We live in a social media-fueled era of anti-evangelical (and anti-Catholic, and anti-Orthodox Jewish) sentiment. It’s not unusual to see tweets, clickbaity articles, and sensational books that seem mainly intended to cultivate animosity toward religious traditionalists. One academic even suggested that evangelicals are the “greatest threat to human existence” who must accordingly be “laid waste.” (The academic in question subsequently deleted this tweet.) Most of this stuff is just social media noise, but given the awful history and contemporary global realities of persecution against unpopular religious groups, it does get one’s attention.
Some white evangelicals have helped to trigger the hostility, of course, via their incautious political engagement, especially since 2016. The extent to which that hostility is deserved, or whether it has just presented an excuse for anti-evangelical stereotypes, is another subject for another time. But even evangelicals who are basically apolitical will likely be unable to avoid hostility directed toward anyone who holds the views of gender, sexuality, and marriage that are common in the vast majority of Christian churches globally today.
What can we do to counter anti-evangelical animus? In one sense, we may not be able to do much. The Bible assumes that the people of God may often encounter hostility, from outside or from within the fold of the church. We shouldn’t romanticize persecution, but we also shouldn’t be nostalgic for times in the American past when Christians exercised a de facto or de jure establishment (i.e. when Christians largely made the rules). We should just accept what the Lord providentially has for us in our place and time, and live faithfully under those circumstances.
But there are a few things that Christians can do to counter derision or caricature. First, as I discussed in Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis we can use vitriol as a chance for self-evaluation. Are some of the criticisms we’re receiving warranted? In today’s environment, I would sadly say ‘yes.’ Many white evangelicals’ attachment to the Republican Party has given much of the watching world the idea that we’re basically a political interest group, and they treat us as such. If we are going to be reviled, let’s make sure it is for things that are central to the gospel and the historic biblical tradition.
Second, we can focus our reading (and associated talk on social media) on sources that are empathetically critical toward evangelicals, instead of focusing on the clickbaity trashing of evangelicals (or uncritical, defensive apologetics), which most of us should probably just ignore. Evangelical leaders need capacity for self-criticism, and there are abundant supplies of charitably critical work on evangelicals. These publications are usually not sensational best-sellers, but they often have an enduring quality to them that will stand the test of time, beyond the furor of any given Twitter moment.
There are far too many such books to list here, but among my favorite examples of works about evangelicals that are sometimes tough, consistently fair, and always thought-provoking are Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America; Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America; and books and articles by my friend and Baylor colleague George Yancey, including Beyond Racial Gridlock. Just because some critics attribute most of America’s problems to evangelicals shouldn’t cause us to overcorrect and blindly defend our group. But there’s also little gained by getting into never-ending Twitter battles with people whose brand depends on outrage and acrimony.
Finally, we can encourage and highlight those experts charitably, calmly responding to some of the worst clickbaity attacks. One recent effort to respond in this way was by Harvard’s Tyler VanderWeele and Brendan Case (a former colleague of mine at Baylor). They responded to a Washington Post/Religion News Service story which alleged that women in “structurally sexist” congregations have worse health than those in “inclusive” congregations. (Take religion survey statistics with a grain of salt, especially when they are used to impugn religious traditionalists.) “Structurally sexist,” to the piece’s authors, chiefly means congregations that do not have female pastors. This means that most Christian churches and denominations (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) throughout history, and around the globe today, are “structurally sexist,” from the authors’ perspective.
Case and VanderWeele responded to this article with generosity, patience, and skill. It is well worth reading the piece in its entirety, but not because it makes for sensational reading. It doesn’t. You might even struggle to read it because it is dispassionate and technical. It uses a measured tone to explain the manifold problems with the study and the ways the authors skewed the evidence. The Post/RNS story overtly suggested that going to a conservative church is bad for your health. More reliable studies, Case and VanderWeele explain, have shown huge advantages in overall health for women (and men) who attend congregations of virtually any kind.
Even the Post authors’ own data suggests that women and men who attend “structurally sexist” congregations do better in self-described health outcomes than those who don’t attend church. (I might add that “inclusive” congregations – ironically – often attract a more exclusively elite demographic than traditional congregations do. One might expect such social and financial elites to have better health anyway.) The idea that going to a conservative church makes you sick is ridiculous, even based on the evidence accumulated in this study.
The problems in the study will not, of course, keep many media outlets from publishing such pieces. Nor will the problems keep such claims from getting re-tweeted. If the authors publish a book on the sickly women of “structurally sexist” congregations, I am sure it will be a big hit. But there are plenty of scholars who expertly refute such pieces, and they do not all work at Christian institutions, either (Harvard!). Let’s do what we can to traffic in critical, empathetic, and high-quality literature on religion, and take measured opportunities to calmly respond to provocations when appropriate.
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