Sider on Evangelicals Mirroring the World

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Ron Sider (not to be confused with metaphysician Ted Sider, for any philosophers reading this; Ron is Ted's father, but Ted is an atheist, and his dad is a religiously conservative but politically liberal evangelical Christian) has authored "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" in Christianity Today (Hat tip: Fringe). He argues that Christians who identify themselves in certain ways so as to be classified by pollster George Barna as evangelicals tend to have behavior that's indistinguishable from the rest of Americans (and if distinguishable then morally worse) in some key areas: divorce, racism, materialism (in the sense of overvaluing material possessions) and attitudes toward the poor, sexual morality, and other key behaviors that often lead to the charge of hypocrisy, or even worse that evangelicalism causes bad behavior. See this comment thread for someone who trollishly was making exactly that claim (though without actually giving any argument for it, which Sider does).

Defining 'Evangelicals'

It's worth balancing this out with some other observations. For one, I have trouble with Barna's classifications. Here is Sider on Barna's label 'born-again':

Barna makes a distinction between born-again Christians and evangelicals. Barna classifies as born-again all who say "they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today" and who also indicate that they "believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior." In Barna's polls anywhere from 35 to 43 percent of the total U.S. population meet these criteria for being born-again.

Now consider all the people who have at some time made a commitment that they say is still important to them today and who then have propositional beliefs that they have genuinely converted. I'm sure there are lots of people who do that who don't accept the Bible as authoritative over their lives. That's why Barna restricts the category of evangelicals as follows:

Barna limits the term "evangelical" to a much smaller group�just 7 to 8 percent of the total U.S. population. In addition to meeting the criteria for being born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. Obviously this definition identifies a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians.

Well, yes, it is a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians. I don't think this is sufficient for restricting it to those I would consider genuine believers. It's not hard to have those propositional beliefs but not to read the Bible at all and therefore not even to know what it says about moral living. There's still nothing about seeing the Bible as authoritative, which every Christian denomination worthy of the name must insist on. Even those that also elevate something else to the level of God's word, or those whose actual practice is inconsistent with the Bible (whether they realize it or not), will insist that the Bible is authoritative. Many Americans who fit into Barna's category of evangelical don't do that. I've known quite a few myself, and I'm sure the numbers are much greater in the Bible Belt. It doesn't seem to me that you can poll people and then classify them as evangelicals if you don't ask them if they see the Bible as authoritative, since that's a central tenet of evangelicalism.

More generally, though, these are propositional beliefs. Those who don't read their Bible, don't pray, don't gather with other believers for encouragement and corporate prayer, teaching, and accountability, and don't view their lives as belonging to God don't seem to me to count as genuine evangelicals. I'm not in a position to judge anyone's Christianity. That's not my place. Jesus did tell us that we are known by our fruit, and Paul did say that we should treat as nonbelievers those who act like it (which is something for mature church leaders to do and not the average Christian). That leads me to say that those who say they hold to evangelical beliefs propositionally (as Barna defines them) will include many who are not evangelicals in terms of deeper personal commitment. I don't think that's judging anyone's salvation. It's simply stating that there's a difference between holding some beliefs intellectually and believing in the way that the Bible says is necessary for salvation. This will affect any classification of people that distinguishes according to propositional belief. It will skew the results by including those who are not truly part of the category the pollsters are trying to survey.

Now some might argue that there isn't a better way to do the classification, since you can't know someone's heart. There's something right about that. On the other hand, you can know someone's actions. Why not see what the results are when you limit the group he is calling evangelicals to those who attend church, have some relationships with others who can keep them accountable (even if at the minimal level that happens when you see other believers once a week), regularly experience the teaching of the scriptures by those more knowledgeable, seek God in prayer more than once in a great while, acknowledge one's sins and regularly repent, and seek to grow in understanding the Bible through at least picking it up and reading it from time to time? What happens when you do that?

Well, we see some of the results in Sider's article. He first spends a good deal of time talking about how such activities will tend to produce results different from what the statistics show for the group Barna calls evangelicals. Then he looks at the statistics when you distinguish between nominal Christians and devout Christians along these lines. The results were quite different from the ordinary person and from the group Barna calls evangelicals, on issues with helping those in need, willingness to live next to someone of another race, sexual morality, valuing family over career, and so on. When I consider that, it just seems wrong to me to use the term 'evangelical' in this way. Perhaps it describes those in the culture that crept up around evangelicalism and accepted many of its claims as truth in terms of intellectual assent, but it doesn't seem to me to be talking about just the genuine evangelicals. With that in mind, I do think there are other things to note.

