Michael Spencer notes that evangelical Christians are almost universally disliked. Are there good reasons?.
I don't really know why someone thought it was necessary to do a poll to see just who were the most disliked groups in society, but the results are in. While serial killers and IRS agents still rank the highest, hot on their heels are evangelical Christians. Not Christians in general. Not Roman Catholics. Not all Christians—but evangelical Christians.
If you're like me, you have three reactions to this news. First, you tend to blame the media. Almost every portrayal of an evangelical Christian on television or in movies makes us look like the worst version of every stereotype we fear. Of course, one cannot expect the mainstream media to take up the cause of rescuing the evangelical public image, and these days virtually every group has a list of complaints with various kinds of media portrayals. There is more to the public perception of Bible believers than a media vendetta.
The second reaction is what we tend to say to one another to reassure ourselves that we are really OK after all. "It's the Gospel," we say to one another. Evangelicals are identified with a message that no one wants to hear, and so they are disliked. If you don't believe it, watch what happens when an evangelical leader appears on a talk show. It's like raw meat to hungry lions, no matter if the evangelical in question is rude or wonderful. (I have seen some of the nicest evangelicals torn limb from limb in these settings, including liberals who gave away the store.)
I would never argue with the basic premise of this observation. I have seen its truth too many times. They crucified Jesus. Enough said. But as true as this is, it is too simplistic to explain the increasing level of general despising of evangelicals in our society. It explains one thing, but it does not explain many other things. It actually may tend to blind us to our own behaviors. Like the residents of Jerusalem who were convinced their city could not fall because the temple was there, evangelicals may explain this dislike as reaction to the Gospel and then be blind to those things—in addition to the Gospel—that create legitimate animosity.
The third reaction is the guilty knowledge that evangelicals really are, very often, easy to dislike for many obvious reasons. Many evangelicals know exactly what the survey is registering, because they feel the same way themselves. We've all observed, in others and in ourselves, distinctively evangelical vices, hypocrisies and failures. We hoped that our good points would make up for these problems, but that was another self-deception.
It is easy to say that people's dislike of Christians is the dislike of the Christian message, but that simply doesn't hold up in the real world. It may be true of the Christian you don't know, but the Christians you do know have it in their power to either make it easy or difficult for you to dislike them. For example, the Christian in your car pool may believe what others refuse to believe, but his life provides a powerful antidote to any prejudice against him. Thousands of missionaries have been opposed for simply being Christians. But hundreds of thousands have lived lives that adorned the Gospel with attractive, winsome and loving behavior. A past president of our school was revered by Muslims during and after six years of Peace Corps service in Iran, years where he talked about the Gospel to Muslims every day and saw many trust Christ. The fact that the Gospel has penetrated into many hostile environments is evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit, but it is also evidence that one way the Spirit works is by making Christians a display of the fruits of love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.
We are loathed, caricatured, avoided and disliked because we often deserve it. There. I said it and I'm glad I did.
Here's my list of why evangelicals are among the most disliked persons in America:
1. Christians endorse a high standard of conduct for others and then largely excuse themselves from a serious pursuit of such a life. Jesus is the most admired person in history, but evangelicals are far more likely to devise ways for Jesus to be like us than for us to be like Jesus.
If it hasn't struck you lately that you do the very thing you condemn others for doing (Romans 2:1), urge others to do what you don't do or excuse in yourself what you require in others, then you probably don't get this article at all.
Did it irritate you when your dad said, "Do as I say, not as I do."? Then you get the picture.
2. Evangelical Christian piety in America is mostly public. Whether it's our entertainment-saturated "worship" services, our celebrity cults or our mad obsession with worldly success, we love for others to see "what God is doing in our lives." Of course, Jesus had plenty to say about this, and the essence of it is that when your piety is public, then there is almost certainly a lack of serious, life-transforming, private obedience and discipleship.
I have lately been strongly convicted by J.C. Ryle's little book, A Call To Prayer. Ryle makes a devastating case for the obvious absence of the discipline of private prayer among Christians. What would Ryle say today? Does our public manner grow out of a true inward experience of private prayer? You see what I am talking about. If it's public, we do it well. If it's private discipleship, we probably don't do it at all.
