W. Bradford Wilcox wrote an interesting article on the reasons for Evangelical support of Sarah Palin, not despite but because of the apparent inconsistency between her religious ideals and the realities of her family life. I must admit, I have found it a little disturbing how quickly we liberals point out the seeming hypocrisy she represents. How often does our ideology falter in practice (hint: do you drive? do you drink coffee grown outside your immediate environs?)? What I find equally disturbing is the apparent lack of acknowledgment of the difference between ideology and practice among Fundamentalist Christians and some Evangelicals (fundamentalists are not the same as evangelicals!). Wilcox's article makes an interesting connection.
In a paper I wrote recently for the Russell Sage Foundation, I found that evangelical Protestants—who make up about one-quarter of the U.S. population—are markedly more likely than other Americans to embrace traditional views of family life; at the same time, they are also more likely than other Americans to have difficulty living up to those ideals—especially when it comes to teenage sex, working mothers, and divorce. In a word, evangelical Protestants typically talk right and, often unwittingly, stumble left.
Take their views toward divorce and premarital sex. In 2002, 70 percent of evangelical Protestants indicated that they thought divorce should be “more difficult to obtain,” compared to 41 percent of other Americans. Likewise, also in 2002, 57 percent of evangelical Protestants affirmed the view that premarital sex is “always wrong,” compared to 28 percent of other Americans. My book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago, 2004), reports a similar divide when it comes to gender attitudes, with evangelical Protestants reporting significantly higher levels of support for traditional gender roles than the rest of the American population.
But when it comes to putting these views into practice, the picture grows more complex. My research shows that evangelical Protestants are more likely to be married and to have larger families than other Americans, as one might expect. But on other fronts, American evangelicals have clearly been affected by the tidal wave of change associated with the family and gender revolutions of the last half century. On average, evangelical Protestant teens have sex at slightly earlier ages than their non-evangelical peers (respectively, 16.38 years-old versus 16.52 years-olds). Evangelical Protestant couples are also slightly more likely to divorce than non-evangelical couples. And, I have also found that evangelical mothers are actually more likely to work full-time outside of the home than their non-evangelical peers.
Class and culture both play a role in accounting for the gap between evangelical family ideals and evangelical family realities. Compared to the population at large, evangelicals are more likely to hail from working-class communities in the South. Because they have less education and income, on average, than the population at large, these evangelicals are more vulnerable to divorce and more likely to rely on a mother’s paycheck to make ends meet. Furthermore, many evangelicals are influenced by a “redneck” Scotch-Irish cultural inheritance that makes them more likely to engage in risky or violent behavior, which also helps to account for their distinctive patterns when it comes to teen sex and divorce.
Paradoxically, the disjunctions between evangelical ideals and practices only seem to make them more committed to their traditional vision of family life. Whether they have experienced a “fall from grace” in their own family life, or seen a friend or family member experience such a fall, many evangelicals view these family experiences as an occasion to redouble their support for religious and policy measures to strengthen the family. In their view, the best response to their own family failings or the family failings of their neighbor is heightened vigilance against what they see as the poisonous cultural fruits of late modernity[/quote]
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