Image isn't everything. Performance counts.
With the Hurricane Katrina anniversary coming up late this month, it's worth noting that relief work by Christian groups over the past year not only saved lives but had a public-relations effect.
For example, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, a libertarian who writes the popular Instapundit blog, observed that "when you look at who was providing relief after Katrina, there's not much in the way of secular humanism to be found."
The Virginian-Pilot rarely has anything good to say about its sometimes-embarrassing Virginia Beach neighbor, Pat Robertson, but it praised the work of Robertson's poverty-fighting organization: "In a forgotten corner of obliterated eastern New Orleans, where desperate locals have been without medical facilities for nearly a year, Operation Blessing has stepped in to fill the void. It has spent some $1 million on a free medical and dental clinic that serves almost 100 patients each day."
The Virginian-Pilot noted that "Operation Blessing has rolled up its sleeves in other parts of New Orleans, too. It has instituted a 'Bug Buster' program to eradicate mosquitoes thriving in the toxic stew left by Katrina and is rebuilding flooded homes in nearby St. Bernard Parish. . . . Seeking to serve, not to nab the limelight, Operation Blessing is certainly living up to its name."
Maybe Christians will finally get some recognition for (in part) living up to the name of Christ. In a book coming out in December, Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks shows that religious people (mostly Christians) "of all political persuasions are 40 percent more likely to donate to charities each year than secular people, and more than twice as likely to volunteer. They are also more than three times more likely than secular people to give each month, and three and one-half times as likely to volunteer that often."
Brooks concludes, "So who is more compassionate: the religious right, or the secular left? The answer appears to be the former. The reason for this, however, revolves around religion, not political ideology. The relatively large religious right and fairly small religious left are both far more compassionate than secularists from either political side. The most uncompassionate group of all-in attitudes and behaviors-is a subset of conservatives who are also secularists. Inordinate media attention to this group may help explain why conservatives are often accused of being uncompassionate."
Those data go along with what I've observed over the years: Conservative forces include both compassionate Bible-followers and compassion-despising Social Darwinists. Americans who make up the religious left often have a poor understanding of economics and often underestimate the ravages of sin, but they also tend to display personal commitment and compassion.
If such research is disseminated and understood, the reputation of Christianity could improve. That's good: The apostle Peter taught, "Live such good lives among the pagans that . . . they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us" (1 Peter 2:12). Jesus condemns those who give like Pharisees, seeking personal glory, but all of us are charged to glorify God-and those who see Christians doing good may grasp something about the nature of Christ.
Some Christians may even be altruistic out of selfishness: If I give, God will give me more. God does bless those who obey Him, but those who assume the blessings are material may be surprised. Still, even mixed motives in giving should not keep us from being charitable. Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge relays a metaphor used by Reformation theologians involving water and ink: "Water is the good creation, ink is sin, and the sinner is a glass of water with a few drops of ink. All the water in the glass is tainted, but it's still mostly water, not ink. Analogously, all our good deeds are marred by sin, but they are still mostly good deeds, not crimes masquerading as merits."
Volf concludes, "Now apply this to gifts. We give gifts. None of them [is] pure. Yet with all their impurities, many of them are still genuine gifts, not just hidden ways of loving ourselves." We need to keep this in mind: Impure, but still genuine. And even liberal reporters sometimes come to respect that.