I remember watching Barbara Walters interview some now-forgotten minor evangelical celebrity on television years ago. I was watching with my mother, who I will tell you now, is a very perceptive person. As we watched, we were both struck by a strange disconnectedness on Walters’ part. By the way that her eyes glazed over and her smile became static, painted on, it was clear that she wasn’t engaged. “She doesn’t understand what she’s hearing,” my mom said. “She doesn’t get it, and she can’t connect with this person.” Being the perceptive person she is, my mom was right. Try as she might, Ms Walters couldn’t identify with the thoughts and ideas she was hearing, and that’s why she was unable to make a connection. All she could do was smile and nod, and wait for the guest’s mouth to stop moving.
This story is illustrative of an unfortunate truth about our society. There are still tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the United States today, as there have been for centuries. But more and more, the rest of the country doesn’t understand our language, our perspective, our aspirations, or our place in American culture.
It probably goes without saying that evangelical protestants will never again occupy the dominant position they once did in this country, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. But for many years there’s been a widespread attitude of tolerance (or indifference) from most Americans toward conservative Christians. Sadly, it seems that Americans are becoming less and less tolerant of genuine religious faith with each passing generation. If political commentary in the US is an indicator, it would seem that Christian faith is now openly frowned upon, to the point that many contributors to the public discourse (particularly bloggers and their commentors) are openly contemptuous of any expression of real faith by public figures. There’s a sort of tolerance for religious affiliation, but that has more to do with a trendy, showy multiculturalism than real openness.
The expressions of scorn for Christians have become more common and more strident lately, and I think it’s because the general public misunderstands who we Christians are and what we want out of life. It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know, and they don’t know us. If they think that we want to force our morals on them, if they think that we look down on them or feel superior to them, if they surmise that we want to control their lifestyle opportunities and conscript them all into the army of our God, how can we be surprised at the hostility?
Is this anti-Christian bigotry? Maybe, sometimes. But I don’t think we can be spared from blame. There have always been people who behaved thoughtlessly and spoke without regard for the feelings of others, and who cloaked their words and actions in evident religious fervor. I’ll always remember Jerry Falwell taunting Ellen DeGeneres after she revealed her homosexuality, calling her Ellen Degenerate. That made me shudder at the time – imagine how it must have affected nonbelievers. There are also those who substitute their personal preferences for good Biblical doctrine, such as those who consider certain types of music to be evil or those who insist that only one translation of the Bible is suitable for use in church. Then too, think of those who justify racist attitudes by citing scripture or by remembering “good Christian folks” of days gone by who also were racists.
We may also be able to thank the so-called Islamofascists for some aspect of this development, as they have demonstrated how badly a religion-saturated philosophy can go wrong. But in the bigger picture, I think the wide and growing decline in participation in organized religion has given us a new generation of young adults who don’t know anything about religious faith and who don’t have any meaningful relationships with religious people, and who are consequently filled with fear and dread where religion is concerned. Because of the general trend toward incivility and the anonymity of the internet, they have no qualms about expressing their distaste for others who they find threatening, and too often they find anyone threatening whose faith informs their actions.