Evangelicals’ Image Problem

By Rusty Wright

God should have sued Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for defamation, says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. 

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the two Christian leaders ventured that America’s secularists, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters had angered God, and thus deserved some of the blame.

Kristof writes, “In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as ‘evangelical Christian.’”  He notes that “the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.”

Billy Graham, call your press agent.

Christians Behaving Badly

Jesus, of course, taught people to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love your enemies,” and “treat people the same way you want them to treat you.”  Sometimes, though, his followers can be downright weird.

During my university days, a friend brought an African-American student to a North Carolina church I attended.  The next Sunday, the pastor announced that “last week’s racial incident” (a black person attending) had prompted church leaders to reaffirm their longstanding racial segregation policy.  Thereafter, any blacks attending would be handed a note explaining the policy and asking they not return.  I was outraged and left the church.

Postscript: Thirty years later, I learned that the white church had folded and an African-American church later used the facility.  Maybe God has a sense of humor.

Shining Lights

However, genuine followers of Jesus can be shining lights.  British parliamentarian William Wilberforce led a twenty-year legislative battle that, in 1807, outlawed the slave trade.  Slave-trader-turned-pastor and “Amazing Grace” hymn writer John Newton mentored Wilberforce.

Contemporary examples of the faithful serving society abound.  Sam Adams, Portland, Oregon’s openly gay mayor, developed evangelical church partnerships involving over 26,000 volunteers tackling homelessness, sex trafficking and more.  Adams calls it “the largest, most successful… sustained… volunteer effort… the Portland region has ever seen.”  

Times of London writer and former British parliamentarian Matthew Parris, a confirmed atheist, wrote, “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: … secular NGOs, government projects … international aid efforts … education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

World Relief, a Christian organization, provides worldwide disaster relief plus self-help efforts like well-digging and agricultural training.  World Vision, the Salvation Army, and most major Christian denominations provide significant help for the poor.

The New York Times’ Kristof lauds evangelicals’ philanthropy and service:  “Go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.”

“I’m not particularly religious myself,” he continues, “but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.”

Bad Rap and Bridge Building

So, why such a bad rap for evangelicals?  No doubt that some Christians behave badly.  But maybe some bridge building is in order, by all sides. 

Veteran leftist journalist/author Mark Pinsky, who is Jewish, says his attitude toward evangelicals changed after getting to know some as neighbors and friends:  “I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories.”  He found they were neither monolithic nor, as The Washington Post once claimed, “poor, uneducated and easy to command,” but surprisingly diverse.

Get to know your intellectual and philosophical adversaries.  Take a conservative to coffee or a liberal to lunch.  You might find it eye-opening.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.  www.RustyWright.com

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