3. Many evangelicals relate to others with an obvious—or thinly disguised—hidden agenda. In other words, those who work with us or go to school with us feel that we are always "up to" something. You mean, they know we want to convert them? Apparently. Ever been yelled at for saying, "I'll pray for you?" Maybe there was a reason.
You know that feeling you get when a telemarketer interrupts your dinner? I get that feeling sometime when my Pentecostal/Charismatic friends are trying to persuade me into their camp. It's not that I don't know they are good, decent, law-abiding people who like me. I just want them to quit treating me as a target or a project and start treating me as a person who is free to be myself and different from them.
This same feeling is prevalent among those who dislike evangelical Christians. They are annoyed and sometimes angered that we are following some divine directive to get them to abandon their life choices and take up ours. They want to be loved as they are, not for what they might become if our plan succeeds.
Evangelicals have done a lot of good work on how to present the Gospel, but much of that work has operated on initial premises that are irritating and offensive. I have taken my share of evangelism courses, and there is a great blind spot on how to be an evangelist without being annoying and pushy. We somehow think that the Holy Spirit takes care of that aspect of evangelism! Thank God for men like Francis Schaeffer and Jerram Barrs who have done much to model evangelism that majors on maintaining the utmost respect toward those we evangelize.
4. We seem consumed with establishing that we are somehow "better" than other people, when the opposite is very often true. Many evangelicals are bizarrely shallow and legalistic about minute matters. We are frequently psychologically unsound, psychiatrically tormented, filled with bitterness and anger, torn apart by conflicts and, frankly, unpleasant to have around.
I have an atheistic acquaintance who never misses an opportunity to post a news story about a morally compromised minister. Is he just being mean? No, he is pointing out the obvious mess that is the inner life and outward behavior of many evangelicals, truths we like to avoid or explain as "attacks of the enemy." Our families are broken, our marriages fail and our children are remarkably worldly and messed up. Yet, we boldly tell the world that we have the answer for all their ills! How many churches proclaim that a sojourn with them will fix that marriage and those kids? Do we really have the abundant life down at the church, ready to be dispensed in a five week class?
We are not as healthy and happy as we portray ourselves. The realities of broken marriages among the Christian celebrity set underlines the inability of evangelicals to face up to their own brokenness. Was there some reason that Sandi Patti and Amy Grant were supposed to be immune from failed marriages? Why did their divorces make them pariahs in evangelicalism? The fact is that most evangelicals are in deep denial about what depravity and sinfulness really means. The world may have similar denial problems, but I don't think they can approach us for the spiritual veneer. The crowd at the local tavern may have issues, but they frequently beat Christians by miles in the realistic humanity department. Maybe they should pity us, but the fact is that, as the situation becomes more obvious, they don't like us.
5. We talk about God in ways that are too familiar and make people uncomfortable. Evangelicals constantly talk about a "personal relationship" with God. Many evangelicals talk as if God is talking to them and leading them by the hand through life in a way only the initiated can understand. Christian testimonies may give a God-honoring window into the realities of Christian experience, or they may sound like a psychological ploy to promote self importance.
Evangelicals have yet to come to grips with their tendency to make God into a commodity. The world is far more savvy about how God is "used" to achieve personal or group ends than most evangelicals admit. Evangelicals may deny that they have made God into a political, financial, or cultural commodity, but the world knows better. How does an unbeliever hear the use of Jesus to endorse automobiles, political positions, or products?
In my ministry, I have observed how difficult it is to evangelize Buddhists. One of the reasons is that the Buddhist assumes that if you are serious about your religious experience, you will become a monk! When he sees American Christians talking about a relationship with God, yet does not see a corresponding impact upon the whole of life, he assumes that this religion is simply an expression of culture or group values. Now we may critique such a response as not understanding certain basic facts about the Gospel, but we also have to acknowledge the truth observed! Rather than being people who are deeply changed, we are people who tend to use God to change others or our world to suit ourselves.
6. Evangelicals are too slow to separate themselves from what is wrong. Because ours is a moral religion, and we frequently advertise our certainty in moral matters, it seems bizarrely hypocritical when that moral sense is applied so inconsistently.
