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Q&A: How to be a Christian in a society that's increasingly skeptical of faith

In the wake of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups, American Muslims have defended their religion, arguing that violent incidents don't represent their faith. Christians in the U.S. may soon have to do the same.

Americans in general — and atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated in particular — increasingly view Christians as extremist and criticize their convictions about social issues like same-sex marriage, according to new research on perceptions of faith and Christianity by Barna Group.

A new book, "Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You're Irrelevant and Extreme," which was co-authored by Barna president David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, uses the research as a starting point for a broader conversation about how to confront anti-religious sentiment.

On the one hand, people of faith should embrace being viewed as odd or different, said Kinnaman, 42.

"To be honest, that's the whole point. These are pieces of ancient literature that people of religious conviction believe have bearing on how people ought to live," he said. "That's a very countercultural point of view."

However, suspicion of religion and expressions of faith like evangelizing is also troubling because it signifies growing efforts to push religion out of the public square, Kinnaman said.

He hopes "Good Faith" will help Christians find a way to build connections with nonbelievers and support a culture friendly to religious convictions.

Kinnaman spoke with Deseret News National this week about social extremism, the presidential election and living as a Christian in a pluralistic society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: "Good Faith" responds to a society that increasingly views Christians as extremist. How did we get to this point?

David Kinnaman: Violent extremism has had an impact on that. Forty-six percent of Americans believe religion is part of the problem, and 42 percent believe people of faith are part of the problem. There’s an increased skepticism toward all institutions.

Additionally, in a shared space, in a religiously pluralistic culture, it’s hard to represent unique points of view.

Whether you’re evangelical, Mormon, Muslim or Orthodox Jew, each of those sets of convictions feels out of step with a culture that wants to have no religions messing up the public square.

In other words, Americans are responding to violent extremism but also social extremism, which relates to the beliefs or practices that might impact other people you live with and around.

DN: Is the presidential election, with its debates over evangelical voters and their support for (Republican candidate) Donald Trump, making matters worse?

DK: The actions of conservative Christian and evangelical voters sort of prove the notion that Christians are irrelevant and extremist. It’s a case in point of the perception problems that now surround faith and Christianity and evangelicalism in particular.

DN: "Good Faith" and the research behind it, as well as your previous work, has paid special attention to Americans who are religiously unaffiliated. Why are this groups' actions and concerns important for this conversation about extremism?

DK: The segment in America called the "nones" or religious skeptics are the most suspicious of all religion and of Christian expression or conviction.

Religious conviction is starting to become abrasive in our culture. People, broadly, are trying to push religious expression into the local church and out of the public square.

Also, the more religious nones are a part of the group of American voters, the more they will impact the results.

They lean in a more Democratic or liberal direction, and they also tend to be more skeptical of religious candidates or overtly religious plays in the public square. They're increasing the pressure on the intersection of politics and faith.

DN: You've highlighted the gap between evangelicals and religious skeptics in terms of their views of what counts as religious extremism. Is this something faith leaders should be worried about and working to address?

DK: In some ways, the actual solution is simple. There has to be a way to accommodate the religious expressions that some are calling extremist.

We're not going to create a place where all social extremism is stripped away because that would essentially mean people who are following the tenets of their faith in a devout manner, by taking their sacred scriptures literally, for example, aren't welcome.

The solution isn't to make religious conviction lower, to strip it out of culture, but to figure out how to accommodate differences and create places where evangelical conviction or Islamic conviction can be part of the broader culture.

We shouldn't try to minimize extremism (in this case, behavior like evangelizing and reading scripture in public.) We should try to find the balance between religious conviction and the concerns of religious skeptics.

DN: What was your overarching goal while writing "Good Faith?"

DK: In the U.S., there are tribes composed of (groups like) committed Christians, Mormons, atheists and the LGBT community. We’re trying to help people stay friends across these increasing differences, to have difficult conversations that are so necessary to create a life of meaning and a shared society where we’re not sanding down the rough edges of our differences, but, instead, finding a way to accommodate and love one another.

We’re trying to help people understand the heart of those who come from a different point of view. We’re even trying to explain ourselves as evangelical Christians for those who don’t understand conservative Christianity in a theological, rather than political, way.

We’re letting people eavesdrop in on the kind of conversations we’re having around issues like same-sex marriage. The evangelical viewpoint isn’t about bigotry; it’s about deeply held convictions around human sexuality.

DN: How can Christians move forward amid both the obstacles and opportunities of the current faith landscape?

DK: We have a simple equation of love, believe and live.

Lead with love for others, regardless of difference. Jesus calls us to be people of love. That doesn't mean ignoring our convictions, our point of view about the big questions of our day about sex, race, pluralism and issues affecting our communities.

And then we live that out. We ask difficult conversations and live out love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, which should be the markers of a committed Christian, even on social media. Currently, those aren't the (emotions) you see on Facebook, especially during the election.

The goal of the book is to help Christians really see the opportunity we have to be defined differently.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas