Today, Ross Douthat looks at the relationship of Christianity to social pathology. In particular the problem that, by some standards, the more Christian parts of the US (read: the South) aren’t exactly “shining cities on hills”. (That image really looses its punch in the plural.) A few things of note. First, as he points out, the risks of drawing conclusions from crude statistics without considering underlying mechanisms. Often, statistics conceal as much or more than they reveal.
Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.
Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.
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Douthat offers some possible explanations for this, and as always, read the whole thing. I think he’s identified a large part of what’s going on. I don’t fully agree with him though in one respect. He writes:
But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.
This sounds nice, and if it happens I wouldn’t be opposed to it. And it certainly comports well with what a lot of people, religious or not, though especially the latter, think of ‘religion’: primarily an organization for improving the lives of its members and others in some way. But is that really the standard by which the a health of a Christian church should be judged? By it’s moral influence on “the loosely attached”? I defer to J. Gresham Machen:
The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street.
I confess I have no idea how taking on that sort of responsibility would influence the “loosely attached”. That Christians should treat their neighbors well is undisputed. But will it improve their neighbors in some sociologically discernible way? Maybe, maybe not. But that said, do many evangelical churches in North America resemble what Machen was talking about? I very much doubt it. Ross Douthat also wrote a book about that.