Americans Like Evangelicals After All
American evangelical Christianity is ready for its Sally Field moment.
The actress's 1985 Academy Award acceptance speech is famously quoted as, "You like me! You really like me!"
But we often forget that Field was accepting her second Oscar in five years. She had already won the recognition of her peers. What she really said in 1985 was, "I've wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn't feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"
Similarly, somewhere along the line we evangelical Christians have gotten it into our heads that our neighbors, peers, and most Americans don't like us, and that they like us less every year. I've heard this idea stated in sermons and everyday conversation; I've read it in books and articles.
There's a problem, though. It doesn't appear to be true. Social scientists have repeatedly surveyed views of various religions and movements, and Americans consistently hold evangelical Christians in reasonably high regard. Furthermore, social science research indicates that it's almost certain that our erroneous belief that others dislike us is actually harming our faith.
So, come on. Join me on stage to exclaim, "You like me, right now, you like me!" No takers? How about at least, "You don't hate me"?
If you have trouble believing this, you're not the only one. My wife and I live in a university town, and the Bible study we host in our home includes a number of graduate students. During one dinner, several students got into a lively discussion about how much people do not like evangelical Christians because of all the stupid things we do.
I had just finished researching this topic for a book (Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told), and I explained that non-evangelicals' views of us are less negative than most evangelicals assume—certainly less negative than what I was hearing in the room. If I could convince anyone of this, I thought it would be them. As fledgling academics, they had learned to appreciate statistical evidence, and I described in detail solid survey research. And these students knew me personally and trusted my judgment. But after I disappeared into the kitchen for a few minutes, the group returned to the nobody-likes-us discussion. The feeling of being disliked and alienated has worked its way deep into the evangelical consciousness. We feel it in our bones.
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed Americans on, among other things, discrimination in the United States. Evangelicals agreed with Americans overall that Muslims in America face a lot of persecution (58 percent of both groups said yes). But evangelical respondents identified themselves as the second-most-victimized religious group, with 43 percent saying there's a lot of discrimination. This ranked discrimination against evangelicals as worse than that against Jews (38 percent), Mormons (26 percent), and atheists (24 percent)—and blacks (37 percent) and women (38 percent). Among the general population, however, only 27 percent agreed that American evangelicals face much discrimination.
Last month, another Pew Forum survey, of evangelical leaders worldwide, found that while American evangelicals are less likely than their overseas counterparts to say conflict between religious groups is a problem in their country, they are more likely to see non-Christians and especially the nonreligious as unfriendly toward evangelical Christians. American evangelical leaders are twice as likely as their Global South counterparts to consider the nonreligious unfriendly toward evangelicals (68 percent to 33 percent). European leaders are about in the middle (54 percent view the nonreligious as unfriendly toward them).