This has been a long, hot summer in Texas, which has faced drought and 100-degree temperatures. Gov. Rick Perry, a possible Republican presidential candidate, is taking plenty of heat of his own for, of all things, being part of a prayer event this month seeking God’s mercy.
“Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters,” Perry says in a statement that is nothing if not self-evident. Then he adds: “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”
Salon.com characterizes this call to prayer: “Rick Perry to America: 'Pray to Jesus, or else!'” Salon reporter Justin Elliott warns darkly that Perry “is taking his advocacy for public prayer… in a distinctly non-inclusive direction.”
Many evangelical Christians have taken such media insinuations to heart and bent over backwards to be sensitive. One is Rob Bell, author of the controversial book Love Wins and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. Bell writes about “the many who know about Christians only from what they’ve seen on television and so assume that Jesus is anti-science, anti-gay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people that they’re going to burn forever.”
The only problem, according to Bradley R.E. Wright, author of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, is that news of the death of our reputation has been greatly exaggerated. “Social scientists have repeatedly surveyed views of various religions and movements, and Americans consistently hold evangelical Christians in reasonably high regard,” Wright says in the cover story for the August Christianity Today.”
Let’s look at how we evangelicals think that other Americans view us. A 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey disclosed that evangelicals think they are the second-most victimized religious group in America (ahead of only Muslims), with 43 percent saying that we face a great deal of discrimination. A Pew poll conducted just last month finds that 68 percent of American evangelical leaders surveyed consider nonreligious people to be unfriendly toward evangelicals.
In 2002, the Barna Research Group found data that seemed to back this up, saying that evangelicals were the group held in least social esteem, ahead of only prostitutes. George Barna concluded that non-Christians are “dismissive” of evangelicals. In their 2007 book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons said, “Christianity has an image problem.” They also claimed the problem is worsening quickly: “Just a decade ago the Christian faith was not generating the intense hostility it is today.”
But are these perceptions, fed by quotes such as those at the top of this article, reality? Not according to the 2010 book American Grace, by political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. Their own survey found that we evangelical Christians scored right in the middle of other groups when it comes to how non-members feel about us.
Several other surveys have found that perhaps “we” are not the problem but the “evangelical Christian” nomenclature might be. For example, many respondents who say they don’t like evangelicals have no clue who evangelicals are or what we believe. This brings to mind the old joke, “Whatever you’re for, I’m agin’ it.” As Wright says, “People seem to be reacting against the label evangelical more than against evangelical Christians themselves.”
Why then all the animosity toward the label? Perhaps it might be the high-profile political activity of past leaders such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, or the sins and excesses of people such as Jim Bakker or Ted Haggard. Certainly media portrayals often convey the idea that evangelicals are a strange breed. And Wright points out that evangelicals, like other social groups, regrettably sometimes thrive when they can define themselves as against the majority.
Not surprisingly, some evangelicals have ditched the troublesome label, even going so far as to self-identify as “Christ-followers” rather than as Christians. Others have gone to great lengths to clearly define what "evangelical" means—and what it doesn’t. But is all this navel-gazing really necessary? Many of our neighbors are just fine with us—and with the label.
Wright notes that negative public attitudes are actually declining. "The Pew Forum found anti-evangelical Christian sentiments highest in the 1990s, when about 40 percent of all Americans and 50-70 percent of non-Christians held an unfavorable opinion of evangelical Christians,” Wright says. “By the turn of the century, however, attitudes had grown substantially more favorable. Now, only about 20 percent of all Americans hold unfavorable opinions of evangelicals, as do only about 35-40 percent of non-Christians.”
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of CT, says it’s time for evangelicals to start acting like adults and get on with our callings. “A movement that casts anxious glances to see how it's doing in the eyes of others is in either childhood or adolescence,” he says. “It's either anxious to please authority figures, or fears the disapproval of peers.”
Yet a few questions remain. What is our calling, and how will that calling effect our image? Some would say that we are simply to do what Jesus did in demonstrating the kingdom and performing acts of compassion, and people will be drawn to the good news. However, we must remember that even what seems simple is often not so simple. Words—such as “Jesus,” “heaven,” “hell,” and “repentance”—must be accompanied by deeds, and they will sometimes spark opposition, even outrage.
Jesus, after all, ended up on a cross, and he promised a cross for those who would follow him. Paul talked about the offense of the cross, the foolishness of the gospel. This is not a persecution complex but real persecution. The same public that approves of our religiosity in general might well reject our Jesus in particular—such as when we have the temerity to pray in his name or say he is the only way.
We evangelicals can rejoice when our neighbors approve of us, using such opportunities as open doors to share the gospel in word and deed. But we should not expect that we will always score well in the opinion polls—not if we are faithful.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Usand coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: August 11, 2011