How American Christians can stop being bullies and start winning converts
Eight years ago, Sally Quinn founded "OnFaith," a religious blog hosted (until recently) by The Washington Post. One thing she didn't anticipate? All the nasty Christian commenters.
"I can't tell you how many people wrote in to say that I was a whore and a slut and so much worse that I can't even write it here. And these all came from Christians," Quinn wrote in a recent article titled, "When It Comes to Hateful Internet Speech, Christians are The Worst."
She's been told that Jesus hated her, that she had punched her ticket to hell, and that she had made a pact with the devil. One "God-fearing Christian" commenter even said he hoped that Quinn would wreck her car, explode the gas tank, and burn alive.
Having been a religion writer for nearly a decade, my experience has been similar. The same is true of many of my colleagues.
Now obviously, this is something that internet writers of all stripes experience. It is hardly limited to religion writers and Christian commenters. Across the board, "most comment sections are vats of poison, filled with grammatically questionable rants at best and violent hate speech at worst," as Margaret Eby put it this week at Brooklyn Magazine.
It would be ridiculous to pretend that Christians are the only or worst offenders. But they should know better. It seems deeply antithetical for someone whose faith promotes unconditional love and kindness to spew hate at others.
But can we really expect better from Christians when so many of their spiritual leaders employ similarly awful rhetoric?
Jerry Falwell blamed gays for 9/11. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Look at Dallas mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress, who has called secular liberals "godless, immoral infidels who hate God." He also said Roman Catholics practice a "cult-like, pagan religion" and represent "the genius of Satan."
Or one might consider Seattle-based pastor Mark Driscoll. Among other things, he has said that stay-at-home dads are "worse than unbelievers" and that women shouldn't hold leadership positions in the church since "they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men." This week, he apologized for comments posted to a discussion board in 2000 in which he called gays "damn freaks" and made misogynistic remarks.
If that's not enough, take a look at Grand Cayman Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, an influential voice among some American evangelicals, who in 2013 blogged about "the importance of your gag reflex when discussing homosexuality." In an apparent attempt to have an adult conversation, Anyabwile encouraged the faithful to recover "the yuck factor" when discussing gay marriage.
The standard doesn't improve when one considers Christian commentators.
Take a look at Fox News' Todd Starnes. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of cancer, the outspoken Christian gleefully tweeted, "Hugo dead. The good news is now Saddam, Osama and Adolf have a fourth for Canasta," and "Hell is burning a little bit brighter tonight." Starnes once compared same-sex marriage to wedding one's dog. Even Fox News host Greta Van Susteren has publicly criticized some of his remarks as "bad taste."
Of course, bullying language is not just a problem among conservative Christian commentators. Last December, MSNBC host Martin Bashir was forced to resign from the network after calling Sarah Palin a "world class idiot." He then cited a diary item describing punishment practices on plantations whereby one slave would "S-H-I-T" in another slave's mouth, suggesting that Palin be similarly forced to eat excrement. Bashir is an outspoken Christian who attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, where Tim Keller is the pastor.
And Christian crudeness is not a recent development, to be sure. One might recall prominent late 20th century leaders like Jerry Falwell, who blamed gays, lesbians, and abortionists for 9/11, and Pat Robertson, who once said that feminism is "about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
For Christians, this history of histrionics has been bad for business. In a 2010 Barna Research survey, for example, one in five Americans and 35 percent of those associated with non-Christian faiths said that Christians' most negative contribution to society was "violence or hatred incited in the name of Jesus Christ." Twenty-five percent of respondents said they couldn't even think of one positive contribution made by Christians.
Such perceptions have almost certainly contributed to the modest increase in the past decade of those who do not regularly attend church, and the spike in Americans who are religiously unaffiliated. Maybe the Apostle James was onto something when he wrote, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless."
The time has come for the faithful to make a concerted effort to reform their rhetoric. They must eschew hateful speech, extreme language, mendacious statements, public name-calling, and offensive commentary against minority groups, such as women and LGBTQ persons. This doesn't mean Christians must abandon their counter-cultural doctrines, but they must learn to express and defend those beliefs in respectful and loving ways. Those leaders who resort to abusive behaviors and repugnant speech must be called to account by the community.
Debate and dissent are critical to a healthy marketplace of ideas, but believers must now navigate new frontiers of digitized dialogue. We must answer questions like, "How can we foster healthy disagreement in 140 characters or less?" and "How do we create debate when everyone is allowed to engage regardless of their credentials or expertise?"
American Christians too often contribute to what author Lynne Truss once called "the utter bloody rudeness of the world." If Christians continue failing to practice what they preach, you can expect to see the continued decline of their faith in America. But if they can begin living in accord with their Scriptures' teachings — which repeatedly command speaking to others in a way that is uplifting, gracious, kind, tactful, and tempered — Christians may be able to stop the bleeding and start winning converts.