still needs to vent on the ill treatment he believes Regnerus received at the hands of the purveyors of the sacred project. He devotes more than 14 pages to the scandal, of which almost 6 are footnotes in which he schools himself on the legal particulars of the case, condemns the non-academic activists who agitated and sued their way through the process, and takes on some of the wider research on same-sex parenting. Not surprisingly, however, I’m afraid Smith seems to have learned little from the scandal (including the relevant facts).

One odd falsehood Smith commits is claiming there was a “review process by which the [Regnerus] article had been unanimously judged worthy of publication by six double-blind reviewers” (107), which he repeats later (157). If this is an honest error it results from misreading the internal review conducted by Darren Sherkat for the journal, Social Science Research (SSR), in response to the scandal. Sherkat reported that there were six reviewers for two articles that sparked controversy – three each. So, three reviewers, not six. Also, Smith must know that SSR is the only major sociology journal to practice single-blind review. The reviewers always know who wrote the articles they review. In fact, as we now know, two of the three reviewers were directly involved in the research: Paul Amato, who has described his role as a paid consultant on the study; and, far worse, Brad Wilcox, the principal fundraiser and institutional architect of the research, whose role as a reviewer was finally admitted in August 2013. So, not exactly “double-blind,” even nominally.

Smith’s main complaint is that the sociologists criticizing Regnerus have always ignored weak studies and shoddy research methods when people who used them found that gay and lesbian parents don’t harm children. This is the “ideological double standard” that Smith called “pathetic” in an email to me and others, now rehashed at p. 110 of his book. But it’s ridiculous. Neither I nor the others objecting to the Regnerus paper claimed our primary objective was the protection of accurate science in some abstract sense. The paper drew the sustained attention that it did because of the moment and manner in which it appeared – and was deployed – in a raging national debate with important, practical consequences for real life.

Speaking for myself, I of course routinely review and recommend rejection for research articles whose results and apparent worldview are completely consistent with my empirical expectations and normative assumptions (even in cases where rubberstamping them into publication would increase my own citation count). And I often decline to cite relevant research that would support whatever case I’m making if I don’t find it sound or credible. I have standards for quality and I impose them in the routine course of business. But I don’t stand on street corners and holler at passersby every time a poor quality article is published, the way I do when one is that attacks minority civil rights. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s priorities.

On the merits of the equivalency claim – bad Regnerus, bad prior research – I also disagree. Much of the previous research on same-sex parenting was essentially in the form of case studies and convenience samples, which are legitimate ways of studying small and hard-to-identify populations, despite the possibility of selection bias and social desirability bias. As Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I argued in a response paper, that previous research, in the aggregate, is consistent with the “no differences” view because it fails to falsify the hypothesis that there is a notable disadvantage to being raised by same-sex parents. All those case studies and convenience samples do not prove there is no disadvantage attributable to same-sex parenting – they merely fail to find one. And that is the state of the research today.

Unsurprisingly, Smith draws the wrong conclusion from the Regnerus affair, arguing that the greatest negative outcome was the threat to the peer-review process posed by the criticism of Regnerus:

Most obvious in that episode was the attack on Regnerus himself. Less obvious but no less important was the assault on the integrity of the double-blind peer-review process involved in those attacks. Recall that Regnerus’ paper had been evaluated by six blind reviewers, all of whom recommended publication. Recall that the quality of Regnerus’ sample was, though not perfect, superior to any other that had been used to answer this research question prior to his study. Nothing in the review process was unusual or dubious… (157).

Even if all that were true, and it is demonstrably all not true, I still don’t think protest and criticism of published research – what Smith calls “scholarly review by mob intimidation” – marks “the end of credible social science” (161). This is like saying the problem with the Vietnam War was that it ushered in a new era in which elected politicians can’t even make the decision to go to war anymore without the threat of mob protests and civil disobedience. Who let the public in to this democracy, anyway? (Of course, as I was once instructed by a colleague, academia is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.)

His summary of the story takes on this Orwellian character. “I do not mean to suggest that sociology’s journal peer-review system is rampant with corruption,” he says, somehow referring not to the bad decision to publish the article, but rather to the public criticism it sustained.

But I do think it is vulnerable to pernicious influences exerted by some scholars who are driven by some of the less admirable aspects of sociology’s sacred project. The Regnerus debacle shows that it can happen and has happened. The potential for abuse is real (162).

