The Two Sides are Not the Same
An increasingly popular view among pastors and other Christian leaders accepts a secular scholarly narrative about Christian engagement in politics. This view holds that when Christians engage in partisan politics to advocate for public policy that conforms to their beliefs about what is good for the polity, they politicize religion in ways that undermine unity in the congregation and ultimately drive people to apostasy.1 Those who engage in partisan politics also risk their own souls, creating false idols that threaten to come between them and God.2
There are likely several reasons why this view is en vogue. As we operate increasingly in what Aaron Renn calls the negative world, one which is increasingly hostile instead of positively inclined or even neutral towards Christianity, many pastors have sought shelter by advocating political neutrality to avoid conflict with the wider society – especially if that conflict threatens to divide their congregations. Some small number, surely, have taken this position to smuggle their own liberal politics into their churches so as not to be noticed by their laity.3 More commonly, however, is that, knowing no better, pastors simply accept this narrative on faith because it is repeated by “experts.” Drawing from a point raised by the sociologist Bryan Wilson regarding the clergy’s loss of status and purpose after scientific professions took over most of the myriad roles priests once served4, pastors feel compelled to adopt scholarly views unchallenged to retain what little respectability the modern world offers to have a chance of being effective in their compartmentalized roles.
Unfortunately, many of the claims about politics to which pastors and other leaders assent are wrong. Repeating them, even if simply to maintain respectability fails to diagnose – and very likely hinders their ability to successfully address – the real problems facing churches today. Following the recommendations of pastors spreading these myths undermines rather than strengthens religious faith.
For as much as issues of concern to Christians may be voiced by politicians, American politics revolves around two formally secular political parties. This fact underlines an important truth to the critiques of Christian participation in politics: because these parties are ultimately focused on winning elections and holding office, American politics can become an idol in its own right. When secular political parties and politicians, for reasons of expediency, operate in ways that defy Scripture, Christians’ loyalties are tested, and many are tempted to side with their political loyalties over their Christian identity.5
Out of an overabundance of caution, then, pastors have sought to distance themselves from politics and similarly encourage their parishioners to steer clear. In doing so, these pastors take a position that treats both sides as equally bad. This provides what appears to be a safe position – both from a hostile culture that grows less tolerant of its enemies by the day, as well as safe from having to wade into topics that would divide their congregations – from which they offer bland commentary aimed, however feebly executed, at preventing politics from displacing religion among the laity.
Regardless of the degree to which they may be believed, such “both sides” arguments are simply unsupported. One recent book, The Great Dechurching, claims that the right is just as injurious to faith as the left – or worse. The authors claim that “among evangelicals, there is more danger of dechurching on the right than the left…we saw evangelicals dechurching on the political right at twice the frequency of those on the political left, almost catching up to the total percentage of those who have dechurched on the secular left” (p.31).
The authors do not present direct evidence to support the claim that “there is more danger of dechurching on the right.” While they present a graph (from a separate work by the political scientist, Ryan Burge) as supporting evidence (p.32), this graph merely shows that, over time, more white Evangelicals who reported that they never attended at the time of the survey identify as Republicans – not that more Republicans have ceased attending than Democrats. It may be the case that among Evangelicals, there are more on the political right than the left who have dechurched. However, observing a greater “frequency” of conservatives dechurching is only possible because most white Evangelicals are politically conservative – implying that both sides are not equal.
While the authors’ language gives the impression that both sides are (at least) equally deleterious to faith, the second part of the quotation above nonetheless admits that the left has been more likely to dechurch than the right. Claiming that conservatives are “almost catching up” still requires a great deal of faith from the reader, especially because a fairly clear, robust finding in the scholarly literature shows that during the period of The Great Dechurching, liberals have been significantly more likely to cease attending than conservatives.6 A similar finding shows that Democrats are more likely to quit attending than Republicans.7 As people become more liberal politically, they become less devout and less likely to retain their faith – while the reverse is also true.8 Both sides are not equally detrimental to faith, no matter how hard some pastors pretend.
The Impact of the “Right’s” Culture-War Politics
At the same time that they claim “there is more danger of dechurching on the right,” the authors of The Great Dechurching also lay the decline in attendance of Christians on the left at the feet of ministers with conservative politics – or merely the conservative implications of their adherence to biblical teaching.9 So the argument goes, it is the right’s involvement with the culture war that has fueled much of the decline in church attendance and the rise of the religious “nones” since the start of the 1990s. In this telling, it was the right that initiated the culture war, which produced a backlash among liberals and Democrats who, so disgusted by this entanglement of religion and conservative Republican politics, disavowed their faith. The fact that conservatives and Republicans remain so much more religiously devout than liberals and Democrats serves as the proof, this story claims, that the weaponization of religion by conservative Republicans is to blame.10
To believe this, however, requires that one ignore the fact that the secularization of society through politics has been driven by the left. To name but a few examples, it was liberal activists operating through the courts who forced a wall of separation between church and state and secularized education (think the expulsion of prayer from schools). It was the movement left that drove the politics of free love and sexual liberation, and the institutional left that embedded the spirit of the 1960s into law – with landmark victories in this area reflected in no-fault divorce and the legalization of abortion post Roe v. Wade. It was also the institutional left that gradually eroded legal restrictions on gay and lesbian relationships – restrictions reflecting the legacy of cultural Christianity that had informed law in earlier eras.
