I’m not a big fan of the Barna Group, a “research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture.” I normally like such intersections, because our secular cultural elites like to keep them clear and they get annoyed when people of faith, especially conservative Christians have the temerity to think their views actually deserve a fair hearing in the public square. Why I particularly don’t like Barna is because their polling is unnuanced and inaccurate, specifically regarding how people in America perceive conservative Christians.
It must be said that Barna is not staffed by a bunch of fundamentalist atheists, but from what I can tell by well-meaning Christians. I first heard of them a few years ago when they did a survey of how young people in America perceive Christians. Of course all the words you might guess came up, including judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical, and the worst of all, homophobic. I’m sure the study itself can be found on their website, but my reaction when I heard about that was that it was a bunch of garbage, and was in fact not at all what most people experience of Christians. The secular media jumped all over it: see, we told you, Christians are rotten people. In fact, I would argue those responding to such a survey are responding to a cultural caricature of Christians, not real flesh and blood people of faith.
This is not to say that such Christians don’t exist, only that they are far from typical. When I speak of cultural caricatures I’m speaking mostly of popular culture, movies, TV, literature, etc., and America’s broad media elite, which is staffed almost uniformly by people who are not religious, plus our educational establishments that promote secularism as an antidote to the narrow minded conformity supposedly promoted by religious belief and religious believers.
Before I get to the latest example of a distorted message masquerading as disinterested research, let me give you an example of the kind of cultural hostility shown toward Christianity from a popular movie of 37 years ago. I saw the 1976 movie “Carrie” when I was a teenager, and remember being especially creeped out by Carrie’s mother portrayed in the film. Check out this Wikipedia entry about the movie: “Carrie White is a shy, friendless teenage girl abused by her unstable Christian fundamentalist mother Margaret.” I mean, are there any other kind of Christian fundamentalists than “unstable” ones? The caricature has been going on so long and in so many ways that for people who don’t know any Christians it is easy to believe that Christians are the caricature.
I learned of Barna’s latest survey from a piece in World magazine with the title, “We are hypocrites.” No offense to author Amy Henry, who is no doubt well intentioned, but it never seems to occur to her that perceptions are not always reality. I think I may dislike this study even more than the previous one I mentioned, because it assumes something not empirically verifiable:
One of the common critiques leveled at present-day Christianity is that it’s a religion full of hypocritical people. A new Barna Group study examines the degree to which this perception may be accurate. The study explores how well Christians seem to emulate the actions and attitudes of Jesus in their interactions with others.
Their first mistake is legitimizing “common critiques.” Who exactly is making these “common critiques”? If we identify who these people are, we then have to ask why they think these things, and thus is there any validity to such critiques. Without doing this, they’ve already stacked the deck against Christians by uncritically accepting a perception of Christians that possibly has no basis in reality. If this is the case, not only would such a study have no value, it would most likely play into the “common critique” of Christian critics, which is exactly what it does.
The study asked a representative sample of Christians 20 questions, 10 to assess so called Christ-likeness, 10 to assess self-righteousness. You won’t be surprised to find that “this study points out a sobering possibility: that the perception so many young people have of Christians contains more than a kernel of truth.” Yep, we’re all a bunch of judgmental hypocrites, which is amazingly enough the exact caricature of Christians as portrayed and believed by American cultural elites. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
One other thing I noticed about the study is how sloppy the statements are that are used to asses self-righteousness, both in attitude and actions. For instance, all of these statements can be applied to self-righteous judgmental modern liberals. Why target Christians with such questions? Because of some alleged “common critique”? Common to whom?
One especially ridiculous statement: “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.” Just imagine this question to a modern proud progressive: “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly Christian.” Is it not human nature to avoid people who are not like us, who do not embrace our values, our worldview? Is that right or wrong? That’s not the point, human nature is, and it isn’t only Christians who are susceptible to being human! Or take this statement: “I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.” You can go all over the internet to fevered left –wing blogs and publications to find plenty of progressives who like to point out those who do not think correctly about the environment or homosexuality or Medicare or “reproductive rights” or whatever.
You know, after writing a couple pages here about the Barna Group’s new study, I think I’m even less of a fan than I was back in the first paragraph. And it is absolutely pathetic that good hearted Christians like Amy Henry, and I’m sure many others would buy into the facile and flawed conclusions of a myopic study that ignores the power of culture to create perceptions, and also the bend of human nature that applies to every human being regardless of their faith commitments.