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Silencing ignorant talk

Christian faithfulness is the best response to denigration of the church

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Silencing ignorant talk
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A recent Pew survey sheds light on the current state of trust in America among institutions. It is no secret that trust has been an increasingly rare commodity as society becomes more and more polarized around politics, culture, and morality. While institutions like small businesses and the military enjoy broadly positive perception among Americans, the story for other sectors is not as rosy. Large corporations are viewed as having “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country these days” by 68 percent of respondents, while banks and financial companies were viewed negatively by 60 percent.

If we focus more particularly on churches and religious organizations, the story becomes more interesting. A solid majority (59 percent) of respondents think that churches and religious institutions have a positive impact on society. But if we break those results down by political affiliation, distinct attitudes emerge. As Pew puts it, “There are sizeable differences in these views between Republicans and Democrats, as well as between the religiously affiliated and the religiously unaffiliated.” While most Republicans (73 percent) view churches and ministries as having a positive impact on society, a majority of Democrats (53 percent) say the impact of such religious institutions is negative.

The difference is not only discernible along partisan lines. Those who are religiously affiliated (perhaps unsurprisingly) have a more positive view of religious institutions than those who are not. Most notably, 64 percent of the religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics, or “nones”) think that religious institutions have a negative influence on society. This is noteworthy in part because this group of religiously unaffiliated is growing in America. As sociologist Stephen Bullivant reports in his book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, the “nones” number nearly 60 million Americans, and are increasingly represented among younger generations. According to Bullivant, more and more of those religiously unaffiliated have deconverted away from a religious tradition and have not joined a new one. As Bullivant puts it, “Explaining ‘the rise of the nones’ is therefore largely a case of explaining how it is that, mostly within the last 30 years or so, about one in six Americans opted out of religion.”

While this is itself an important phenomenon, and one that has gained attention from other works like The Great Dechurching, one feature of the “nonverts” helps explain why so many Americans might have a negative view of churches and religious institutions. As Bullivant puts it, “Nonverts often feel a hard-won entitlement, and perhaps even a duty, to criticize or call out things they disagree with, especially if it relates to their own (former) denomination.” This helps explain the prevalence of some of the larger social and political activism among the religiously unaffiliated. There may be nothing like the zeal of a convert, but someone who has deconverted from religion can also be zealous in their advocacy against religion.

We can do such good in loving our neighbors that no calumnies against believers will have a basis in our conduct.

So what are churches, religious institutions, and people of faith to do in response? This is of course not the first time that Christians have faced an increasingly hostile cultural environment. There’s much we can learn from the early church and apply in our own situation.

But in general a good response to a lack of trust and negative perception is to address whatever root causes there might be for such concerns. If we want to be trusted, then we should be trustworthy. It may be that there is little basis for much of the criticism that is aimed at Christians, the equivalent of the ancient Roman slander that Christians engaged in cannibalism. But it is also true that the church, when considered from an earthly perspective, is a human institution and as such is marked by sin, corruption, and fallibility. There is much that churches have left undone that ought to have been done and much that has been done that ought not to have been done.

The apostle Peter gives us wise instruction, however, for how to address such fraught cultural moments. He implores Christians to be holy: “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). Writing in the context of a hostile society, Peter writes, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

What are we to do when we are accused of doing wrong, of having a negative impact on society? We can argue about it with words, and we should certainly do that. But we can also let our actions speak. We can do such good in loving our neighbors that no calumnies against believers will have a basis in our conduct.

Christian faithfulness will inevitably draw criticism insofar as it is countercultural and aimed at heavenly rather than earthly goods. But as Peter urges us, the Christian call to righteousness is the best answer to the slander and ugly criticism of the world: “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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