Stereotyping evangelicals in the United States

In the West, recent decades have rightly seen increased emphasis on tolerance and even appreciation of minorities, including religious ones. For some years, then, it seemed rude to criticize someone else’s religion, at least on public platforms. Certainly one convert away from Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., extrapolating from their personal bad experiences to negatively stereotype all Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or so forth would have drawn ire.

Yet these days even supposedly religiously neutral news outlets sometimes post hostile stereotypes.

That is not entirely new. Thus, for example, Dan Brown’s fictional DaVinci Code achieved often positive media coverage despite its factually baseless depiction of the Catholic Church as hosting a sinister coverup of the truth about Jesus. (I complained about that mistreatment in a review of the book at the time.) Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities in this country have long experienced prejudices, as have many groups of Christians marginalized from what was deemed mainstream culture, at least in parts of the country (e.g., the Black Church, Adventists, Pentecostals, fundamentalists).

In today’s incendiary rhetorical climate, it’s no surprise that such stereotyping continues. What prompts my current complaint is a post yesterday by a former evangelical, now a skeptic. (I digress to remind readers at this point that skeptics are not all hostile and religious people are not all nice. Looking beyond the West, the past century has witnessed atheist states persecuting religious believers in some regions, but in others some state religions have persecuted atheists.)

The article’s logic appears to be that belief in Jesus’s resurrection leads to belief in miracles, which in turn leads to evangelicals not wearing masks and thus spreading COVID. Thus, it concludes, evangelicalism is a toxic religion that is a public health hazard. The pundit who wrote the article is not a scholar on evangelical history or theology; just a former evangelical who had a (genuinely) bad experience. Yahoo news included this in their news feed. If one follows the article’s logic, however, it condemns all Christians (since they believe in Jesus’s resurrection), and ultimately any religion that affirms miracles.

Granted, the author’s concern about extremist charismatics rejecting health policies as acts of “faith” is a legitimate issue. Nevertheless, extrapolating from extremists to all charismatics or evangelicals is stereotyping a group based on its worst examples. I am a charismatic evangelical professor who teaches on an evangelical campus where social distancing and masks are part of the rules.

Lately new about Jerry Falwell, Jr., has been embarrassing some evangelical circles where a different kind of evangelical such as myself might not be welcome. Yet it would be unfair to judge all religious people, or all Christians, or all evangelicals, or all politically conservative evangelicals, or even Liberty University faculty and students (some of whom I know) by the reported behavior of Jerry Falwell, Jr.

My former colleague and good friend Ron Sider comes from the evangelical Anabaptist tradition and a very different place on the political spectrum than Jerry Falwell, Jr. Yet someone who extrapolated from Ron would not come up with a universal portrait of evangelicals, either.

Any group with standards will have some who fail to live by those standards, often including leaders whose lives fail to match their rhetoric. Just as it’s inappropriate to judge all atheists by Stalin or Mao, it’s inappropriate to judge all Catholics by pedophile priests, all Muslims by Boko Haram or Isis, etc. Unfortunately, however, those of us who live in the U.S. right now live in a society where public discourse has been debased and crass rhetoric scores points. Those who lean politically left can be equated with Communists, those who lean politically right can be equated with Nazis, and so forth.

I doubt that the particular author whose post annoyed me yesterday will ever see my post. But I hope that she will engage other thinkers close to her and add greater nuance to her approach. Nuance does not sell, but it is more accurate.

Movements that become sectarian often do so because they perceive that they are under assault from the wider group or culture. Jesus warned his followers to expect the world’s hatred and (as happens in some parts of the world today) outright persecution (Mark 13:9-13; John 15:18-25). Some of those who stereotype his followers (or others) may not recognize how they actually play into that narrative.

Previous Post

Net worth

Next Post

Gary Habermas comments on Craig Keener’s 2011 miracles book (8-9 minutes)

Related Posts