Friday, January 4, 2008

Top 10 Christian News Stories of 2007; Fear in Evangelical-Speak

The Christian Post is an online clearinghouse of news articles of interest to evangelical Christians. They have recently released their "Top 10" list of events or trends that concerned evangelicals during 2007.

1. Rise of "militant" atheism and atheist apologetics
2. The 2008 U.S. Presidential race
3. Mormonism
4. Homosexuality
5. Creationism vs. evolution
6. Deaths of Jerry Falwell, Ruth Graham (Billy Graham's wife), D. James Kennedy, Rex Hubbard
7. Global efforts toward Muslim/Christian unity
8. Growing negative perception of the Church
9. Government attention given to the "prosperity gospel"
10. Christian missionaries held hostage by Taliban in Afghanistan

This massive (11-page!) article offers a page of expansion on each topic. I thought I'd provide some excerpts from the "homosexuality" and "negative perception" topics.

On homosexuality:
As always, homosexuality was a large issue this year and fueled a number of persistent debates within and outside the Church.

One of the most heated debates this year was over gay-to-straight conversions.

The American Psychological Association (APA), which is currently reviewing its 10-year-old policy on counseling homosexuals, commenced discussion in July on whether therapists should be allowed to offer counseling to persons wanting to rid their same-sex desires.
The Christian Post article proceeded to discuss the controversial Jones and Yarhouse study of ex-gay ministry participants:
According to researchers of a study released in September, change for homosexuals is difficult, but still possible.

The study, conducted by longtime Wheaton College professor of psychology and provost Stanton L. Jones and Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse, followed about 100 people entering ex-gay programs under the umbrella of Exodus International – the nation's largest Christian organization dealing with homosexuality issues – for over four years.

Results showed that 15 percent of the sample claimed to have successfully changed their sexual orientation, reporting substantial reduction in homosexual desire and addition of heterosexual attraction.

Researchers did not hasten to conclude that anyone can change their sexual orientation or that no one has ever been harmed from the attempt to change. But Jones said the study results suggested that "the forceful way in which the secular mental-health community is saying change is impossible and harmful is just not well-advised."
On negative public perception of Christians:
Only 16 percent of non-Christians aged 16 to 29 years old said they have a "good impression" of Christianity, according to a report released in September by The Barna Group. A decade ago, the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity's role in society.

Criticism, furthermore, was not limited to young people outside the Christian faith. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical and too political. Also, one-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

Among other common impressions, 23 percent of young non-Christians said "Christianity is changed from what it used to be" and "Christianity in today's society no longer looks like Jesus." Young born-again Christians were just as likely to say the same (22 percent).

Young Christians largely criticized the church, saying it has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else and that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.

I appreciated much about this article. But something stood out to me that I haven't ever really thought about before. The language used by the Christian Post often struck me as paranoid, sensationalist, and unaware of reality. Take for example the first two sentences of the article:
The year 2007 was a year in which Christians had to up their guard amid increasingly frequent and vehement challenges. Whether it was defending against atheism, Mormonism, negative stereotypes, or liberal agendas, believers across the nation found themselves needing more to stand up for what they believe.
I read these sentences and thought "huh? Who is this pathetic, weak, battered group they're talking about? Surely they aren't speaking about the powerful religious and political bloc that makes up the lion's share of the Republican Party... are they?"

This got me thinking about my days as an evangelical, when I used to move in circles where language like the above was used all the time. Perhaps I've never given description to the common tone of voice I was so familiar to hearing, but now I think I have words for it: martyrdom and fear.

I'm puzzled by this. Why has the language of the evangelical community evolved into this tone of voice? I think it is inaccurate to think they are truly an oppressed or threatened group. Maybe this tone of voice contribute to follow-the-leader mentality and group cohesion? Perhaps to keep a group together one must identify an enemy and paint the enemy as an imminent threat.

But... what if that caricature is inaccurate? Are evangelicals being deceived on a regular basis--at services once or twice a week and even in casual conversations with friends? Is this group a victim of paranoia or of manipulation? Or is there some other mechanism at work here?

I'm curious to know my readers' thoughts, if you have any.

Hat tip: Ex-Gay Watch


Charity said...

I agree with your statement that the modern evangelical movement is somewhat obsessed with matyrdom and fear. I remember a time when I would have shook my head at agreement at the opening line of the article. However now the same line brings both tears and annoyance. Annoyance at seeing the church bring up the same old persecuted church argument while tears in seeing how the church has been reduced to a group of people afraid to embrace the world around them.

seithman said...

Bob Altemeyer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba wrote a book on authoritarians and authoritarianism. A fellow blogger pointed it out to me a few months ago and I read it.

One of the things that Altemeyer discovered while researching the topic is that a very common theme in the life of many authoritarian followers is that there's this deep sense of fear of things unraveling. In fact, the belief that certain authority figures can prevent such unraveling from occuring is what motivates them to follow such figures.

As such, when those authority figures and the structures they represent are questioned or challenged, it is entirely too common for those who do the questioning and challenging to be perceived by such followers as a direct threat to everyone's well being.

Of course, authoritarian leaders tend to capitalize on and encourage these natural tendencies towards fear, thus reinforcing them until they become something frightening in their own right.

I'm also reminded of one of the authors of the book "Blinded by Might" who shared one of many experiences he had while working for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. One day, as he was looking over the latest donation request letter that was about to be sent out, he became aware of a very common format of these letters. He noted that every such letter he saw started out by describing some impending action about to be takenby some group (e.g. liberals, feminists, gays, etc.) that could lead to trouble and tragedy down the road. The letter then would assure the reader that the Moral Majority was prepared to tackle whatever issue or action was impending and was confident they would prevail, if only the recipient of said letter could help by donating much needed money to keep up the good fight.

The author asked his supervisor at the time about this pattern. He went so far as to inquire as to why the organization never sent out a donation letter describing all the great things they had accomplished in the past month or two. His supervisor simply replied, "Because good news doesn't bring in the cash."

At any rate, I recommend both books, as they're well worth reading. (And hey, "The Authoritarians" is available online for free.)

-- Jarred.

Joe Moderate said...

I agree, Charity. Isn't it odd to reflect on ourselves just a few years ago? And isn't it a shame what a remarkable institution like the Church has been reduced to? When I think of church masses as deceived folks who live in fear, I find myself feeling rather sad for them.

...but then I reflect on how much power they truly have. We saw it last night in the selection of Mike Huckabee by Republicans in Iowa. When stuff like that happens, I stop feeling sad and start feeling concerned!


thanks for your comments. I browsed the introduction and first chapter of Prof. Altemeyer's book; it looks great. I hope I have a chance to read it in depth.

About the Jerry Falwell bad-news-raises-money stuff, I seem to remember Mel White mentioning something similar in his book, Stranger at the Gate. But you know, come to think of it, I think almost every organization that raises money uses the same tactic. I get emails from HRC regularly that mentions a scary recent anti-gay action of congress and then asks for money.


seithman said...

Oh, I agree with you. It seems like the idea that bad news is the best way to get money is practically universal.

Except for my local zoo. They're the one place I get donation requests from that are semi-positive. One of the most recent ones was asking for donations to help raise money for the elephant pool they want to install.

D.J. Free! said...

this is precisely my concern. for me, it's not so much about landing on the "right" side. real life is being whole, and not driven by fear and control. in my eyes, the HRC is no more "right" than the moral majority. fear-based action is bondage, plain and simple. no matter how "right" you are, it's still unhealthy - and downright ungodly, IMHO.