Evangelical Islamophobia

PRRI logoI’m not an evangelical who retreats from the label “evangelical.” But the results of a survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) have me feeling embarrassed and angry about my branch of the Christian family.

In the 2015 edition of its annual American Values Survey, PRRI asked about a number of topics, but coming a day after multiple Republican candidates proposed that Christian and Muslim refugees be treated differently as they seek asylum in the U.S., this finding stood out:

73% of evangelicals agree that the “values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

Kidd, American Christians and IslamNow, a majority of Americans (56%) feel this way, as do majorities in every Christian group. (Non-Christians and nonreligious are more likely to disagree than agree with the statement, and black and Hispanic Americans are evenly divided.) But that 73% number is ten points higher than the next most Islamophobic group (white mainline Protestants).

I don’t want to make too much of any single survey of American religion. There’s been plenty written lately about the problems with such polling. But the PRRI result seems consistent with what other surveys have found — e.g., last month LifeWay found that evangelical pastors (unlike their mainline counterparts) are increasingly likely to believe that Islam is inherently violent. And as historian Thomas Kidd has previously pointed out, American evangelical anxiety about Islam is as old as the Republic itself.

So given where this report lands in the news cycle, let me say this to my evangelical readers:

We must reject Islamophobia.

I almost don’t know where to start, I’m so appalled by that 73% number.

Probably the best place is to question how much evangelicals or any other Christians ought to worry about sustaining “American values and way of life.” Insofar as there’s such a thing as “national values” and they’re consistent with the values of he who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” then sure, try to uphold them. But this just makes me more concerned about evangelical susceptibility to different kinds of secularization.

But even setting that to the side for the moment… Is it impossible for evangelicals to accept that the values of ISIS are not identical to the “values of Islam”? That hundreds of millions of Muslims living as citizens in pluralistic democracies around the world are as horrified by the mass murder of innocents as any Christian? That any religion — including our own — contains multitudes? (I’ll be teaching on the Holocaust in about three hours, and the role Christians played in it.)

"No Islamophobia. No Fear. Politics"
Licensed by Creative Commons (J. MacPherson)

Indeed, as Jared Burkholder wrote here in March, it’s for Muslims to define the values of their religion, while

as outsiders, we must acknowledge that Islam, like any faith or historic civilization has been a tradition of competing visions, establishments and anti-establishments, peaceful and violent adherents, competing theological perspectives and schools of jurisprudence, as well as mainstream voices and minority voices. Of course, this multidimensional quality has not been intentional for many Muslim establishments, but it is the reality. When one belief system has covered as much territory, encompassed as many indigenous people groups, and informed as as many people as Islam has since the 7th century, it cannot be avoided.

Keep in mind here that the interviews for the PRRI survey took place in September and early October and so don’t reflect any impulsive response to the recent Islamist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Kenya. I shudder to think what the number would be today: 80%? 85%? Higher?

Rich StearnsFortunately, some evangelical leaders have stood up against Islamophobia. In recent days, Christianity Today has published thoughtful pieces by Ed Stetzer and World Vision U.S. president Rich Stearns (r.). Let’s hope that their voices are heeded more than, say, Franklin Graham’s (“Islam is at war with us — we’ve witnessed its evil face firsthand over and over”).

And there is some generally encouraging news in the survey. For all the recent discussion about *racism on college campuses, it’s probably worth noting that 60% of African Americans and 54% of Hispanics “believe that American culture has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s.”

Strikingly, however, 57% of white Americans say the opposite, leaving PRRI CEO Robert Jones “struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts.” For me, it’s especially troubling to find that evangelicals are the most anxious, fearful group in the survey. Three in five evangelicals claim that “America’s best days are behind us,” while majorities of Catholics, black Protestants, and non-Christians — religious and nonreligious — believe the opposite.

Indeed, I can only interpret evangelical hostility to Islam in light of a larger anxiety, one that’s completely inconsistent with Christian faith and witness. If anyone can live as a people of hope rather than fear, ought it not to be those who claim the Gospel for their name? What kind of evangel are we proclaiming?

In the poem I quoted in my brief post on Paris, William Butler Yeats lamented that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

It’s not too late to invert that formula, but evangelicals must decide to which group they belong.

*By the way, there’s a whole other post to be written about these two results from the PRRI survey: 70% or more of evangelicals defend the Confederate flag as a “symbol of Southern pride” and dismiss episodes of police brutality as isolated incidents.

