Even many evangelicals today don’t like being called “evangelical.” And the term has so many meanings–from “conservative Christian” to a particular strain of conversionist Pietism–and can refer to so many very different theologies (Arminian, Calvinist, Baptist, Charismatic, etc.), that it is becoming less and less useful.
The word derives from the Greek word for the Gospel (the “good news” or euvangelium of Christ), so it was originally used to describe us Lutherans, just as “Reformed” became the term of choice for Calvinists. So we Lutherans–not just “confessional ” adherents to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but also liberal members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America–still like the term, even though it has acquired different applications.
The Barna Group, a Christian research firm, has conducted a study of how the general public perceives evangelicals. The study includes lots of interesting and useful information, so I commend to you the full report, but I want to focus here on the extent to which some people just don’t like evangelicals, however defined, and why that is.
First of all, evangelicals may not be quite so unpopular as they sometimes feel. In the largest breakdown, 46% of Americans have a “neutral” view towards evangelicals. Furthermore, 30% have a “positive” view of evangelicals with 15% being “very positive” and 15% being “somewhat positive.” So over three-quarters of Americans (76%) have no particular problem with evangelicals, which would include the 25% or so of the population that is evangelical (though Barna uses a more rigorous definition, finding that only 6% measure up to all of their criteria). Interestingly, these numbers hold up across all demographics, so that Millennials and younger Americans are not more opposed to evangelicalism than any other age-groups.
But a fourth (25%) of Americans hold a very negative view of evangelicals (10%) or a somewhat negative view (15%). [Yes, the 76% of the positive or neutral and 25% of the negative add up to more than 100%, but this is because the statistics are rounded down and rounded up.]
Why the negative ratings? Christianity Today studied the Barna report and found some answers. From Research sheds light on why some people don’t like evangelicals:
Two thirds (67%) said this attitude [of having a negative view of evangelicals] was because they felt evangelicals were “too pushy with their beliefs”. Sixty-one per cent said that evangelicals were “hypocritical”, while half said they were “homophobic” and a similar proportion (51%) said “their beliefs are outdated”.A smaller proportion (41%) said that evangelicals were “too conservative politically”, while over a third (39%) believed them to be “too racist” and 30% said “they are misogynistic”.
So the association of evangelicals with Donald Trump is not the biggest factor in the public’s dislike, despite what some evangelicals and their critics are saying. Though “culture war” issues, such as evangelicals disapproving of homosexuality, are factors, though such unpopular views do grow out of their Biblical beliefs. That those objective beliefs are interpreted as psychological problems (“homophobia”) or as subjective emotions (“misogynistic,” probably in reference to opposition to abortion and to feminist ideology; never mind that most evangelicals are women). The complaint that evangelicals are “too racist”–as opposed to the right amount of racism?–is ironic, given that, in the words of a Pew study, “African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation” and hold to evangelical religious beliefs at a much higher rate than white people.
What most bothers the public about evangelicals is that they are “too pushy with their beliefs.” That is, people don’t like being witnessed to. That evangelicals care about non-Christians’ temporal problems, for which Jesus can help them, and their eternal destiny, for which Jesus offers free salvation, does not matter. To the 67% of the 25% of Americans who do not like evangelicals,(which comes to 16.75% of the general public, if my math is correct), this is offensive, due, no doubt, to the postmodern dogma that truth is a personal construction, so that persuasion is construed as a personal attack, an act of power that imposes your will over someone else’s.
Are there some lessons that can be drawn from this study? Might evangelicals do a better job at public relations? What are the dangers in trying to be too well liked?
Evangelicals should also take the occasion of this study to rejoice in their blessings: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 15:11-12).
Photo: “Disapprove” by hobvias sudoneighm [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons