One of the most discussed posts I've written on this blog was The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity.
As that post buzzed around the Internet it seemed to hit two different audiences for two different reasons. For Christians, my advice to the student seemed to get the most attention. It appeared that "insiders" appreciated my move away from "working on your relationship with Jesus" to concrete obedience to Jesus (e.g., seeking reconciliation). For non-Christians, my comments about Christians being bad tippers seemed to get the most attention. For these "outsiders," many of whom worked in the restaurant industry, this observation seemed to confirm a stereotype they had about "the Sunday lunch church crowd."
Anyway, that post was a meditation on how we tend to use "religion" as a replacement for being a more decent human being. We'd rather have "quiet time with God" or want to "get into the word" than forgive our enemies or spend time working at a homeless shelter.
In making that observation in the post I made this sweeping statement:
"Christianity" has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed "spiritual" substitute.I stand by that statement. As would, I think, most of the Old Testament prophets. And Jesus.
But maybe I'm wrong.
I say that because I found myself quoted at the start of Chapter 7--"Do Christians Love Others?"--in Bradley Wright's book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told.
Bradley is a sociologist from the University of Connecticut who blogs over at Black, White and Gray (and formerly at his personal blog). His book Christians Are... was, I think, somewhat in response to the book unChristian, which used survey research to describe how Christians behave, well, unChristianly. Bradley's book seeks to take a second look and wants to correct some of the exaggerations and negative stereotypes regarding Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians. Hence the title "Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told."
Toward that end, at the start of each chapter of Christians Are... Bradley begins with quotations selected to illustrate a negative stereotype about Christians. A stereotype that is, presumably, a "lie." Starting with those quotes/"lies" Bradley goes on to review data, mainly survey data from the General Social Survey (GSS), to evaluate these negative stereotypes/"lies." As you might guess from the title of the book, after surveying the data in each chapter these stereotypes come to be seen as exaggerated, overblown or outright wrong--the "lies" from the title. Chapter titles include "Are We Losing our Young People?" and "Have Christians Gone Wild?" And one of the chapters is entitled "Do Christians Love Others?"
And that's where my quote comes in. At the start of Chapter 7 in Christians Are... you read, with two quotes from others, my assessment that, and I quote myself, "'Christianity' has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed 'spiritual' substitute."
As you might imagine, I was, in turn, startled, flattered and then worried to find my quote at the start of the chapter. Everyone likes to be quoted. But not in this manner! I've never met Bradley and hadn't known he had selected my quote as an illustrative "lie." So after my surprise I was a bit anxious and keen to read the chapter.
Maybe I'd overstated my case. Had I lied?
Before going on, let me just say that I greatly admire Bradley's work. As a complete stats geek I love what he does. We social scientists need to stick together. So I encourage you to follow Bradley at Black, White and Gray and check out his book Christians Are... along with his newer book Upside. (And, if you ever run into me, I'll autograph Chapter 7 of Christians Are... for you. Right by my quote.)
What I want to do, for the rest of this post, is to walk through the evidence Bradley cites in the chapter "Do Christians Love Others?" to see how my quotation fares. I'm going to break my analysis down by the Chapter 7 subheadings.
The first section of the chapter is entitled "Do Christians Love Others?" In this section data is reviewed from the GSS about how religious groups responded to two questions: 1) how often the respondent feels a selfless caring for others and 2) how often the respondent accepts others when others do things the respondent thinks are wrong. Overall, "Black Protestants, especially, and Evangelical Christians score highest on these measures, with about 40% or more agreeing that they selflessly care for and accept others. In contrast, only about 25% of the religiously unaffiliated report doing so."
The section goes on to look at other items on the GSS assessing "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" and "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them." Again, Evangelicals score high on these self-assessments: "Eighty percent of the Evangelical respondents reported being concerned for those less fortunate, and 86% reported feeling protective toward those taken advantage of. In contrast, the religiously unaffiliated group registered the lowest scores, with 68% reporting concern and 75% feeling protective."
The section also reviews three other GSS questions similar to the ones above and the results come out the same: Evangelicals rate themselves higher than others.
So, what can we say about this? Hard to say, right? This could be good news or bad news depending upon behavior. Particularly when the label hypocrisy is in play. It's clear that Evangelicals see themselves as loving and caring. But are they? If they are, this is all good news. But if they aren't this is very, very bad news. In fact, this would be the news I delivered in my chapter-leading quote: religion is making Christians feel better about themselves at the expense of actually being better.
So is this a case of self-description or self-deception? For my part, to pick one example, I have some serious reservations about Evangelicals rating themselves so high (the highest!) on accepting people who are doing something Evangelicals think is wrong. Seriously? Evangelicals are the most accepting people when, say, they are dealing with a woman getting an abortion or gay marriage? There's not a wee bit of self-deception in play here?