The abuse in the Regnerus case was not in the protest, but in the mobilization of big, private money to generate research intended to influence the courts, infecting the reviewer pool with consulting fees among insider networks, manipulating the journal into relying on reviewers without expertise in gay and lesbian family studies, and then mobilizing the result for harmful political ends. The public criticism, on the other hand, besides making Regnerus professionally toxic – for which I have little sympathy – served only to bring this to the attention of the academic community and the public. I may be in the minority on this among academics who value their privileged social status, but I don’t even object to the public records requests for information on the peer review process (which, although not triggered by sociologists, consume several pages of Smith’s narrative). Rather, I regret that the use of private money and a corporate publisher limited the possibility for more thorough transparency in the process.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins.

Blame the bloggers

Like he blames politics when he doesn’t like the political outcome, Smith blames communication itself when he doesn’t like the content expressed. In this case, that means the blogs. I find this passage jaw-dropping:

The Internet has created a whole new means by which the traditional double-blind peer-review system may be and already is in some ways, I believe, being undermined. I am referring here to the spate of new sociology blogs that have sprung up in recent years in which handfuls of sociologists publicly comment upon and often criticize published works in the discipline. The commentary published on these blogs operates outside of the gatekeeping systems of traditional peer review. All it takes to make that happen is for one or more scholars who want to amplify their opinions into the blogosphere to set up their own blogs and start writing. … If this were conducted properly, it could provide benefit to the discipline. But, in my observation, the discipline’s sacred project sometimes steers how these sociology blogs operate in highly problematic directions (166).

He calls this “vigilante peer review.” And I guess I’m doing it right now.

No journal or book review editor has asked any of these sociologists to review a paper or book. What publications get critiqued and sometimes lambasted is entirely up to the blog owners and authors (166).

Then, after a three-page excerpt from a Darren Sherkat blog post – which, admittedly, probably was not intended to lower Smith’s blood pressure – he concludes:

The Internet has created new means by which American sociology’s spiritual project … can and does interfere with the integrity and trustworthiness of the social-scientific, journal article peer-review system (172).

Yikes. This might all not seem so embarrassingly wrong if it didn’t follow from holding up Regnerus as the paragon of the peer review system.

I can’t think of exactly the right children’s movie analogy here – a grouchy traditionalist who eventually learns that it’s OK to be free and have fun. It’s not quite The Grinch, because that was just evil for no reason. It’s not quite Captain von Trapp from Sound of Music, because his misplaced need for social order resulted from the injury of his widowhood. Maybe it’s Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins, who is just merrily living his life, benignly assuming that children should be seen and not heard because that’s the way it’s always been. I like the movies where, in the end, the grouch learns that it’s OK to sing and dance.

On the other hand

The most persuasive passage in the book is one that is mostly irrelevant to Smith’s sacred project argument. He believes American sociologists have tended in recent years to separate themselves into disparate groups of like-minded people, so that there is “a tacit peace treaty specifying that everyone should mostly think and do whatever he or she wishes in terms of methods, theory, and intent and not suggest that what anyone else is doing might be a problem” – as long as it’s politically correct (142). If the people we talk and argue with professionally have very similar views, debate over broader intellectual or philosophical issues is too limited.

At the same time, too many grad students are trained as narrow technicians, with not enough “broadly read, thoughtful, intellectually interesting scholars and teachers” (143). He may perhaps overstate that case, but it’s a reasonable thing to worry about:

In sum, most of American sociology has become disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogeneous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid (144).

His greatest error in this part is see activist leftists dominating the prestige game within the discipline, shutting out and shunning anyone who doesn’t conform. It seems obvious to me that technical expertise and empirical problem solving skills are much greater determinants of access to top publications and jobs than is devotion to what Smith calls the sacred project. Whacky leftists who don’t think critically (who are of course only a subset of leftists) might be part of the winning electoral coalition within ASA, but I don’t think they’re running the discipline.

The greater culprit here, in my opinion, is not political homogeneity but rather pressure to specialize and develop technical expertise early in our graduate training in order to publish in prestigious journals as early as possible to get hired and promoted in tenure-track jobs. I would love it if sociology had more interaction and debate between, say, family scholars and criminologists, network sociologists and gender scholars, demographers and theorists. (One workaround, at least for me, has been devoting time in my career to blogging and social media, which generates excellent conversation and exposure to new people away from my areas of expertise.)

