March 2, 2017

No, Evangelicals Are NOT “The American Taliban”

One writer on Medium – a website for (mostly progressive) opinion writing – recently compared Evangelicals to “The American Taliban” and equated saying “I’ll pray for you” with the “religious extremism” of Islamists. He further compared Evangelicals spreading the Gospel to ISIS attempting “to establish a global muslim [sic] caliphate.”

Granted the author of this post is a self-described “Multi Media Creator,” not a public policy analyst. But other commentators more eminently qualified have employed equally bombastic terminology to describe conservative Evangelicals.

Journalist and Princeton University Professor Chris Hedges wrote a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, published in 2007. As the title implies, he details the rise of “Christian fascism” in the United States. He argued in a column in October 2013 that at the center of this movement are “Dominionists” bent on recapturing “Christian” America:

They are no different from the vanguard described by Lenin or the Islamic terrorists who shaved off their beards, adopted Western dress and watched pay-for-view pornography in their hotel rooms the night before hijacking a plane for a suicide attack. The elect alone, like the Grand Inquisitor, are sanctioned to know the truth. And in the pursuit of their truth they have no moral constraints.

These authors both target conservative Evangelicals with overly simplistic comparisons and false moral equivalences. While fair to level some amount of criticism at American Christians, I question whether using such hyperbole moves the discussion in a positive direction.

Will any Evangelicals be motivated to engage in meaningful self-reflection after being compared to the Taliban, ISIS, Islamic terrorists, fascists, or Marxist revolutionaries? Probably not. Nobody responds well to name-calling, no matter their political or religious affiliation. If anything, it risks alienating the group in question even further.

Such strong language may foster a smug sense of moral superiority among secular audiences or left-wing Christians eager to accept these arguments and vilify the so-called Religious Right. These theories may play into furthering identity politics, but it will do little to build bridges between social groups or counteract polarization in American culture.

And it’s not just pundits who apparently think this way. This type of divisive commentary may reflect broader trends within American society. Columnist and religion writer Jonathan Merritt reported as much in The Atlantic in March 2016. Various statistics show conservative Christians are increasingly viewed as “extremists” for affirming the basic tenets of their faith.

“If most Americans would apply the same descriptor to ISIS militiamen and soup kitchen volunteers who believe it is their duty to convert non-believers, something is amiss,” Merritt notes.

More recent data back up these troubling findings. In statistics released on February 15, Pew Research Center demonstrated that feelings toward all religious groups except for Evangelical Christians improved in America over the last three years. Pew also found that younger Americans viewed Evangelicals relatively less favorably. Religiously unaffiliated Americans gave their lowest favorability rating to Evangelicals.

No wonder Evangelicals most frequently chose the words “misunderstood,” “persecuted,” and “marginalized” to describe how they felt in contemporary society in a survey conducted by the Barna Group.

But Evangelicals must not use these sentiments as an excuse to retreat. Jesus Christ warned his followers that being misunderstood and persecuted would be the norm rather than the exception. Yet He still commissioned them to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Although it may be tempting to despair, Evangelicals should not view these trends as a reason to withdraw from society. Rather, opposition should spur true Christians to rise to the challenge of demonstrating a social witness that is simultaneously clear, winsome, and orthodox.

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