Other Cultural Factors

One factor with the divorce statistic that Sider is ignoring is that evangelicals are more likely to get married when not ready, whereas others will just live together. If you counted living together and then separating as divorce, the result might be very different. Since the causes and effects of living together and breaking up are similar enough to those of divorce, I'm not sure why a sociologist should fail to see this. The idea that getting married legitimizes sex leads to people getting married just so they can be sexually active without feeling guilty about it. Since that's no foundation for a marriage, it's not surprising that the divorce rate is higher among whose reasons for getting married are no different from those nonbelievers have for just moving in with each other.

I'm surprised by the race thing, because I've been among evangelicals all my life and have rarely experienced any negative attitudes toward any racial group from any evangelicals. Since I'm interracially married myself, I'd probably notice, and it's not as if I don't interact with people from all over the country. I have had close friends from throughout the South, which is where you would more likely expect such attitudes (given the history of attitudes there).

Another factor is that there are these strongholds of evangelical culture, which is basically just an assumption that everyone should pretend to hold to beliefs evangelicals hold, going forward at some service and for the rest of your life talking about yourself as saved. Since this is a cultural pressure thing, it explains why people would identify themselves as evangelicals when they're simply not. If they then take the attitudes of the culture around them, why should we be surprised?

The evangelical culture, when it became mainstream in the Bible Belt, really ceased to be evangelical Christianity, and those in ministry in such regions have the opposite problems as those in the northeast. I have to deal with people who come from fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of reality, which leads to many whose moral views rule out Christianity from the outset. [I acknowledge that some rule out Christianity because of prior assumptions about matters other than morality, but I really do think most people who rule out Christianity a priori do so because they disagree with its moral claims.] Southern and midwestern ministry involves helping people to see that their long-standing belief that they are genuine believers is simply not true in many cases, since it's based entirely on their memory of going forward at some church service at age 3, even if none of it affected their daily life since. If they happen to have propositional beliefs that are along the lines of what evangelicals believe, but they're not trusting in Christ in any important sense, then it's not faith, since faith involves trust.

I think these factors might strongly affect these polls. I agree that we must make the call toward godly living, as both Sider and Fringe (see link above) have done, but I don't trust the polls for the reasons I've been explaining.

Presuppositions About Race

Another caveat is a political presupposition of Sider's. He says, "White conservative Protestants are more than twice as likely as other whites to blame lack of equality (e.g., income) between blacks and whites on a lack of black motivation rather than discrimination. Conservative Protestants are six times more likely to cite lack of motivation than unequal access to education!" First of all, these options aren't mutually exclusive. Nor are they exhaustive. It's theoretically possible that both factors could play a role in why a group might experience effects like the racial disparity we see in this country, and it's likely that a number of other factors might also be responsible for this sort of thing. In the actual case, though, it may be that these two explanations that people give, and it may be that most people do think of them as mutually exclusive, even though they aren't.

But Sider uses this statistic in support of his claim that evangelicals are more racist than anyone else, and I think that's misguided. If the primary factor is institutional racism, i.e. structures in society that prevent better progress toward equality, then those who ignore that are part of the problem, yes. That doesn't mean they're aware that they're part of the problem, and it doesn't mean they even have access to any reasons that they're part of the problem, so blaming them as racists may well be unwarranted. Expressing views and taking actions that contribute toward institutional racism are not sufficient for being a racist. Sider should know better than that.

Besides, the jury is still out on what the most fundamental cause is. There are genuine disagreements among those whose concern has the best interests of black Americans at heart. The most plausible explanation from liberals and the most plausible explanation from conservatives are both social. One finds factors largely among white Americans that are unintentional but contribute toward stereotypes and an effect of bias. The other finds factors among black Americans that contribute toward resistance to the mainstream, particularly in identifying with education as one's own and not as some white thing that black people have to adopt to be successful. In both cases it's unintentional, and in both cases it's a social force and not an attitudinal racism, even if in both cases it's instutitional racism. My sense is that most conservatives who don't study this sort of thing carefully will abbreviate social factors among black Americans by phrases involving lack of motivation or effort. In doing so, I believe they are simply reporting on what they think are the findings of social scientists. It doesn't mean they think black people are all lazy, as Sider seems to think (though I'm sure some do that). It does mean they think there are cultural forces that discourage things that people who aren't lazy might otherwise do.

How much of this filters down at the popular level to those whose culture is conservative depends on how intelligent the people at the popular level are, particularly in the kinds of intelligence required for seeing these things, something that's not shared equally by all. It also depends on how quickly people will form judgments without taking the care to make sure they got it right. You can be less good in either of those ways (or both) and not be a racist.

