I’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.”
Now, 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.)
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?
Fortunately, 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.