RECENTLY, ON THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS THIS TERM, I gave my students in a University of Texas course on Journalism and Religion something to do while I read the roll. I asked them to answer on a piece of paper this question: "How do Christians act?"-and then to do the same regarding Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. I said they could give top-of-the-head responses, even stereotypes, and to make them feel free to do so said they should not write their names on their pages.
Regarding Christians, I received a couple of replies like these: "Christians have patience, kindness, love." Several students made statements that are factually correct, although incomplete: "They go to church and try to save people. Try to get others to convert." Most of the statements, though, were like these: "Fanatical. Cram religion down others' throats. Want to push their religion on others. Trying to force others to do everything their way. Bossing, not helping, others."
I don't know which comments grew out of personal experience and which from press coverage. I do suspect that the students' hugely positive view of Buddhism is largely media-derived: "Peace, love, and goodness. Very calm. Super chilled-out. Centered. Nonviolent." Most knew very little about Judaism ("Wear thingy on head") and Islam ("Women wrap their bodies in thingies"). Their knowledge of Hindus was largely inaccurate ("Wear jewels on foreheads. Worship gods that have lots of sex").
I hope and suspect by the end of the course that these students will know more about all of the religions we're studying, including Christianity. It's within this framework that I'm cheered by the enthusiastic support for Roy Moore's stand for the Ten Commandments monument, but at the same time concerned about how all this looks to people who know very little about Christianity.
Clearly, evangelical leaders whose primary purpose is to propel their followers into action have inspired sacrifice among those who have come from all over the country to Montgomery. The praying demonstrators should be honored, not mocked. After years of frustration, lowlighted by federal courts demanding the removal of public prayer from public schools and "under God" from the pledge of allegiance, they have seen the federal decree to remove the Ten Commandments monument as a 5,300-pound straw tossed onto the camel.
But for other evangelicals, the proverbial camel's back needs to be sturdier, particularly in this cultural battle of ideas. What is portrayed as a fight for granite furthers the sense among scoffers that Christianity is primarily about do's and don'ts rather than about a warm-hearted relationship with God. Predictably biased coverage of monument defenders furthers media stereotypes that Christians see getting their way as more important than showing forbearance.
I've taught at UT for 20 years now and seen how journalism professors and students overwhelmingly hold negative stereotypes of Christians. Since I've written about churches and inner-city groups filled with self-sacrificing people who give up their weekends and evenings to help kids learn how to read, ex-alcoholics to stay sober, or abandoned women to turn their lives around, the image I have of Christian activity is very positive. Most important, since Christ kindly brought me to Himself 27 years ago, I know what's true.
But how do we reach out to the dazed and bewildered? Eighteenth-century poet Robert Burns wrote, "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us / To see oursel's as others see us!" Do the determined defenders of the monument understand how my students and millions of others see them? The same students turned off by Christian political demonstrations are turned on by Christian demonstrations of love for children via adoption or foster care, or love for persecuted people in China or Sudan.
The Bible calls Christians to care about the manner in which the saving message of the gospel goes out; tone is important. Paul the apostle wrote that "To the Jews I became as a Jew ... to the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." It's good and right-and constitutional, the federal courts notwithstanding-to have Ten Commandments monuments, and I respect those who fight for them. Most of the organizations that activate evangelicals are doing a fine job. But it seems to me the best way to reach my students and millions of nonbelievers in America is to show that Christianity is a religion of compassion.