Are Evangelicals Just as Messed Up as Non-Believers?

Are Evangelicals Just as Messed Up as Non-Believers? July 15, 2019

  • Evangelicals divorce at the same rate as non-Christians.
  • Evangelical marriages experience as much dysfunction as non-Christian marriages.
  • Evangelical men look at porn as much as non-Christian men.
  • Young adults who grew up Evangelical are scarred by their upbringing.

The media (including some Christian publications) regularly make claims such as these. They imply that Evangelicalism is a sham that has no positive effects in the personal lives of those who practice it.

But it all depends on who you define as Evangelical. Those who actually practice their faith (through church attendance, Bible reading, regular prayer, volunteering and small group participation) have much healthier personal lives than those who simply claim an Evangelical identity.

Regarding Christians and Divorce, Glenn Stanton writes:

Research conducted at Harvard’s School of Public Health reveals that regularly attending church services together reduces a couple’s risk of divorce by a remarkable 47 percent. Many studies, they report, have similar results ranging from 30 to 50 percent reduction in divorce risk. Happily, this holds largely true for white, black, Asian and Latino couples.

It’s not church affiliation but church attendance that counts. Stanton continues:

Adding to this research, scholars from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University found that how often a couple attends church together has a strong impact on marital stability. The more often they attend, the stronger their marriage. The researchers report, “When both spouses attend church regularly, the couple has the lowest risk of divorce.” Moreover, couples holding more conservative Christian beliefs had a markedly lower risk than those with no or more liberal theological beliefs. 

The faith benefit is strong even for couples facing serious difficulties in their marriage. “Couples who belonged to the same denomination at the time of their wedding were twice as likely to reconcile as couples in religiously [different] marriages. Couples where either partner had converted to the partner’s denomination prior to marriage were four times more likely to reconcile” than those with no or dissimilar faith. That is a tremendously powerful marriage-strengthening dynamic for a relatively simple relational component.

And as we always say here at Church for Men, it’s the man’s commitment that makes the biggest difference. Stanton continues:

Unequally yoked couples—in which one spouse is a Christian while the other is not—are especially prone to divorce, affirming the biblical charge against it. However, when the husband is the regularly church-attending, strong believer, the marriage is much more durable and happier than when the wife is the sole believer. Similarly, in equally yoked couples, there is a demonstrable marital benefit when the husband is the spiritual leader. This speaks strongly to the importance of the man’s spiritual leadership in the home, as a wife is generally more likely to follow and appreciate the husband’s leadership in religious matters than vice versa.

Now, when it comes to porn, the difference between practicing Christian men and others is dramatic. Lyman Stone writes:

Across all religious groups in America, people who attend religious services more frequently are far less likely to view pornography. Nominally-Protestant men are nearly five times more likely to view pornographic films as men who frequently attend religious services (more than weekly). And across all levels of religious attendance, Protestant men are about 5 to 10 percentage points less likely to have viewed porn in the last year.

These are meaningful differences. They suggest that religiously-observant Protestants are experiencing a vastly lower rate of pornography use. 

Through the 1980s, Protestants and other regular churchgoers looked similar. More recently, non-Protestant churchgoers have developed porn habits very similar to their less devout neighbors. By contrast, Protestant men today who attend church regularly are basically the only men in America still resisting the cultural norm of regularized pornography use.

And while we’re quoting Mr. Stone, he slays the stereotype about sexually-repressed Evangelicals:

The reality, however, is that religious people are among the most sexually satisfied. Adherence to the sexual norms promoted by conservative Protestants—that is, delaying sex until marriage, practicing monogamy within marriage, and (for most) avoiding porn—is consistently associated with greater marital happiness.

But what about overall marital happiness? Again, religious conservatives come out on top. The Institute for Family Research studied couples in 11 countries, and found that religious conservative women were happiest in their marriages. According to an article in the New York Times:

The happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives, followed by their religious progressive counterparts. Fully 73 percent of wives who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands have high-quality marriages. When it comes to relationship quality, there is a J-curve in women’s marital happiness, with women on the left and the right enjoying higher quality marriages than those in the middle — but especially wives on the right.

And finally, what about all those young adult bloggers sharing horror stories about their Evangelical upbringing?  Many were raised in uber-strict, graceless churches that sit on the fringe of Evangelicalism. Their childhood trauma results more from legalism than Evangelicalism.

But what about your mainstream evangelical kid? Is he/she likely scarred for life?

A study from Harvard researchers and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that kids who attended church weekly as teens reported in their 20s as being 18% happier, 30% more likely to do volunteer work, and 33% less likely to use drugs. Kids who prayed regularly as teens were less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases and participate in early sex, were more forgiving, showed more emotional stability, and reported having more life satisfaction than those who didn’t.

What’s fascinating about all these studies: while regular churchgoers are among the least likely to divorce, the most satisfied in their marriages and the least likely to use porn, those who identify as Evangelical but who don’t actively participate in a local church are virtually indistinguishable from the irreligious when it comes to these dysfunctions.

It’s almost as if a little bit of religion is bad for you. Jesus’ warning to the church at Laodicea rings true:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

I’ll conclude with another quote from Glenn Stanton:

The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population – not even close. Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable difference in marriage. 

Saying you believe something or merely belonging to a church, unsurprisingly, does little for marriage. But the more you are involved in the actual practice of your faith in real ways – through submitting yourself to a serious body of believers, learning regularly from scripture, being in communion with God through prayer individually and with your spouse and children, and having friends and family around us who challenge us to take our marriages seriously – the greater difference this makes in strengthening both the quality and longevity of our marriages. Faith does matter and the leading sociologists of family and religion tell us so.

The next time you read an article that suggests Evangelicals’ personal lives are just as messed up as everyone else’s, look closely at which Evangelicals they’re talking about: those who actively practice their faith, or those who simply claim the label.

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