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 The classic American sermon style known as the “jeremiad” never goes out of date, it seems.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.