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Love Gone Awry: Why Aren't Christians More Likable?

Peter C. Hill

A recent studies finds that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians rank among the "least liked" populations in America.

Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
June 9, 2014

I’m curious about why Christians have a public relations problem.

Several popular books on the Christian market seemed to have touched a nerve by documenting the disaffiliation that many emerging adults have with the church and the Christian faith. I recently read an article (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005) where Christians are among the least trusted and least liked individuals, at least when compared to other social groups selected for that study.

What a contrast to a song that was popular when I was growing up: “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love” (I always felt like we should all be sitting around a campfire when we sang that song).


Admittedly, I’m making an assumption here but I think the song was intended to say that if we act lovingly as Christians, then the world will take notice and become intrigued enough to want to explore what the Christian life has to offer. They may even like Christians! At the very least, we should be an attractive alternative to the life they know.

I’ve got a confession to make. The study I just mentioned did not identify Christians as among the least liked, but instead identified fundamentalist Christians. In fact, they considered another category of Christians, identified simply as non-fundamentalist Christians, and to that group there were far less negative feelings. Whew! So it is just those crazy fundamentalists that the world reacts to, not us evangelicals.

However, other research has also uncovered the fact that most people do not make the fine-tuned distinction between, for example, fundamentalist and evangelical; that is, if you are a theologically conservative Protestant, perhaps comfortable with the word orthodox (small “o”) or evangelical, then you are likely considered a fundamentalist by most people. My professional circle consists in part of psychologists, largely secular, who study religiousness and spirituality and, as much as I loathe the term, in most of their eyes I’m a fundamentalist—and as I already indicated, it is not an endearing term.

So, I think it’s safe to say that those who take the bible seriously are not known for their love.

Why not? Of course, one reason may be that people are simply blinded to the real message of Christianity by their own prejudices. Actually, this was the focus of the study I was reading.

Undergraduate students, from a major university in the southwest, were asked to rate their own prejudices as well as their specific emotional reactions (anger/resentment, disgust, fear/anxiety, pity, and envy) to the following social categories of persons:

  • Fundamentalist Christians,
  • Non-fundamentalist Christians,
  • Gay men,
  • Activist feminists,
  • African-Americans,
  • Asian-Americans,
  • Mexican-Americans, and
  • American Indians.

When compared with European-Americans, the ethnic groups fared pretty well, although African-Americans and Mexican-Americans tended to elicit more fear/anxiety than did the other social categories.

However, two findings regarding the Christian groups are of interest here.

First, fundamentalist Christians were among the least liked (as measured by self-reported prejudice) groups, roughly equivalent with activist feminists and considerably more disliked than all other categories, including gay men. However, non-fundamentalist Christians were disliked less than all other non-ethnic social categories (but still disliked slightly more than the average European-American).

Second, fundamentalist Christians scored the highest of all social categories on anger/resentment, second highest (to gay men) on disgust, third highest (to African-Americans and Mexican-Americans) on fear/anxiety, and relatively low compared to the other groups on both pity and envy. Non-fundamentalist Christians were the lowest or next lowest on every emotional reaction except envy where they elicited the median emotional reaction.

Two quick observations:

1) Fundamentalist Christians were among the least liked of any group, right up there with activists feminists, and disliked more than gay men.

2) Non-fundamentalists received a much more neutral reaction: the students were reacting not so much to Christianity in general. Now, it is probably the case that when people are asked about a social category such as fundamentalist Christian, what is created in the mind’s eye is a picture of an extreme, often unflattering, stereotype that is commonly and perhaps unfairly held as the basis of prejudice. So, we can add religious identification to the long list of social categories such as race, gender, age, and so forth that are vulnerable recipients of prejudice.

Still, we are not sure why fundamentalist Christians elicit such prejudices and specific negative emotions.

Yet another very legitimate answer to the question of why we are not known for our love is theologically grounded. Scripture is forthright about the fact that we will be at odds with the world, even to the point of division in one’s own family and household (Luke 12:49–53). We are instructed in John 1:14 to communicate both truth and grace and the two don’t always easily co-exist. After all, the message “either be like us, believe like we do, see the condition of the world on our terms, or go to hell” will not win any charm school awards nor be a formula for persuasive success.

Scripture teaches with clarity that following our Savior will not be easy or well accepted and even a cursory reading of the book of Acts documents just how unpopular the Christian message can be. The old hymn “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war…” unfortunately often rings true. Indeed, the exclusivist language of Christianity is a barrier that I wish did not exist, but it’s not my call to make and it seems clear that evangelicals have to live with that message whether they like it or not.

So, we’ve got two good reasons why evangelical Christians are not known for their love: others’ prejudice and our own theology, and neither of them seem to be our fault!

Indeed, probably both factors play a major contributory role. However, as difficult as it may be to be the target of people’s prejudices and as tempting as it may be to find excuses behind our biblically-informed theology that people “love darkness rather than light,” there is yet another possible contributor—one that requires us to ask some tough questions about how we live our lives and whether we communicate love.

Bluntly put, are we poor communicators of God’s love? And, if so, why?

I’ve chosen to tackle this question by asking:

Do we have a firm grasp of what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as we do ourselves?

My thinking on this matter, primarily speculative to this point but something my time with the Center for Christian Thought is providing the opportunity for more systematic study, has been influenced by the work of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, most fully captured in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind. Moral Foundations Theory contends that there are six criteria about which we decide whether an action or a belief is right or moral. It is also suggests that these criteria are foundational in the sense that they are built-in. This does not mean that the moral mind is rigid and nonmalleable, but simply that the moral mind is organized along these six lines prior to direct experience.

The six moral foundations are:

1. Care for others, such as protecting them from harm.

2. Fairness or a sense of equity.

3. Liberty or freedom from oppression or tyranny.

4. Loyalty to one’s group, family, or nation.

5. Authority or respect for tradition or other legitimated authoritative sources.

6. Sanctity or purity by avoiding contaminating influences.

Much of Haidt’s research has applied these foundations to political orientations where he has discovered that political liberals tend to place a strong emphasis on the first two moral foundations, care and fairness, with a relatively small subset also emphasizing liberty. The other three foundations are given far less weight.

In contrast, political conservatives are more likely than liberals to base their judgments of right and wrong across a more even distribution of all six moral foundations. Haidt, himself a professed political liberal, is careful not to imply that one profile is superior to another.

I don’t know if Haidt’s analysis of the political spectrum applies to theology as well. My hunch is that it does (after all, for decades now, the Republican Party can count on the evangelical vote), but that is a question that can and should be tested empirically, something I intend to do in my research.

Regardless of whether the use of various moral foundations fall across the same lines theologically as they do politically, it seems that Jesus’ dominant message of love stresses particularly the foundations of care and justice. Yet my impression is that, as a whole, Christians have demonstrated their allegiance disproportionately to loyalty, authority, and sanctity more than to care and fairness.

I have to admit that I haven’t kept count, but I suspect that I have heard many more sermons in evangelical circles on holiness (sanctity) and biblical authority (authority) that I have on serving the poor (care) or promoting social justice (fairness). When I do hear messages on care and fairness, they often seem cloaked in terms of care for each other as Christians (loyalty), and equality in terms of human value and dignity before God (sanctity). How else will we communicate love the love of Jesus to a hurting world unless we better demonstrate it on terms that people understand, that is, through an explicit ethic of care and equity?

Perhaps we should rethink what it means to love as Jesus loved.