Trust Issues and American Evangelicals

Trust Issues and American Evangelicals June 21, 2013

In preparing for a talk to a group of Pentecostal ministers in our Seattle region, I read Corwin Smidt’s new American Evangelicals Today. Since I’m not a part of this tribe, I want to get things right and not be confused by my own prejudices. I must say, I came away from my conversation with the Pentecostal ministers impressed and inspired by them. Several have become very good friends—showing once again, theological agreement is not necessary for respect and love.

But in reading Smidt’s excellent book on American Evangelicals, who compose more than twenty-five percent of the American public, several facts came out to me that were jarring. The trust level of evangelicals toward others has decreased over time, from 41 percent in 1987 to 32 percent in 2010. Smidt queried the millennial generation in particular on their trust level toward others, and only ten percent of millennials (those without a college degree) say they trust “other people.” The larger American public reciprocates this feeling of mistrust; we know from Robert Putnam’s recent book, American Grace, that most American don’t like evangelicals. A sense of mistrust seems to pervade the relationship between non-evangelical Americans, on the one hand, and Americans evangelicals, on the other.

This came home to me in a recent interaction with two acquaintances. I know these two people fairly well; the two also know each other. The first is a self-proclaimed evangelical, the second rejected Christianity long ago, and is a part of the “nones,” a group that now make up nearly 20 percent of the American public. The evangelical, in an off-handed but serious way, said to me that this second person “was headed for hell unless they came to Christ.” This took me by surprise and I let it go. But I began to think about it, because the one he had mentioned was a person who had recently been an enormous comfort to me a time of great distress. She had, as the Bible says to do, “mourned with those who mourn,” quite literally she had cried with me in a time of sorrow.

And so the one who had no relationship to the Christian faith had been the one to care while the one who claimed to be in the faith had been the one to judge and not only judge but to literally condemn the other to hell.

Well after reading the statistics about American evangelicals and their distrust of others in general, I began to realize, if you believe that if someone doesn’t say with words that they are a follower of Christ that they are, by definition, going to hell, it will tend to cause some distrust of that “other.”

Moreover, if one is among those who either have no religion or are spiritual but not religious—the 20 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—there will certainly be a sense of misapprehension and perhaps even a sense of distrust or even disgust toward those who are “evangelical” about their faith and by definition condemn those who are not of that faith.

Maybe this explanation of distrust is oversimplified. One case study does not make an explanation. But at the same time, it brings me back to the importance of suspending judgment, of being aware of people’s actions as the main way to identity their moral, spiritual and religious being. Moreover, if one, by definition, condemns those who are not in one’s camp, then a whole swath of people become suddenly unacceptable or simply off limits or merely targets of evangelization.

I don’t go there, I give thanks for my friends who are evangelical, for those who are not—whether they are the person who is spiritual but not religious, who comforted me, or my dear friend down the hallway who is a scholar of Early Judaism and a Hasidic Jew, who I treasure beyond words. For me, at least, actions speak louder than words, and trust proven by action through compassion and justice is a far more important way to make judgments. It is upon these two stones of compassion and justice that trust can and should be built—after all, Jesus makes clear in Matthew 25, that the bottom line is not what we say about others but about what we do for others. Words then, in some sense, are cheap, but actions prove trustworthiness, more valuable than all the words that can be written or said.

See Corwin E. Smidt’s American Evangelicals Today, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Also, see Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010.



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