The Scandal of the Evangelical Behind

Randall Stephens

I've been having the students in my Religion and American Culture class summarize news stories related to the course. One brought in a feature on an interesting study--presented at the American Heart Associations Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism/Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention 2011 Scientific Sessions in Atlanta. It reveals that young people who go to church regularly are more likely to tip the scales as adults than their non-religious counterparts.

Jeannine Stein of the Los Angeles Times reports:

An inactive lifestyle, watching TV and eating too many fatty foods are all to blame for many Americans being overweight and obese. We may have to add religion to that list. A study finds that young adults who regularly attend religious activities may be more prone to obesity by middle age than their nonreligious peers. . . . "It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity," said lead author Matthew Feinstein of Northwestern Medicine, in a news release. "We don't know why frequent religious participation is associated with development of obesity, but the upshot is these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention."

My one question . . . Why?


Paul said…
Here's an idea: religion in Atlanta skews evangelical, black, and lower class, all three of which are markers for obesity. It's possible that the link is simple correlation, not causation.
David Evans said…
Or could church goer obesity be a product of Christian dualism—a theological belief that sees the flesh/body as something lesser than the spirit/soul? Perhaps its not simply the spirit warring against the flesh, but the flesh is striking back! Or maybe church people are guilty of having too many potluck dinners and not enough Crop walks...
I second Paul.

Another idea is that sinning against the body is so strongly defined within many evangelical circles (especially in terms of improper expressions of sexuality and leisure--drinking, smoking, dancing, etc) that indulgence in food is left as one of the "last" standard American indulgences that are still approved. Perhaps there's also a certain rejection of "worldly standards of sexiness" (especially in terms of "hott clothes, bikinis, and perfect bodies") in some circles that lends itself to just not being as careful about watching one's health. Finally, of course, there's the "the end of the world is near" thing.
Paul Harvey said…
Religion in small-town OK and Midwest skews evangelical, white, and middle class (maybe lower-middle class), but the correlation holds there too. I have no speculations on causation, but I know public health professionals in OKC and other like places who are trying to figure out what to do about this. I'm guessing class is the most "independent" variable, but just a guess, based on well-documented correlation of cheap, heavily subsidized, and fattening foods which are all the more readily available in food deserts. The class factor MAY be accentuated by the ev. theology factors cited by David and Janine -- but if those were true, then Utahans should be disproportionately obese, when the opposite is the case.
Paul Harvey said…
And just a quick story: it's not just the scandal of the evangelical behind, but the scandal that virtually every index of social ills -- obesity, diabetes, functional illiteracy, divorce, rates of interpersonal violence, et al. -- correlates by county with high rates of evangelicalism (true both inside and outside of the South, although disproportionately located in the S.; and the same holds true of race as well, as dispropr. white ev. counties show high rates of social ills as do disprop. black evangelical counties). There are some exceptions, such as the Pine Ridge reservation counties in SD (the most impoverished sector of the country) and high divorce rates in Las Vegas -- but in general, the correlation (again, not saying causation) holds true.

I discuss this at length in the first pages (SELF-PROMOTION ALERT AHEAD) of my book coming out next spring *Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South.*

I was certainly aware of this stuff before, but really got my attention last year when giving a public talk in OK and showing a map of evangelical and Baptist adherents by county through the U.S. (not surprisingly, the South showing up very high in both categories). My brother, a cardiologist, pointed out that this map exactly correlated with maps that he saw at his doctors' professional meetings showing rates of heart disease and other health indicators nationally.

We've discussed these issues on the blog before; see
Randall said…
Interesting ideas here about the connections.

I know from going to hundreds of Nazarene potlucks that the awesome comfort food on offer is of the Paula Deen variety--fatty.

Mississippi might be a good test case. I think from the Pew data that state is one of the most religious in the country. Whereas Vermont is one of the least. But, again, this might be a correlation thing.
Charity Carney said…
Could there be a political factor at work here as well? Most young evangelicals skew conservative and there has been a partisan war of sorts over food regulations and healthy living. The rejection of the national program (specifically promoted by Michelle Obama) to introduce children to healthier diets is rejected by many and is replaced by arguments that regard food choices as an expression of personal liberty (especially by white evangelicals).

What’s also interesting is that there may be a self-awareness on the part of evangelical leaders who look out into their congregations and see this obesity. I’m thinking of the marketing of diet literature/programs by the likes of T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and (gasp) John Hagee, etc. From my own research on megadom, I see this trend all over the place, across the country. So the self-awareness or at least recognition of the problem has turned into a marketable commodity for some evangelical superstars.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Intriguing, Dr. Harvey.

My thought has been that religious types aren't as afraid of death, or think that Providence decides such things. You could, after all, get hit by a bus or get a weird cancer totally unrelated to lifestyle.

You could have had that triple-double-bacon cheeseburger afterall!

And of course, on the other side of the averaging are the unreligious, who often strike me as positively afraid of death, and so might gravitate toward being health nuts, to the point of religiosity.

"I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens."---W. Allen
John G. Turner said…

For a man who chooses great titles for posts, this has to be one of your best.
C. Adams said…
I think Charity's points are really interesting. To add, has anyone done a study on evangelicals in urban vs. suburban space? My sense is that evangelicals are increasingly present in suburbia (as per the megachurch pull). My sense is also that there is a correlation between suburbia/obesity. Haven't looked into this in enough detail yet. Just a thought.

I originally wanted to bring up the frequent evangelical refrain "God made me this way - if he wants to prevent me from losing weight, who am I to deny him?," but Paul's point on the Utahans kinda disrupts this. Mind you, I'm guessing fewer Utahans per capita allow themselves to drink Coca Cola (helping keep down the high fructose corn syrup levels). Just sayin'...
Jay Livingston said…
@Paul and @Paul Harvey:
The research summary on the Northwestern link says, "normal weight young adults ages 20 to 32 years with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index.

Apparently, they didn't control for region, which may be an important factor in obesity.

As for county data, counties aren't people, so there's the risk of ecological fallacy.

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