Don’t just stand there

I agree there are sociologists who see it as their mission to be “essentially the criminal investigative unit of the left wing of the Democratic Party” (21). From the thousands of graduate applications I’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many of our students enter sociology because they are looking for a way to attack social problems and move society in the direction determined by their moral and political views and values. And they’re usually not political conservatives or evangelical Christians.

Why fault people for doing that? What are people with such convictions and talents supposed to do? Sometimes it doesn’t work out as an academic career, but it’s often worth a try. In sociology training, meanwhile, they have the opportunity to learn a lot of facts and theories along with everyone else. And they might also learn to avoid some common intellectual problems. Some things students learn – or learn to appreciate further – include: Things do not always automatically get worse for oppressed people; not all state institutions are harmful to subordinate groups; some facts undermine our prior understandings and political views, and it’s OK to discuss them; and, no matter how oppressed your people are, if you’re in an American sociology graduate program, chances are there are people somewhere who are even more oppressed.

I don’t mean to be condescending to people who enter academia with activist intentions – although I’m sure I seem that way. Personally, I am happier working in such company than I would be surrounded by people who only have faux-value-neutral, technocratic ambitions and no righteous outrage to express. That doesn’t mean I’ll rubberstamp comprehensive exams or dissertations, or ignore errors in the peer-review process, because I like someone’s politics. I like the discipline that social science offers to activism. And I like that our discipline offers a career path for (among others) people whose passion is for changing the world in a good way – the meaning of which I’m happy to argue about further.

* I am not getting into personalism, critical realism, Aristotle, Karol Wojtyla, or other obscure stuff, much of which Smith puts in an appendix.

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People who believe in hell are allowed to raise children?

First someone with a sociology PhD refers to a social institution existing “since time immemorial.” Now an economist pronounces on the eternal destination of homosexuals. What kind of expert witness operation are they running over there in Michigan?

The economist is Douglas W. Allen, testifying in a case over the challenge to Michigan’s same-sex marriage (let’s call it homogamy) ban. Allen recently conducted a study claiming to show that children of gay and lesbian parents in Canada are less likely to succeed in school; a study that, in my expert opinion, is worthless.

The plaintiff’s lawyer asked, and Allen answered:

Q: Is it accurate that you believe the consequence of engaging in homosexual acts is a separation from God and eternal damnation? … In other words, they’re going to hell?

A: Without repentance, yes.

This is just a repetition of an exchange during Allen’s deposition for the trial:

Q: What are the consequences of the sin of engaging in homosexual acts according to your religious beliefs?

A: The consequences of those sins would be the same as the consequences of any sin which is just a separation from God.

Q: He who is separated from God is condemned according to your religious beliefs; isn’t that correct?

A: Eventually.

Q: Okay. And being condemned means what, Professor?

A: Means eternal separation from God.

Q: In other words, going to hell; isn’t that correct? [an objection about leading the witness] You started to nod your head yes. Is the answer correct?

A: Yes.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Christian Terboven

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Christian Terboven

A couple of thoughts on this. First, just thank God at how far we have come from the horror of theocratic society (however far that is). This claim by Allen was the news from the day in court. Not because gays and lesbians are actually going to burn in hell, but because someone said so in polite company. Which makes him a despicable person. If there was even the slightest shred of possibility that gays and lesbians would actually spend eternity suffering in some awful way as a result of the kind of sex they had in life, that would be so much worse than anything else at stake in this trial that the mundane legal proceedings would be pointless. What could matter more?

This brings me to the second point: People who believe this stuff are allowed to raise children? And teach it to them? Allen’s polite euphemism — “separation from God” — is the modern Evangelical way of saying “burn in hell.” Nothing could be worse. So if you are unfortunate enough to be raised by such a person, you have to either know that your father is a crazy, malicious liar (which is traumatic for a child to think about its father), or you have to actually believe this horror story of eternal suffering as a result of “any sin” not repented. Holy sh*t. And on his website Allen brags that he’s been teaching Sunday school for decades.

And we’re arguing about the grade point average of students raised by two men or two women? (Which, again, Allen’s study said nothing of value about).

