Is Becoming Born-Again a Transformative Experience? Results from Three Sets of Panel Data

Abstract

The process of becoming a born-again Christian is one that has intrigued social scientists for decades but has never been studied in a large-scale way, using panel data. While sociologists have tried to conceptualize and operationalize how one converts to a new religious experience, many political scientists have used “having a born-again experience” as a way to classify evangelical Protestants. While there is a great deal of scholarship devoted to understanding how born-again Christians navigate the social and political world, the direct impact of adopting a born-again status has eluded scholars. Using panel surveys from three different polling organizations, this work analyzes how those who convert and de-convert to born-again Christianity change their political and religious behaviors in after the switch. Analysis indicates that conversion and deconversion is not uncommon among the population, occurring in approximately 1 in 10 survey respondents. Results indicate that women, younger Americans, and those with less educations are more likely to change their conversion status. Of those who do make a switch, few significantly change their partisanship, while shifts in church attendance are more common and this is confirmed through statistical modeling. These findings fill a gap in scholars’ previous understanding of the changes in behavior and political orientation following a shift in born-again status—something that was only studied at the aggregate level in prior work. This research offers an additional angle for scholars who are seeking to understand the caused by religious switching in the United States.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Notes

  1. 1.

    84% confidence intervals are the equivalent of a 95% single t-test.

    See: Goldstein H., and Healy M.J.R. (1995), The graphical presentation of a collection of means. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society A, 158: 175–177.

    MacGregor-Fors, I., and Payton, M.E. (2013), Contrasting Diversity Values: Statistical Inferences Based on Overlapping Confidence Intervals. PLOS-One, 8(2): e56794.

    Payton, M.E., Greenstone, M.H., and Schenker, N. (2003), Overlapping confidence intervals or standard error intervals: What do they mean in terms of statistical significance? Journal of Insect Science, 3:34–39.

  2. 2.

    A table of these results is available in the “Appendix”.

  3. 3.

    In addition to this analysis, the scale was collapsed to three-point partisan identification (Democrat, Independent, Republican) and the shifts were tracked among those took on a born-again identity in each of three surveys. Shifts in partisanship among Democrats was infrequent (occurring 11–27% of the time), but was even rarer among Republicans (ranging from 22.4% of the time to just 5.6% of the CCES sample. The full analysis is available in the “Appendix”.

  4. 4.

    The tabular results of all these models are included in the “Appendix”.

  5. 5.

    In a model where the comparison group was shifted to those who no longer claimed a born-again status, the increase in church attendance was 9–10% in the VSG and CCES data, but the coefficient for the GSS was statistically insignificant.

  6. 6.

    When the comparison group was shifted to those who no longer claimed a born-again status, the coefficient for becoming born-again did not predict a partisan change in a statistically significant way, either.

  7. 7.

    Visualizations of the distribution in partisanship and church attendance in the VSG can be found in the “Appendix”.

References

  1. Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. 2019. Is David Brooks a Christian or a Jew? His Latest Book Traces His Faith—And His Second Marriage. Washington Post.https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/04/29/is-david-brooks-christian-or-jew-his-latest-book-traces-his-faith-his-second-marriage/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1b356fe33120. Accessed 12 Mar 2019.

  2. Bartkowski, John P. 2001. Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Benson, Peter L., and Dorothy Lowe Williams. 1982. Religion on Capitol Hill: Myths and Realities. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bielo, James S. 2012. Belief, Deconversion, and Authenticity Among U.S. Emerging Evangelicals. Ethos 40(3): 258–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Burge, Ryan P. 2018. Do You Have to Be Protestant to Be Born-Again?—Religion in Public. Religion in Public. https://religioninpublic.blog/2018/05/07/do-you-have-to-protestant-to-be-born-again/. Accessed 17 Mar 2019.

  6. Burge, Ryan P., and Paul A. Djupe. 2014. Truly Inclusive or Uniformly Liberal? An Analysis of the Politics of the Emerging Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(3): 636–651.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Cooperman, Alan, Gregory Smith, and Katherine Ritchey. 2015. America’s Changing Religious Landscape. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/05/RLS-08–26-full-report.pdf.

  8. Dixon, Richard D., Diane E. Levy, and Roger C. Lowery. 1988. Asking the" Born-Again" Question. Review of Religious Research 30(1): 33–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dixon, Richard D., Roger C. Lowery, and Lloyd P. Jones. 1992. The Fact and Form of Born-Again Religious Conversions and Sociopolitical Conservatism. Review of Religious Research 34(2): 117–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Djupe, Paul, and Brian Calfano. 2013. God Talk: Experimenting with the Religious Causes of Public Opinion. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Djupe, Paul, and Ryan Claassen. 2018. The Evangelical Crackup?: The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Djupe, Paul A., Jacob Neiheisel, and Anand Sokhey. 2018. Reconsidering the Role of Politics in Leaving Religion: The Importance of Affiliation. American Journal of Political Science 62(1): 161–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Ellison, Christopher G., and Darren Sherkat. 1993. Conservative Protestantism and Support for Corporal Punishment. American Sociological Review 58(1): 131–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Evangelism Is Most Effective Among Kids. 2004. Barna Group. https://www.barna.com/research/evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids/. Accessed 22 Mar 2019.

