My favorite Sunday school song from my childhood among the fundies was called “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” The song’s optimistic lyrics were countered by its sad, minor tone, so even as a kid I had the sense that it was at the same time celebrating what ought to be and mourning that it was not so:
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
Nowadays, that song is commonly sung as a medley combining it with the more recent praise chorus “Awesome God.” I’m not fond of that newer song. There’s something a bit off-puttingly possessive about the possessive pronoun in the chorus: “Our God is an awesome God.” That word “our” has become increasingly common in evangelical praise choruses. It no longer seems enough to sing that “God is an awesome God,” or that “God reigns” — we sing that “Our God is an awesome God,” and “Our God ray-ay-ay-ayns, Our God reigns.”
It might seem like I’m reading too much into what may be nothing more than an extra syllable added for the sake of meter, but the choice of this particular syllable reflects a larger change in the emphasis of American evangelical Christianity. That new context is all about Ours vs. Theirs, Us vs. Them.
That emphasis on conflict doesn’t give Them much reason to like Us, which probably helps to explain the dismal findings of a recent Barna Group poll on the declining reputation of Christianity (thanks, Scott, for the link):
In just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward. …. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16 percent of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity.
One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3 percent of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals. This means that today’s young non-Christians are eight times less likely to experience positive associations toward evangelicals than were non-Christians of the Boomer generation (25 percent).
The research shows that many Christians are innately aware of this shift in people’s perceptions of Christianity: 91 percent of the nation’s evangelicals believe that “Americans are becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity.” Among senior pastors, half contend that “ministry is more difficult than ever before because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity.”
Contrary to what Barna suggests, that last paragraph actually reflects an innate lack of awareness about the meaning of the survey’s findings. It suggests, rather, that most evangelicals consider any hostility or negativity reflected back at them to be something wholly external — something arising and existing wholly apart from their own attitudes and actions toward others. The dramatic increase in the negative perception of evangelical Christianity, they seem to think, is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The Barna researchers seem to share this notion — framing their findings with all those assertions about an intrinsic “skepticism in the broader culture.”
But as Barna’s own data shows, this hostility and negativity is not primarily an external phenomenon. It is, rather, a rational and predictable response by Them to the attitudes of Us:
The study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” Overall, 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.
The respondents identify the key matter here: an antipathy that goes “beyond” any traditional opposition to extramarital sex, an unprecedented and inordinate “excessive contempt … toward gays and lesbians.” And this contempt is perceived as central to the meaning and substance of Christianity — the “most common perception” of the faith for Christians and non-Christians alike.
This is a change, a new thing, a recent and radical alteration. It is an astonishing and deeply weird development. The great creeds of the church make no mention of homosexuality — let along singling it out for particular and pre-eminent condemnation or suggesting that such condemnation plays a central role in the faith. Yet now the majority of Christians and non-Christians alike view this as the primary defining characteristic of Christian faith, practice and spirituality.
How in Hell did that happen? (That’s a theological term, not a profane intensifier.)
The short answer is that this theological change has a political cause. The longer answer will take a longer answer, so we’ll come back to that, ending here only with the lamentable recognition that the song quoted above has come to seem like some kind of bitter joke.