The title of Bradley Wright’s Book, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, certainly grabs your attention. The book itself does a pretty good job of keeping that attention. If you are looking for a book that gives an easy to read, yet comprehensive assessment of the status of Christianity in America, then this book is for you. While many statistical based books cause my eyes to glaze over, Bradley explains what is happening to Christianity in America in easy to understand language, and with a sprinkling of humor, that made for an enjoyable read. Graphs and figures are displayed liberally throughout the book which I found helped me quickly understand many of the concepts that Bradley was discussing.
So why did Bradley Wright write this book?
The purpose of this book is rather simple. Using the best available data, I will describe how Christians are doing in six areas: church growth, what we believe, our participation in church activities, family and sexual issues, how we treat others, and how others see us. In each of these areas, there are various myths floating around about American Christianity and I want to examine if these myths are true.
As someone who has more than a passing interest in statistics, I found that his data, and presentation of it was rock solid. Most of his analysis is based upon large reputable survey samples, and when he uses smaller data sets, he is careful to make that clear to the reader.
His book begins and ends with an explanation and caution about how statistical reporting can easily be distorted. In short, bad news sells better than good news, and so it is the negative statistic that tends to get the press. It is only when an airplane crashes that it tends to make the news, yet it might have had thousands of successful flights that didn’t get a single news story.
Chapters two and three, Is American Christianity on the Brink of Extinction, and Are we losing our young people, are chapters that certainly should get the attention of Internet Monk readers. In fact he opens chapter two with a quotation from Michael Spencer:
We are on the verge – within ten years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. Michael Spencerâ€”Internetmonk.com
Bradley Wright does not believe this to be the case and ends chapter three with this statement.
…there seems to be no compelling evidence – based on the data we have about our young people – that the church in America is on the verge of collapse.
Obviously I have some bias in evaluating these claims. The reason that I started writing for Internet Monk was because Michael Spencer was being pilloried for his initial claim and I could see that there was sufficient statistical support to back him up. So why do Bradley and I differ on this matter? I agree with Bradley that the church has grown significantly since independence. The data to support that is rather astonishing. The religious affiliation of people today is much, much higher than two hundred years ago. There are however, three primary factors that would make me disagree with his conclusions. (Note: I don’t disagree with his data, just his conclusions.)
- Bradley’s own data shows that the church affiliation peaked in about 1990 (pg. 38).
- The evangelical church faces the same generational horizon now that the mainline church faced forty years ago before it began its own significant decline.
- The ratio of attendance to membership in groups like the Southern Baptist lead me to believe that they will experience the same sort of declines as we have seen in the mainline churches.
You can read my full arguments in support of Michael Spencer, here, and here. Note the change in the maps in the second link that occur over just 10 years. I would encourage you to read Bradley’s book to get his full perspective on the issue, which I could not hope to encapsulate in a short review. Like the global warming debate, the next forty years will tell who is right, but by then it may be too late to do anything about it.
The next chapter asks the question: Are Evangelicals All Poor, Uneducated, Southern Whites? There was one statement that jumped out at me that added to my feeling that Bradley is maybe painting a sunnier picture than reality.
Nationwide, 27% of all adults have graduated from college… Evangelicals are somewhat below the national average. The religious unaffiliated are just slightly above average in levels of college education.
Doesn’t sound too bad does it? But what if it had been stated this way:
On a per-capita basis, the religiously unaffiliated graduate from college at a rate 45% higher that Evangelicals, and Hindus at 350% the rate of evangelicals.
Both statements are based on the same set of data. Both are true. The first is a glass half-full interpretation, the second glass half-empty. Here are the actual numbers. 75% of Hindus graduate college in the U.S. 29% of the religious unaffiliated, and 20% of Evangelicals. Are these numbers of concern? Is it a myth that we are uneducated? You be the judge.
Bradley’s numbers show that we are certainly predominantly white, and have our strength in the southern States. He also notes that we are becoming significantly more integrated, and less regionalized over time.
