Evangelicals need Dialogue

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.” From the Pew Forum Survey of Evangelical Leaders conducted in 2010.(http://pewforum.org/)

It is unfortunate that the Pew Forum report doesn’t give more detail of just what constitutes an “unfavorable view” of non-Evangelical religious persons. Yet it is troubling in any case. That evangelical convictions lead to unfavorable views of religious traditions that sharply disagree with evangelicals on matters of theology is unsurprising. Nobody views with favor ideas he or she things are wrong.

That is very different from having an unfavorable view of the people (adherents) who supposedly hold these views. Since we can assume that these evangelical leaders are familiar with both the teaching and the actions of Jesus then they must surely know that their unfavorable attitudes toward a group of people that hold different religious views than their own cannot be justified as Christian.

We all have, based on personal experience, negative or positive attitudes toward particular people. This is hard to avoid, although the obligation to love remains the same. But having negative attitudes toward a group as a whole is simply bigotry, and is fundamentally un-Christian. Christians are allowed only one view of other persons as a whole. Regardless of either their mistaken beliefs or indeed their sins humans are the beloved of God, whom Jesus died to save, and thus they should be beloved by every Christian.

We get a real hint of the reason adherents of other religions are viewed unfavorably when we see that evangelical leaders in dominantly Muslim societies have a more positive assessment of Muslims than their counterparts. This coincides with findings published in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and confirmed by many studies of human attitudes over decades. Simply put, negative attitudes closely accompany ignorance.  Christians don’t like people whom they don’t know. A lack of personal relationships coupled with general ignorance creates the playground in which bigots love to play and prejudice usually wins.

And this points up the desperate need for inter-religious dialogue. Not, I would quickly add, a dialogue that seeks to undermine core Christian theological convictions. These are not, and should not be negotiable. But rather a dynamic dialogue that invites people to know one another’s stories and to share and contribute to a common social space locally, nationally, and worldwide; a dialogue that lets us get to know our neighbors so that we can have a realistic and loving (and Christian) attitude toward them.

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