This reminds me of the kerfuffle over Richard Dawkins’ claim that being indoctrinated into believing in hell was as traumatic — or more traumatic — for some Catholic children as it was to suffer “the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse” at the hands of priests. Although being provocative (and it was an off-the-cuff remark, the first time), I don’t believe Dawkins was minimizing sexual abuse when he said that; rather, he was calling out the severe trauma experienced by children who were raised on the literal existence of hell. There is no need to compare one trauma versus another to make either Dawkins or pedophile priests look bad — it’s enough to acknowledge that a lot of children suffer both ways. That’s important, because it means crazy hell-teachers may be harming children even when they’re not raping them (which of course they usually aren’t).

So, sure. Let’s have a whole trial about whether gay and lesbian parents are bad for children. And let’s allow someone like Allen to take the stand as an expert witness. And let’s allow any straight parent (or gay parent, for that matter) to shame their children to bed each night on tales of horror and eternal suffering. But if, after all that, we refuse to let gay and lesbian couples be married parents — that would be disappointing.

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All opposed? (to family change)

Over on his Iranian Redneck blog, Darren Sherkat has an interesting series of posts on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, using new data from the 2012 General Social Survey (fundamentalism, denominations, young Republicans 2x, race, and the 2004-2012 trend) — all extensions of his academic work on the subject (2x). All of this shows that, in addition to political conservatism, religious fundamentalists and people in sectarian Christian denominations are (or were) driving opposition to marriage rights.

But same-sex marriage (homogamy) is only one aspect of growing family diversity. I was reminded of a survey the Pew Research Center did with Time in 2010, called “The Changing American Family,” which asked a question I like:

These days there seems to be a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in. Overall, do you think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or don’t you think it makes a difference?

I’m not sure what to make of the people who think it’s “good” versus those who think it makes “no difference.” But the people who think family diversity is a “bad thing” — 28% of the population — might be the definition of family conservatives. So who are they (or, who were they in 2010)? Think of them as the sky-is-falling set.

Couple looking up

The good people at Pew offer a data download, which (once you get it out of SPSS format) is pretty easy to use. Using religion, political affiliation, education, race/ethnicity, and some other demographic variables, I made a simple regression model that explained 19% of the variance in “bad thing” attitude. Rather than show the regression table, here are the bivariate relationships between “bad thing” and those characteristics (I also labeled the blocks with how much of the variance they independently explained).

bad-thingAs with Sherkat’s findings for same-sex marriage, the most important predictors of opposition to family diversity are religion and political affiliation – but religion is by far the strongest. For example, people who don’t think family diversity is bad were about 3-times more likely to never attend religious services. The absolute majority – 54% of people who chose “bad thing” – described themselves as born again Christians, and a quarter of them attend church more than once per week. The counter-stereotypical findings are:

  • Latinos are less likely to oppose family diversity than anyone else.
  • Those with high school education or less are the least likely to say “bad thing.” (In the multivariate model, college graduates also choose “bad thing” less, making the some-college crowd the most conservative.)

This is not a scientific study, but an illustrative exploration. I don’t know enough about the data collection to know how well these data could withstand peer review, or whether this could be done with a more rigorous dataset such as the General Social Survey. But I like the question, so figured I’d share the results.

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‘More managerial than intellectual’: How right-wing Christian money brought us the Regnerus study

There is a new release of documents, obtained by the American Independent through a Texas Freedom of Information Act request, regarding Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas-Austin (UT). The new documents are excerpted here and here. This adds an interesting chapter to the ongoing story of the infamous paper published in the journal Social Science Research (even if you haven’t been following it so far.)

In that paper, Regnerus reported negative consequences of being raised by lesbian or gay parents. The study has been thoroughly debunked and substantively should be completely disregarded. Regnerus subsequently signed onto an amicus brief for the Supreme Court, using the study to justify continued denial of marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. (Here is a review of the controversy with links, and here is the most recent debunking).

From my reading, the information in these documents shows that declarations by Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus were not true:

  1. Brad Wilcox was not truthful when he said he never served as an “officer” of the Witherspoon Institute, even though he was director of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy – which funded the study – and when he implied that he did not have a direct hands-on role in it. In fact, Wilcox played a leading role in the original conception, the design, and the dissemination of the results of this study. His description of himself as, “one of about a dozen paid academic consultants,” surely was deliberately misleading.
  2. Mark Regnerus was not truthful when he said that the Witherspoon Institute “had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study.” This assertion appeared in several public venues as well as in the article itself. In fact, Witherspoon, in the person of Brad Wilcox as well as its other officers, was heavily involved throughout the process.