13 thoughts on “Evangelical Islamophobia

  1. I keep thinking about how the fear and anxiety you mentioned have led many Christians to turn inward, both in everyday life and in their public policy preferences. I think this runs counter to what we see in the Gospels and Acts. Jesus tells his disciples (and us) to share what they’ve seen and the truth they know in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria (a place they normally wouldn’t go), and to the ends of the earth. When we let fear and anxiety overtake us, and turn us inward, we aren’t being faithful to the calling God gives each one of us.

    1. Absolutely, Kyle! I’ve felt it myself — there was just so much unsettling news last week that I just wanted to stay home, hold on to my kids, and ignore everything else. So I get it… but you’re right: that’s not the calling.

  2. Thanks Chris. Fear seems to define us, and in doing so destroys any effective witness we are commissioned to bring to a hurting world. It’s hard to be a blessing when we fear for our lives or our way of life, neither of which are “ours”, but are Gods gracious gifts.

  3. Terrorists – people who create fear. Christians – people who conquer fear through love. Sadly, too many evangelicals are cooperating with the terrorists by increasing fear rather than confronting the issues of our day with compassion for those less fortunate. What ever happened to those T-shirts that boldly said, ‘No Fear’?

  4. “Islamophobia” is a deceptive term, made up to equate religious disagreement with racism.
    The dogma of Islamophobia is supported by other lies and distortions. An important one in this piece is the claim that “hundreds of millions of Muslims [are] living as citizens in pluralistic democracies.” The only pluralistic democracy in the world with a large Muslim minority is India, which has about 180 million Muslims. There are Muslim-dominated democracies such as Malaysia and Indonesia; these countries have strict blasphemy laws that are regularly used on anyone who dares to question mainstream Muslim beliefs from a sectarian Muslim, Christian, or secular perspective.

    1. So the 180 million Muslims in India are, what, exceptions that prove the rule? Same for the 40+ million in Europe? The 10+ million each in Senegal and Tunisia (both rated as “Free” by Freedom House)? And while you’re right to point to limitations on freedom of religion in Indonesia (it gets a 4 out of 7 on FH’s civil rights scale), that country rates a 2 on FH’s political rights scale and has over 200 million Muslim citizens. In any event, yes: I’d call it a phobia for American Christians to agree to a blanket statement about what they suppose the values of another religion to be, particularly when nearly 3 million of their fellow citizen are adherents of that religion and pose no threat whatsoever.

  5. I read your essay just now Mr. Gehrz but I completely disagree with your viewpoint on this issue. I do consider myself to be a Christian and I take the view that true Christians ( call them whatever you like, evangelical etc) have been too scared and fearful to renounce the evil doctrine of Islam which the so called radical Islamists( terrorists if you may) are interpreting literally. Have you ever read the Koran Mr. Gehrz? Are you familiar with the concepts and doctrines contained within that text? How do you know that the values of ISIS are not consistent with the values of Islam? Believe me the ISIS terrorists believe that the so called mainstream Muslims living around the around the world are the weak Muslims that are not strictly adhering to the ideals of the Koran. That’s why Muslims in general hate to condemn these attracts of terrorism and seem to almost be compelled to do so by external pressures. They are much more concerned about protecting their image as law abiding citizens and highlighting acts of prejudice and discrimination against them.
    As you quoted in the Yeats poem, the problem with the evangelicals today is we do lack ‘ passionate intensity’ to rise up for Christ and the true God and boldly declare our love for Him by condemning acts of extreme evil and violence ( yes Christ himself was moved to righteous anger when the situation called for it e.g. the money changers in the Temple). Instead most evangelical leaders are wilting to some sort of unbiblical political correctness or misinterpreting( in my view) the biblical concept of Christian forgiveness and/or kindness. I know that most of the millions of Muslims living around the world want to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors, but are we to encourage a religion that has thousands maybe millions of adherents who are brutally slaughtering completely innocent Christians and non Christians around the world? The apologetic, appeasing mind set of the western ‘non passionate’ Christian leaders is what may finally bring Islamic terrorism and their ultimate quest for world domination to the entire world. In fact, it is already happening in most European countries and slowly creeping into the US, and they are rejoicing. Israel and the Jewish state seem to be the only western country that understands the real threat posed by the so called Islamic religion of peace but yet they seem to condemned for protecting their right to exist as a nation. But that is for another time and debate.

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