Evangelicals need to stop giving the rest of us Christians a bad name
Some sects of American Christianity have stopped living by the Golden Rule. It makes the public think the whole religion is rotten
Sun 30 Aug 2015 12.00 BST
Ever since Jesus himself announced that his followers should be “salt and light” (think: flavor and enlightenment) in the world and the apostle Paul held his own in debates with first century intellectuals and Greek philosophers, the Christian church has always held a mandate to positively influence society at large.
Unfortunately, some of that influence has been wielded negatively by men who perverted the faith and were the least Christ-like of all (see: the Crusades, colonization, slavery). But believers have also been catalysts in many positive cultural movements. Yes, some alleged Christians used the Bible to justify the transatlantic slave trade, but Christians (both Protestants and Catholics) and many Jews were also involved in the abolition of slavery and were the initiators of the civil rights movement. Even today, in many areas, religious charities are the only service organizations available to people in need.
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Arguably up until the mid-20th century, the influence of Christianity was still well received by the larger secular society, primarily because it actively met the needs of the disenfranchised. The Church – particularly in America – was not so at odds with the rest of the country.
But there has been a terrible shift. Many Christian churches – particularly many evangelicals here in America – are not living up to the part of our God-ordained mission to, as Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” In Scripture, Jesus says he came “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (see Luke 4:18). If we consider ourselves “followers” of His, shouldn’t we do the same?
Instead of being the first in line to protest the brutal treatment of black bodies by law enforcement, many Christian leaders in various denominations are either deafeningly silent, wallowing in denial or simply on the wrong side of the issue. Instead of advocating for the poor and demanding that public education be a priority in this country, some pastors and alleged evangelists (see Creflo Dollar and Benny Hinn) are busy filling their coffers with what little money their poor parishioners have or targeting wealthier potential parishioners in the first place.
The earliest signs of a major shift away from a service-based approach to sharing the gospel – extending the love and grace of Christ as opposed to judgment and condemnation – likely occurred when the church became more fundamentalist in the late 19th to early 20th century. Fear of theological liberalism drove many believers to an absolutist approach to faith that shut out any opportunity for conversation about faith in secular arenas. Many American Protestants essentially took their Bibles and went home, deciding that their interpretation of scripture was right and all others were wrong, if not heretical.
This collective isolation from other people of faith and those with none made the evangelical church’s efforts to spread the gospel look more like a demand for doctrinal alignment rather than an extension of God’s love and grace and the facilitation of a conversation about the faith. Combine that shift with the church’s gradual move away from social justice issues and toward the prosperity gospel movement that took fire in the 70s and the everyday hypocrisy of prominent, proselytizing Christians like the Duggars that we now see every other week, and you have a faith tradition that is no longer broadly respected by the rest of America.
This is not to say that this is just a problem coming from evangelicals. While as Christians we view ourselves as Romans 12:4-7 says “one body,” we cannot escape the fact that in America, there are dozens of denominations and theological distinctions within the faith. A Presbyterian church is not the same as a Baptist or a Catholic, nor do they necessarily have the same organizational missions.
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But maybe that’s the paradox. Scripturally we are supposed to see ourselves as “one” and, despite the fact that we rarely function this way, that’s exactly how the larger culture views us. There are many people who aren’t Christians who don’t necessarily distinguish between Christians doing good work for others and those acting in bad faith when forming their opinions about Christianity as a whole. And in spite of the good work of believers throughout the past – particularly in social justice movements – many non-believers want nothing to do with the faith or the faithful. Too many people who don’t believe in Christianity are no longer willing to allow the religion to act as a moral compass because it unfortunately no longer reflects, as a whole, the spiritual values of love, grace and peace that once resonated more broadly.
Christianity no longer asserts a dominant influence in American society; instead, American Christianity is now heavily influenced by popular, secular culture. Much of that is benign: pop culture has influenced religious music and opened up the church to new ways of worshipping, as exemplified by Christian Hip Hop artist LeCrae and Christian Rock band Gungor. But other adaptations are more likely harming Christianity’s once-broad influence. One of the biggest threats now is the effect of external political considerations on various faith communities, the result of religious conservatives who allegedly promote a return to “traditional Christian values.” Unfortunately, many of those same, prominent individuals – leaders like Franklin Graham, who recently suggested that the American government block Muslims from entering the country -encourage fellow Christians to use our faith to justify “take our country back” politics linked to the right wing – code for let’s move as far away from Christ’s teachings of love your neighbor as possible.
As the more politically conservative segments of various American churches have moved away from the teachings of Christ – caring for the poor, justice for the disenfranchised, love and grace – and politicized the faith in order to maintain a status quo that is distinctively racist, sexist and classist, Christianity has essentially repelled many people who it might have influenced a century ago. American Christianity, in many cases, is now either comfortable in the role of oppressor, a laughingstock or impotent to promote the true and good work of the gospel.
Sadly, Christianity and many of its American adherents are floundering and gasping for air in a sea of irrelevance, held down by the weight of our own arrogance and our indifference to non-believers. If we don’t return to the foundations of Christ’s teaching by being more actively and compassionately involved in serving those in need, if we don’t get back to being the vessel through which others in society experience God’s amazing love and grace by risking our reputations on behalf of those who are suffering and those who have been disenfranchised by injustice, we will drown in that sea with – dare I say it – God’s permission.