It's Just Not True: American Evangelicals Do Not, in Fact, Behave as Badly as Everyone Else

Christian Smith has written about it briefly. Brad Wright has written about it at book length. And I’ve written about it in a nice, big article that ought to have laid the matter to rest once and for all.

Yet the myth can’t be killed. Weirdly, it’s a myth perpetuated especially by evangelicals themselves: We’re just as bad as everyone else, we feel (or ought to feel) terrible about that, and now here’s what we’ll do. The classic American sermon style known as the “jeremiad” never goes out of date, it seems. But in this case, its basis is just wrong.

Evangelicals–and here’s the key point: according to any definition that John Wesley or Billy Graham would recognize–do not, in fact, behave as badly as the American population at large. They do not, in fact, have extramarital sex as often or abort babies as often. (Even the National Association of Evangelicals seems to have gotten these basic facts wrong.) They do not experience the same levels of marital unhappiness and divorce. They do not give to charity or volunteer at the same low levels as the population at large. And so on, and so on.

Preachers fasten on these egregiously mistaken claims–mistakes by people such as George Barna, the Gallup organization, and Ron Sider, who really ought to know better. (I mean, Barna, the late Mr. Gallup, and my friend Ron are all believers: Why, when they concluded that evangelicalism apparently makes no practical difference, would they not give their heads, and their data, a shake and say, “Hmm. Perhaps we got something wrong here.” Guys, you did: Your definitions are wrong, so your conclusions are wrong.) Then the preachers typically castigate those of us in the pews and offer whatever their latest stricture to solve the “problem” might be.

But this whole conversation is off the mark. And it jolly well better be, because if faithful Christian profession and practice doesn’t make any difference in these obvious markers of behaviour, then how can anyone take our gospel seriously? Yet it does, so they can.

I won’t repeat the arguments of the article here. But despite Ron’s vociferous (and, to me, utterly mystifying, because quite off the point) rejoinder in B&C, I stick to my guns. I think my research stands up and my conclusions are as solid as the opposing claims are ridiculous. Check it out. And then please, please, please pass the word.

Of course I don’t think evangelicalism is perfectly healthy and beyond reproach. Goodness: Hardly anyone spends more time criticizing it than I do! But let’s get our definitions and facts straight before we start to complain. Otherwise, we make bad decisions, bad policies, and bad press.

UPDATE: I have posted my article in the following weblog post. So you don’t have to go the B&C site for it.

25 Responses to “It's Just Not True: American Evangelicals Do Not, in Fact, Behave as Badly as Everyone Else”

  1. Robert

    I respectfully disagree. Over the past five years I’ve served as a college minister and young adult minister at to large metro-area churches in the southern area of the US. The stats are evangelical millennials is generally aligned with their non-evangelicla peers. They (evangelical singles) have premarital sex just as much as their peers. They cohabitate at the same levels as their peers. Now, I will admit evangelicals will do this slightly less, but only within about five to ten percent.

    When they have premarital sex it is delayed from high school to college…or right after college. As they are getting married the rates of divorce for younger Gen-Xers and old Millennials are staying almost consistent to their peers. The only thing holding that stat back is, IMHO, that non-evangelicals are pushing back marriage until nearly their 30s.

    This is what my colleagues and I are seeing and tracking across the board. I’ll admit that the stats are slightly better for evangelicals, but only (as aforementioned) within five or ten percent.

    The reality of our problem here is important to address. We have a huge issue with the upcoming generations on moral and ethical issues. The biggest difference often is made when we work theologically with people.

    I will concede that evangelicals are better than their peers when it comes to abortion. That does seem to be an area they try to stay different.

    • John Stackhouse

      Did you read my article before posting this reply, Brother Robert? You need to do that, especially if you’re working in the South, and then we’ll be sure we’re talking about apples and apples, “evangelicals” and “evangelicals.” Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistake the pollsters make and compare nominally evangelical Americans with Americans at large–in a culture deeply shaped by evangelical Christianity–and we’ll find, unsurprisingly, that they’re not all that different.

  2. matichuk

    I mentioned some Barna statistics about sin in the church in a sermon a couple of months ago (because the congregation has heard them). I then said I didn’t trust these statistics because there is a difference between those who self identify as Christian and those who are really trying to follow Jesus. But I used them as a segue to talk about the reality of sin in the church (i.e. dishonesty, gossip, pornography, infidelity). I think there is a way to address real sin without being alarmist as Barna group statistics too often are.

    I’ve become deeply suspicious of all their stats and any time somebody quotes a particularly alarming one, I go searching for a counter analysis from Stark and the good folks from Baylor to see if they have similar conclusions.

  3. rob haskell

    Thank you for making this point. I’ve been suspicious of these Barnaish stats for some time, simply because they don’t match my experience. In my world Christians do behave better for being Christians (yes, there are exceptions). Their faith does make a difference. Why are we so eager to accept self-deprecating assessments of ourselves? Do we feel, perhaps, that it wins us points with the non-Christian population? It’s hip to be authentic? It’s “more righteous” to not seem to be righteous?

