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January 30, 2005

Sider on the Immorality of Self-Identified Christians

Ronald J. Sider's 2004 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, sounds interesting. The book's theme is that most nominal Christians (a large proportion of the American population-- and about 40% say they are "born again") do not live according to their purported beliefs. It is excerpted here, and I've excerpted the excerpt at length, dropping footnotes and some formatting. ...

...In a 1999 national survey, George Barna found that the percentage of born-again Christians who had experienced divorce was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of non-Christians (22 percent). In Barna's polls since the mid-1990s, that number has remained about the same. In August 2001, a new poll found that the divorce rate was about the same for born-again Christians and the population as a whole; 33 percent of all born-again Christians had been divorced compared with 34 percent of non-born-again Americans ---a statistically insignificant difference. Barna also found in one study that 90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted Christ .

Barna makes a distinction between born-again Christians and evangelicals. Barna classifies as born-again all who say "they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today" and who also indicate that they "believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior." In Barna's polls anywhere from 35 to 43 percent of the total U.S. population meet these criteria for being born-again.

Barna limits the term "evangelical" to a much smaller group--just 7 to 8 percent of the total U.S. population. In addition to meeting the criteria for being born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. Obviously this definition identifies a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians.

What is the divorce rate among evangelicals? According to a 1999 poll by Barna, exactly the same as the national average! According to that poll, 25 percent of evangelicals--just like 25 percent of the total population--have gone through a divorce. ...

In many parts of the Bible Belt, the divorce rate was discovered to be "roughly 50 percent above the national average" (italics mine). Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma pointed out the irony that these unusually high divorce rates exist in his state, where 70 percent of the people go to church once a week or more. "These divorce rates," Gov. Keating concluded, "are a scalding indictment of what isn't being said behind the pulpit." ...

The Ronsvalles compare the giving in seven typical mainline denominations (affiliated with the National Council of Churches) with the giving in eight evangelical denominations (with membership in the National Association of Evangelicals). In 1968 the eight evangelical denominations gave considerably more than the seven mainline denominations. While the mainline denominational members gave 3.3 percent of their income, evangelicals gave 6.15 percent. While this is significantly more, the evangelicals on average still gave less than two-thirds of a tithe. By 1985 mainline folk had dropped their giving to 2.85 percent of their income and evangelicals to 4.74 percent. By 2001, mainline members had recovered slightly to 3.17 percent, but evangelical giving kept dropping and was at a mere 4.27 percent. ...

Since 1993, about 2.4 million young people have signed a pledge to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. Are these young evangelicals keeping their pledges? In March 2004, researchers from Columbia University and Yale University reported on their findings. For seven years they studied 12 thousand teenagers who took the pledge. Sadly, they found that 88 percent of these pledgers reported having sexual intercourse before marriage; just 12 percent kept their promise . The researchers also found that the rates for having sexually transmitted diseases "were almost identical for the teenagers who took pledges and those who did not."

... Nationally, 33 percent of all adults have lived with a member of the opposite sex without being married. The rate is 25 percent for born-again folk.

Is the South and are Blacks more Christian because they feel more need of the support of religious morality? It would be interested to do paired comparisions (or regressions) to sort out the South effect from the Religion effect, but even if they are distinct, it is noteworthy that the higher percentage of Christians in the South has not produced a more moral society. Rather, at first glance it seems that the immoral society has produced a less moral Church.

In 1992, George Gallup Jr. and Timothy Jones published a book called The Saints Among Us. They used a 12-question survey to identify what they called "heroic and faithful individual" Christians. Some of the questions identified people who believed in the full authority of the Bible and practiced evangelism. But others identified costly behavior: "I do things I don't want to do because I believe it is the will of God" and "I put my religious beliefs into practice in my relations with all people regardless of their backgrounds." They labeled "saints" those who agreed with every question. And they called "super-saints" those who agreed strongly with every question.

The good news is that the "saints" lived differently . Only 42 percent of the strongly uncommitted spent "a good deal of time" helping people in need, but 73 percent of the "saints" and 85 percent of the "super-saints" did. Only 63 percent of the spiritually uncommitted reported that they would not object to having a neighbor of a different race. But 84 percent of the "saints" and 93 percent of the "super-saints" said they would not object. Interestingly, a disproportionate share of the saints were women, African Americans, and persons earning less than $25,000 per year ....

That's not too persuasive, actually. I'd be more interested in the divorce statistics than in their claims and opinions. But the defining questions are interesting.

It also turns out that the fraction of people who hold even basic orthodox beliefs-- the kind held by Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin-- is extraordinarily low, only 9% of the self-identified "born again". But at least these peple do behave differently, as explained below.

George Barna has developed a set of criteria to identify people with a "biblical worldview." These people believe that "the Bible is the moral standard" and also think that "absolute moral truths exist and are conveyed through the Bible." In addition, they agree with all six of the following additional beliefs: God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator who still rules the universe; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; Satan is a real, living entity; salvation is a free gift, not something we can earn; every Christian has a personal responsibility to evangelize; and the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches.

Barna's criteria for identifying people with a biblical worldview are not identical to his criteria for identifying evangelicals. Barna's "born-again" category is much broader; about 40 percent of the total population are born-again, but only 7-8 percent are evangelicals. Using his definition of those with a biblical worldview, Barna has discovered that only 9 percent of all born-again adults have a biblical worldview and only 2 percent of born-again teenagers. That is the bad news.

The good news is that the small circle of people with a biblical worldview demonstrate genuinely different behavior. They are nine times more likely than all the others to avoid "adult-only" material on the Internet. They are four times more likely than other Christians to boycott objectionable companies and products and twice as likely to choose intentionally not to watch a movie specifically because of its bad content. They are three times more likely than other adults not to use tobacco products and twice as likely to volunteer time to help needy people. Forty-nine percent of all born-again Christians with a biblical worldview have volunteered more than an hour in the previous week to an organization serving the poor, whereas only 29 percent of born-again Christians without a biblical worldview and only 22 percent of non-born-again Christians had done so.

Thus, it seems there is a strong connection between a person's theology (which is distinct from moral beliefs) and his moral behavior. I find that more interesting than the connection between claims about one kind of behavior and claims about another kind of behavior.

I'd like to know how many people hold a biblical worldview but do not describe themselves as born again, and how those people behave. Perhaps they are included in the statistics above.

Posted by erasmuse at January 30, 2005 09:20 PM

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