Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Barna and the Question of Christian Deceit

At the top of one page in Futurecast, Christian pollster George Barna says that for every two marriages entered in America today, one ends.  At the bottom of the next page, without comment, he says that only 33 percent of Americans who have ever married have also divorced.  I’m no statistician, but one-third does not equal one-half.  Yet such innumeracy seems epidemic in general society, and no less in Christian thinking.

Four-fifths of American businesses fail in five years, and half of new college enrollees never complete a degree, but two-thirds of Americans who marry stay married.  This seems like cause for celebration.  Yet Barna says “divorce has become a natural part of the American lifestyle.”  Really?  The discrepant numbers suggest either a serial wedlock subculture, or that second marriages prove remarkably stable.  But not in Barna's accounts.

Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics provides a veritable smorgasbord of rubber number techniques, and Barna uses several.  My favorites include selective reporting, comparing the incomparable, and assuming correlation implies causation.  And he’s aggressive with them, piling statistic on statistic despite a putatively neutral viewpoint, drawing conclusions that no reasonable look at the numbers supports.

In lamenting divorce’s social costs, Barna claims that sixty percent of American prisoners, and seventy percent of minors in custody, come from fatherless homes.  He does not say explicitly that divorce causes crime and incarceration, but he estimates that divorce costs society $122 billion annually in “antipoverty programs, criminal justice expenses, additional educational costs, and lost tax revenue.”

This stat reeks of omission.  First, it’s half a continuum—while sixty percent of prisoners come from fatherless homes, what percentage of fatherless homes produce prisoners?  And are fatherless homes always, as Barna implies, headed by divorced mothers?  What about children raised by grandparents, foster parents, or widowed mothers?  The father’s mere absence says little about the household where a child grows up.

Likewise, Barna claims that cohabitation is widespread, while marriage steadily declines.  He bolsters that claim by estimating that 6 to 8 million couples cohabit, while only 2.2 million couples marry annually.  Notice, though: he compares couples who are cohabiting, both those who start cohabiting and those who have done so for years, with people starting married life.  How many couples remain married each year?  I don’t know, Barna doesn’t say.

My favorite claims that “In 2008, a new record was set: Slightly less than 41 percent of all births were to single women.  In 1963, the year before President Johnson initiated the ‘war on poverty,’ just 7 percent of births happened apart from marriage.”  My head hurts at the magnitude of deceit in this quote.  Start with the fact that, in 1963, shotgun marriages were common.  Forget unmarried births, do we have any stats on unmarried conceptions?

Or how about the reference to President Johnson.  Barna never contextualizes it, leaving the plausible deniability that he never claimed the “war on poverty” caused a spike in unmarried births; but by placing them together, he implies it.  Indeed, by saying that the “war on poverty” preceded the rise in unmarried births, he suggests (without saying anything) that President Johnson caused a needless and shameful rise in illegitimacy.

But did he?  1963 is a completely arbitrary baseline, and we can’t draw a line from 1963 to 2008 as though we’re witnessing a geometric trend.  According to the CDC, numbers fluctuate, hitting a trough in 2002 and peaking in 2007.  Reading Barna’s stats from another angle, women enjoy more liberty, as we no longer treat unmarried pregnant women like shameful emblems, unload them on distant cousins, or call their children bastards.

George Barna
Barna has made a career of reading social stats from an evangelical Christian perspective.  But Jesus calls Christians to love our neighbors, and to do so, we must know them, not generate categories.  All the marriage and family stats in the world say nothing about my friend Judy, whose ex-husband used her kids as weapons to impede her education.  Judy is a Christian and a child of God, not a divorce statistic.

I chose my examples from Barna’s marriage and family chapter, because that most raised my hackles.  But he abuses statistics throughout.  Barna’s numbers, and perhaps any numbers at all, keep humans at arm’s length.  If we would change the world, live God’s mission, and make a difference, we must abandon numbers and face each other as individuals.  Only then do people become real to each other; only then can we save the world.

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