Christians love to hate themselves. Or at least like to think that others do. Christians think that everyone else thinks that Christians are racist, homophobic bigots! Christians are just as immoral as non-Christians! Christians also love to paint themselves in a negative light. Christians divorce at the same or higher rates than non-Christians! Young people are leaving the church in droves, never to return! The sky is falling!
Regardless of the motivations for doing so (to keep the faithful scared and the scared faithful? to fuel evangelism efforts? to increase altar calls?), it’s not right. Religious sociologist (and evangelical Christian) Bradley Wright (associate professor of sociology, University of Connecticut) tackles the most popular negative stereotypes of Christians that are passed off as common knowledge in his 2010 book, Christians are Hate-filled Hypocrites: And Other Lies You’ve been Told.
Wright systematically, intelligently, and factually debunks these common myths, ranging from the supposed immorality of Christians, the impending extinction of American Christianity, Christian demographic and intellectual makeup, Christian divorce rates, and non-Christians’ perceptions of Christians. Let me boil Wright’s thesis down for you: don’t believe everything you read in polls, don’t believe George Barna, and negative numbers about Christians need to be controlled by actual religious commitment. Wright heaps a liberal dose of (well-deserved) blame on Barna, but news media, pastors, bloggers, and sloppy researchers also share in the blame.
A common thread of Wright’s critique is that most polls are poorly constructed, poorly interpreted, and are merely alarmist nonsense. Most polls (Barna and Gallup are the worst perpetrators) are inaccurate. When controlled for church attendance (sociologists’ best way of determining how committed people are to their faith), the numbers aren’t alarming at all, and in many instances they are actually encouraging. Wright does acknowledge that some perceptions of Christians are accurate, namely in terms of race relations. Christians unfortunately do score low on racism and other prejudicial measures.
Controlled for church attendance and commitment, teenagers and young adults are not leaving the church in record numbers, and committed Christians have a very low divorce rate. Further, even with mainstream media and Barna spin, the general public does not think unfavorably of Christians. In fact, most of the negative perception of Christians has to do with the word “evangelical,” with people reacting unfavorably to that increasingly politicized term in poll questions. In a lot of ways, Wright’s book dovetails with Neil Postman’s advice in Technopoly to not believe poll numbers unless you know what questions were asked, and for what purpose.
Wright’s book isn’t perfect. It is repetitive, in that many of the conclusions can be summed up by controlling survey analysis for church attendance and committedness. There are dozens of graphs, charts, and numbers. But thankfully, Wright can write, and presents his data and arguments in an accessible, witty, convincing way. His arguments are a refreshing change to the doom and gloom so prevalent in American Christianity. His newer book, Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World (2011), expands his thesis to a global scale.
The moral of the story? Don’t believe everything you read (especially if it comes from the pen of George Barna), and American Christianity isn’t as bad as you hear. The consequences of thinking pessimistically and not being informed of the true state of the church are that we spend resources in fixing problems that aren’t actual problems.