In this section we move away from self-assessment to behavior (though even these "behaviors" are still self-reported survey items on the GSS and, thus, still prone to bias). The GSS asks two charity-related items: During the last twelve months how often have you "given food or money to a homeless person?" and "done volunteer work for a charity?" (Bradley focuses on those who said they have done either of these at least twice a year.)
The results for the first question: "Forty-eight percent of Evangelical respondents had given food or money to the homeless twice or more in the previous year. This put them at the low end of the observed range, for 60% of the Black Protestants gave to the homeless as did slightly over half the Catholics and members of other religions. The Evangelical rate of giving is similar to the 44% of Mainline Protestants and religiously unaffiliated."
The news was a little better for Evangelicals on the question about volunteering for a charity (does teaching Sunday School count here?): "Mainline Protestants were the most likely to volunteer (43%), followed closely behind by Evangelicals (37%), members of other religions (35%), Catholics (33%), Black Protestants (31%), and, lastly, the religiously unaffiliated (25%)."
Hmmmm. So let's get this straight. Evangelicals see themselves as very loving. And yet, when it comes to, you know, helping homeless people they aren't any different from the religiously unaffiliated (a group that could include, say, Satanists). This isn't good news for a group claiming to follow a Lord who taught:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’I mean, when you say "Jesus is Lord" what's going through your mind?
So I'm wondering. Might this disjoint between self-assessment and behavior be the thing that's grating outsiders about Evangelicals?
Summary: Small Acts of Kindness
This section of the chapter goes on to discuss GSS items that assess more workaday acts of kindness: How often in the past year have you "looked after a person's plants, mail, or pets while they were away"; "offered your seat on a bus or in a public place to a stranger who was standing"; or "carried a stranger's belongings, like groceries, a suitcase, or a shopping bag?"
For my part, as huge advocate of kindness, I'm very interested in this sort of behavior. The results: "When it comes to looking after other people's stuff, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals were the most likely to do so (52% and 46% respectively). But with offering a seat to others or helping them carry their stuff, on the other hand, Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants scored low. Members of other religions are the most likely to do both (35% and 40% respectively)."
This is pretty damning. Looking after people's stuff is a nice gesture. But it doesn't assess acts of kindness to strangers, a key teaching for Christians: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." But on this key criterion, kindness to strangers, other religions and the irreligious do better than Evangelical Christians.
Summary: Attitudes toward Rich and Poor
Bradley remarks that he couldn't find a good measure of attitudes regarding justice-related issues. As he notes, positive or negative feelings about a government program aimed at helping the poor conflate "a concern for the poor with attitudes toward government involvement in social programs." Still, I would really like to see the numbers on this. If care of the poor is a top priority wouldn't you feel more, rather than less, positively about your tax dollars being spent in this way? If Christians don't mind the government building bombs why would they mind it building, say, schools or health care clinics?
Bradley eventually settled on two "feeling thermometer" (1 to 100) ratings about the rich and poor from the 2006 Social Capital Community Study. The results aren't all that interesting, likely due to the measure: "Each of the four religious groups [Protestants, Catholics, Other Religions, Unaffiliated] stated warmer feelings toward the poor than the rich...In terms of the gap between poor and rich ratings, there wasn't a lot of difference between groups."
The rich can't catch a break! It's nice to see the preferential option for the poor found among just about everyone.
Summary: Attitudes about Race
The actual title for this subsection is "A Disappointing Discovery About Race." Bradley only looks here at data for White respondents. His opening salvo: "The analyses that I present here constitute, in my opinion, bad news for Evangelical Christians..."
The analysis starts with data from a 1-8 point "feeling thermometer": "In general, how warm or cool do you feel feel toward Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics." Every religious group liked themselves (fellow Whites) the best. The data on those Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics: "There is some variation in feelings toward minorities, however, with members of other religions having the overall warmest feelings toward Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics." The highest ratings came from Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated. The lowest ratings? Evangelicals.
Bradley goes on to look at another question: Would these religious groups hold race against a political candidate? The results: "A full 19% of Protestant respondents would hold a Hispanic candidate's ethnicity against them, as would 11% of Catholics and about 9% of members of other religions and the religiously unaffiliated. Similar proportions hold for Black candidates, albeit at substantially reduced levels. Seven percent of Protestants would be less likely to vote for a Black candidate, compared to 6% of Catholics and 3% of the religiously unaffiliated and members of other religions." For some reason, the Protestant group here wasn't broken down to reveal the particular feelings of Evangelicals. But as Protestants they are the religious group most likely to hold race against a person running for political office.
The final question examined in this section had to do with attitudes toward inter-racial marriage within the family. The question: How do you feel about "having a close relative or family member marry a ____ person?" with the blank being filled in with Black, Asian-American, or Hispanic-American. The results: "According to the survey, opposition to marrying a non-White person varies widely by religion, and, overall, Evangelicals were the most opposed to it." Guess who were most accepting? You guessed it. The religiously unaffiliated.
