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Sam Reimer, Evangelicals and the Continental Divide: The Conservative Protestant Subculture in Canada and the United States.

Sam Reimer, Evangelicals and the Continental Divide: The Conservative Protestant Subculture in Canada and the United States. Montreal and Kingston, London, Ithaca: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003, 232 pp.

Reimer, a professor of sociology in the Atlantic Baptist University, Moncton, New Brunswick, uses survey and face-to-face interview data to assess national, regional and organizational effects on various aspects of evangelical culture including individual identity, group boundaries, experience, beliefs, moral views and practices.

Methodologically defensible comparisons (sociologists often need remind themselves) arise where variation (qualitative or quantitative) in something of interest is examined within and between specified treatments, conditions or contexts. That is a simple point but one that may be lost in the scramble to establish a "correct" position especially where Canada and the United States are compared. In particular the assessment of regional effects within each national (Canada/U.S) jurisdiction may be given short shrift. At the outset, then, one is impressed by the design of Reimer's project.

Is an evangelical an evangelical an evangelical (with apologies to Gertrude Stein)? For many Europeans "evangelical" denotes a class of churches or a national organization such as the Evangelical Church, one of the quasi-established churches in Germany. In North America, on the other hand, the term is privatized and individualistic. Evangelical churches are churches dominated by evangelical persons and within a denomination there may be both evangelical and non-evangelical congregations.

But who is an evangelical? The evangelical system makes no provision for inclusion on account of ascription by birth or symbolic means that are external to individual choice (infant baptism/baptism of the dead). To be an evangelical one must choose, the attribution of choice must be unequivocal and one must experience the consequences of that choice. There are no evangelical tribes.

Does the evangelical difference enter the researcher/participant system as an observation that communication in that system fits (and fits very tightly) the prior observation (of the observing researcher) that sets out the properties of an evangelical? The question has special salience for the comparative study of evangelicals because the mode of production of the evangelical identity (achieved), and its sharp demarcation from "the world, the flesh and the devil" suggest that it is bound only to embedding in an evangelical context and is, thereby, "immunized" against penetration by other contexts--national, regional, local--in which evangelicals are nested.

Given the radically constructed nature of the evangelical identity (that depends on the attribution of choice), it is not surprising that there is a scholarly "industry" devoted to the matter of definition, the search for the set of necessary and sufficient properties that mark an evangelical. Reimer does not enter that fray choosing instead to use David Bebbington's content criteria-biblicism, activism, conversionism, crucentrism (Christ's work on the cross)--joined to a scope criterion--the self-attribution of Christian by respondents. He reasons that these content and scope elements should be found among those most deeply embedded in the evangelical subculture on either side of the continental divide.

To assess that notion he selected four cities, two in Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Saint John, New Brunswick) and two in the United States (Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Jackson, Mississippi) as interview sites. Reimer matched Winnipeg and Minneapolis because their similarity enables the analysis of a national effect on evangelical subculture. Cities in Mississippi and New Brunswick were chosen because they are "quintessential evangelical locations."

In each site, pastors and core lay members from churches belonging to evangelical denominations were methodically selected and interviewed using a schedule that measured the presence of the evangelical attributes (biblicism, etc.), the self-attribution of religious identity and the felt degree of respondents' closeness to a variety of other groups. The data indicate that the respondents clearly see themselves as Christians who identify with the attributes of evangelicalism and exhibit a strong sense of distinctiveness as a group. Evangelicalism as a religious phenomenon (experience, belief, morals, practice, commitment) among core adherents does not vary significantly across the continental divide.

Nevertheless there are some cross-border differences in peripheral matters. Core evangelicals in Canada and the United States differ in political attitudes and what Reimer calls "irenicism." Within America as well there are some moderate detectable sectional differences in beliefs and irenicism among core evangelicals. These differences persist in Reimer's analysis of the Pew Charitable Trusts' 1996 God and Society survey of 6,000 respondents randomly selected from the Canadian (3,000) and American (3,000) populations. In this survey evangelicals above and below the 49th parallel differ in political attitudes and irenicism and also to some extent in beliefs. However, they do not differ in devotion, commitment and church attendance. Within Canada there are no regional differences among evangelicals. In the United States, on the other hand, regional differences do exist in beliefs, commitment, church attendance and irenicism. One summary of Reimer's analysis of the God and Society survey suggests that a randomly selected Canadian evangelical is more likely to resemble a randomly selected American evangelical than two American evangelicals drawn from different regions of the United States are likely to resemble each other.

The somewhat different findings in the core evangelical sample and the God and Society survey may be due to the broad array of denominational affiliations in the United States that were caught in the national probability sampling strategy of the God and Society survey compared with the limited number of denominations in the core evangelical sample.

Reimer's book is a model for research on the comparative cross-national analysis of a subculture (any subculture) that takes intra-national differences and effects into account. In particular those who have an interest in studying religious diasporas will find many helpful things in Reimer's book that are worth imitating. Not the least of these is the way in which he uses sociological concepts and methods to translate the stuff of a faith into social science discourse.

John H. Simpson

Hitachi Survey Research Centre

University of Toronto at Mississauga
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Author:Simpson, John H.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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