We could have guessed that already; these new documents are merely confirming the probable. But the bad behavior of these individuals ultimately is not as interesting as the story of how Christian conservatives used big private money to produce knowledge in service of their political goals, and how the seemingly puny defenses of the academic establishment may be easily overrun by well-organized, well-funded interest groups.

(To clarify: I didn’t request or publish these documents; I am just discussing them. But the ethics of this exposure seem OK to me: Regnerus ran almost a million dollars in research money through a public university’s research center – this isn’t his private life we’re talking about. As a Maryland employee, incidentally, my own email may be subject to public records request. If you catch me lying and covering up my true motives in my emails, I will be embarrassed, and that’s one reason I try not to do that.)

Fall 2010: Witherspoon lines up its team

Witherspoon is a tax-exempt, right-wing think tank at Princeton University whose leaders have ties to the Bradley Foundation, and the Christian conservative Family Research Council, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Institute on Religion and Democracy, and so on. It also funds the Institute for American Values. In 2011, the New Family Structures Study – the Regnerus study grant – accounted for more than 70% of its external grants. Its president is Luis Tellez.

This is how Regnerus described the funding for the study in his self-Q&A:

Funding is hard to get these days. Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study. To me, I treated it the same as if the funding came from NICHD or NSF.

Q: So why didn’t you go to NICHD or NSF for funding?

A: For two reasons. First, because in informal conversation about it, Witherspoon expressed openness to funding it. I was between book projects and it sounded like an interesting thing to pursue. I informed Witherspoon that if I were to run the study, I would report the results, whatever they may be. And honestly my bet was that it would be a far more mixed set of results, with many null findings. Second, I actually don’t think a study like this would fly at NICHD or NSF.

But this was not the idea of an independent researcher looking for funding to pursue his scientific questions. Rather, the early emails in the document release show Witherspoon president Tellez and Wilcox fundraising and developing the vision for the project.

On September 13, 2010, Tellez wrote to someone named David at Abt Associates, a research firm that has done work on marriage promotion: “At the request of Brad Wilcox, I am sending you a description of ‘The New Family Structure Study.’”

There can be little doubt Tellez and Wilcox were motivated by political goals. There are two indicators of that. The first is technical but important: the proposal Tellez sent, forwarded from Wilcox, described their plan to “sample 1000 young adults from same-sex households, 1000 young adults from adopted households, and 1000 young adults from heterosexual households.” As would become immediately apparent once actual experts were consulted, finding 1000 young adults raised by gay and lesbian couples through random survey sample methods would be next to impossible without a budget in the millions of dollars – there are simply too few of them in the population. Any researcher with substantive expertise and interests in this area would have seen that as an outlandish proposal. Substantively, they did not understand this area of research – but they understood the politics very well.

And second, in a Tellez email to Regnerus later that month – apparently working out the details of their new arrangement for Regnerus to conduct the study on Witherspoon’s behalf – he wrote:

“It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well… I would like you to take ownership and think of how you want it done… rather than someone like me dictating parameters… but of course, here to help.” [ellipses in original]

You might think Witherspoon was motivated to discover the truth – whatever it was – so that it could inform the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decisions. But I believe Tellez, Wilcox and Regnerus were sure they would find that children raised by gay and lesbian parents fare worse than those in what they smugly call “gold standard” families. They believed they would find that if they did do the research “right.” And when they were unable to get anything like that sample they imagined, they adjusted. Their decision was to boost the sample of children of gay or lesbian parents by including anyone who reported a parent ever having a same-sex relationship — a change certain to produce the negative-outcomes result. Believing in what they expected in the first place, and motivated to produce the result they were already planning for, they showed no hesitation in drawing the conclusion they initially expected – even though it was not supported by the evidence they actually got.

Anyway, on September 21, 2010, Regnerus sent Wilcox a detailed email, seeking his approval – on behalf of Witherspoon – for the plan he intended to bring to the director of the Population Research Center at UT. Wilcox responded, on September 22, with “YES” to each item. The message goes like this (excerpted):

Dear Mark:

This sounds right on target. My thoughts in CAPS. Thanks, Brad.

