Friday, October 07, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Public Image Limited

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I’ve been reading Brad Wright’s book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. It’s a sociological survey of attitudes of non-Christians toward Christians.

Immanuel Can: What interests me is his section “What They Really Think of Us”, “they” meaning non-Christians. He’s talking about another book, based on another survey, called UnChristian. It’s a book about how the public image of Christians needs to be spruced up. In this study, Wright notes, “Scientologists receive the most negative feelings. After them, however, the most negative feelings are held toward Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. One-half of the non-Christians have negative attitudes toward each of these two groups, with fewer than 20% having positive feelings.”

He goes on to say that only one-quarter hold negative views about Catholics and Baptists, and only 10% toward Methodists.

Tom: Possibly because two of those groups stand for little that would offend the masses these days.

The Kicker

IC: But here’s the kicker. As Wright points out, Baptists are numerically the biggest evangelical group in North America. So 60% of the respondents claim to be negative or neutral about evangelicals, but also 75% positive or neutral regarding the denomination most evangelicals actually identify themselves with.

Can you help us make sense of a finding like that? Do you think Christianity — particularly evangelicalism or fundamentalism — actually has a PR problem? Or what else accounts for this?

Tom: Well, that’s all very interesting, IC. Let me think about that. Okay, here are the possibilities. The majority of respondents: (1) are logically incoherent; (2) did not understand the question; (3) do not think of Baptists as evangelical; or (4) do not understand what either evangelicals or Baptists believe. There are probably other possibilities. What does seem clear is that whatever bad things non-believers think about evangelicals, most of them do not lump the Baptists in with us. Perhaps they think Baptists are “high church” … assuming they even know what that denotes.

IC: Well, Wright suggests — and this sounds plausible to me — that the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” have come to have connotations in the public mind that are very different from words like “Baptist” or “Christian” even. People don’t really know what the former are, but they are sound-bites the public has been taught to hate and despise. My thought would be that “evangelical” means, in some ears, “people who intrude and ‘force’ their religion on you”, and “fundamentalist” has come to mean “irrational believer in a mad creed” (of some kind). Needless to say, neither of those definitions correspond at all to what the words actually mean. But if that’s how people are imagining things, that would indeed be a bit of an image problem.

Toxic Branding

Does that sound right?

Tom: Fair enough. But I was paying a fair bit of attention to a speech Vladimir Putin gave recently. I watched what the Western news media wrote about it, then I read several different direct translations of the speech from neutral sources. It was remarkable how different the two streams of information were. To keep it short, my thought is that image is primarily a function of the image-makers. If the public hates and despises a certain version of Christianity, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, it just means the public is reacting to the version of Christianity they have been programmed to despise.

So maybe you’re right: some brands — like “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” — have become toxic in the public mind. My question is how you get around that. After all, these are names people call you. They are not generally names you call yourself. We have no biblical obligation to identify ourselves as evangelicals or fundamentalists, and most Christians don’t start out wanting to be labeled that way. But how do you shake loose of that if the public has decided that’s what you are?

IC: It seems clear from the contradiction between the public’s dislike for evangelicals and their comparative admiration for Baptists that they don’t actually know anything about what either group believes. I think you’re right that the difference depends on whether they’re judging from what the media says, or from what they experience from actual contact with Christians. Wright points out that it’s interesting how there’s never been talk in the media about creating a “‑phobia” term with reference to Christians — “Christophobia” or something like that. It’s like hating us irrationally is just something they’re not interested in worrying about at all. That also suggests they’re not concerned about facts or fairness … they’re just responding to a prejudice.

A Public Image Problem

Now, here’s the problem Wright sees with that. A lot of Christian writers (including the ones Wright surveys) want to tell us that Christianity has a public image problem, and that we have to start doing all kinds of things to fix it. Can you see any downsides to the average Christian thinking that message is true?

