Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Moral Crusade by Evangelicals for Evangelicals? Then Count Me Out

Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has made a specialty of sympathetically analyzing the social and political attitudes of evangelical Christians. His 2004 book Soft Patriarchs, New Men, examines phenomena like the Promise Keepers and concludes that conservative churches are doing a good job of "domesticating" men and turning them into sensitive, caring, and generous husbands and fathers.

Now, in this column in The Wall Street Journal, Wilcox does something mildly unusual for a conservative commentator: He acknowledges the wide gap between evangelical professions of "family values" and the way evangelical Christians actually tend to live:
Studies indicate, for instance, that teen sex and divorce are as common among evangelicals as they are among other Americans. Indeed, divorce is especially high in Bible Belt states such as Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas. . . . According to my research, nominal evangelicals have sex before other teens, cohabit and have children outside of wedlock at rates that are no different than the population at large, and are much more likely to divorce than average Americans.
Now, those of us blue-staters who don't share the evangelical persuasion regard facts like these (along with relatively high rates of suicide, domestic violence, and other social maladies in the Bible Belt) as good reasons to disregard the lectures we keep hearing from our southern cousins about how we ought to arrange our family lives. But Wilcox veers to an unexpected point--that those lectures aren't directed toward us at all, but toward lapsed evangelicals:

Are evangelicals hypocrites, intent on imposing biblical values on others that they themselves cannot live up to? Media reports to the contrary, and despite the bad example of the occasional evangelical leader (e.g., Ted Haggard), churchgoing evangelicals actually do better than most Americans in living up to their distinctive worldview. . . .

But even after controlling for class, I find that nominal [that is, non-churchgoing] evangelicals do worse than other Americans. Why? I suspect that many nominal evangelicals are products of a Scotch-Irish "redneck" culture, still found in parts of Appalachia and the South, that Thomas Sowell and the late Southern historian Grady McWhiney argue has historically been marked by higher levels of promiscuity, violence and impulsive behavior. This cultural inheritance, and not their Protestantism, probably helps to account for the poor family performance of nominal evangelicals.

So the next time one hears about evangelicals trying to impose their family values on the rest of us, remember that they are probably more concerned about the families of their nominally Protestant brothers, cousins, neighbors and friends in the Bible Belt than they are about folks in Massachusetts.
Wilcox's sociological observations are interesting and, to my mind, quite plausible. (Though I wonder how conservatives would react to Wilcox's comments about southern "redneck" culture if they came from a Harvard professor writing in The New Yorker or The New York Times rather than a University of Virginia professor writing in The Wall Street Journal. Actually, I don't wonder--I can hear the shrieks of indignant protest now.)

But Wilcox--like the evangelicals he studies--ignores an obvious point: If red-state Christians are mainly worried about their own morality and that of their fellow Baptists, and basically unconcerned about "folks in Massachusetts," then why the hell do they have to drag us into their crusades? Why do they want to censor the TV shows, movies, and schoolbooks used by the whole country? Why do they want to reshape the US Constitution and stack the Supreme Court to represent their values? Why do their churches act as canvassing centers for Republican presidential candidates? Why do their politicians delight in demonizing people from Massachusetts, and New York, and San Francisco, and much of the rest of the non-Confederate states?

The "family values" crowd mocked Hillary Clinton for saying "it takes a village to raise a child." At the 1996 Republican convention, Bob Dole drew cheers for sardonically declaring, "It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child." Rick Santorum wrote a whole book about the same theme. Yet somehow this crowd doesn't seem to be able to raise children by its own professed values without first remaking the entire country in its image.

If the real target of the evangelical values-mongers is the problems caused by "redneck culture," fine. They can save their sermons for the rednecks, then, and leave us blue staters to sip our Chardonnay in peace.

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