From WEIRD to Westboro: The Problem of Christian Reputation – Collin Hansen

When church membership in the United States drops below 50 percent for the first time in 80 years, you expect some soul searching among religious leaders. For as long as Gallup tracked figures in the 20th century, membership in churches, synagogues, and mosques hovered around 70 percent. Beginning around 2000, however, membership began to drop rapidly, finally reaching 47 percent in 2020. Generational trends suggest we’ve not yet reached the floor, either.

At the same time, the trend in scholarship seems to be leading the opposite direction. Two major works in the last couple years reveal the essential role of Christianity in shaping the West.

First, Joseph Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, argues that Christianity shapes our very psychology. It made us WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. One major reason: because the Christian church didn’t allow cousins to marry, societies began to disfavor clan relationships. In their place during the Middle Ages arose trade guilds, impersonal markets, and universities, among other Western staples. Even today, the spread of Christianity across Asia and Africa corresponds to the rise of literacy, so that followers can read the Bible for themselves.

Second, award-winning historian Tom Holland, in his 2019 book Dominion, describes Christianity as a revolution that remade the world. “How was it that a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire came to exercise such a transformative and enduring influence on the world?” he asks. In Holland’s narrative, the church is a victim of its own success. Maybe church membership has declined because Christianity has so thoroughly stamped its moral vision on the world outside the church. When Christians in Hong Kong defend democracy, or when Christians in India fight caste-based racism, they’re seen as acting for universal progress and not merely a Christian worldview.

Maybe church membership has declined because Christianity has so thoroughly stamped its moral vision on the world outside the church.

“The genius of the modern West in recent centuries has been that it has been able to export its profoundly Christian values, concepts like human rights, the notion of consent—all these things are deeply rooted in the seedbed of Christian history and Christian theology,” Holland told me. A key example would be the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which owes much to Christian assumptions but does not mention God.

“If they cast them as Christian values, then they’d come to seem more culturally contingent to people in India or wherever,” Holland said. “If you say, well no, they’re universal, then you can export them.”

In other words, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled on the church was convincing the world that Christian beliefs were universal.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled on the church was convincing the world that Christian beliefs were universal.

Big Picture: Christianity’s Reputation

Henrich and Holland may be world-renowned in their fields, but crediting Christianity for the best of the West remains an uphill climb in popular opinion. My own travels among Christians and skeptics confirms the challenge. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election I met with a group of Christian students at Cornell University. They had invited me to Ithaca to speak on the history of the Religious Right—not exactly a powerful force on their Ivy League campus. Still, the topic was relevant because of how Christians in far-flung corners of the United States could harm their reputation and mission in upstate New York.

I asked these students what their classmates associate first with Christianity. I couldn’t believe their answer. But since then I’ve repeated the question with audiences around the country. And every time I hear the same thing.

Westboro Baptist Church.

So, I said with some bemusement, when students at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities consider the world’s largest religion, they think about an overgrown family cult in Topeka, Kansas.

How can this be?

For a religion like Christianity that seeks to persuade, perception can dictate reality. Who wants to join a movement known for hatred and bigotry instead of human rights and consent? And yet that’s exactly how Christianity comes across to many today when they see crosses held up during the January 6 attacks in Washington, D.C., and when they learn the mass shooter in Atlanta on March 16 was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention.

It’s enough to render some of the most wise and mature Christian leaders helpless in the wake of breaking news. Andy Crouch told me that on the weekend after January 6, he went to bed on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. and only emerged from his bed for two hours before Monday morning.

“I was so grieved,” he said to me on the Gospelbound podcast. “I felt so impotent. I felt like such a failure to shape anything in our country.”

Any and every ignorant comment from a Christian leader, let along the murderous act of a rogue church member, confirms the narrative of decline. In this media climate, no rational defense of Christianity or award-winning tome of Western history will likely change many minds.

So maybe we need to think smaller.

Small Picture: Christianity on the Ground

A few years ago, I began looking around at what normal Christians were doing in their everyday lives. The stories Sarah Zylstra and I found have been deeply encouraging. (We’ve compiled a series of them in our new book, Gospelbound: Living With Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age.)

We’ve met Christians who are teaching low-income second graders to read, Christians who are opening their homes to foster children, and Christians who are showing up after natural disasters with hot meals. We know Christians who are working long hours at hospitals in Africa, Christians who are running programs for those struggling with addiction, and Christians who are moving into under-resourced communities.

We’ve met Christians who are teaching low-income second graders to read, Christians who are opening their homes to foster children, and Christians who are showing up after natural disasters with hot meals.

We also know Christians who are staying in New York City or Silicon Valley, even when it hasn’t been the most comfortable financial decision. But Christians believe their faith calls them to love their neighbors—perhaps in this case especially the less mobile—for better or worse. And Christians seek the good of their whole communities and not just their own churches (Gal. 6:10).

Simply by staying put, or by inviting someone over for dinner, or by volunteering at a pregnancy center, Christians don’t get the same attention as Westboro Baptist. And maybe the lack of positive media attention is one reason churches we attend are getting smaller.

But across history, and around the world, Christians bring extraordinary change through ordinary means such as setting another seat at the table, caring for the weak, and suffering with joy because they love their enemies. When Christians “obey the truth” (Rom. 2:8), they remind us how the West was really won—not mostly through arguments but through love in close-knit community. Facing today’s challenges, we will only move forward—together—when we get back to the only gospel that saves. No evil can overcome us if we resolve to do nothing but good (Rom 12:21).

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