  4. LLM

    Reblogged this on Enough Light and commented:
    Hmm…it is always good to share other views. In the last couple months, I’ve had 2 posts where I bemoan the poor behavior of evangelicals. (The last post was entitled “Christians: the worst type of customer?”) – Well, Professor Stackhouse (whom I highly respect) shares a different view. Ya know, I agree with him. Christians are often very unfairly maligned by the media, and statistics can be very twisted and misused.

    Yet, I still think my thoughts have validity as well. Partly because I think I have a different focus. Stackhouse (and those he references) seem more focused on big issues like divorce, abortion, and stewardship – which are things that can also be statistically measured. My concern is that Christians may indeed be avoiding “big sins” or “traditional Christian taboos” (yeah for us!), but we have forgotten that things like gossip, impatience, pride, and rudeness are sins too. If these types of sins could be statistically tracked and measured, perhaps evangelicals do indeed deserve at least some of the criticism leveled at them. The people I know who deride Christians are NOT deriding them for being divorced or having an abortion, but for being unkind and lacking mercy.

    I also live smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt where Christianity is very cultural. There can be a very real dichotomy here between belief and behavior. People may know all about Jesus, but their lives have not been transformed by Him. So perhaps my location in the Bible belt gives me a more jaded or cynical outlook on Christian behavior.

    Do consider Professor Stackhouse’s thoughts.

    • rob haskell

      LLM – We have to be careful about generalizations based on our circumstances. If you are going to critique the people with whom you come in contact, then you have to do it as such, not as thought they represented “evangelicals” in general. I think this is actually a huge problem in many different areas. Each of us tends to speak about his or her experience as though it was universal and then we share our views on universal forums like blogs or social media where people have different experiences. The result is more heat than light.

  5. Spencer Capier

    well I tried to read the articles but they’re behind a pay wall, but would it be fair to say the critique of the stats is that the polls don’t distinguish between cultural Christians and earnest ones? If so how would we get a reliable metric on that?

      • LLM

        Thanks for reprinting it! I think I’ll print a copy to keep with Ron Sider’s book.

  6. Chris E

    I tend to side with the sorts of arguments you make here and in your follow up post.

    Having said that, it would appear from comparative statistics that the most religious parts of the country are becoming nominally the fastest, which is probably a symptom of whatever the real problem is. It’s almost as if evangelicalism is leaving behind one vast burned over district.

    • LLM

      Chris, I really appreciate your thought here: “which is probably a symptom of whatever the real problem is.” It is unfair to judge true Christians based on nominal ones. I agree with Stackhouse. But for me it comes down to core issues – why does the Bible Belt have so many nominal Christians? What is the real problem? Of course, there are probably multiple answers to that….

  7. Worth a Look 5.29.12 – Trevin Wax

    […] It’s just not true: American evangelical do not, in fact, behave as badly as everyone else Weirdly, it’s a myth perpetuated especially by evangelicals themselves: We’re just as bad as everyone else, we feel (or ought to feel) terrible about that, and now here’s what we’ll do. The classic American sermon style known as the “jeremiad” never goes out of date, it seems. But in this case, its basis is just wrong. […]

  8. Thomas (@TawmisP)

    I would like to read your article, but you have to subscribe to the website to read it. Is there any other way to read it?

  9. David Mills

    Without accusing any author of duplicity, do you think that the “we are as bad as the world” notion is simply an intetional marketing technique for evangelical publishing houses? Bad news about the church sells. I have suspected that for about a decade now. If I am off base, please correct me.

  10. RBiser

    […] It’s Just Not True: American Evangelicals Do Not, in Fact, Behave as Badly as Everyone Else « Pro…. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by rbiser. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  11. Doug

    Would have liked to have read your article but am not a subscriber to b&c.

  12. Flotsam and jetsam (6/8) | Everyday Theology

    […] It’s Not True: American Evangelicals Do Not, in Fact, Behave as Badly as Everyone Else: Evangelicals–and here’s the key point: according to any definition that John Wesley or Billy Graham would recognize–do not, in fact, behave as badly as the American population at large. They do not, in fact, have extramarital sex as often or abort babies as often….They do not experience the same levels of marital unhappiness and divorce. They do not give to charity or volunteer at the same low levels as the population at large. And so on, and so on. […]

  13. This Week on Trans·formed (5/27)

    […] It’s Not True: American Evangelicals Do Not, in Fact, Behave as Badly as Everyone Else: Evangelicals–and here’s the key point: according to any definition that John Wesley or Billy Graham would recognize–do not, in fact, behave as badly as the American population at large. They do not, in fact, have extramarital sex as often or abort babies as often….They do not experience the same levels of marital unhappiness and divorce. They do not give to charity or volunteer at the same low levels as the population at large. And so on, and so on. […]

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