Christian leaders and commentators find it useful to cast the church in a negative light. The emphasis on bad news about Christianity, regardless of its accuracy, is a powerful way of attracting listeners, readers, and financial support. We term this rhetorical strategy as the “Christian-failure narrative.”…When Christian leaders portray Christians as amoral and hypocritical, it is to rally congregants to change their behavior.
Many American Christians perceive that their faith is derided in public discourse. This negative portrayal is usually attributed to the secular media, which is assumed by many Christians to be liberal and biased against Christianity. This article develops an alternative mechanism for the production and distribution of bad news about Christianity – from the leaders of Christianity themselves. Church leaders may deploy negative portrayals of the church, as “failing,” in “crisis,” or otherwise not living up to Christian standards, in order to motivate their followers. We term this strategic negative portray the “Christian-failure narrative.” We develop this concept by examining in-depth one particular Christian failure narrative – the belief that Christians have inordinately high divorce rates. We compare popular perceptions of Christians’ divorce rates versus actual rates found in sociological data.
 In this article, we explore how Christians – especially Evangelical Christians – present themselves publically. We find that contrary to expectation, many of public pronouncements that Christians make about themselves are negative, frequently describing the Christian church as failing and in need of reform. We explain this negative talk in terms the culture-of -fear hypothesis (Glassner; Best) which argues that stories which create fear and unrest among an audience are more likely to become popular in the media and are often strategically deployed in order to create some change in the audience; fear is a primary motivator. Applied to Christianity, Christian leaders and commentators find it useful to cast the church in a negative light. The emphasis on bad news about Christianity, regardless of its accuracy, is a powerful way of attracting listeners, readers, and financial support. We term this rhetorical strategy as the “Christian-failure narrative.”
 This narrative explains a paradox. Christians often perceive the media as biased against them, but actual studies of media coverage find mixed results. Sometimes researchers find evidence of a bias, but other times not. We reconcile these two generalizations by pointing to Christian leaders’ selective use of the media to portray Christianity negatively. As a result, regardless of the media’s actual coverage of religion, Christians are overwhelmingly exposed, from their leaders and the media, to negative portrayals of their faith.
Religion and the Media
 Many Americans, especially Christians, assume that the media is biased against their religious faith (Hoover: 99; Hill, Hickman and McLendon). This assumed bias has been railed against by sectarian commentators. For example, Cal Thomas, a conservative Christian commentator, wrote that the press views conservative religions as a threat to its liberal agenda, and so it treats them negatively (Hoover: 62). The Reverend Jerry Falwell lamented that columnists and newspaper reporters frequently disparage those trying to call America back to her moral and spiritual roots (Silk: 37). Yale law professor Stephen Carter argued that society as a whole, as exemplified by the news media, discounts religion as a “hobby” –acceptable as part of one’s private experience but inappropriate to discuss in the public arena. In fact, some websites and organizations exist solely to identify and highlight the media’s bias against Christianity. For example, GetReligion.org, a prominent website that monitors the media’s coverage of religion, has as its motto “The press . . . just doesn’t get religion.”
 Christian Americans’ concerns about the media are documented in survey data. A survey by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center asked clergy members if they thought that “most religion coverage today is biased against ministers and organized religion.” This statement was agreed with, either somewhat or strongly, by 58% of mainline Protestant clergy, 70% of Catholic priests, and a full 91% of conservative Protestant ministers (Dart: 147). Likewise, a survey of newsreaders found that readers were less satisfied with the news’ coverage of religion than any other main area of news (reported by Hoover: 121). More recently, a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked Americans if they thought the news media was friendly, unfriendly or neutral toward religion. Nationwide, 35% of Americans viewed the media as unfriendly to religion (with 42% reporting neutral and 14% friendly). Among white Evangelicals, however, the percentage reporting “unfriendly” leapt to 52% and among respondents who attended church regularly, regardless of religious tradition, it was 46%. Generally speaking, conservative Christians, such as Evangelicals and Pentecostals, are the most likely to view the media as negatively targeting their faith (Hoover: 99).
 While many American Christians view the media as biased against them, research has come to a less definitive conclusion. Judith Buddenbaum criticized the media’s coverage of religion as insufficient, shallow, and sometimes biased. In contrast, Hill and colleagues found that the media described mainstream religious groups in neutral or favorable terms, but they did use consistently pejorative language in describing new religious movements. A 2007 study by the group Media Matters suggested that the media might actually favor conservative religions – at least in terms of attention given. Media Matters found that newspapers and television news quote conservative religious leaders 2.8 times more often than they do progressive religious leaders. Vinson and Giebert compared coverage of Evangelical Christians in two local newspapers, both in regions with a high Evangelical population, and a national newspaper. They found that while the national newspaper promoted negative stereotypes about Evangelicals, the local papers’ coverage had a significant portion of positive stories.
