Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Do Christians have an image problem? Compared to whom?

(Part 6 in a series)

The first line of UnChristian aptly summarizes the book--"Christianity has an image problem." The book goes on to describe the content of this image problem, especially as it exists among young people outside of the church. For example, on page 25, 38% of the young "outsiders" in the sample have a bad impression about Christianity, 49% have a bad impression about evangelical Christians, and 35% have it of born-again Christians. (Technical digression: These percentages refer to those young outsiders aware of each of these three groups. If any of them are not aware of these Christian groups, the percentage with a bad impression is lower).

I suppose my first reaction to these data is to ask "compared to whom?" That is, relative to which groups does Christianity have an image problem? Unfortunately, UnChristian does not publish any data regarding attitudes toward other religious and social groups. However, the issue of comparison groups matters because with making an explicit comparison, it's difficult, if not impossible, to know if in fact Christianity really does have an image problem.

Comparison groups provide a standard by which to judge information. Image getting a physical and your doctor reports that in your bloodwork, you have some level of an enzyme. Your first question would probably be whether that is good or bad; i.e., what is considered "normal" based on what other people have. Just the number itself is relatively uninformative.

There are at least five possible comparisons that could be made.

1) Other religions. The most obvious comparison groups for American Christianity would be other religious-belief groups in America. This would include Jews, Muslims, Mormons (for those who don't define Mormonism as a Christian religion), and Atheists. Does UnChristian imply that these other groups have better images than Christianity? It's implied, perhaps, but it doesn't seem likely (and it's something that I'll present data on later in this series).

2) Other social groups. Maybe Christianity should be compared to other American groups, institutions, and identities. E.g., does Christianity have an image problem relative to political parties? Large companies? Various races and ethnicities? These comparisons would be interesting, but I don't think they were the emphasis of UnChristian.

3) American Christianity in recent decades. The closest that UnChristian comes to an explicit comparison is to compare the image of American Christianity today with its image in previous years. Basically, according to the authors, things are getting much worse for Christianity.

They write of a "growing hostility toward Christianity" over time (p. 26).

"Modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian" (p. 29).

"Just a decade ago the Christian faith was not generating the intense hostility that it is today" (p. 38).

Most explicitly, the refer to a 1996 Barna study entitled "Christianity has strong positive image despite fewer active participants." It found that 85% of non-Christians "were favorable toward Christianity's role in society" (page 24). I wasn't able to find this report on Barna's website, but it sounds like it was asking different questions than those contained in UnChristian. If so, this comparison might be apples and oranges.

Maybe I'm just getting old (okay, I am getting old--all too fast), but I don't remember great society enthusiasm for Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, in the past.

The 1980s? There was a lot of animosity toward Christians as represented by the Jerry Falwell and the religious right. That was also the time of Jim and Tammy Baker's fall.

The 1960s? That was a very different time from now, and young people were much less trusting of any social institution, including religion. Peace, love, and the communion of the saints? Doesn't sound right.

In short, it's difficult for me to believe that the popular image of Christianity is in the free fall that UnChristian speaks of.

4) The early church? Maybe we should compare the modern Church in America with the early church written of in the New Testament. Now that was a group with an image problem. They were thought of so poorly that they were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Some of the people that Jesus was reaching out to spoke of him as the devil. Now that's an image problem.

5) Perfection. I wonder if perfection or complete acceptance is the implicit standard held by many readers of UnChristian. That is, we should have a very positive image in society, and any negativity toward us is a cause for concern. I can understand the sentiments behind such a standard, if in fact anyone holds it, but it's hard to see any historical or Biblical precedent for it.

Next: Comparing the image of Christianity to other groups


sapience said...

I wonder if it might be interesting to think of Christianity as an "identity" grouping similar to sexual orientations, race, etc., and compare them to the images of those groups.

Brad Wright said...

I think that you're right, that if we view Christianity as an identity (among other things), it makes sense to compare it to other identities. I'll keep my eyes open for such data.

J. R. Miller said...

Brad, thank you so much for this series. I appreciate your insight into the statistics that support this book, and others like it.

Thank you brother!

Brad Wright said...

You're welcome, J.R.

jeremy said...

Did #s 4 and 5 magically appear, or did I just miss them earlier? They're both really good points.

Edward T. Babinski said...

There was a nationwide survey conducted in 2006 by the Univ. of Minnesotta called THE AMERICAN MOSAIC PROJECT.

Note where "conservative Christians" wound up in the list. Not as far down as some other groups in the U.S. And that's only for "conservative" Christians. Apparently the more moderate and liberal ones didn't have that much of an image problem. From the Mosaic Survey:

This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society...

Atheist: 39.6%
Muslims: 26.3%
Homosexuals: 22.6%
Hispanics: 20%
Conservative Christians:13.5%
Recent Immigrants: 12.5%
Jews: 7.6%

I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group....

Atheist: 47.6%
Muslim: 33.5%
African-American 27.2%
Asian-Americans: 18.5%
Hispanics: 18.5%
Jews: 11.8%
Conservative Christians: 6.9%
Whites: 2.3%

Edward T. Babinski said...

Also The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year surveyed 35,000 Americans and wrote up their Religious Landscape Survey and found out that

57 percent of self-identified evangelicals agree that “many religions,” not just their own, can lead to eternal salvation. Even among “traditionalists,” 50 percent agree.

Peter Berger, University Professor of Sociology and Theology at Boston University, said that the poll confirms that “the so-called culture war, in its more aggressive form, is mainly waged between rather small groups of people.”

What does this mean?

Liberals and conservatives will interpret the numbers in different ways, says Pew’s Green. “The liberal [interpretation] is that Americans are becoming more universalistic, religiously. The conservative one is that Americans are losing faith and becoming more accommodationist.” But he says the truth may lie elsewhere. “Just because they don’t want to believe that there’s only one way to salvation doesn’t meant that they don’t take their religion very seriously.”,8599,1817217,00.html