  15. Finke, Roger, Christopher D. Bader, and Edward C. Polson. 2010. Faithful Measures: Developing Improved Measures of Religion. State College, PA: Association of Religion Data Archives.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Firebaugh, Glenn, and Brian Harley. 1991. Trends in US Church Attendance: Secularization and Revival, or Merely Lifecycle Effects? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(4): 487–500.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Greil, Arthur L., and David R. Rudy. 1983. Conversion to the World View of Alcoholics Anonymous: A Refinement of Conversion Theory. Qualitative Sociology 6(1): 5–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hout, Michael, and Claude Fischer. 2002. Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations. American Sociological Review 67(2): 165–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Jelen, Ted G. 1993. The Political Consequences of Religious Group Attitudes. The Journal of Politics 55(1): 178–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Jelen, Ted G., Corwin E. Smidt, and Clyde Wilcox. 1993. The Political Effects of the Born-Again Phenomenon. In Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics, ed. D.C. Leege and L.A. Kellstedt, 199–215. Armonk, NY: M.E Sharpe.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Layman, Geoffrey. 2001. The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Lewis, Andrew R. 2017. The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Lewis, Andrew R., and Dana De Bernardo. 2010. Belonging Without Belonging: Utilizing Evangelical Self-identification to Analyze Political Attitudes and Preferences. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 49(1): 112–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Lister, David. 2017. How Bob Dylan Embraced Jesus in a Born-Again Period Lasting 3 Years. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/bob-dylan-jesus-trouble-no-more-bootleg-series-volume-13-slow-train-coming-u2-a8031031.html.

  25. Lofland, John, and Norman Skonovd. 1981. Conversion Motifs. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(4): 373–385.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective. American Sociological Review 30(6): 862–875.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Long, Theodore E., and Jeffrey K. Hadden. 1983. Religious Conversion and the Concept of Socialization: Integrating the Brainwashing and Drift Models. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22(1): 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Margolis, Michele F. 2018. From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  29. Narea, Nicole. 2019. One Surprisingly Simple Reason Evangelicals Love Trump. Vox. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/12/27/21038031/white-evangelicals-trump-immigration-election-2020. Accessed 15 Mar 2019.

  30. Niemi, Richard G., and Barbara I. Sobieszek. 1977. Political Socialization. Annual Review of Sociology 3(1): 209–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Olson, Laura R., and Adam L. Warber. 2008. Belonging, Behaving, and Believing: Assessing the Role of Religion on Presidential Approval. Political Research Quarterly 61(2): 192–204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Patrikios, Stratos. 2013. Self-stereotyping as ‘Evangelical Republican’: An Empirical Test. Politics and Religion 6(4): 800–822.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Perry, Samuel L. 2017. Growing God's Family: The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism. New York: NYU Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  34. Perry, Samuel L., and Cyrus Schleifer. 2018. Understanding the Rise of Born-Again Catholics in the United States: The Role of Educational Attainment. Review of Religious Research 60(4): 555–574. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-018-0351-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Putnam, Robert D., and David E. Campbell. 2012. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Richardson, James T. 1985. The Active vs. Passive Convert: Paradigm Conflict in Conversion/Recruitment Research. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24(2): 163–179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Schumm, Walter R., and Benjamin Silliman. 1990. A Research Note and Commentary on Dixon, Levy, & Lowery’s" Asking the’Born-Again’Question". Review of Religious Research 31(4): 413–415.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Tajfel, Henri. 1979. Individuals and Groups in Social Psychology. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 18(2): 183–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Webb, Stephen H. 2006. Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Webber, Jeremy. 2017. Evangelical vs. Born Again: A Survey of What Americans Say and Believe. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/december/you-must-be-born-again-evangelical-beliefs-politics-survey.html.

  41. When Americans Become Christians. 2015. National Association of Evangelicals. https://www.nae.net/when-americans-become-christians/. Accessed 21 Mar 2019.

  42. Wuthnow, Robert. 2015. Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ryan P. Burge.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

All data used in this analysis is freely available on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study website (https://cces.gov.harvard.edu/) from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group (https://www.voterstudygroup.org/) or the National Opinion Research Council (https://gss.norc.org/get-the-data/stata). The full coding syntax will be made available on GitHub after publication.

Appendix

Appendix

See Figs. 

Fig. 7
figure7

.

7,

Fig. 8
figure8

.

8,

Fig. 9
figure9

.

9,

Fig. 10
figure10

.

10,

Fig. 11
figure11

.

11 and Tables

Table 1 The Distribution of Born-Again Changes in Three Sets of Panel Data

1,

Table 2 Predicting church attendance changes

2,

Table 3 .

3.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Burge, R.P. Is Becoming Born-Again a Transformative Experience? Results from Three Sets of Panel Data. Rev Relig Res 63, 83–105 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00428-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Evangelical
  • Born-again
  • Conversion
  • Partisanship
  • Church attendance