A few years ago, the Barna Group polled 270 non-Christians regarding their impressions of eleven different social groups. Only 22% of respondents held a favorable impression of “Evangelicals.” Evangelicals thus ranked tenth out of eleven on the poll, below lesbians (23%) but above prostitutes (5%). As this statistical factoid traveled through print and online media, it morphed into proof that American society as a whole, not just a small sample of non-Christians, held evangelicals in contempt. One blogger wrote: “Only prostitutes rank lower than evangelicals in terms of respect in the mind of the public.”
Brad Wright begins Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… with the story of this statistical factoid to make a point and to ask a question.
The point? Caveat lector. Statistics require interpretation. In the case of Barna’s poll, “Evangelicals” ranked tenth but “Born-again Christians” ranked third, indicating respondent confusion about what evangelicals are. (Door-to-door evangelists, perhaps?) Twenty-two percent of respondents didn’t even know what an Evangelical was. The “don’t know” response for all the other ten groups was 11% or less. Moreover, the poll’s sample was small. But even if its findings were accurate, what was their significance? According to the poll, 22% of respondents held a favorable impression, 33% no impression, 23% an unfavorable impression, and 22% don’t know. Only one in four respondents had an unfavorable impression of evangelicals. Given that all the respondents were non-Christians, is this so bad?
The question? Why do so many people believe the worst about Christians? The reason secular media reports negative statistics about Christianity is obvious: “If it bleeds, it leads.” People love to read bad news. If the bad news is the hypocrisy of Christians, so much the better for sales! But why do Christian media report the same negative statistics. “Why,” as a religion reporter once asked Wright, “do you evangelicals love to make up and say such bad things about yourselves?” The answer has to do with incentives: “Christian authors, speakers, and leaders will sometimes pass along inaccurate, negative information in their effort to help the church” (emphasis added). If only 22% of non-Christians hold a favorable impression of evangelicals, for example, then perhaps a more favorable impression will lead to more converts. Hence we see the flood of books and seminars about how to make a better impression on potential converts.
What if the state of Christianity in America is not so dire, however? Wright is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and an evangelical Christian. The core of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… is an examination of the best statistical information on six topics: church growth, demographics, beliefs and practices, sinning, loving others, and non-Christian attitudes toward evangelicals.
The alarmist reading of the statistics on these six topics can be expressed this way: Christianity in America is dying. Christians are “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command” (an actual quote from a Washington Post reporter). American Christians don’t hold orthodox beliefs or practice spiritual disciplines anymore. They sin as much as non-Christians. They love less than non-Christians. And non-Christians hate evangelicals.
The best statistical information on these six topics leads Wright to conclude otherwise. As a teacher, Wright even offers a grade for each topic he explores. Here are his grades for the topic of sinning:
|Divorce and living together||B||Relatively low rates, and less among frequent [church] attendees, but increasing over time|
|Sex||A-||Relatively low rates of adultery, premarital sex, porn; these decrease with [church] attendance|
|Drugs||A||Low rates, but no consistent changes with attendance. Need better data.|
|Youth’s behavior||B||Doing well in areas of sex, drugs, and stealing. Need to watch the fighting. Could do better with everyday honesty|
The picture on some topics isn’t good. Wright gives Christians a C+ on “Loving behaviors,” writing: “Could act more charitably to others, but this does increase with [church] attendance.” And white Christians get a D on “Attitudes toward Blacks”: “Um, being black is not a sin,” he writes. “Gets worse with [church] attendance [you read that right, unfortunately], but improving over time [fortunately].”
Overall, Wright gives the church in America a B: “the church is doing well overall on the issues covered in this book. It’s not excellent, because many things could be improved, but it’s not average or worse, because in many ways the church is doing quite well.”
Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… is well researched, smartly written, and a good book for pastors to read before they preach the worst news about other Christians.
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