By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
The recent Republican presidential debate was notable for the attacks made by the candidates against a “hostile” or biased media. While attacks against the media have been common for decades, the questions that the moderators asked during this debate were notably harsher than those asked in the Democratic debate just a couple weeks earlier. Moreover, the attitude of the moderators seemed to delight in catching candidates in a contradiction or inconsistency. The issue was that the moderators of the debate injected themselves into the news-making, rather than simply facilitating or reporting the news. When the referees become the story instead of the players, you know the game has gotten off track.
A similar problem occurred during the campaign over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). This ordinance in the city of Houston would have mandated equal protection for persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It would essentially have codified the cultural approval of same-sex relationships and the ability of anyone to choose one’s own gender, regardless of the body God created for the person. (The ordinance was defeated in Tuesday’s election by a 61%-39% majority.)
In the run-up to the vote, the Houston Chronicle ran at least one story a day and sometimes two covering the HERO ordinance. All of the stories favored the adoption of HERO, some with sensational headlines. Numerous business and political leaders, as well as celebrities, were quoted in favor of HERO, with almost none quoted in opposition. In some stories, 90 percent of the space was devoted to pro-HERO quotes, with only 10 percent given to those opposing HERO. Obviously, in the wake of the election, the Chronicle’s coverage did not reflect the attitudes of the voters, but was intended to advocate for a value system that is at odds with what the voters believe in. In this situation, the media abandoned their traditional neutral role and became a maker of news, rather than just a reporter.
These examples illustrate the environment that we Christians will increasingly face in our society. When it comes to biblical values concerning premarital sex, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, and now changing one’s gender, the TV, movie, music, and news media have for many years portrayed a distorted picture that embraces behavior and lifestyle choices that run counter to biblical teaching. More than anything else, I believe these various media portrayals have paved the way for the radical shift in attitudes and behaviors in our society.
In a recent Quest men’s ministry talk, Good News president Rob Renfroe quoted psychology and marketing professor Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, “One means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. … We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree we see others performing it.” The fact that “everyone’s doing it” is persuasive to many people, and the more the media can convince us that a behavior is common and positive, the more willing we are to accept it.
This situation poses a challenge to Christians, who have been disadvantaged in media portrayals for at least a generation. Worship, prayer, trust in God, and acting on Christian values is seldom portrayed in the media. Instead, Christians are often portrayed as harsh, judgmental, dumb, and out of touch with reality. That portrayal “primes the pump” for people to look for those behaviors and attitudes in the Christians they meet. When they see a few Christians who fit the negative stereotype (for Christians are flawed people just like everyone else), it just confirms what the media is saying about Christians. No wonder that society’s attitudes toward Christians and the Church are more negative than in the past! A generation’s worth of high-quality propaganda is having its effect.
How should we respond? I am grateful for many Christian leaders who are thinking through how the church should respond to our current societal situation, and many helpful articles and books are being written. Here are a few of my thoughts.
This is not a new situation for the church. There have been many periods over the last 2,000 years and even in many countries in our world today where Christians have been unfairly characterized and attacked. Early Christians were called atheists (because they did not worship idols) and cannibals (because they ate Christ’s body and blood in communion). The favorable attitude toward Christianity in this country during the 1700’s to 1900’s was actually abnormal in the vast stream of church history. We are now returning to a more “normal” situation, where Christianity is unpopular and ridiculed.
We need to be deeply rooted in our faith. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) points out what happens to un-rooted disciples. “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (vs. 16-17). Consistent worship attendance is essential, but not enough for us. We must root our faith deeply through daily personal devotions and participation in a small group. It worked for John Wesley and the first 100 years of Methodism. It can work today. Only a deeply rooted faith will be able to resist the temptation to “go along to get along” with the world.
We can engage the world winsomely through humble service, respectful advocacy, and consistently living out our values. The New Testament letters are full of the kind of instructions that are helpful to us in our current situation.”Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16). “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16).
John Wesley’s last words on his deathbed are very important, “The best of all, God is with us.” Jesus made this promise as one of his last words on earth: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We don’t need to give up or be discouraged because God himself is with us, walking with us through the difficulties and challenges of living in a hostile world. And each little encounter where we get to demonstrate the love of God in word and deed is a little victory for the cause of Christ.