 Scholars have identified two possible sources of media bias against religion. The first regards journalists themselves – what they believe and what they value. Generally speaking, members of the media are less religious than the population as a whole (Hoover). As a result, they may treat the subject differently because they do not understand it well and are worried about misinterpreting it (Dart: 150), or because they lack empathy (Wright 1997: 102). It may also be the case that journalists with strong religious beliefs may be cautious about portraying religious views sympathetically (Schmalzbauer: 166).
 The second reason regards the nature of the media itself – namely, that the media creates news rather than objectively or neutrally reporting it (Hart, Turner, and Knupp). As such, the media is drawn toward presenting certain types of stories. Whether covering sports, show business, politics, or religion, the media emphasizes what is exciting or unexpected, and this often entails stories of conflict or bad news (Dart: 146). As such, religious controversy makes “good copy” (Hoover: 19), and common themes of religious stories include hypocrisy, false prophesy, and a decline in religiosity (Dart: 145). This emphasis on bad news about religion is not just a supply-side phenomenon, for media consumers demand a steady supply of bad news. Dart writes that “good news may be interpreted as uneventful,” and so people vote for negative, sensational news with their remote controls and subscriptions. In short, bad news about religion sells (Hoover: 111).
The Narrative of Christian Failure
 Many leaders of American Christianity – whether pastors, authors, commentators, or others – have a particular, negative way of talking about their religion. We term it the “Christian-failure narrative.” It is a rhetorical devise used to capture the attention of the listener, reader, or viewer by emphasizing the difficulties and troubles faced by the faith.
 The Christian failure narrative is structured in three parts: statements of failure, crisis, and then solution. The first part is a claim that in some way Christians have fallen short. The specific failure varies by the interests and values of the person presenting it. Commonly alleged failures include Christians acting immorally, not evangelizing, not loving their neighbors, not fighting for justice, not praying, not giving, or simply not living out their beliefs.
 Next, generalizing from these problems, the claim is made that the Christian Church is in crisis. The exact nature of this crisis, again, varies by presenter, but common themes include the Church losing its influence in the world, not carrying out its mission, diminishing in size, and – especially – losing its young people. For example, well-known Christian apologist Josh McDowell, in light of statistics about young people leaving the church, has asked if this will be the “last Christian generation” in America (McDowell and Bellis). Likewise, journalist Christine Wicker summarizes the work of Christian pollster George Barna as indicating that “the Evangelical Church as we know it is beginning to die” (Wicker: xiii).” Also, the Christian magazine Outreach asserts that the “the picture is bleak” because “94% of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve” (Barnes).
 Finally, the narrative usually concludes with a proposed solution. This solution offers a way for the Church to right its ways. It instructs Christians in what to do, think or believe in order to reverse their failure. This solution, it is claimed, will avert the potential crisis, and the first two parts of the Christian-failure narrative are meant to focus interest and appreciation on the solution.
 While the message of Christian-failure can be used throughout Christianity, we speculate that it operates most frequently and effectively among Evangelicals and other conservative Christians. The salvation message of this religious tradition is based, in part, on fear, i.e., the possibility of going to hell motivates the need for a faithful life. As such, Evangelicals might naturally gravitate toward fear-messages about other aspects of the church as well.
Constructing the Christian-Failure Narrative
 The Christian-failure narrative is constructed by two types of actors – those who create information about American Christianity and those who select and disseminate it. We find that methodologically rigorous studies conducted by social scientists are typically not utilized by Christian leaders themselves or the media. This may be due to how the information is dissemined, access to academic journals, or because such studies do not provide data that supports Christian failure narratives.
 Instead, Christian commentators appear most often to draw upon data collected by Christian survey organizations. The best known of these is the Barna Group (barna.org), which, since 1984, has been “conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors” of Christians. The Barna Group regularly conducts nationwide telephone surveys on issues ranging from how Christians respond to the Harry Potter books to broad religious trends. The Barna Group supports itself from the sale of its reports and other services, and often emphasizes negative or otherwise sobering aspects of Christianity. For example, reports from recent years include: “Americans stay spiritually active, but biblical views wane,” “The concept of holiness baffles most Americans,” “Fewer than 1 in 10 teenagers believe that music piracy is wrong,” “Only half of Protestant pastors have a biblical worldview,” “Tithing down 62% last year,” and “Surprisingly few adults outside of Christianity have positive views of Christians.”
 In addition to reports about American Christianity, the Barna Group also produces books based on their findings, and these books sometimes follow the pattern of the Christian-failure narrative. For example, David Kinnaman, current head of the Barna Group, and Gabriel Lyons – two emerging Evangelical leaders – took up the theme of Christian failure in the book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters. They offer a wide-ranging critique of Evangelicals, claiming that nonChristians view Evangelicals as too evangelistic, sheltered, anti-gay, judgmental, and most of all, hypocritical. Kinnaman and Lyon suggest that not only do non-Christians have a negative perception of Evangelicals, but this perception is worsening over time, and it is most negative among young people. These negative perceptions of Evangelicals threaten both the mission and, ultimately, the very existence of Evangelical Christianity in America. In keeping with the Christian-failure narrative, Kinnaman and Lyons offer a solution to dispel the “unChristian perception of our faith.” They call for Christians to act more like Jesus, connecting with people, serving people, being creative, and acting with compassion. Despite the inaccuracy of some of the empirical assertions of this book (Wright 2011), it has sold
well over 100,000 copies.
