Hello and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you an overview of a classic evangelical book from 2005: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, by Ronald J. Sider. Its author sought to persuade evangelicals to start pretending they took Jesus’ commands more seriously — because they commit hypocrisy to an extent and to a degree that suggests that they believe someone’ll set them on fire forever after they die if they don’t. Today, I’ll show you some of Sider’s findings that condemn evangelicals, and his response to it all in the end.
(I’m abbreviating the book’s name as “Scandal.” Also, see these related posts about early Christianity: Historical Jesus; How the Great Pan Died; Original Christianity; The Myth of Christian Persecution; From Tolerated to Dominant.)
Convincing His Audience.
Like most evangelical books, the first third or so of Scandal consists of a solid sales attempt. Here, Sider tries his best to persuade evangelicals that why yes, they are a bunch of big ole hypocrites. His downright withering contempt of sinful hypocrites in his tribe shines very bright here, early on (p. 17):
Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview [this is Christianese for upholding the culture wars — CC], 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. The statistics are devastating.
“Allegedly!” Oh, they say they’re evangelical and born-again. But in truth, they’re only allegedly so.
I love watching Christians gatekeep terms that they have no right to deny to anybody.
But this is how Sider rolls in these first few chapters. He spends a bit of time on all of the above perceived “sins.”
Divorce isn’t bad. Evangelicals, however, regard it as a total offense to their god, even if their lives absolutely don’t carry through this stated belief. Indeed, study after study reveals that evangelicals are very quick to divorce each other. Their divorce rate is at least as high as any other religious group’s (if not considerably higher).
Most notably: in the South and everywhere else that evangelicals have long dominated local culture, the divorce rate tends to be particularly high. It’s so bad that even couples who aren’t evangelical face a higher risk of divorce, making evangelicals themselves the #1 threat to marriage.
Sider hammers at this statistic, wringing his hands at every turn. Evangelicals have long held that Jesus himself mightily disapproved of divorce, so obviously evangelicals’ comparatively high divorce rate is evidence of their disobedience to the group’s rules.
Interestingly, Sider mentions Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma at the time. Keating explicitly blamed his state’s high rate of divorce on a lack of vocal disapproval of divorce from evangelical pastors. And Sider seems to agree!
(We’ll come back to Frank Keating later on. Just put him in your hat for now.)
Materialism, Sort Of.
Next, Ronald J. Sider condemns evangelicals for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unfortunate.
To an extent, he’s correct: evangelicals are notoriously cruel to the poor and unfortunate. But to another, he’s hilariously wrong — because he ties evangelicals’ compassion to their tithing rates and amounts. Oh man oh man, he cries, just imagine how many poor people they could help if everybody tithed 10%! Or more!
Now, a lot of evangelicals think that the Bible commands them to tithe a full 10% of their incomes to their churches. Obviously, pastors’ income is directly tied to tithes, so they want to make sure they maximize the flocks’ giving. Also obviously, the flocks ignore them whenever possible. Almost none of them tithe a full 10%; most don’t even make a stab at it.
But not so obviously, almost nothing in tithes goes to the needy anyway.
Almost everything churches take in goes straight back into their own operations: payroll, member recruitment, upkeep and maintenance, mortgages, silly eyesore statues — and all those fun programs that keep Christians engaged. Only a bare fraction goes into charity or even into the community around the church.
So Sider’s whining about tithing sounds really disingenuous. Evangelicals’ disobedience to tithing rules is a sign of their general hypocrisy, but it has very little to do with their cruelty and indifference toward the poor.
He could have chosen a much better way to illustrate this shortcoming. It’s not like there was some shortage of examples available, even in his day.
Ooooh, He Said Sexual Disobedience.
Of course, Ronald J. Sider also takes exception to evangelicals’ inability to follow the tribe’s rules about sex. That’s been a hilarious point for critics since forever. I left my first evangelical church, a Southern Baptist megachurch, in part because of the shocking sexual hypocrisy of the youth group. Little did I realize that Pentecostals just hid their illicit behavior better. Plenty of the young married couples attending our super-strict, straitlaced church had their first baby five months after their wedding day.
All that happened in the 1980s and early 1990s — and things have only gotten worse since. As in the other areas mentioned today, evangelicals differ from the regular population not at all, or else fare worse on this score.
Sider comes up with a bunch of surveys showing that evangelicals are generally indistinguishable from the regular population in terms of sexual behavior. He mentions the absolute failure of abstinence education, though weirdly he doesn’t mention the fact that those taking “purity pledges” engage in way riskier sexual behaviors than teens who never took it. (I’ll give him a tentative flier on this one; some of the big studies about abstinence-only misinformation campaigns came out after 2005.)
Since evangelicals’ control-lust centers on sexuality, and since their social rules around sex are so incredibly rigid, their sexual behavior definitely qualifies as a problem for their leaders.
They’re really bees-headed rules, but they’re evangelicals’ rules and yet they can’t even be bothered to follow them.
Evangelicals like to talk about a religion that welcomes everybody regardless of color, nationality, sex, status, you name it. They can point to Bible verses saying as such.
But in lived reality, evangelicals behave shamefully toward groups they perceive as inferior to themselves.
