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Not dead yet

Q&A | Students taught about the death of culture and Christianity should hear the other side from sociologist Bradley Wright

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

The production of books, articles, and movies about our imminent demise as a civilization has become a growth industry. The threats vary: global warming, the drug war, HIV/AIDS, the decline of morals or civility or democracy. But college students and sometimes younger ones are likely to hear repeatedly that American society is going to hell on a bobsled.

Not so fast, says University of Connecticut sociology professor Bradley R.E. Wright. It's astonishing that a professor in one of the most liberal scholarly fields in one of the most liberal parts of the United States should deviate from academic orthodoxy, but Wright's books include Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You've Been Told (2010) and Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World (2011).

Wright says mainstream media paint gloomy pictures of Christians, and Christians sometimes paint gloomy pictures of themselves and of the world-not because these pictures are true and accurate, but because they reinforce strongly held ideologies and sell well.

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You indict the mainstream media, but you also single out doomsday evangelicals for writing negative things about the Church and the world. What are they doing, and what's the harm in it? It's not done out of malice, but they'll find the worst statistics, and tell them in their first chapter, and then spend the next eight chapters telling you how to fix the problem.

As for what's wrong with it, first you must ask, "Is Christianity served by inaccuracy?" People respond to fear messages. But our perception of evangelical Christianity becomes skewed. To use an analogy: Plane crashes make news because they're so rare. But because most plane crashes make the news and car crashes rarely make news, you'd think that plane travel is dangerous when, in reality, it's safer than driving. Bad or misused statistics blind us to real problems because we need to be able to prioritize problems.

Let's explore some of these myths, beginning with a famous example: the "fact" that Christians have a higher divorce rate. What's wrong with that statistic? It's just not true. I'm a Christian and my wife's a Christian. We went through a rough patch in our marriage a few years ago, and we got a lot of help from the church we attended. To me, it didn't make sense that this sort of support wasn't working for Christians on a large scale. So I did the research, and found that it does. Evangelicals have a lower divorce rate. Academia is satisfied that evangelical divorce is less. Also, greater church attendance correlates to lower divorce rates.

So how did this myth start? They are mostly problems of methodology: including people in the Christian group because they're not something else, or excluding them from the evangelical group because they don't self-identify as evangelicals. I prefer to ask people what church they attend, and put them in one of six or seven categories. Attendance data is easier to obtain and tends to be more accurate than asking people to self-identify or take a theology test.

You identify other myths. For example, another popular belief is that young evangelicals are leaving evangelical Christianity. Truth or myth? Mostly myth. In any generation, the young are less religious than the old. The relevant question is to compare young generations now to former young generations. Today's kids are about where their grandparents' generation was when they were the same age. If you look at the data [sociologist] Rodney Stark compiled, church attendance was greater in the 20th century than in the 19th century.

The related myth is that evangelicals are converting to Catholicism.

What I've seen indicates that the flow from the Catholic Church to evangelicalism is greater than evangelicalism flowing to the Catholics. But evangelicals converting to Catholicism is newsworthy because it's unexpected.

What about the myth that abstinence programs don't work? Data on abstinence programs is mixed. What I see is a correlation between church attendance and not having sex. Premarital sex is at high levels, for Christians and non-Christians, but comparatively, there is a significant difference.

In Upside, you make the case that there's less hunger and poverty than ever before, and in general the world is a better place today than in the past. There are some things that are worse, but on the whole the world is a better place. Hunger has decreased, but technology means our awareness is becoming greater. Life expectancy is going up, which is a problem for Social Security, which was designed for a group of people who died younger. Sexual behavior outside of marriage has increased, and that is a problem from a Christian perspective.

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