Wow. I'm almost speechless. But let me rush to say this: Let's be clear, most Evangelicals are not racist. But Evangelicals are more likely to be racist compared to all the other religious groups, including the irreligious. And that's just embarrassing. Beyond embarrassing. When non-Christians are more Christ-like we have a huge, huge problem.
Summary: Attitudes about Gays
No surprise that Evangelicals don't approve of gay sexual relations. This is expected given their views that this activity is sinful. But what about the "love the sinner, hate the sin" dynamic? And let's remember the finding from above: Evangelicals report being the most accepting of people (compared to other religious groups), even when those people are doing things they disagree with. So, do Evangelicals separate their feelings about gay behavior from their feelings about gay persons? The results from another "feeling thermometer": Of all the religious groups Evangelicals score the lowest with the most negative feelings toward gays as people.
What about a GSS question regarding freedom of speech and Constitutional liberty: "If an openly gay man wanted to make a speech in your community, should he be allowed to?" As Bradley says, "Denying anyone the right of free speech seems particularly harsh." So how do Christian groups fare? Bradley's summary: "Evangelical Christians show relatively high levels of this form of intolerance." Higher than all other religious groups, including the irreligious.
Not surprisingly, Evangelicals are the most rejecting of gay persons. Willing, even, to scrap the Constitution and First Amendment rights. Which, let's admit, is a bit ironic.
In the final section of the chapter Bradley reviews data showing that younger Evangelical Christians are more likely to engage in acts of charity. They are also more approving of inter-racial marriages and have more positive feelings about the gay community. So maybe things are improving. We'll see. People tend to get more conservative with age.
There is also some good news sprinkled throughout the chapter. For many of the observations noted above increased church attendance among Evangelicals attenuates some of the trends. These are data points that push against my statement that Christians use "religious" activities (e.g., church attendance) to replace acts of goodness. But what we don't have in the chapter are weekly attendance breakdowns for all the non-Evangelical groups. That is, in these follow-up analyses we're comparing the "best" of the Evangelicals against the group means of the other religious groups. That's not a fair comparison which is why I've focused on the overall group means. (For example, beyond looking at devout Catholics or Episcopalians, the irreligious group is particularly heterogeneous. I'd like to compare Evangelicals to, say, atheists in the Peace Corp). More, I'd like to see the numbers that fall into the church attendance groupings. It seems pretty clear from the data that nominal Evangelicals are pretty awful. I'd like to know how big that group is within the Evangelical cohort.
Overall Conclusions: Did I Tell A Lie?
So, what are we to make of all this? Are Christians hate-filled hypocrites? And what about the status of my quote in light of all the data?
Let's start with the label hypocrite. I take this label to mean a disjoint between self-appraisal and behavior. Do we see that in the data Bradley presents? I think so. Recall, Evangelicals rated themselves the most "loving" of all the other religious groups. And yet, when we look at the ratings of actual behaviors and attitudes toward others, Evangelicals are no better, and often worse, than others. The word hypocrisy could be applied here.
What about being hate-filled? Well, hate is a pretty strong word. In social psychology it's a word to describe feelings toward out-group members (though each of us can hate particular people for a variety of reasons). So how to Evangelicals look when we examine their feelings toward out-group members? What we find is, in Bradley's own estimation, the most disappointing findings in the entire book. Compared to all the religious groups, including the irreligious, Evangelicals are more prone to hate when it comes to out-group members (e.g., Blacks, gays). Evangelicals are not, by any stretch of the imagination, hate-filled. But the seeds of hate are more deeply sown in the soil of the Evangelical heart than anywhere else.
Let's now turn to my quote. Is "Christianity" a mechanism for allowing people to replace being a decent human being with an endorsed "spiritual" substitute? On one hand, as noted above, when we look at church attendance among Evangelicals we seem to find a salutary effect. People seem to be better for going to church. In this case, church attendance appears to be doing some moral good. And I'm pleased by that. It's one of the reasons I go to church. It helps me to be a better person (though I recognize that not everyone gets what I get out of it).
However, in the data analyses we don't ever get measures of commitment or devotion for the other comparison groups. To be direct about it, we only get follow-up analyses for the Evangelical group when their trend looks bad, to show, it seems to me, that not every Evangelical fits the mold. Which is a fine thing to point out. It's just that, as I noted above, we're not then comparing the best from each group.
So if we stay with the overall group means we are left with the conclusion that Evangelicals aren't any better, and often worse, than others. And yet, they seem to feel pretty good about themselves, morally speaking. What can account for that disjoint? I think my hypothesis of "religiosity" creating an illusion of morality is a plausible explanation. (For more on the psychological dynamics of this "replacement" effect see my discussion of the Macbeth Effect in Unclean.)
All in all, then, I think I'll stick by my original analysis. I didn't see anything in Chapter 7 of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...And Other Lies You've Been Told that would make me change my mind.
In fact, thanks to the book, it looks like I might have been telling the truth.