January 2, 2013
No, We're Not a Hate Group
Another explanation for the "Crazy Uncle" Christians in the media.
Following the terrible elementary shooting last month in Connecticut, Michael Cheshire wrote a blog post that attracted a lot of attention. He was incensed by the comments of a number of Christian leaders in the media. He wrote:
After watching an interview by a person speaking for our Christian religion, I was less than blessed. He subtly blamed the gays, iPods, computers, evolution, and the fact that God is not in our schools for the shooting in Connecticut. I was compelled to distance myself from him as quickly as possible. It’s a feeling I have had many times over the years when our so-called “religious leaders” make accusatory remarks about entire people groups.
Cheshire was not alone in his outrage and embarrassment. I often feel the same way about those who speak for our faith in the media. It seems that after any calamity, whether human or natural, there are Christian leaders on cable news offering an overly-simplistic, overly-spiritual, and overly-self-righteous explanation for the carnage. Cheshire compared these leaders with a “crazy uncle who makes ignorant comments.” They are often wrong and offensive, but they’re family.
Michael Cheshire’s critique expanded beyond the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary, however. He lamented that American Christianity has become “tainted with a lot of hate and politics.” In fact he titled his post, “They Think We’re a Hate Group, & They Might Be Right.” (This title was written by Cheshire himself and not the editors of Out of Ur.) Again, I resonate a great deal with what he wrote, particularly the general sentiment of frustration over the culture’s perception of Christian faith and the Church. So I do not wish for what follows to be interpreted as a counterpoint to Cheshire’s post, but rather as another angle from which to perceive what’s happening in the American Church.
As I’ve traveled around the country and interacted with many Christians leaders and organizations, I’ve been immensely blessed by what I’ve found. The church in America is not a hate group. Most Christians, including conservative evangelicals, do not wish to see their gay and lesbian neighbors discriminated against. Most do not wish harm to those of other faiths. Most do not believe one political party has a corner on righteousness, and most do not believe we should pursue a theocracy. Through my involvement with projects like This Is Our City, I’ve seen many Christians serving, working, and sacrificing to bless and transform their communities into oases of justice, beauty, and abundance. Among younger Christians leaders I see even more hope for the cultivation of this common good approach to social engagement and an end to the culture wars and politicalization of the church that began in the 1970s.
What I felt Cheshire missed in his post was the narrative-shaping influence of the media both upon those outside and inside the church. Yes, there are many “crazy uncles” featured on cable news programs that misrepresent Jesus and embarrass the church. And, yes, there are hateful communities that claim the title of “Christian” and slander the name of Christ as a result. But we must ask ourselves, why are these men and women chosen to speak for Christians by the popular media? Where are the hundreds of godly, wise, humble, and compassionate leaders that shepherd evangelical churches, colleges, and organizations? Why are they not seen on cable news? And if Common Good Christians are featured, why are they so underrepresented?
There is another explanation for why uncharitable Christian voices dominate the secular media.
In the free market of the media it is not fair and accurate reporting that gets rewarded, but page views, clicks, and Neilson ratings. With online and cable news outlets struggling for viewers (and revenue), there is constant pressure for these organization to not just report news but make it. Therefore, when a Christian leader is needed to comment on an event, they are more likely to invite a Crazy Uncle Christian known for shooting his mouth off and insulting minorities than the thoughtful, reflective Christian offering wisdom.
Sometimes this cheap journalism is done by Progressives with an agenda to discredit Christian faith and institutions (as Timothy Dalrymple explains in this post well worth your time to read), but more often it’s simply a matter of pragmatics. If you’re behind the editorial desk at CNN and desperate for page views, which story are you going to publish:
“Christian Leader Fasts and Prays for Victims of School Shooting”
“Christian Leader Blames Shooting on School Prayer Ban”
Sadly, when sensationalism sells it’s going to be the crazy uncles in Christendom that get media attention. Over time this creates the popular perception that all Christians share the views of those spotlighted by the media, especially among those who have no un-mediated interaction with Christians themselves. But there is an even more dangerous side-effect of the media’s elevation of Crazy Uncle Christians. With access to the prestige and platform that comes with media attention, Crazy Uncles actually start to influence the views of more Christians. In other words, the tail starts wagging the dog. Christians too start believing the church is a hate-mongering, homophobic, and theocratic special interest group. This is the trap evident in Michael Cheshire’s post. He’s accepted the media’s narrative of American Christianity as reality.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no question that the Church in the United States has real problems as well as a severe PR issue. It is the child born from the union of partisan evangelical leaders and media sensationalism over 30 years ago, but we cannot allow the church’s media-created image to become its on-the-ground reality. We must seek to know, first hand, the deeper reality of American Christianity that exists offline and off air because it is a Christianity lived more charitably, humbly, and lovingly than popularly believed or presented by the media.