A recent study by the Barna Research Foundation in Ventura, California, indicates that non-Christians have a very low opinion of evangelicals. On a list of people they respect, evangelicals ranked eleventh, followed by prostitutes in twelfth place.
While on Harvard's campus, I asked one of the professors why the folks there were so negative toward evangelicals. I said, "The Jews respect the Muslims, the Muslims respect the Jews, and everybody respects the Dalai Lama. But there are sneers of condescension if someone says, 'I'm an evangelical Christian'!" The professor answered, "Imagine yourself at lunch. Seated at the table with you is the leader of the gay-lesbian task force, an ardent feminist, and an angry neo-Marxist African-American. You propose playing a game in which each of them is to respond to a word with the first word that comes into their minds. You say, 'evangelical.' How do you think each will respond?" I said, "Given those three people, I suppose I would hear them say things like 'bigot,' 'homophobe,' `male chauvinist,' and `reactionary."' The professor then asked, "Now, to these same three, you say the name `Jesus.' What reactions will you get to that?" I paused a moment and then said softly, "Caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, empathetic . . ." "Does it bother you, Tony," he asked, "that the name of Jesus elicits a completely opposite reaction from the name `evangelical'?" That does bother me. However, when I explained how bothered I was to a fellow evangelical, he said, "I really don't care what people like that think about us!" Of course, that's the point. While evangelical Christians should never compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community, we should care if people out there see little, or nothing, of Jesus in us. That being the case, we need to ask some very serious questions about ourselves.
A friend of mine is part of a support group for parents whose children have AIDS. As this circle of brokenhearted mothers and fathers shared their concerns, one mother said, "My other two sons don't know about their brother having AIDS. I'm not worried about the older one, because he's so kind and affirming. But my youngest son has become an evangelical Christian, and from what he's already said about homosexuals, I know he'll be filled with contempt when he finds out why his brother is sick." Last year, I had a debate with Gary Bauer on the campus of a leading evangelical college. In the course of our exchanges, I happened to say that America should show as much concern for justice for Palestinian people as they do for the security of Israel. I lost the evangelical crowd on that one. I always try to point out to critics of evangelicalism that many of us do not fit their stereotypes. While we do tend to be overwhelmingly pro-life, when it comes to other issues, a significant minority of us are not part of the religious right. We are critics of the Bush tax cuts, which we see as a bonanza for the rich that necessitates cutting services to the poor (e.g., ending after-school tutoring programs for half a million children). We want universal health care, advocate legal protection for homosexuals, oppose what we see as a growing militarism in America, and are appalled by this administration's environmental policies. Unfortunately, the religious right controls the microphone. They own almost all of the thousands of religious radio stations across the country and put on most of the religious television shows. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are the celebrities of evangelical broadcasting; hence, they are primary definers to the rest of the world of what it means to be evangelical. Those of us who do not buy into their agenda have to either find a way to tell the world that there is a broad spectrum of evangelicals or come up with a new name.Don't Make Up Your Mind For All TimeOne of the first steps we must take to redefine ourselves is to overcome the primary generalization that secularists make about us-that is, that evangelicals are closed-minded. They see us as people whose minds are made up, who refuse to be confused with facts. When there is solid evidence that we might be wrong on an issue, we come across as people who dig in our heels and refuse to budge from our a priori declarations.
.I believe that if evangelicalism becomes frozen in practices and thought patterns that are not biblically founded, it will die. What worked in the past-as we "circled the wagons" and tried to ward off the attacks of biblical criticism coming out of German universities during the late nineteenth century and the modernist theologies that spread across America in the early years of the twentieth century-will not work in the years that lie ahead. New times bring new challenges, and evangelicals must be willing to take the risks that go with the creativity that is essential for dealing with those challenges.