And yet there he was in 2005 and evangelicals were super-racist still. Here we are in 2020 and yep, evangelicals are super-racist still.
Sider particularly dislikes his tribe’s racist streak. He goes through statistics here as well, ending with a quote from the book Divided By Faith (p. 26):
“White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it.”
They’re right, too.
Evangelicals’ firmly-embraced racism, like their misogyny and bigotry, defines them as a group, and there seems to be just nothing at all that anybody can do to fix it.
Out of everything in Chapter 1, I was most surprised to see domestic violence make an appearance.
The epidemic of male-on-female partner violence isn’t something evangelical leaders really want to engage with, any more than they want to engage with exactly why their tribe suffers from such a high divorce rate. Even today, they struggle hard to find a way to fix a bandaid on the scandals flowing from this quiet and horrifying epidemic so they can move on to the stuff they really like, like judging everybody and campaigning for absolute political power.
But out of everything that condemns evangelicals as hypocritical, the dysfunctional and toxic nature of their marriages does the best job we could ever hope to ask in showing us exactly how bad their ideology and social rules truly are.
Sider tries really hard to squirm out of engaging with the stunning reality of domestic violence in his tribe, but in the end he’s forced to concede that at the very least, evangelicals are at least on par with the rest of America, if not considerably worse.
That is just so damning. Evangelicals’ claim to having superior marriages to those ickie heathens is part of their overall marketing package — and even Sider alludes to it in numerous places in the book. But if their marriages suck, that really damages their sales pitch.
But Don’t Worry, Everyone!
He’s Got an ANGLE!
After wringing his hands about what he calls “a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today,” Ronald J. Sider offers what he considers to be “one hopeful finding.”
What might that be?
A study pointing to some flavor of evangelicalism whose members practice what they preach?
Or a group that actually functions harmoniously, with members behaving in love and leading and serving each other the way Christians can only dream about?
You wanna hear what it is, then?
Y’all need to prepare for this reveal.
Please, I urge you to put down your drink if you’re taking a sip right here. I ain’t gonna be held responsible for anybody’s keyboards or monitors.
Still with me?
I warned you. Just remember that.
Ronald J. Sider’s ANGLE.
After hopefully devastating his readers with the sheer depth of evangelical hypocrisy, Ronald J. Sider offers up “one hopeful finding.” Here it is:
When we can use more precise measures of faith and distinguish more carefully between deeply committed Christians and others, the statistics on behavior improve dramatically.
Now, he’s quick to reaffirm that this “hopeful item” doesn’t change the “tragedy of widespread, scandalous disobedience” among evangelicals. And it doesn’t.
But that’s his idea of a big ole shining ray of hope:
Tightening the definition of evangelicalism so far that obedience to the tribe’s rules becomes part of the definition of a tribe member, so by definition anyone fitting the definition is defined by, um, defined standards of obedience.
Man alive, I thought I’d seen contortions out of Christian leaders before.
Well, Ronald J. Sider just walked up to the whole pack of ’em and told ’em to hold his Bible!
That soft laughter you’re hearing right now is probably me — #sorrynotsorry. This whole nitwitted ANGLE just takes the cake.
“Satan” Didn’t Have to Do Nothin’.
The chapter ends with Ronald J. Sider making a guess about what Satan thinks about evangelical disobedience:
Now our very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our lives. Satan must laugh in sneerful derision. God’s people can only weep.
But evangelicals aren’t weeping. They’re storming state capitals and putting kids in cages and screeching about women with tattoos while hiding abuse in their relationships and vandalizing atheists’ stuff and seeking divorces that are totally moral cuz their good buddy Jesus said they could. They’re busy.
As for Satan, he makes a very good boogeyman for evangelicals to blame their problems on. I’m sure alluding to this imaginary enemy’s reactions provokes evangelicals reliably enough.
However, evangelicals’ current state of hypocrisy has nothing to do with the supernatural. It never did.
Why Evangelical Hypocrisy Matters.
When I hear people sharing how they rejected evangelicals’ sales pitches, evangelical hypocrisy figures very prominently in these stories. For that matter, when I hear about people leaving evangelical groups, often their awareness flickers to life after some egregious display of hypocrisy (like what I experienced with that Portland pastor, years ago).
And that’s how it should be. A group’s lived example shows us the overall truth of their claims. Evangelical leaders like Ronald J. Sider know that, and this book is just a small part of their ongoing effort to shame the flocks into at least acting like they care about their tribe’s rules.
In 2005, a lot of evangelicals seem to have hoped that’d happen.
In 2020, we know it didn’t. Their disobedience only got worse. And another 15 years from now, I think it’ll only get worse still. Evangelical leaders can’t fix what’s been broken, and they wouldn’t want to even if they could even accept what was broken in the first place.
But that doesn’t stop evangelicals from dreaming about a vibrant, faithful, obedient evangelicalism full of shining-faced saints who practice what they preach and are possessed by the spirit of a real live god who informs their every thought and deed.
Maybe they just need to pray more.
Yes, that must be it.
Jesus is just busy and hasn’t heard them yet.
NEXT UP: Ohhhh this is nice. The FTC is coming down hard on a bunch of MLMs. Come enjoy the schadenfreude! See you tomorrow!
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