Monday, December 11, 2006

A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" I

(Post 12 of a series on Christian Divorce Rates)

In 2005, well-known Christian author Ron Sider wrote, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” in which he rebuked American evangelicals for “living just like the rest of the world.” In support of his argument, Sider presents numerous statistics about moral issues, such as divorce, that portray American evangelicals as immoral as “the world in general.”

This book has received considerable attention, winning the Christianity Today 2006 book award for Christian Living. Christianity today described Sider's book as "a strongly biblical, unflinching, thoughtful assessment of the attitudes and practices of self-identified evangelicals relative to American culture at large."

Though well-intentioned, Sider’s analysis is fundamentally flawed because:

There should be little difference between the average Christian in America and the average American because the average American is Christian.

This statement unravels Sider’s argument like pulling a long thread unravels a knitted sweater, so I will repeat it.

There should be little difference between the average Christian in America and the average American because the average American is Christian.

Data from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted in 2001, found that 77% of Americans define themselves as Christians, about 6% other religions, and 16% of no religion.

In light of this fact, if Sider wants to retain his hypothesis that evangelicals are “no different from the rest of the world," he would have to elaborate it in one of four ways. Each of these alternatives, however, is theologically or empirically problematic.

1) Non-evangelicals are not Christians. Sider could make the case that Catholics, main-line Protestants and other non-evangelicals are not “real” Christians. If so, we can expect evangelical, “real” Christians to be morally superior than all others. This approach is implied in the work of George Barna, and Sider draws heavily upon Barna’s data, so perhaps Sider would endorse it. For me this evangel-centric view of Christianity is both troubling and inaccurate.

2) Non-evangelicals are less moral Christians. Sider could acknowledge that Catholics and other Protestants are Christians, but they are not very good ones, so we should expect the “better” evangelicals to be more moral.

My concerns: same as #1.

3) Non-evangelicals are more moral Christians. Sider could define Catholics and other Protestants not only as Christians but as “better” Christians—being more moral. As such, they would challenge us evangelicals to do better ourselves.

This approach would not be well supported by data. One could imagine some areas in which Catholics do better, others in which main-line Protestants do better, and still others in which evangelicals do better. I doubt, however, that one Christian group would prove morally superior to all others.

4) “I meant non-Christians.” Sider could clarify his argument as really being about evangelical Christians versus people who do not claim to be Christians, e.g., members of other religions and people of no religious beliefs.

This seems like a sensible approach, and it should receive empirical support. As I have posted previously, evangelical Christians have lower divorce rates than non-Christians (by virtue of the high divorce rates of those with no religious beliefs). However, this alternative would leave no room for a “hard-hitting” rebuke such as Sider’s book.

Even though these four alternatives are mostly mutually exclusive, Sider’s book uses each one of them. In his discussion of divorce (p. 18), he uses Barna’s data to compare “born-again” Christians against all other “non-Christians.” This is alternative #1.

In his discussion of racism (p. 24), he compares evangelicals versus other, non-evangelical, ostensibly less racist Christians such as Catholics and mainline Protestants.

This is alternative #3. In his discussion of giving to the poor (as a ray of hope—p. 126), he cites statistics comparing evangelical Christians versus people of no religious beliefs. This is alternative #4.

This logical inconsistency undermines Sider's case against evangelicals, and, in my mind, makes it difficult to accept.

Next: A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" II


Russell Smith said...

Bradley -- thanks for your visit to the Eagle and Child -- I don't have a comment about Ron Sider -- but I do have some good slang for you (having read your much earlier post) -- "Weirder than a bag of thumbs" -- because when you think about it, a bag of thumbs is pretty darn wierd.

brewright said...

That's really funny... I'm going to start using that.