Evangelical Christianity and Low Social Status: A Few Reflections

Evangelical Christianity and Low Social Status: A Few Reflections March 26, 2018

Many people were sad to read about the low social status of traditional Christian belief. Image via Pixabay.

This post proved to be more popular than I expected. As of this writing, it has been shared almost a thousand times and read many more times than that. The number and variety of responses have been overwhelming.

Responses ranged from predictable atheistic ideologues complaining about Christians talking to our skyfriend to equally knee-jerk reactions from fundamentalists insisting we only need to double-down on preaching the true gospel.

The most bizarre criticism of my piece came from people who faulted it for not being an exhaustive, academic treatment of the topic. The post is 867 words long. Complaining that I did not comment in it on every conceivably related topic is just strange.

Many commenters seemed to think I was just reasserting the idea that “elites don’t like Christianity.” I was not. I was pointing out that evangelicalism has poured a tremendous number of resources into “engaging the culture”, a project that has failed because the architects of those plans proceeded on a flawed anthropology.

Evangelical efforts to “engage the culture” proceeded without taking into account the reality of social dynamics. They proceeded as if most people chiefly adopt their identities and beliefs from some source other than their social group. They failed to see that most people are unwilling to associate themselves with traditional Christian belief when doing so puts at risk their social status and the privileges attached to it.

A couple of interesting comments came through suggesting that Christianity has been removed as the foundation of our culture because it is contrary to modern science. This is a complicated subject that has been adequately addressed in other places by people more qualified than I. Suffice it to say that people who argue this seem not to understand Christianity well. Certainly, they seem unfamiliar with much of the writing on Christianity and science that has been produced in the last couple of decades.

I will also point out that much of what we call “science” also benefits from the human tendency to adopt our beliefs based on what is socially acceptable. To act as if “science” is a human project altogether immune to the most basic human social realities seems to me naive at best.

Other responses carried a different message. These were of the “my uncle Bob went to church and he was a real jerk” sort. I do not mean to make light of these. Comments like these reveal a real pain and need to be addressed in ways I can not do here now. But, the fact that some people bring up negative experiences they’ve had with others who identified as Christians in the comments section of a blog post that has nothing to do with that topic shows how strongly they’ve been affected. Perhaps I will return to this theme at another time.

The off-topic nature of most of the comments here has caused me to consider turning off comments on this blog altogether.  I haven’t decided to do that, but I will certainly be curating them closely going forward.

Perhaps the most thoughtful response I’ve seen came from the blogger at Screen to Screed.

From his post:

Abbott breaks from the conventional wisdom that blames hypocrisy and political contamination of Christianity for its decline. It is not character deficiency but low social status that is handicapping Christian engagement efforts.

This observation rings true for me. I’ve long wondered why Christians are so willing to cede the moral and cultural high ground to their opponents. When you start to think of Christians as the low-status dorks of the American high school, that default position of surrender starts to make intuitive sense. When you’re a teenager, no one needs to tell you that the hottie or the stud are on one tier, and that the metal-mouthed stickboy or pizza-faced shy girl are on another. You see it and sense it and adapt accordingly.

Humans are inherently hierarchical. We are constantly assessing our place in every social hierarchy. As a general rule, we even measure our happiness in terms of hierarchy. When you’re working from the bottom of the sociocultural totem pole, then it doesn’t matter how winsome is your messaging or how skinny is your pant leg – you are always going to be an interloper when you try to engage with anyone above you.

This is the crux of my point. If evangelicals want to engage the culture around them, they must realize the reality of social dynamics and respond accordingly. That means many things, but certainly it means evangelicals need to recognize the reality of their situation and respond accordingly.

I will pursue these ideas in greater depth in future posts.

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