Tom: Absolutely. Well, I should qualify that. When you say these writers think “we” have to start doing all kinds of things to fix our image problem, what they mean is that there needs to be a corporate, united movement within evangelicalism to get believers to behave in a way that is more pleasing to the world. They want all their readers to follow their lead in projecting a consistent image of the evangelical brand that they believe is more publicly palatable.

IC: Yep, that’s it. That’s what they want, every time. How do you like their chances?

Tom: That strategy is guaranteed to fail for at least two reasons: (1) that evangelicals can’t get united about anything; and (2) that it will invariably involve serious moral compromises. The world is only going to like us if we behave more like they do.

Now, if I thought what they were urging on us is that each of us gets into the scripture and chooses to behave personally in a way that is more Christ-like regardless of what that produces for the “evangelical brand”, I’d say that’s a good message to absorb and implement in our lives. But I’m pretty sure that’s not at all what they are looking for.

IC: No, generally not, I think. Wright says something interesting about that: he says we have good reason to reverse their conclusions. He says that the common thesis of such books “claims that non-Christians’ perceptions of Christians limits our ability to fulfill the mission of Christianity. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe what’s really limiting us is our perception — and concern — that non-Christians don’t like us. If so, the real problem may be our concern about the stereotype rather than the stereotype itself” (emphasis mine).

Hurting the Brand

Tom: Oh, I quite like that. On that subject, let me tell you a story. As you know, during the COVID scare, Christians split down the middle on the subject of vaccination, and both the media and the government took notice. A couple who are good friends of mine had reservations about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and did not get their shots. The response to them from a nasty, vocal subset of other Christians was this: “You’re a bad testimony!” Translation: You are wrecking the Christian stereotype and hurting our brand!

Now of course that’s utter rubbish, because the unsaved public was split on this subject too. So my friends were (arguably) a good testimony to those unbelievers who didn’t get vaccinated and knew about their stand, and (perhaps, for a time) a “bad” testimony to some of those who dutifully got their shots and wanted to have their decision validated by others.

But the problem was not the message my friends were sending, especially because they were not terribly vocal about it. The problem was other Christians’ concern about their corporate image. To me, that’s a lot of wasted energy.

IC: Well, and a misguided concern for our public image can make Christians nervous about interacting with unsaved others, and reluctant to reveal themselves as Christians when they do. But what Wright’s results suggest is that we have good reason to expect to be received well, unless maybe we press the hot buttons “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” ourselves, by calling ourselves those things. But just as “Christians”, we’re likely to get a better reception.

Tom: Well, I totally agree with that. I don’t think I’ve ever represented myself as evangelical or fundamentalist to unbelievers, not so much because I fear those “brands” are toxic, but mostly because I’m never sure what non-Christians understand by those terms. They’re not useful ways to describe ourselves.

Getting the Right Branding

IC: The other thing I notice about Christians is that they may be greeted with some indifference at first, or even vague negativity; but as soon as a crisis appears, such as a birth or death in the family, an illness, a financial crisis, or any time of fear and stress, guess who the non-Christians turn to immediately?

Tom: “Please pray for us” and that sort of thing.

IC: So, it’s really important that before stressful occasions come, the unbelievers around us already know who we are. Bad interpretations from these sociological surveys can induce Christians to be less confident about sharing their identity than they ought to be, and cause them to miss real opportunities to show the love of Christ.

Tom: I absolutely agree with that. If we don’t fly the flag, nobody will have any idea who we are and what we believe, and they’ll never have any reason to ask. But let me add this too: Even if being vocal about our Christian faith sends a measure of grief and even hatred our way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may not be something we are necessarily wanting or looking for, but how many times do the New Testament writers tell us things like “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name”, and to “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings”?

But note the proviso in each case: “As a Christian” and “Christ’s sufferings”. That’s our “brand” right there. That’s our flag. That’s the point we want to make to the world: that we are followers of Jesus Christ.

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