Following Jesus demands that we share his good news with people we don’t know, people not like us, even people we hate.
You can see, then, why our current political climate is so dangerous for believers. Politics disciples us to despise our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t know, don’t look like us, don’t act like we do.
Followers of Jesus walk in faith and love . . . but the world stirs us to fear and loathe.
Followers of Jesus, by contrast, walk in faith and love by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have faith even when persecuted, and we love even our worst enemies. But the world stirs us to fear and loathe in order to sell us some gold in between segments of Sports Shouting. Do you ever wonder why everyone complains about negative campaigning, but nothing ever changes?
Because it works.
It doesn’t matter your political persuasion, either. Whether you watch Duck Dynasty or The Bachelor, your fear and loathing pay the bills and fill the polling places.
Given this political climate, we’re not surprised that unbelievers don’t like evangelical Christians. Because white evangelical Christians are so closely linked with the Republican Party, political opponents naturally demonize them. You can raise a lot of money from non-Christians if you tell them they are the last line of defense between evangelicals and dictatorial theocracy ruled by a Falwell.
Indeed, a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center shows that in the last three years, the feelings of Americans toward various religions “warmed” in every case—except evangelical Christians. Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, atheists, and even Muslims all improved their standing between 4 and 9 “thermometer” points. The biggest gains came with atheists, Muslims, and Hindus, especially among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. And the numbers for evangelicals would have been even worse if not for our especially warm view of other evangelicals.
If only we loved our neighbors as much as ourselves.
You can theorize about all the reasons why other Americans view evangelicals negatively. The political angle has clear support. Evangelicals rate only 51 degrees among Democrats, only 1 degree ahead of Mormons, another group that votes overwhelmingly Republican. In the last three years atheists and Muslims jumped ahead of evangelicals among Democrats. Meanwhile, evangelicals rated the warmest of all religions among Republicans at 71 degrees, compared to 43 degrees for atheists and 39 degrees for Muslims. Such antagonism may simply reflect different views on the desired direction of the country.
Another theory suggests these ratings simply fulfill Jesus’s words from John 15:18—“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” For support you could cite the “chilliest” rating of all: atheists toward evangelicals. Something would be wrong if evangelicals were popular, since we claim to follow a crucified Savior. “If you were of the world,” Jesus said in John 15:19, “the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
But I suspect that’s not the whole story.
Not the Whole Story
The strangest finding in the survey came in the shockingly low number of Americans who say they even know one evangelical. Keep in mind that evangelicals compose somewhere around 1 in 4 Americans. But in 2017 only 61 percent of Americans said they know an evangelical. And that figure had dropped 9 percent points between 2014 and 2017. Sure, that finding illustrates demographic sorting where, for example, atheists tend to live around other atheists and Muslims around other Muslims. Still, how can a missionary people like evangelicals have utterly failed to personally touch almost 40 percent of the American population?
Jesus told us the world would hate us. But what if the world doesn’t even know us apart from what they see on TV?
Is it possible, then, that our neighbors hate us because they don’t actually know us personally? If so, why not?
Is it possible our neighbors hate us because we fear or loathe them so much that we don’t even reach out with the good news of Jesus?
Don Carson raised this suggestion in a 2005 lecture that still stings today. He spoke shortly after the last presidential election where white evangelicals were widely credited with electing the president. He revealed how Christian groups raise money by spreading bad news about enemies threatening America’s spiritual heritage, corrupting the courts, ruining the schools, and spreading violence in the cities. He contrasted that attitude with Christians in the Roman Empire who had nothing to lose except their lives in spreading the gospel. I quote with help from Tony Reinke:
When you’re busy hating everybody and denouncing everybody and seeking political solutions to everything it’s very difficult to evangelize, isn’t it? It’s very hard to be compassionate, to look on the crowds as though they’re sheep without a shepherd, very hard to look on them like that when they’re taking away my heritage. . . .
I think one of the Devil’s tactics with respect to the church on the right today is to make them so hate everybody else that at the end of the day they can’t be believed anywhere, not even in the proclamation of the gospel.
When we’re conditioned by the politics of fear and loathing, we can’t obey the call of faith and love. We won’t even try to get to know our neighbors. We’ll be angry about their influence on our values, scared of their influence on our families. But the most solidly convicted Christian families I know are also the most welcoming toward diverse neighbors, the most evangelically active and fruitful.
When it comes to protecting what you love, the best defense is a good offense.
When we’re conditioned by the politics of fear and loathing, we can’t obey the call of faith and love.
Fear and loathing from the world toward believers is expected, even required for followers of Christ. But let the world come to expect from us faith and love in return, because we follow Christ in telling them the good news of his death and resurrection. Faith will come when they hear. Don’t let your fear condemn them.
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” Paul asked in Romans 10:14. “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”