In Slacktivist Fred Clark’s regular Left Behind blogging has reached a point in the novels where an Orthodox rabbi has gone on TV to explain that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews should all be Jews for Jesus. One of the novels’ protagonists (who found Jesus after seeing a billion or so people killed raptured) pumps his fists and cheers.
This reaction, and the rabbi’s broadcast itself, grate on Clark’s ears. Clark is an evangelical Christian, and knows when someone’s Doing It Wrong. This scene, he writes, “illustrates another important point in our lesson on How Not to Do Evangelism. Fist-pumping triumphalism is never a winsome or attractive trait.”
He goes on:
Most preachers and missionaries understand the distinction that political campaigners make when they speak of the difference between “outreach” and “firing up the base.” Effective politicians know that the sorts of things one says to rally the faithful are not the same sorts of things one says to try to persuade the unconvinced. That’s why big political fundraising events tend to be closed to the media — because the message that’s appropriate for that audience might be off-putting or confusing to swing-voters and independents or to others not yet convinced of the in-group’s premises.
Buck [the fistpumper] and Tsion [the rabbi], like LaHaye and Jenkins [the authors], don’t seem to appreciate that distinction. Even worse, the authors don’t seem to appreciate that the analogy I’ve just drawn compares two different things — that missionary outreach is not the same as political campaigning, that it’s not about a battle for power.
Tsion’s whole broadcast has been a kind of extended political attack ad trying to tip the balance in some contest between Christianity and Judaism. He might as well have used unflattering grainy black-and-white footage of Orthodox Jews moving in slow motion while getting the movie-trailer guy to do a menacing, sarcastic voiceover, “Judaism claims to be awaiting the Messiah, but it’s voting record tells a different story. …”
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins aren’t alone in imagining that negative advertising is the key to effective evangelism. There’s a vast and thriving cottage industry of this sort of thing in the evangelical subculture, one that has existed for decades on the traveling-speaker and seminar circuit and in recent years has proliferated online. Look around and you’ll find scores of purportedly “evangelistic ministries” that spend nearly all of their time on negative campaigning, as though the only way to promote the Christian gospel was to tear down everything else. These “ministries” stake out their little niches based on whatever it is they’re attacking — “secular humanism,” Paganism, Mormonism, Methodism, science or whatever else it is they’ve decided to attack as a “cult.”
Those ministries tend to engage in a great deal of bearing false witness, but even if their attacks were not so thoroughly distorting and dishonest — even if these liars for Jesus weren’t lying — it would be impossible to accept their claims that what they’re doing has anything to do with evangelism. Such negative attack ads may be useful for drawing thick lines between Us and Them. But they have never, ever been of any use for persuading Them to join Us.
Alas and alack that similar ministries have arisen within the atheist movement as well. Like the pseudo-evangelists Clark describes, they see no reason to distinguish rhetoric which fires up the base from rhetoric dedicated to changing minds. And like those who Clark is happy to label “liars for Jesus,” some of those pseudo-evangelists for atheism have a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth.
Of course, negative advertising works. People tell pollsters that they hate attack ads, but political campaigns still use them because they work. So maybe he’s too optimistic, and sometimes it does change minds.
But I think there’s a broader point, one embedded in that last sentence quoted. Does this turn Them into Us, or does it turn Us into Them?