I want to deal with Chapters 6, 7, and 8 together. Have Christians gone wild? Do Christians love others? What do non-christians think of us? The first two chapters really influence what we find in the third. I would like to focus in on a few select statistics. Pastors, look out over your evangelical congregation. On average 46% of the adults are divorced or separated (38% among weekly attenders), 20% of your youth have had premarital sex, one in six of your women (who attend weekly) have had abortions. How does this make you feel? Consider that some of these numbers are glass half-full perspectives. What if I told you that at by age eighteen 36% of your youth had had sex, and that of those youth who were between the ages of 18 and 23, in a relationship, but not married, 80% were sexually active. The first set of numbers come from Bradley’s data source, the second set from a data source that I used. They are not inconsistent, but looking at a different subset of ages. Bradley cautions us in his introduction that our standard of measurement cannot be perfection, because then we would all fail, but that we should look for differences between us and society at large. He writes:
… becoming a Christian doesn’t make people good, it just makes them better. In other words, Christians believe that the Christian faith should, in fact, change how people live their lives, but this change isn’t necessarily instantaneous… Our expectations, therefore, should not be that Christians are blemish-free, but rather that they are different than non-Christians when it comes to various measures of morality – specifically those “rights and wrongs” that the Bible and churches teach about. And, lo and behold, the research seems to bear this out.
How different do we have to be though? In all these measures, I think we look way too much like the society around us, and not nearly enough like Christ. If we say that Christ changes lives, and then we look not a whole lot different, then are we not being hypocrites?
The key finding of chapter seven that I wanted to focus on has to do with inter-racial marriage. Bradley acknowledges that our attitudes about race is probably the Evangelical church’s greatest weakness. 34 percent of Evangelical whites would oppose a close relative marrying an black/African-American person. This is more than three times higher than the response of those not affiliated with a religion! Among our youth, 28 percent would oppose the marriage. On the positive side, the rate among all evangelicals has dropped from a level of 77 percent only 20 years ago. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, our response in this area should be so much better than those who have no religious affiliation. I believe that it is attitudes like this have given us the reputation of “Hate-filled Hypocrites”, and it is going to take a lot of attitude changing, and a lot of time for us to shake that reputation. Again Bradley concludes with what I consider to be very positive spin on the situation.
Is there still room to improve? Plenty, but it appears that society in general, including Evangelical Christians, is making progress on an almost yearly basis.
People’s opinions of evangelicals has been improving over the past twenty years. This may be because we have been improving in areas like that of race mentioned above. Bradley thinks that becoming less political has helped us, a view that matches my experience here in Canada.
[The 1990s] was the heyday of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. But now the figureheads of Evangelical Christianity are much less political, for example, Rick Warren, and the Willow Creek Association. So quite possibly, non-Christians (and Christians as well) think more favorably of Evangelical Christianity now because they are much less political as a group.
Bradley Wright concludes his book with an interesting score card of the various issues that he has covered in his book. One score that jumped out at me was the one dealing with non-Christians’ attitudes towards us. He gives this category a score of “B” and notes that there are “Mixed feelings, but getting more positive over time. May not interfere much with mission.” In my next post, which will come in about a week, I will be writing about the topic of “Canadian Perspectives on American Patriotic Christianity”. In it I will discuss how non-Christian views of Evangelical Christianity has had a definite negative impact on our mission, so on this point we will have to disagree with Bradley as well.
While I do have areas in which I have disagreed with Bradley, almost all of them come down to interpretation. Bradley, I think, would be okay with that, because most of all he wants us to be thinking about these issues, and drawing our own conclusions. He concludes his book by encouraging us to “do the following with any statistic about Christianity:”
- Question whether it’s accurate
- Question the motives of the person writing
- Disagree with the conclusions
- Judge the statistic in light of your own experiences
- Not believe it for any reason, including just being in a cranky mood.
I took those encouragements to heart when writing my review, and even though I did disagree at points with Bradley Wright, I still found it an excellent book that will help many Christians understand both themselves and their place in the society in which they find themselves. Understanding where we are in regards to issues that we face will help us move towards finding solutions. Reading Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told would certainly be a good first step.
I contributed the graph “Religious migration changes” on page 102 of the book. Bradley Wright, recognized this contribution in the books acknowledgments, footnotes, and on page 101. He also sent me a free copy of the book.