Liberals and conservatives alike exhibit the worst of this, just as they both exhibit the best of this. It's this sort of explanation that figures into why evangelicals, whose culture usually involves cultural conservatism, will poll the way they do. Their attitudes might be perceived as racist by those who are somewhat ignorant of certain aspects of the complexities behind the surface issues that many white, evangelical, cultural conservatives are probably a little less ignorant about (though there's probably equal ignorance from them other aspects that I think the people calling them racists are much more aware of). All this is to say that there's an easy explanation for this that doesn't involve attitudinal racism and has little to do with evangelicals except for the fact that those who haven't spent lots of time reading both sides of this particular issues might end up with a view that is perceived as racist by the other side, including Ron Sider, who simply displays his own lack of attention to the complexities through his analysis. I don't think that's the right analysis myself, so I'm calling Sider on that point.

Where Sider is Right

There's much of what Sider is saying that evangelicals need to hear. The main point of Fringe's post in response to Sider is dead-on (see the link above). I don't think these polls show as much as Sider thinks, but evangelicals do have a tendency to become a culture as separate while at the same time accomodating the culture around us in an attempt to fill in gaps in our own culture-formation that the Bible may be silent on or on which we haven't grasped what it says. Doing that allows little bits here and there that actually contradict the scriptures, and I think it happens more than most evangelicals realize. We need to seek to reflect the biblical tension of being in but not of our culture.

Every culture has good and bad elements, and Christianity when rightly applied is critical of the culture of those who are Christians. It transcends that culture. The early Christians were most assuredly counter-cultural in one sense while very culture-friendly in another sense, and I think many evangelicals lose that balance on either end (or in some cases on both). When elements of the culture around us become identified with Christianity, we are adding to the gospel. When we ignore elements of how Christianity challenges our culture, we are subtracting from God's word. Each is a grave mistake, and we do both often. To the extent that we do those things, Sider's message does indeed appy to us, and we evangelicals would do well to heed what is at heart a thoroughly biblical concern.

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7 Comments

I met Sider three years ago, when he was giving a talk at a Mennonite Church up here in Ottawa, Canada. Sincere guy.

BTW, I just purchased Charle's Cosgrove's *Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five
Hermeneutical Rules*. It looks like a good read. I know next to nothing about Christian approaches to ethics (applied, normative, or meta) and need a good intro. Any recommendations?

I've never even seen a picture of Ron Sider, though I know his son very well. Ted was going to be my adviser before he left Syracuse for Rutgers. I do think of Ron Sider as very sincere. I think his first book was pretty misguided, but his revised version of it many years later was much better. I haven't seen much else by him except this article.

I know Ed Wierenga had a good introductory ethics textbook. I don't know if it's currently in print, but if it's not you might find it used at half.com or something. He's a Christian. He's also a former colleague of Ted Sider's at Rochester. I don't know of any other contemporary philosophers who have written good intro ethics texts. Pojman's texts might count, but his aren't in my opinion as good as the standard ones. I think he misrepresents Kant, for instance. It isn't written from a Christian perspective, but because he's a Christian he's friendlier to Christian views and willing to consider issues that other people might not include but Christians care more about, e.g. whether death is good or bad.

There are two excellent books by Linda Zagzebski and John Hare that deal with ethics from a Christian perspective, but those are somewhat advances. Zagzebski's is more about epistemology, but the first half of the book is virtue ethics as a framework for what she really wants to do. Hare is the son of Richard Hare the positivist and subjectivist, but he's the dark horse in the family, since he's a Christian. I can't even remember the main issue(s) he deals with, but I read a couple reviews of it, and it sounded excellent. I'm not a specialist in ethics, so I know the field less well than I'd like. Also, most of the resurgence of Christians in philosophy has been in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and epistemology, so there's not as much a presence in ethics.

Interesting that Sider's son is an athiest. Must make for fun family reunions.

"Also, most of the resurgence of Christians in philosophy has been in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and epistemology, so there's not as much a presence in ethics."

Yeah, I've noticed. How come more evangelical philosophers don't specialize in value theory? Catholics have cornerned the market here (well, the natural law types anyway). You should buck the trend Jeremy, and do you your doctorate in ethics, pol phil or legal phil.

It's too late for that. I didn't take any ethics courses in grad school besides one ethics survey that turned out to be not very comprehensive. My areas of specialization are already decided: metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of race. It's really the metaphysical issue in the latter two that I'm a specialist in, but I know both fields fairly well. I just don't know the field of contemporary ethics at all. Syracuse would now be an excellent place to do ethics, political theory, or virtually anything else on the value end (besides aesthetics), but I'm too far in to change what I'm doing.

Jeremy,

Sider badly misrepresents Emerson and Smith�s findings from their book, Divided by Faith. While they do conclude that evangelicalism contributes to perpetuating a racialized society, they stress that this is not due to intentional racism, as Sider implies by the quote and the statistics he cites from their book in his article. Their argument is actually exactly what you described in the post.

If the primary factor is institutional racism, i.e. structures in society that prevent better progress toward equality, then those who ignore that are part of the problem, yes. That doesn't mean they're aware that they're part of the problem, and it doesn't mean they even have access to any reasons that they're part of the problem, so blaming them as racists may well be unwarranted. Expressing views and taking actions that contribute toward institutional racism are not sufficient for being a racist.

