Crowd-Silhouettes“Community hysteria” is a term to describe overblown responses to instances of policies or actions that contradict the communities’ sensibilities.

One example is the World Vision decision to allow future employees to live in a monogamous, same-sex marriage, if allowed by their denomination.  The response was overwhelming and immediate, with over 10,000 donors rescinding their child sponsorships.  The result was that in less than a week, World Vision had cancelled their change in policy.

Another example is the president of Gordon College in Massachusetts signing a private letter to Congressional leaders requesting that religious beliefs around marriage be respected in the event that same-sex marriage becomes legalized.  There was an immediate firestorm on the part of the liberal media, led by the Boston Globe and various commentators calling on Gordon College to abandon its traditional Christian beliefs and affirm the practice of homosexuality.  Nine months later, Gordon is still dealing with this controversy.

Most recently, community hysteria is evident around the law passed in Indiana last week that instituted religious protections for that state’s citizens.  Immediately, businesses began talking of leaving the state and the NCAA threatened to cancel all future events in the state (such as the national men’s college basketball championship that will be played in Indianapolis this weekend).

Community hysteria is characterized by:

  • Failure to ascertain or understand crucial facts about the situation
  • An almost immediate response, with no attempt to dialog with the “offending” party or understand their perspective and motivation
  • A hysterical level of rhetoric that is shrill, shouting (literally or via written language), inflammatory, and threatening
  • Commitment to an ideological agenda that supersedes all other considerations

Friends, this is not how Christians ought to act, whether we are conservative or progressive.  And Christians all across the ideological spectrum are occasionally guilty of this type of hysterical response.  Instead, we are called to treat one another with respect, considering others better than ourselves, giving attention to the needs of others, and treating others as we would like to be treated.

I have learned over the years that, whether we are dealing with a squabble among church members or the latest action of the Connectional Table, it is important to understand the facts of the situation.  The facts will often be not as people portray them.

In Indiana’s case, some are charging that the new law legalizes discrimination and returns to a Jim Crow era of how people treat one another.  It actually does nothing of the kind.  Instead, it sets a high bar for situations under which an individual’s religious freedom can be burdened or abridged by the state.  This protection is available to persons of all religious faiths and is an important brick in the wall defending religious freedom for all of us.  Some 30 states now have this protection in one form or another, in addition to that given by the similar federal law.  (See more detailed analysis HERE and HERE).

It is important to understand the motivation behind such laws.  When people see the courts imposing the community’s beliefs in opposition to an individual’s religious faith, people get worried.  They see government trying to mandate things like private employers paying for abortions or contraception against their religious faith.  A recent Supreme Court case ruled that a Muslim serving time in prison would be allowed to grow a short beard (1/2”) to keep the demands of his religious faith.  (The state had outlawed all beards on prisoners.)  That decision was only possible because of the federal religious freedom law, similar to the one Indiana just passed.

The Indiana law and the response to it lend themselves to the “culture wars” label.  It sometimes seems as if some who oppose religious beliefs or who are promoting the affirmation and acceptance of homosexuality are taking an all or nothing, take no prisoners approach.  Anyone with a different opinion is vilified and run over.  In a pluralistic society, that approach is a recipe for disaster.  It gives license to intimidation tactics and the loss of freedom, as well as giving the government the power to bully people into denying their faith in order to simply get along in the society.  That is not the founding vision of the United States.  (In fact, the first colonists came to America to get away from such government oppression, often due to religious differences.)

As Christians, we ought to try to lead the public discourse by understanding the facts and motivations of the people involved, refraining from personal attacks on others, and accommodating and allowing different opinions and perspectives.  Although we, as Christians, would like to see our society adopt Christian moral answers to the problems that beset our country, we are not a Christian country and cannot expect everyone to agree with Christian principles.  We ought to vigorously but winsomely speak in favor of Christian approaches (as best we can apply them in each situation), but we cannot force others to adopt our perspective.  At the same time, we must stand for the right of Christians to have our faith perspective and freely be able to not only speak it, but live it out.

We must not give ourselves over to hysteria in the public square.  That is the way bad decisions and policies get made.