Friday, December 15, 2006

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

(Post 13 of a series on Christian Divorce Rates)

In a previous post, I critiqued Ron Sider’s use of statistics in his acclaimed book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.” Here I would like to address the rest of the book. I appreciate Sider’s emphases of holiness and the whole gospel, but based on the divorce data presented in this series, I would restate Sider’s argument somewhat.

Instead of the “church needing to be the church,” I would say that the “church is the church” and we need to bring people to it.

Here’s what I mean. Extrapolating from his statistical presentation, Sider argues that the Christian church itself is the problem—responsible for its members’ immorality (or, at least, not preventing it). He writes “the church itself [has] lost its holiness and righteousness (p. 57).” Also, “few things are more urgent today than a recovery of the New Testament understanding and practice of the church (p. 93).”

This approach to the church overlooks a salient point: Christians who frequently attend church appear to be more moral than those who attend less frequently or those who have no religion. If in fact the church were ineffective in producing morality, as assumed in Sider’s book, then church attendance should make no difference. In fact, church attendance does appear to make a difference, and a big one at that.

As such, the true problem for Christian morality is not the ineffectiveness of the church itself, but rather many members are infrequently, and thus ineffectively, engaged in the church.

Can the church do even better regarding moral teaching and training? Of course, and we should aspire to do so, but the true take-home message from divorce statistics is that the church should redouble its efforts to bring to the center those on the periphery.


Corey said...

In regards to: This approach to the church overlooks a salient point: Christians who frequently attend church appear to be more moral than those who attend less frequently or those who have no religion.

As a theoretical provocation, is it not a bit of a leap to equate divorce rates with morality? Your analysis (which I appreciate very much) shows that there is a non-trivial association between religious commitment and divorce rates. As commitment increases, the liklihood of divorce goes down. However, that, by itself, does not constitute adherents being "more moral".

Off the top of my head, I can think of several possible explanations of the statistical relationship you produce and discuss 3 below:

(1) Adherents internalize the cultural messages of the religion, leading to monogamy as a manifestation of the commitment. [E.g., adherents are more moral].

(2) Adherents are embedded in a social structure which places high salience on monogamy. The group pressures of conformity function as containment (cf. Reckless) or Bonds (cf. Hirschi).

(3) A social selection process pushes away those who believe divorcing their spouse is necessary to be moral.

Explanation 1 is the preferred reading from (most) evangelical perspectives. It presumes that the theology of Christianity breeds morality. However, we need to substantiate a) that all things being equal, divorce is immoral and b) it is the theological/cultural messages that generate the negative divorce effect.

To my way of thinking explanation 2 is more satisfying. I've witnessed the incredible pressure created within communities of faith against divorce, even in marital situations that are clearly unhealthy. I've seen situations where sustaining the union struck me as being immoral; but the couple (or family) persists in conformity with their church body's expectations.

Explanation 3 is the most ambiguous but perhaps the most conceptually pregnant. This approach is anchored in the symbolic interactionist perspective, whereby we can only understand the meaning of the act within its situational context. Perhaps those who marry too early, or for the wrong reasons, divorce and find themselves alienated from communities of faith. To continue attending reinforces a sense of shame and depravity that is not reconciled through their religion's message of redemption (b/c the message is counter-acted by the collective dynamics suggested in explanation 2.

I'll stop with that... I'm not sure if it makes sense, or if I'm way out there left field. But I think your accessible statistical analysis has created an opportunity for new conceptual development. I've enjoyed the series and hope to read more.

Michael Kruse said...

Great observations. I have wondered especially about issues like divorce. I always like the idea that "Jesus is the light of the world ... and light attracts bugs." Is it possible that the Church draws broken people hurting from divorce who are finding health? (Sort of like blaming a hosptial for having to many sick people.) Thus when you ask if someone is divorced, was the church the cause or the healer. If so than this could be a sign the Church is doing its job.

Just speculating. Not stats to confirm it.

Anonymous said...

i had a similar reaction to Sider's ridiculously popular Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. In that one, i bought most of what he was suggesting that the church should/could do, but found a lot of wholes the "self-explanatory" statistics he used along the way to convince you they were worthwhile interests. This is an unfortunate norm in "pop-Christian" writing.

brewright said...

These are very good comments, and they show the subtlety of thinking required to analyze even the simplest of statistics (at least those not produced by true experiments). I’ve tried to convey these various causal interpretations in my posts, and I think that is one of the big messages that we in social research can convey: That numbers are meaningful but rarely definitive.