Emerson and Smith found that the cultural tool-kit of dominant ideas and habits in evangelicalism combined with the social isolation of most white evangelicals from blacks leads them to ignore societal and institutional racism. Individually, they are committed to a color-blind society. So the problem lies not with personal racism but with cultural blind spots and ignorance.

Briefly, they identify 3 primary cultural tools used by evangelicals:
1) Accountable freewill individualism (personally free and accountable for one�s actions)
2) Relationalism (attaching importance to interpersonal relationships)
3) Anti-structuralism (inability/unwillingness to accept social structure influences)

All problems are seen to have individual sin at the root, and so it is at the individual level through personal relationships where all problems must truly be addressed. Apart from other evidence, these cultural tools tend to blind evangelicals from considering any larger social or structural problems.

This is then coupled with the fact that the vast majority of white evangelicals are socially isolated from blacks, having little to no contact at all on a regular basis with someone of a difference race. This prevents them from having any real experience of seeing examples of either personal or structural racism. Most white evangelicals interviewed for the book struggled to identify even a single specific example of racism.

Black evangelicals and the small number of non-socially isolated white evangelicals, on the other hand, use exactly the same cultural tools but are also able to integrate their real life experiences into their personal evaluations. This leads them to come to the very opposite conclusion, and leaves them at odds with the white evangelicals who don�t see any problems.

Emerson and Smith sum this up at the end of the chapter laying out their basic thesis as follows:

�We stand at a divide. White evangelicals� cultural tools and racial isolation direct them to see the world individualistically and as a series of discrete incidents. They also direct them to desire a color-blind society. Black evangelicals tend to see the racial world very differently. Ironically, evangelicalism�s cultural tools lead people in different social and geographical realities to assess the race problem in divergent and nonreconciliatory ways. This large gulf in understanding is perhaps part of the race problem�s core, and most certainly contributes to the entrenchment of the racialized society.� p.91

Although a long comment, this obviously shortchanges the details of their overall argument. I highly recommend Divided by Faith to anyone interested in the question of the continued existence of almost entirely segregated congregations in the American church. While their analysis is not particularly optimistic about overcoming this, they are clearly not attacking white evangelicals for being racists, as implied by Sider. What concerns me about Sider�s representation of their book is that either he has never read it himself and is taking the quote out of context, or even worse he knows what they actually argue and is purposefully quoting selectively in order to better fit it in with the broader argument in his article.

Years ago, I think it was in the late 60's but not sure) a book came out chronicling a white man's experiment of darkening his skin and living among African Americans to see what the experience would be like. But before he did that, he went to the very same places as a white man, then went to those places as a black man. I imagine you can guess what he found. Or maybe, after reading your post, you don't know what he found. Of course he was treated 180 degrees differently. That was years ago but after reading some of our fellow black Christian bloggers' posts (i.e. Ambra Nykola) they are still getting this discrimination today, and not always from non-believers.

By the way, about black churches. Most happen to like their church, don't wish to go to a white church and basically are probably not crazy to have whites come to theirs in many cases.
However, in an attempt to, I guess, assuge their guilt, separation of Sunday morning has become a hot topic among many white evangelicals.

Ambra's last name is Nykol, not Nykola. The 'a' in 'nykola.com' comes from her first name, as in "Nykol, A."

Are you talking about Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man? I've never read it, but the philosophers who write about race refer to it all the time, and I think it was the one that had that sort of story. Eddie Murphy did the reverse in one of the most brilliant skits SNL ever did on race.

I'm not sure what anything in my post should reveal about my attitudes toward 1960s racism or what remains of it residually and unconsciously in many white Americans who aren't racists. I made a point to acknowledge that it's a serious problem, and I've talked about those issues quite a bit here, here, here, and here, among other posts. So I don't have any idea what you're trying to get at.

All the black churches I've been to have been excited to have white people there. I get the sense that they believe white people won't want to be there, and in many cases they're right (but not always for the reasons they think -- I have some strong criticisms of many black churches on the level of doctrine and practice and have trouble being in a place that ignores and even contradicts scripture in ways that are more obvious to me than ways white congregations will do so). I'm aware that most black Christians wouldn't enjoy corporate worship the way most predominantly white congregations do it, but I think many, though not all, of the reasons for that are bad, just as many of the reasons white people won't go to black churches are bad. It's too easy to oversimplify things when it comes to black-white relations in church.

I don't think the issue of separation on Sunday morning is about assuaging guilt. It's about biblical principles. It's morally wrong to isolate yourself from other believers merely because of race. That's not all that's going on, but that's part of it, and that was the starting point that led to where we are now. I've written about this issue at length before.

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