I note that my evangelical friends are particularly resistant to this matter, but the current Trent Lott affair makes the point plainly. Lott says that he now repudiates any allegiance to segregation or the symbols of segregation. Suddenly, he sees the good sense in a number of things he has opposed. But bizarrely, Lott stands behind his evangelical Christianity as the explanation for his sudden conversion to racial sensitivity.
Watching this spectacle, there are many reactions, but what interests me is how Lott's Christianity only seems to apply now that he is being dangled over political hell. Where was all this moral sense in the 1960s? Where was it 10 years ago? Why does it appear that Lott is using his religion at his convenience? It's not my place to judge what is going on between Lott and his God, but his apparent pragmatism in these matters is familiar to many people observing evangelicals on a daily basis.
Most evangelicals are not the moral cutting edge of contemporary social issues. Despite the evangelical conscience on issues like abortion, it is clear to many that we no longer have the cutting-edge moral sense of a Martin Luther King Jr. or a William Wilberforce. Evangelicals are largely annoyed at people who tell them to do the right thing if it doesn't enhance their resumes, their wallets, their families or their emotions.
What is odd about this is that many of those who dislike evangelicals have the idea that we want to impose our morality upon an entire culture. Fear-mongering liberals often talk about the Bush administration as populated by fundamentalist Christian Taliban poised to bring about a Christian theocracy. I wonder if they have noticed that President Bush—an evangelical right down to his boots—is practicing religious tolerance over the loud objections of evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
7. We take ourselves far too seriously, and come off as opposed to normal life. Is it such a big deal that Christians are offended at so many things others consider funny? I'll admit it is a small thing, but it is one of the reasons ordinary people don't like us.
I read an incident written by a preacher on a forum I monitor. He told about taking his youth group on an outing, when the students began singing a popular country song about a guy who leaves his wife to pursue his fishing hobby. It's a hilarious song. But this fellow's reaction was predictable. He asked them to not sing a song about a marriage that breaks up and to instead sing something that honored God. I routinely hear students ridiculing a fellow teacher who labels much of what students find funny as "of the devil."
These incidents show something that evangelicals need to admit. We are frequently unable to see humor, absurdity, and the honest reasons for humans to laugh at themselves. What very normal, very healthy people find laughable, we find threatening and often tag with the ridiculous label "of the devil."
The message here isn't just that we are humorless or puritanical. The message is that being human or being real is somehow evil. This is one place I can feel exactly what the unbelievers are talking about. When I see Christians trying to rob young people of the right to be normal, ordinary, and human, it angers me. I feel threatened. It's hard to like people who seem to say that God, Jesus, and Scripture are the enemies of laughter, sex, growing up, and ordinary pleasures. Some Christians sometimes seem to say that everything pleasurable is demonic or to be avoided to show what a good Christian you are. Isn't it odd that unbelievers are so much more aware of the plain teaching of scripture than we are?
I am sure there is much more to say, but I have ridden this horse far enough. Certainly, unregenerate persons are at enmity with God by nature. And, without a doubt, Christians represent a message that is far from welcome. Christians doing the right thing risk being labeled enemies of society. Much persecution is cruel and evil. But that's not the point. Christians are disliked for many reasons that have nothing to do with the Gospel, and everything to do with the kind of people we are in the relationships God has given us. The message of salvation won't earn a standing ovation, but people who believe that message are not given a pass to rejoice when all men hate you—for any reason, including reasons that are totally our own fault.
No doubt someone will write me and say that, to the extent people like us, we have denied the Gospel. Therefore, being despised and hated is proof that you are on the right track. And there is a certain amount of truth to that observation in some situations in which Christians may find themselves. But that is an explanation for how we are treated, not directions on how to make sure we are rejected and hated by most people for reasons having nothing to do with the message of the cross. I hate to say it, but I've learned that when a preacher tells me he was fired from his church for "taking a stand for God," it usually means he was just a jerk.
The Scriptures tell us that the early Christians were both persecuted and thought well of for their good lives and good works. What was possible then is still possible now. I've seen it and I hope I see more of it—in my life.
Michael Spencer is a campus minister, teacher, pastor and writer living in Eastern Kentucky. Mirroring this article here does not imply agreement. Article offered here as food for thought alone.
What do you think?
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)