Bait-and-Switch Evangelicals

A recent posting from the Barna Group proclaims, “Most Christians View Their Faith as a Force for Good.” David Kinnaman, the lead author and owner of Barna Group, said: "It's encouraging to see how many Christians still feel optimistic about the positive role their faith can play in society today…. it makes sense that Christians feel frustrated when they possess something they feel is so good for the world, that ends up being marginalized.”



About Barna and Evangelicals

The Barna Group is an evangelical survey research group. It publishes books based on their survey findings, holds workshops, and also conducts private research, primarily for evangelical clients. When mainstream media needs a source on evangelicals, Barna is a popular “go-to” group. Media companies as diverse as Fox News, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today use them.

When Barna speaks of “evangelicals,” readers assume they are defining “evangelical” in the normal way, referring to a very large group of Christians, about one-third of all Americans. But they are not. Barna has its own way of defining “evangelical,” as mentioned in the fine print in the appendix. Their definition actually excludes about 80% of normally-defined evangelicals. Barna’s evangelicals are a little over 5% of the population, and differ in many ways from the general population of evangelicals. They discuss this elsewhere.

In the opening paragraph of his current posting, Mr. Kinnaman cites a recent study in which he contrasts his “true” evangelicals with the much larger set of self-proclaimed evangelicals. In that study, he wanted to show that true evangelicals support Cruz, while the ignorant masses of evangelicals support Trump. But in the present article he ignores the distinction, leading the reader to assume there is none. He effectively changes his definition of evangelical as expedient. But the media assumes he is speaking for all evangelicals, not just a small subset of “true believers.” In non-evangelical circles, this is called bait-and-switch.

Barna is not alone in redefining evangelicals. Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, also redefines the term. His definition is vague, and he says nothing about how many people fit his criteria. He says, “The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year.” I disagree. It has not suddenly lost its meaning. It has always been vague and included differing groups, much like Republican. Mr. Moore and Barna are like those Republicans who denounce others as RINOs, Republican-In-Name-Only. While they may be literalists, neither defines an evangelical as one who evangelizes. Virtually none do.

Their definitions also have little to do with the teachings of Jesus. Some time ago, evangelicals were in the habit of asking, “What would Jesus do?” But the embarrassing fact is they don't even know what Jesus taught. What is worse, much of what they attribute to Jesus is false. Evangelical leaders avoid or contradict many of Jesus’ teachings. While Martin Luther stressed sola scriptura--reliance on scripture, rather than an ecclesiastical authority--evangelicals don't know scripture, and just accept the word of their chosen leader. Megachurch pastors are like mini-popes.

Recall that Jesus’ core teaching, which he repeated again and again, was to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The latter commandment, the Golden Rule, plays absolutely no rule in the evangelical schemes of Mr. Kinnaman and Mr. Moore. When have you ever heard these or other evangelicals actively campaign on behalf of the Golden Rule? Recall too that Jesus said, "Judge not lest ye be judged!" When have you heard that from these evangelicals? They are too busy judging and condemning their neighbor for not being an evangelical.

They also ignore Jesus’ prohibition against divorce, which he called adultery—a capital crime, punishable by stoning—just like homosexuality. If evangelical leaders condemned divorce, and rejected divorced “adulterers,” this might slash their flock down to the size of Barna’s “true” evangelicals. The Bible Belt has the highest divorce rate in the country. Remember Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk whose evangelical faith forbid her from issuing marriage licenses to gays? She was widely celebrated. Even the Pope reached out to her. But she had several divorces, and was a serial adulterer. Neither she nor her evangelical supporters had any problem with that.

To be fair, the Catholic Church still forbids divorce. But they do a huge business selling annulments, an expensive and dishonest form of divorce. Perhaps they could sell indulgences along with the annulments, thus cancelling the mortal sins they facilitate.


About the Research

Barna’s headline is based on the following table:


Barna implied that Christians are special in feeling their faith is a force for good. This is absurd. Nearly everyone believes they are a force for good, not just Christians. Note that the numbers include those saying they were either “very” or “somewhat” a force for good. It would be more interesting to learn about those who were not in this category. Did they think they were a force for evil? Were they too impotent to make a difference? Or were they just too far out of it to make up their minds?

This is an important point that cannot be emphasized too strongly. Everyone has a favorable opinion of him or herself. People have virtually unlimited capacity to deceive themselves, and use these powers to burnish their self-image. No one thinks they are bad. Even Hitler said he was doing God’s work. Contrary to Barna’s doctrine, claiming you are a force for good doesn’t make it true.

The Southern Baptist Convention came into existence to support the holy cause of slavery. Evangelicals insisted that Jim Crow was the will of God. Their fight against demon rum led to Prohibition, ushering in organized crime and a host of evils. Believing you are a force for good doesn’t make it so. In fact, self-righteousness is often a dangerous sign. 

While everyone has a great capacity for self-deception, religious faith acts like an enormous lever that increases the power of delusion. Christian morality led to the burning of tens of thousands of women as witches. This was one of the few areas that Catholics and Protestants agreed on. Torquemada and leaders of other Inquisitions were guided by the Holy Spirit. They were appointed and praised by quasi-infallible popes. In short, some of the greatest evils in history were the result of religious zealotry. Mr. Kinnaman and his colleagues accept such zealotry at face value.

Barna presents one other table:

Barna's Christians not only feel misunderstood, but actually persecuted. Poor babies. Barna provides no explanations or detail. But recall that Kim Davis claimed she was persecuted by being told to do her job and issue marriage licenses. Evangelicals believe they are being persecuted by judges and politicians who insist on separating church and state. They are being persecuted by Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade. They are being persecuted by anyone who interferes with their fantasy of the U.S. as a Christian country. According to this Barna data, they even feel more persecuted than Muslims in America. They are paranoid. As we’ve seen, people of faith often have little use for facts. Like Paul, they condemn “the wisdom of this world,” and feel they alone possess divine Truth, whatever the facts may be.

They also feel marginalized. But these are Barna’s “true” evangelicals, which exclude 80% of self-identified evangelicals and amount to a little over 5% of the population. They are a very marginal group. If they had a better grasp of reality, a lot more than 50% would consider themselves marginalized.

We have a self-righteous, paranoid group who feels they are being persecuted. They may comprise as much as one-third of the population, and almost certainly more than ten percent. Unlike Jesus, these are not turn-the-other cheek types. They thump the Bible, but know little of Jesus, and tend to accept whatever their chosen leaders tell them. Many would like to impose a Christian form of shariah law, making America a Christian nation. They have been gathering strength for over fifty years, and it is considered politically incorrect to criticize them.

The 1920s had a similar group. It was led by preachers, and many of its recruiters were preachers. It opened its meetings with a Bible reading from Romans 13, praying for Christian leadership of the country. It not only played a major role in making Prohibition the law of the land, it was largely responsible for the Immigration Act of 1924, which for the first time, closed America’s borders to many. Where they could get away with it, they used force to impose their Christian morals on others. This was the Ku Klux Klan, whose symbol was the fiery cross. The Klan of the 1920s was not a small splinter group, but a major national force of millions. It deserves to be better known. While historical comparisons are always inexact and potentially misleading, ignorance of history is far worse. If you’re interested, a good introduction is Wyn Wade’s, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America.

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