 Information about American Christianity is also collected by Christian ministry organizations. For example, Willow Creek Church, based in Barrington, Illinois – one of the largest, most influential evangelical Protestant churches in the country – surveyed itself and six other churches. They found that up to a quarter of mature Christians were dissatisfied with the church and “stale” in their Christian faith (Hawkins, Parkinson, and Arnson).
 Finally, information about American Christianity also comes from the informal observations by Christian leaders and commentators themselves. Though not drawn from systematic data collection, these observations are sometimes expressed as statistics. For example, the Christian apologist Josh McDowell is quoted as saying that in his observation, evangelical youth are only about 10% less likely to engage in premarital sex than nonevangelicals (Sider: 23).
 From these various sources, there is a plethora of information about American Christianity. At this point a second group of actors comes into play – Christian leaders, writers, speakers and organizations who select, interpret, and sometimes alter the information to present to their constituents. Their goal is not necessarily to represent American Christianity accurately; rather they use the information to strengthen efforts of recruitment, commitment, and differentiation from secular Americans. Often, this takes the form of creating a moral panic. That is, to help the Christian Church be more Christian, they convince the church that it is not very Christian. To help the Church grow, they portray it as dying. Their selective and usually negative portrayal of the state of American Christianity can be found in sermons and everyday conversations, books and articles, and Christian television shows and websites.
 In one example, Battle Cry Ministries recruits American churches into a campaign to bring young people into the church. This campaign includes various summits and rallies, with some being stadium-sized events. Why should Christians support Battle Cry Ministries? According to Battle Cry Ministries’ literature, Christianity may not survive another generation in the United States without programs like itself. In alarming terms, Battle Cry Ministries claims that “this generation of teens is the largest in history – and current trends show that only 4 percent will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals. We are on the verge of a catastrophe” (cited in Smith). The sociologist Christian Smith investigated this claim and found that it was based on an informal, nonrandom survey of 211 young people conducted by a seminary professor in the mid-1990s. Despite the dubious validity of this statistic, it has received widespread attention and acceptance among Christian commentators.
 In another example, Ron Sider, a well-known speaker and writer, and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience in which he offers a biblically-based vision of how Christians should live out the whole gospel and not conform to modern culture. Why should Christians buy and read his book? Sider presents a series of statistics that he claims demonstrate that Evangelical Christians are in “blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands” in both their behavior and worldview. These statistics regard Christian behavior with sex, money, racism, and, as we will discuss in depth below, divorce. He summarizes his conclusion in the subtitle of the book: “Christians are living just like the rest of the world.” This moral hypocrisy not only “undercuts our message to the larger society” but also “over a period of time it certainly will mean major decline” in the Evangelical movement (Guthrie).
 Certainly Christian thought-shapers are not the only ones who use data about Christianity to portray it negatively; some critics of Christianity do so as well. Perhaps the most prominent critics of Christianity (and of all religions for that matter) are the “New Atheists.” Their critiques of religion usually emphasize theological arguments, but sometimes they use statistics about Christians’ morality. For example, Dawkins cites various statistics that politically-conservative states (i.e., “red” states) have higher crime levels than politically liberal states (i.e., “blue” states). Presumably conservative states have greater numbers of conservative Christians, so this statistic indirectly raises questions about the morality of Christians. Likewise, Harris draws the same conclusion in observing that the highest rates of violent crime and theft occur in politically-conservative states; e.g., three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.
 Sometimes critics of Christianity use Christians’ own self-condemnations as evidence against Christianity. For example, on a website entitled Religious Freak: One Man’s Question against Religious Idiocy, the anonymous author portrays Christians as hypocrites for condemning homosexual behavior while at the same time engaging in high rates of their own sexual misconduct. His evidence: A 2001 Barna Group study that found that 30% of Christians practice cohabitation and a statement by Phil Magnan, director of the Christian Group Biblical Family Advocates. Magnan wrote: “How can we as Christians have any moral credibility before God and man when we are practicing the very thing we condemn in the form of immoral marital practices?” The website concludes that religious people have a “vehement hatred for human sexuality” (Religious Freak).
 Ironically, the negative portrayal of Christianity may be the one thing that both advocates and critics of the faith can agree upon. There is, of course, a difference in motivation. When critics of Christianity portray Christians as amoral and hypocritical, they often seek to discredit the Christian faith and those who practice it. When Christian leaders portray Christians as amoral and hypocritical, it is to rally congregants to change their behavior.