Sin and politics – Evangelical churches and sin
Apr 2nd 2016 Economist
“If we’re gonna do what we did the other day,” Robert Bentley, the governor of Alabama, tells his aide in a recently released recording, “we’re gonna have to start locking the door.” Explaining himself, Mr Bentley—whose 50-year marriage ended last year—apologized for his “inappropriate” remarks but, despite the tape’s evidence, denied any “sexual activity”.
Many Alabamians did not expect such antics from a folksy, septuagenarian deacon of the First Baptist church in Tuscaloosa, who has assumed stridently judgmental stances on marriage and abortion. In truth, they shouldn’t be surprised. Beginning in 1834, when a congressman shot himself after reading a letter from his wife to Alabama’s governor, the office has furnished a rich chronicle of marital strife, paternity suits and phone-tapping. And, in fairness, for all the outrage their peccadillos engender, the politicians are not exactly outliers in Alabama. To a startling degree—and for reasons that may shed light on the presidential race—it and other southern states combine conspicuous religiosity with widespread loucheness.
Alabama ranks third in the nation for weekly church attendance. Of the top eight states, six more are southern: Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. Along with Alabama, those last three are among the five states with the highest proportions of white evangelical Protestants. Yet this devout region also scores impressively badly on a broad range of ungodly indicators. Dirty phone calls are the least of it.
Louisiana’s murder rate is comfortably the nation’s highest. Mississippi’s is second (most of the other states are not far behind). The same pair suffer the country’s highest rates of gonorrhoea; Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina make the top ten. Meanwhile Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina feature in the top seven for the incidence of single-parent families. All those church-loving southern states rank in the top third for teenage pregnancy; several are prolific in divorce.
There are provisos. John Shelton Reed, a distinguished sociologist, notes that, murder-wise, the South specialises in crimes of revenge and passion, reflecting an anti-institutional tendency to settle grievances privately. Divorce is relatively common, some apologists say, in part because southerners still bother to get married. The standard explanation for the overall picture is poverty, with which many social problems correlate. The destructive effects on black families of slavery and Jim Crow are relevant, too.
Religion, in such analyses, is incidental. Indeed, for many it is a countervailing force: if there were more of it in schools and communities, these scourges would be ameliorated. Brad Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, offers a nuanced version of that argument. Domestic troubles, he observes, are particularly rife among lapsed Southern Baptists: men (especially) who inherit old-fashioned notions of family life, but drift from the church and are “stranded with traditional beliefs” that are hard to honour in modern America.
Some secularists, on the other hand, think religion is implicated. They maintain that puritanical views repress frank talk and warp natural urges, as in sexual-abstinence programmes (widespread in the South) that sometimes fail to mention contraception. Drinking habits in some of these states may also fit this pattern: on average southerners are less likely to binge-drink than others, but in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, when they do, they are liable to down a lot.
Another, paradoxical aspect of the evangelical creed may contribute. Like other forms of Protestantism, only more so, it promises salvation by faith alone. Sin, in this schema, is both inevitable and forgivable. Wayne Flynt, a historian and minister, adduces two biblical verses that are impressed on young southern Christians: “There is none righteous, no, not one”, and “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sinning and seeking forgiveness (so long as they are mainstream sins) is a recognised path to God and mark of faith. Falling short is not a bar to worship but an element of it. That philosophy, and its political advantages, were exemplified in Mr Bentley’s comments. “As a human being,” he said, “I do make mistakes.” His consolation was that “the God who loves me, loves me even through the mistakes.”
This outlook may help to account for the regularity of scandals in Godfearing places like Alabama, and many voters’ willingness ultimately to overlook them. It may also be pertinent to a national enigma: the rise of Donald Trump. One reading of his strong showing among evangelical Christians—he swept all the states mentioned above—is that his supporters are only notionally religious: witness the decline in his ratings among evangelicals who go to church every week. Some may be plumping for a profane braggart because they think him strong enough to guarantee their liberty, like some latter-day Persian king. Or, for some, Mr Trump’s yen to turn back the clock may by association imply a resurgence of Christianity, even if his own behaviour doesn’t.
But the conviction that no one is perfect—no, not one—may also be a factor in his seemingly contradictory appeal. Think how well he might do among the righteous if he found it in his heart to repent.