Meeting with the Enemy

  If you could pick just one group of people and help them understand evangelicals better, who would it be? Well, I don't know about you, but I would choose journalists. These are the people who have the power to tell Americans that we're either those wonderful folks who help the poor through faith-based ministries -- or that we're poor, ignorant, and easy to command, as the Washington Post once reported. That's why I was glad to learn that the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, recently invited a group of top-ranked journalists to a seminar, the purpose of which was to help them better understand evangelicals. That's important, because the way the church is portrayed has a powerful influence on ensuring the protection of our religious liberties. Most evangelicals would tell you that, as a group, journalists are hostile to the church. They point to studies that show, for example, that journalists are far less likely than average Americans to believe in God or to go to church. And while journalists tend to be better-off than average Americans and live in urban areas -- media centers, in fact -- conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, are more likely to live in smaller cities and towns -- which means reporters don't often have them as neighbors. Unfortunately, their unfamiliarity with the church and Christians influences the way journalists view us. For example: At the seminar, Hanna Rosin of The Washington Post said that when she used to be with The New Republic and wrote about evangelicals, she did it "contemptuously and without much understanding. But after a year of spending a lot of time in the evangelical world," she changed her mind, she said. Now, she says, "I've come to think it's The Washington Post newsroom that's crazy." When she told her colleagues, for example, at The Washington Post, that 44 percent of Americans believe in biblical creationism, they thought it was "time to transfer me off my beat." Well, lack of familiarity with Christians also influences how academics pursue their research about the church. Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke University Divinity School, views evangelicals as a highly paranoid group, fearful of some "great secular humanist conspiracy out there." He says we engage in "adversarial posturing" toward the wider culture. But Wacker also cites a study by sociologist Christian Smith, who, Wacker notes, found that "evangelicals are a great deal more likable than their leaders." It's their leaders," Wacker says, who display an unattractive "jut-jaw mentality." Ouch! A few years ago, a major poll revealed that nearly one out of three Americans would not want a fundamentalist Christian living next door. This perception that Christians are scary and dangerous comes directly from the media. And we are kidding ourselves if we think this stereotype doesn't influence the laws that communities pass -- laws that can cut into our religious liberties. That's why it's so important to develop friendships with those who write about us, as this seminar did. We ought to be encouraging young Christians to go into journalism, as well -- which is just what, I am happy to say, many young men and women are today doing. And we ourselves have to go out of our way to be gracious and loving even to those who revile us. We need to change the perceptions, so that journalists and others will see us the way Augustine described us -- people who are the best of citizens.


Chuck Colson


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