Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ...and Other Lies You've Been Told, by Bradley R. E. Wright (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2010)
Frankly, my expectations were not high when I picked up this book. The title may be eye-catching, but for that reason it doesn't inspire confidence that there's serious writing between the covers.
There is, however, and serious research, too. Bradley Wright is a sociologist, a professor at the University of Connecticut. His words are aimed at the layman, not the academic, and he writes with a nice sense of humor; even so, the array of facts and graphs and studies is dizzying.
Why are we so quick to believe bad news, and to propagate it? Bad news titillates, and what titillates, sells. Bad news also frightens, and that sells, too.
Wright tackles several areas in which both the secular and the Christian world have been flagellating the church:
- Is American Christianity on the brink of extinction?
- Are we losing our young people?
- Are Evangelicals all poor, uneducated, southern whites?
- Do Christians think and do Christian things?
- Have Christians gone wild?
- Do Christians love others?
- What do non-Christians think of us?
Although his research is specifically about Evangelicals (and his definition is problematic; see below), the statistics and studies he uses reveal a broader picture as well.
As you might expect from the book's title, Wright's studies reveal that on nearly all these fronts the news is much better than we have been led to believe, and gets better still with increasing frequency of church attendance. Contrary to what bombards us almost daily from the media, when you look at well-ordered studies, Christians are doing significantly better than average with respect to personal habits, the strength of our marriages, charitable behavior, and the character of our children. We are reasonably orthodox in our beliefs. Young people are not leaving the church in droves, even though many continue to follow the age-old pattern of sloughing off as they gain their independence and returning to the church when they start families of their own. We are a diverse lot, and on the whole are better thought of by others than we think we are.
The bad news? We still have a long way to go with respect to the second of the greatest commandments: loving our neighbors. We're measurably prone to forgetting that the second part of "hate the sin, but love the sinner" is as important as the first.
We're also far too gullible, believing anything that's written down, that comes from a "study," that throws around statistics, or that is said by a popular Christian leader. Many misleading or blatantly false statistics are used (presumably with the best of intentions) as advertising gimicks by those in our own camp.
A four-page advertisement in evangelical Christianity's flagship magazine boldly states: "Christianity in America won't survive another decade unless we do something now." Why? "This generation of teens is the largest in history—and current trends show that only 4% will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults.... We are on the verge of a catastrophe."
Where did this 4% figure come from? Ten years ago a seminary professor did an informal survey of 211 young people interviewed in three states. The question was poorly worded, and the study probably used a convenience sample. In terms of quality, this statistic is about as valid as someone putting a survey question on their Facebook page and then having their frinends and acquaintances answer it. There's nothing wrong with doing it, it's just not very trustworthy. Motivated by this questionable statistic, a Christian organization was asking tens of thousands of youth pastors around the country to spend $39 to attend a conference on how to avoid this coming catastrophe.
What's more, we worry too much about what others think of us, which causes us to circle the wagons, further weakening our attention to the neighbors it is our job to love.
Ever the professor, Wright gives the Church an overall grade of B. Not what we'd hope for, not what we should settle for, but more than enough reason to work diligently rather than to drop out in despair.
Here are a few interesting tidbits from the book, pulled without any of the surrounding statistical justification, so feel free to question them, per Wright's instruction—or better yet, to look them up yourself.
No doubt because of the statistical studies which are available, Wright uses a standard classification system, based on denominational affiliation, to define "Evangelical" and distinguish it from "Mainline Protestant." Unfortunately for the statistics, this skews the results of many who would self-classify as evangelical but attend churches in "mainline" denominations.
Evangelical parents worry about the faith of their children, and understandably so. For some, this leads to attempts to shelter the child from "secular" society and its various religious perspectives. Ironically, however, engaging society might actually be the best way for Evangelicals to strengthen their faith. Evangelical parents: Do you want your child to stay with the faith? Perhaps one of the best things you can do is make sure he or she is well-educated. At the very least, sending your children off to college is not necessarily something to fear (at least for their faith—for your finances, yes, run away screaming).
Membership figures for the Catholic Church have remained remarkably steady, but that's deceptive, the way climbing a mountain is a level hike, on average. The Catholic Church is losing people in large numbers, but they are being offset by new immigrants, who are mostly Catholic.
Catholic women were the least likely to have had an abortion, with about 1 in 5 of them having done so. About 1 in 4 Protestant women have had abortions, and about 1 in 3 religiously unaffiliated women and members of other religions have had an abortion. Among both Protestants and Catholics, abortion rates dropped considerably with increased church attendance. About 1 in 3 Protestant women who rarely attended church had abortions compared to about half that rate, 1 in 6, of the weekly attendees. Likewise, among Catholic women, abortion rates drop from about 1 in 4 to about 1 in 8.
Wright cites these statistics to support his case that church affiliation and attendance measurably affect behavior when it comes to abortion. And so they do. But what dreadful statistics! In the very best case (weekly-attending Catholics), one out of very eight women (your pew, or maybe yours and the one in front of you), has had at least one abortion. This is not so much an indictment against the church, which is in the business of accepting sinners into the family, but of the sheer number of abortions that are going on. I guess it's like the federal deficit—too large to comprehend. Following Wright's advice, I seriously questioned these numbers, but even the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which is obviously not using the statistic to raise an alarm, admits, "At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and, at current rates, about one-third will have had an abortion." Given that such numbers are far more likely to be under- than over-reported, this is mighty scary. I actually support leaving desperate personal decisions in desperate personal circumstances up to the primary people involved—but these numbers bespeak decisions made with less thought and research than goes into deciding which college to attend. In making abortion legal, we appear to have made it almost casual.
Overall, non-Christians view Christians surprisingly positively—surprising, that is, if you have any connection with academia.
Wright enjoins us not to fear statistics, and not to trust them if they don't jibe with our experiences, especially if we have reason to doubt the motives or biases of the person citing them. Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites... is not light reading, but a solid weapon for the arsenal of those who hope to counter fear-mongering and hand-wringing with knowledge and intelligence.
In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research surveyed the religious beliefs of over twelve hundred faculty members at various American colleges and universities. As I understand it, this study was looking for anti-Semitism among faculty members, but they instead found something surprising: a strong intolerance toward Evangelical Christians. One of the questions asked faculty members if they had negative feelings toward various religious groups.... [O]ver half—53%—of the faculty members reported having negative feelings toward Evangelical Christians, and this was far more than toward any other group. Twenty-two percent of faculty members had negative feelings toward Muslims, 18% toward atheists, 13% toward Catholics, 9% toward non-Evangelical Christians, 4% toward Buddhists, and 3% toward Jews. The study's authors concluded that "if not outright prejudice, faculty sentiment about the largest religious group in the American public borders dangerously close."