[then, quoting Regnerus’s message:]

Brad,

OK, so let me process some of this. I need to have my stuff together before I approach Mark Hayward [director of UT's Population Research Center], perhaps early next week if I’m clear on things.

Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.

  1. We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES [Wilcox’s reply –pnc]
  2. We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
  3. We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
  4. This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES

Did I understand that correctly?

And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis and Maggie [Gallagher? –pnc] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC. Feel free to forward this to them.

Just to be clear that the idea and impetus were coming from Witherspoon, two other emails from that day show the chain of command. Tellez wrote to Regnerus: “we will include some money for you and Brad on account of the time and effort you will be devoting to this.” Regnerus replied,

Got it; thanks, Luis, and Brad. … I have a light teaching load all this year, which is a significant help. Providential, perhaps.

On October 19, Tellez got back to David from Abt to say:

Mark Regnerus of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin is in conversations with us about PRC hosting the project. When I have more specifics I will let you know.

David responded, “Thanks for the update. A pop center as host sounds promising.” To which Tellez replied: “…you set me off in the search for that major university and it appears we have found it.”

Regnerus’s CV shows a $55,000 “planning grant” from Witherspoon starting in October 2010. (I don’t think Abt ended up working on the research.)

This is a beautiful illustration of the legitimacy-seeking nature of the Witherspoon project. By hiring Regnerus, and getting UT’s population center to host it, Tellez and Wilcox were buying their seal of academic objectivity – the tool they would later use to boost the political influence of the published study. (I’m not expert in this area of how elites construct “popular” opinion – all I know I learned from books like Domhoff’s Who Rules America, which describes this process pretty well.)

Starting in October, there are a series of emails from Regnerus attempting to recruit academic consultants to enhance that legitimacy. He offered professors a few thousand dollars and a paid trip to a meeting in return for their input. The requests are from Regnerus – not Tellez and Wilcox – and in them Regnerus distances himself from the well-known political bent of Witherspoon.

For example, he wrote to sociologist Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld on October 25:

So my job here is more managerial than intellectual – to pull together a small team of ideologically diverse scholars who are serious about doing good science on this important subject. … This is *not* some right-wing conspiracy (I myself am moderate and largely apolitical); while the initial funding source is conservative, they’re actually pursuing (and are already getting) additional financial support from across the spectrum.

After listing some other possible consultants, Regnerus writes, “On the more conservative side, Brad Wilcox of UVa has agreed to be part of this…”

Rosenfeld sent an email declining to participate. (In it, incidentally, Rosenfeld advised Regnerus, “creating a new nationally representative sample of children raised by same-sex couples, with your proposed sample size of 1,000 is in my view an [sic] very ambitious, and maybe an overly ambitious undertaking.” Regnerus got the same response from Chintan Turakhia at Abt: “This is obviously an extremely rare population. Most probability based sampling methods are likely to be cost prohibitive.”)

In his attempt to recruit one professor, Regnerus wrote on December 2,

I’m an odd pick to run this thing… I didn’t know anybody at the Witherspoon before several months ago. Basically, was a friend of a friend who introduced me. … I’m between books and this hit at the right time, so fine, I can manage such a project, provided I locate good advisors … I realize the funder is conservative, but they are working hard as well to get funding from pro-GLBTQ orgs and donors, and are nearing that.

The emails I’ve seen contain no trace of this effort to find progressive donors, and none eventually were found, but the claim showed Regnerus trying to put a legitimate face on the project.

2011: How sausage is made

Regnerus and Wilcox did not sit around waiting for the study to be completed. They were working on packaging the results before the data collection started.

On January 21, Regnerus wrote to Wilcox,

Any new thoughts about Cynthia [Osborne -pnc] as co-writer of the report? I remain positively inclined toward it. What are the negatives?

Wilcox replied, apparently wary of Osborne’s potential liberal influence:

Great idea. No Negatives. … My suggestion for report: You coauthor introduction, lit review, data and methods, and results sections and THEN write your own distinct conclusions.

Osborne ended up a coauthor on an early presentation about the study for the Population Association of America, and also wrote a critical yet supportive comment in Social Science Research – and she is listed as a “key collaborator” on the study’s web page.

Meanwhile, Tellez was working to raise more money for the study, turning to the Bradley Foundation, which would eventually contribute $90,000. (The Bradley Foundation has a long history of support conservative pro-marriage causes.)

