“The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” by Ronald J. Sider, in Books & Culture (Jan.–Feb. 2005), 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, Ill. 60188.
It’s taken for granted in secular America that evangelical Christians are different in every way. The dismaying evidence from national polls is that they aren’t. “Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians,” writes Sider, a professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, near Philadelphia.
A 2001 Barna Group survey found that the divorce rate among born-again Christians was 33 percent, about the same as the rate for the population as a whole. Twenty-five percent of the born-again Christians surveyed had lived with a member of the opposite sex outside marriage, not much different from the national average of 33 percent. And a recent study of 12,000 evangelical teenagers who took the “True Love Waits” pledge to postpone intercourse until marriage found that only 12 percent kept the promise. Indeed, a quarter of the most committed, “traditional” evangelicals and nearly half of “nontraditional” evangelicals tell pollsters they find premarital sex morally acceptable.
The biblical injunction to help the poor likewise gets short shrift from many evangelicals. They gave six percent of their income to charity in 1968 and, after decades of growing affluence, only four percent in 2001. That’s better than the three percent given by mainline Protestants, but still much less than the biblical tithe of 10 percent.
Yet there’s evidence that religious commitment does lead to better behavior—though Sider laments that so many Christians still fall short. For example, the relatively few born-again Christians who strongly adhere to a biblical worldview are indeed “different”: Half of them did more than an hour of volunteer work for an organization serving the poor in the week before one recent poll, compared with only 22 percent of other Christians. “When we can distinguish nominal Christians from deeply committed, theologically orthodox Christians,” says Sider, “it is clear that genuine Christianity does lead to better behavior, at least in some areas.”