“They like you,” according to Christianity Today‘s latest cover story (August 2011), by Bradley R. E. Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist. Wright challenges the alarmist rhetoric of some in recent years who have created the impression that our fellow Americans hate us and we need a public relations makeover. Taking issue with George Barna among others, he argues that we have a persecution complex-or at least an almost pathological need to be loved. Actually, when asked to register their feeling in terms of warm or cold, the weather report for evangelicals is “generally sunny and mild”-somewhere between Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants at one end and Muslims, Buddhist, and Mormons at the other.
Admittedly, this could be the worst news of all. It’s like the anxious teenager who asks a group of peers, “What do you think of me?”, only to hear a nearly unanimous reply, “We don’t, actually.” As they say, no publicity is worse than bad publicity.
Introducing this issue, CT managing editor Mark Galli said he hoped that Wright’s article might help us to move on from self-obsession (“Inside CT,” page 7): “A movement that casts anxious glances to see how it’s doing in the eyes of others is in either childhood or adolesence…It’s time for evangelicals to put away childish things….The fact is that in the end, people don’t care if we are cool. They don’t think it an improvement to call ourselves ‘Jesus followers’ instead of ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals.’”
There’s a long history of American Protestants wanting the approval of their neighbors. For a good part of our nation’s history, respectable denominations with roots in the Reformation surrendered their confessional peculiarities for a generic evangelical witness. A lot of this had to do with evangelism: wanting to reach the population of declining practicioners of the faith. Churches, with their distinct catechism, forms of worship, and government, were eager to reach nominal members as well as Native Americans and Africans, slave and free. Yet a lot of it had to do with cultural hegemony. Having fought off the Leviathan of Rome, the new Christendom would come only with the stripping away of doctrinal distinctives that divide activistic Protestantism. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, “deeds, not creeds” became the mantra.