On April 5, Tellez wrote to Bradley vice president Dan Schmidt asking for $200,000:

to examine whether young adults raised by same-sex parents fare as well as those raised in different familial settings. This is a question that must now be answered – in a scientifically serious way – by those who are in favor of traditional marriage. … Our first goal is to seek the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.

That led to a planned conference call. On April 29 Tellez wrote to Michael Hartmann, Bradley’s director of research:

Mark Regnerus is in the process of preparing a proposal… I have asked Brad Wilcox to be in the call as well as Mark. The purpose of the call, in my view, is to update you as to the importance of the project, and to explore ways in which Bradley could assist in supporting this project.

Throughout 2011, Regnerus, Wilcox and Tellez stayed in touch on budget and planning matters. In a detailed budget report to Tellez on July 7, Regnerus wrote that, “Brad and I decided to pay [blacked out] $15,000 to co-analyze and co-author the report.”

He also reported that he would spend some Witherspoon travel money to visit with Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family (author of Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting), and that he would pay for Wilcox to attend the NIH conference “Counting Families” that summer.

On August 23, Regnerus reported back to Tellez on his travels, subject: “with Brad”:

I spent the day yesterday with Brad and a couple other researchers (Glenn Stanton, Focus, and Scott Stanley, U of Denver), and spent some time discussing public/media relations for the NFSS project. Anyways, time well spent and we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward.

Tellez gently replied, “At some point, I would like to know the plan… at your convenience” [ellipses in original], and Regnerus promptly filled him in on the details on the media strategy, such as

Brad thinks we should invite three journalists then – an NPR reporter, an Atlantic monthly writer, and an AP journalist (I can’t remember the names of the last two – Brad does…).

The data collection had begun four days earlier, and already the media plan was ramping up. Another message, from Wilcox to Regnerus on September 12, shows Wilcox’s continued assistance with the media:

Michael Cromartie runs a big press gathering in Miami in the spring. Very informal, expansive, great access to top media players. Love to get you and [blacked out] there @ the time the report is released. He’s interested.

Cromartie is vice president of the aforementioned Ethics and Public Policy Center. In this ABC News clip his event is described as “maybe the best junket in all of journalism.” The clip happens to show Brad Wilcox speaking there (apparently about his work on divorce trends).

wilcox-cromartie

Finally, there is a message from Wilcox to Regnerus that I can’t find a date for.

Yes, I think you have to keep in mind that even getting a report from UT W [with –pnc] Paul Amato on board is a huge achievement.

BTW: I have an idea. Steven Nock’s good friend Jim Wright is editor of SSR [Social Science Research], a good peer-reviewed journal that does lots on family.

He might be open to a special issue on our dataset – esp because Steve had hoped to study the issue. Wright also likes Paul Amato.

So, down the road, I suggest we do a report AND invite a number of people from across the spectrum to contribute to a special issue of SSR on the new data.

This seems to be the point at which Wilcox plants the idea of publishing the study in SSR. Two things about it are interesting. The first is describing the report – coming from UT, and with Paul Amato, a respected Penn State sociologist “on board” – as a “huge achievement.” Why is it a huge achievement? Is it not just the natural outcome of a large-scale academic study? Maybe Wilcox sees every published article as a “huge achievement,” and he’s merely encouraging a junior colleague. But I think he sees it that way because it represents the accomplishment of legitimacy for the study.

And the second point is Wilcox calls it “our dataset.”

Inside outside

In the end, two academic insiders with PhDs, Wilcox and Regnerus – enabled by various PhD allies, credulous consultants, the journal editor and his reviewers – were the conduits for a million dollars’ worth of foundation-driven anti-gay marriage PR, disguised in legitimacy-laced peer review and served up to activists, courts, and legislators around the country with a media campaign and an animated web site.

Comments short and polite, please…

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How can we save the church from divorce?

Unable to stop gay marriage, successfully promote straight marriage, or prevent divorce, the religious right is adopting a defensive posture. Maggie Gallagher has canceled her syndicated column. And the Institute for American Values has decided that, if it can’t save the family, it may as well try to save the church. (Or, as they call it now, in some weird nod toward diversity, “the churches.”)

A new pamphlet, by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Zeittlow, and Charles Stokes, spells out the problem of divorce — for the churches. It’s called, “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?”

