Are Christians hate-filled hypocrites?

A pastor preaches book burning and catches worldwide attention, not only for himself but for the faith he claims to espouse. Christianity has been here before, seen as a violent hate-filled religion because of the actions of a few, not those of the many. Who are Christians, really? That's the question Tim Neufeld takes on in this edition of Scholars Speak.

Terry Jones, a pistol-packing pastor more cult leader than clergy, has once again cast a dark shadow on American Christianity and gained the attention of the world. Jones convinced his small congregation, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., to collect and burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Fortunately, amid condemnations from President Obama, Gen. David Petraeus, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck—when have we ever heard these ideological adversaries agree on anything?—anda host of Christian leaders, the book-burning was cancelled.

Had the rally gone on the consequences could have been dire. Interpol issued a warning that “violent attacks on innocent people would follow.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced that the Koran-burning “puts our troops in harm’s way.” The State Department put American embassies on high alert. Protests had already been registered across the globe. In Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan crowds gathered to burn effigies of Jones and chanted “Death to Christians.”

Jones has a history of bigoted acts. Last year he commemorated the 9/11 attacks by erecting signs on the church property that read, “Islam is of the Devil” and sent the church’s children to school wearing t-shirts with the same slogan. Last April he denounced a local mayoral candidate by declaring, “No homo mayor.” Recently he called congregants at a neighboring Methodist church “lily-livered, yellow-bellied Christians” because they had planned an interfaith prayer service for September 10.

Lamentably, Jones has become a global symbol of American Christianity. His extremism gives people of other faiths, ethnicities and nationalities cause to believe that U.S. Christians are insensitive, violent hatemongers. Perception becomes reality for many as the world looks on.

In his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told, sociologist Bradley Wright, Ph.D.,* challenges the often inflated negative depictions of Christians. He charges that both critics and proponents of evangelicalism propagate hyperbole and myth regarding the authenticity of believers. Detractors of Christianity highlight the failings of the church by focusing on sex scandals, financial mismanagement and intolerance, while many Christian leaders, especially evangelicals (Wright considers himself one), foster fear and anxiety with dire predictions about church attendance, lack of commitment and failing morals.

Through careful analysis of credible data Wright confirms that many committed Christians live lives remarkably consistent with their faith and values. Research confirms that Christians are less likely than non-Christians to divorce, engage in extramarital sex, commit a crime or abuse substances. Similarly, Christians are more likely than non-Christians to be honest, interact with their neighbors, accept others, forgive those who wrong them and care for the poor. Wright concludes, "I would say the church is doing well overall.... It appears that in many ways, here in America, Evangelical Christianity in particular, and Christianity as a whole, is doing a pretty good job of being the church."

It’s not hard to find churches that faithfully, quietly and somewhat subversively live out the gospel right here in the Valley. Three medium-sized congregations in north central Fresno share the same neighborhood and proximity to an elementary school. When these churches—Congregational, Lutheran and Mennonite Brethren—saw a need related to the nearby elementary school they launched into action.

More than 300 young children daily cross one of the busiest streets in the city as they make their way to school from a neighboring apartment complex. The intersection is so dangerous school officials could not find anyone to volunteer as a crossing guard. These congregationsadvocated for the neighborhood together and eventually the city installed an expanded cross walk and radar speed signs.

These churches serve their local community in other ways, as well. The Congregational church tutors children, the Lutheran church facilitates a weekly food distribution and the Mennonite Brethren church offers after-school sports and reading clubs. These congregations have overcome diverse theologies and doctrines to work together in reaching out to their local community.

While churches like the Dove World Outreach Center once again give the globe a reason to loath American Christians, there are many churches that faithfully, quietly and inconspicuously live a consistent message of faith and action in their communities. These authentic gatherings of believers will never make the news headlines or garner international attention, but the world will be a better place because of them.

Are Christians hate-filled hypocrites? You certainly can find them, as in any religion, in extremist fringe elements. But many more live out the call and the message of the Gospel in sensitive, unassuming and appropriate ways.

*Bradley Wright is a native of Fresno and professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.

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