Jesus told his followers, quite definitely, to love their enemies, and warned them against hatred. Yet today, the public image of christians is somewhat tarnished – some christians are seen to be loving and caring, but others are seen to be prejudiced and intolerant, especially towards groups like gays and Muslims.
What is the evidence for this?
Studies on religious belief and prejudice
A number of studies have been conducted and reported, giving some consistent results, and some differing conclusions. Several recent studies suggest the following:
The way a belief is held makes a difference
Religious belief and practice can increase or reduce prejudice. More flexible or personal belief may lead to tolerance whereas more rigid or social belief may lead to prejudice.
Gays, atheists and perhaps Muslims
Christians in the US are more likely to be prejudiced against gays, atheists and Muslims, but are not commonly prejudiced against people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Strength of belief in God
One study suggests thinking about God will tend to have a positive impact whereas thinking about religion tends to have a negative effect. But another study found that strong belief in God was generally associated with prejudice.
A disturbing conclusion
We should be careful about our response to these studies, for two reasons:
- The studies were all undertaken in the USA with specific groups of people, and using methods the researchers hope will ascertain real-life attitudes. They may not reveal the truth and they may not apply outside the group surveyed or in other countries.
- The US is a very religious country, and it can be hard to discern christian believers from ‘cultural christians’.
Nevertheless, the following conclusion from the Science on Religion website is surely concerning:
The call to love one’s enemies appears to have gone unheeded.”
How did it come to this?
Are christians prejudiced? Do we treat people from groups different to us (whether gays, atheists, believers in other religions or people of other races) with something less than christian love? And if so, why?
My observations come from one who lives outside the US.
A dominant culture
Christianity has been the dominant culture in the USA from the beginning, and probably still is today. Dominant cultures tend not to treat their minorities well, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently.
This is sometimes expressed today in an expectation that laws in our pluralist society should reflect christian ethics on matters such as sexuality, thus not allowing non-christians some of the freedoms that democracies are supposed to guarantee.
Dominant cultures also tend to want to protect their privileged position, and can consequently be fearful of outsiders who may threaten that dominance. Some christians express hatred towards ‘outsiders’ such as atheists and gays.
Patriotism: confusing America with the kingdom of God?
From the outside, it seems that some Americans think that their country is somehow the kingdom of God on earth. For some, patriotism can become a greater force than christian faith, so that christianity can be subverted to become a tool of patriotism. President George W Bush’s rhetoric at the start of the second Gulf War was sufficient for the University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies to judge the Gulf war to be a religious war.
Unfortunately, patriotism is often about “them and us”.
Because christianity is the dominant culture in many parts of the USA, failure to identify with it may make it more difficult to be elected, do business or even socialise. This can create in-groups, out-groups and prejudice.
Legalism vs grace
All the above can encourage christians to see christianity as a moral standard and a way of living that non-believers are refusing to abide by. Christians can become very conservative and judgmental about non-believers, or people they don’t approve of, for example gays, pacifists, atheists, Muslims, sex workers, addicts and alcoholics, the unemployed and leftists.
As a result, a movement of grace has often transformed into an in-group set of rules and approvals, and bad behaviour follows – christians express anger, fear, contempt and even hatred when we should be showing love. It is no longer the way of Jesus.
Living in the opposite spirit
I remember years ago hearing a teaching by Dean Sherman from YWAM about combatting unchristian attitudes by “living in the opposite spirit” – if the secular or christian culture around us is mean, we live generously; if we see anger around us, we live peacefully and lovingly; etc.
This post is long enough. I will further discuss how we might respond in my next post.
- Loving your neighbors (When you’re religious)
- Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.
- God and prejudice