When President Obama eulogized Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., he called him a “model for his faith.” The same could be said for the eight other victims, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson, and their families. The kindness the victims are said to have shown their killer before he took their lives, and the grace and forgiveness their families have shown him in the aftermath, represent Christian values at their best. When we eventually look back on the impact of the Charleston tragedy on our nation, in addition to recalling our heartbreak, we may end up remembering it as a turning point in the conversation about the role of faith in American culture.
Just months before the shooting, a widely covered study confirmed what many Americans already knew: Christianity had an image problem.
The Pew Research Center found the number of Americans who identify as Christians is shrinking, with the shift particularly pronounced among Americans in their 30s and younger, who are increasingly less likely to identify with a particular religion.
It is not hard to understand why many younger Americans are fleeing the church, particularly those whose formative years were defined by the media-saturated culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s. The ’80s were dominated by two major media images of Christians. They were either high-profile hypocrites or charlatans. (Here’s looking at you Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.) Or they tried to leverage their popularity with people of faith into political power. (Hello Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson!)
In the ’90s, as abortion, LGBT rights, and the Clinton impeachment scandal began to overtake other political debates (particularly with the explosion of cable news) a new media narrative emerged: People of faith were socially conservative—and not conservative with a small “c,” but finger-wagging, moral-majority types. This of course, was never entirely true. As former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt documents in her book The War on Choice, for years, cable news bookers fell into a predictable pattern of usually booking people of faith overwhelmingly to represent a conservative point of view. While there have always been progressive people of faith (clergy members helped start the first legal abortion clinic in New York), thanks in large part to this media framing, tolerance and reason are not the words some have come to associate with practicing Christians.
Hypocritical missteps by people of faith continue to remain a news staple. In the past month alone there have been the sexual abuse allegations that have rocked the Christian conservative Duggar family, and the more recent revelation that Christian abstinence advocate Bristol Palin is pregnant out of wedlock for a second time. It seems as though it’s impossible to turn on a television or pass a People magazine at the newsstand without hearing about the absolute worst aspects of people of faith—Christians in particular.
Which is what made the remarks of the Charleston tragedy survivors so inspiring. When various family members, one after the other, said that they forgave the perpetrator, they embodied Christianity at its best, without an iota of hypocrisy to be found. For so long people have seen high-profile Christians talk about love in one breath while making incredibly intolerant remarks about others—poor people, gay people, people of other religions—in the next breath. The incredible humanity the survivors showed gave us all something to aspire to, and it came from their deep-rooted faith.
After a major tragedy, church attendance tends to increase, such as after 9/11, when many flooded houses of worship seeking solace and answers. But nationally those numbers declined in the months that followed (although they remained steady in the New York area for years). It is likely that houses of worship will be filled in the coming days and weeks in the wake of the Charleston tragedy, but may not remain that way in the coming months. But even if Americans don’t find their own religious practices permanently altered by this horrific event, I believe the perception of people of faith just may be permanently altered for the better.
After all, as President Obama sang so movingly at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral, the nine victims and their families have all displayed such amazing grace.