David Smilde and Matthew May determined in 2010 that social science is increasingly studying religion’s effects rather than its causes — asking whether religion helps or hurts rather than what makes people religious. But churches are institutions, with bills to pay, zeal to project and ideological missions to fulfill. They have to worry about the bottom line. And divorce is hurting it.

Amanda Marcotte commented at Slate:

To read this paper, you’d think non-believing children of divorce are the walking wounded, barely able to make it through the day. Words like “schism,” “rupture,” and “alienated” abound, and the study’s authors warn that even having an amicable divorce leaves your child in danger of blowing off church, which we are meant to believe is a very dire fate indeed.

church4sale

But more than concern for children, the document is animated by concern for the churches:

We have learned that when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those who grew up in intact families, they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith.

The main question is, how can we keep this structural change in family life from harming the churches:

The health and future of congregations depends upon understanding, reaching out to, and nurturing as potential leaders those who have come of age in an era of dramatic social changes in family structure. The suffering felt by children of divorce may actually offer a pathway toward healing and growth, not only for themselves but for the churches.

On helpful suggestion is to take advantage of people, especially children, when they are vulnerable:

Those who have experienced brokenness in their families of origin may have had early experiences of the imperfection and frailty of human beings. They may be open to the idea of a God who loves unconditionally, a community in which to seek meaning, or a practice that engages them with more universal truths.

This can be difficult, however, because divorced parents may be turned off by the churches (especially churches that threaten them with hell-fire for getting divorced, and now are coming after their children), and thus not even bring their children to the churches anymore.

When parents do not involve their children in an active life of faith, churches seem bewildered about how to reach them.

Besides reminding parents that giving children access to the internet is risky, this might lead some parents to say, “Good! How about this: leave my kids alone unless you have my permission to ‘reach them.””

I think the churches should consider that, if the children of divorced parents are feeling some pain, the churches themselves might not be completely blameless for that. After all, many children of Christian parents are raised to believe that:

…when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two. Theologically [in Christianity], then, children whose parents divorce experience brokenness because the parental unity that they embody has been ruptured.

Not surprisingly, such children may feel torn by divorce.

And of course that can happen regardless of the parents’ religions. But here’s a suggestion: don’t teach children that they are the “one-flesh union” of their parents’ marriage. Rather, find a way to explain to children that they are the biological creation of two separately living organism which, upon achieving physical independence, has its own existence that survives its parents’ breakup. Maybe we could address the emotional challenges better if we weren’t standing in the pool of blood created by the rupture of the child’s tender body.

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Yes, mothers and fathers still exist

On FamilyScholars.org, which (having retreated on opposing homogamous marriage) is busy promoting its “new conversation on marriage,” Elizabeth Marquardt writes: “Where do babies come from? The state of New York seems unsure.”

Her link to a “report” is to one of those “you wouldn’t believe what my friend saw” posts on the Christian conservative site First Things:

A friend’s wife recently gave birth. He reports that the New York birth certificate asks for the sex of the mother, and the sex of the father.

It goes on to mock people who think seriously about sex and gender. And so the thing starts spreading around the religious-conservative sky-is-falling blogosphere.

shock_horror_3

I’m not too embarrassed to say I spent 15 minutes trying to look this up. Live and learn.

It’s hard to find information about birth certificates, because everything online keeps steering you to ways to order birth certificates, not create them. But, in New York state it appears there is a state system, and a state system excluding New York City. On the New York City site, there is an Electronic Birth Registration System, described here. It asks for a lot of information about the mother and father, but not their sex or gender.

I didn’t find the equivalent for the rest of the state, but the state’s Department of Health reports that they follow National Center of Health Statistics (NCHS) guidelines, which seem to refer to this revised birth certificate recording form, which was revised in 2003. In addition to health information, it records the mother’s and father’s marital status (mother only), country of birth, education, Hispanic origin, and race. The mother is “the woman who gave birth to, or delivered the infant.”

The only mention of sex (or gender) pertains to the child: “Print or type whether the infant is male, female or if the sex of the infant is not yet determined.” And “not yet determined” is a temporary state, as the recording instructions clarify:

An N code for “not yet determined” should not be allowed for any record in the file at the time the file is closed. NCHS will query states to obtain the sex of the infant for all records still retaining the N code at the time the file is closed.

 

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