It is only in this context that the right’s “politicization” of religion makes sense. Rather than accede, if not actively help undermine cultural Christianity (as so many liberal denominations were eager to do), conservative Christians sought to defend Christian morality in the public square – in part fearing the consequences that the changes in law would have for the church. Because their views never evolved and they refused to support the left’s efforts, conservatives were portrayed as the ones politicizing the issue.
A more plausible interpretation, then, of the fact that it is conservatives who have managed best to resist the tide of secularization is that the Republican Party’s opposition to this secularization offered Christians a political identity to reinforce their religious identity. While Christians who identified with the Democrats were most likely to follow their tribe’s march towards irreligion, Christians without a political identity had nothing to anchor them as the tide swept in. It was thus Republicans who had a political identity that reinforced their Christian identity, giving them a positive reason to oppose the politically-driven secularization, who managed best to retain their faith.
While those advancing the left’s narrative of Christian engagement in politics will spin the fact that liberal Democrats have been the ones most likely to cease attending church as evidence that the right’s participation in politics drove them away, two further pieces of information disabuse this notion. One is that politics in the church hardly factors in most Christians’ minds. While those siding with the left’s narrative of church and politics point to evidence that Americans have a general, theoretical preference for religious leaders to avoid politics,11 when the question becomes practical, few notice it in their own congregation, let alone find it bothersome. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans attending church services at least yearly about the partisanship of the clergy and other religious leaders in their own churches, 16% said they were mostly Republicans, 11% mostly Democrats, 27% said a mix of both, and 45% were unable to say.12 This is hardly evidence of the sort of politicized pulpits the left’s narrative of Christian politics would have one believe.
In response to a question that asked “Thinking about the sermons you hear at your congregation or place of worship, would you say there is too much discussion of politics?” less than 11% of respondents agreed there was too much discussion. More people said there was too little discussion of politics (14%), and the overwhelming majority (72%) thought their pastors got it about right. Looking at those who said there was too much discussion of politics in greater detail reveals that it is difficult to pin people’s dechurching on politics from the pulpit – even among this small subset. One out of five in this group attending church at least monthly identified their clergy as Republican; 16% perceived their clergy as Democrats; 32% saw a mix of both in their clergy while just under 30% were unsure. Those who attend less than monthly were less perceptive, with more than half (55%) unsure what their clergy’s politics are, while only 13% identified their clergy as Republican. If people are being driven away because of pastors’ politics, few seem to recognize it – or identify conservative Republican politics as the problem.
The argument that it was the right’s politics that caused secularization is undermined further when we look at the political opinions of those leaving the faith. Using a survey that interviewed the same respondents in 2006 and again in 2012 (two points in time at the height of “The Great Dechurching”)13, Table 1 shows it was those still holding the unquestioned attitudes of the church prior to the 1960s if not the 1980s – opposing abortion and same-sex marriage – who were least likely to leave the faith. Disaffiliation was more than eleven times greater among those who consistently supported abortion and eight times greater among those who consistently supported same-sex marriage than among those who consistently opposed each. Those who attended monthly in 2006 and supported abortion and same-sex marriage were more than twice as likely to cease attending church monthly by 2012 than those who consistently opposed each. Those who moved away from biblical views between the two waves were more likely to leave the church (and vice versa).
Thus, the secularization along political lines witnessed during The Great Dechurching has been due to those whose political opinions were most at odds with church teachings who reconciled the tension between their faith and politics – a relationship that has grown more tense as culture has shifted leftward – choosing to abandon Christianity. To pin responsibility for declining church attendance on conservatives because some politicians recognized that Bible-believing Christians would oppose changes to laws that were rooted in Scripture is to blame them for living out their faith. Not only does it ignore the role of political opinions at odds with Scripture for their adherents’ loss of faith, but it also absolves the clergy who failed to catechize them in matters of politics.
Table 1: The Impact of Political Opinions on Dechurching
|No Longer Christian
|Supported the Legality of Abortion in 2006 & 2012
|Opposed the Legality of Abortion in 2006 but not 2012
|Supported the Legality of Abortion in 2006 but not 2012
|Opposed the Legality of Abortion in 2006 & 2012
|Supported Same-Sex Marriage in 2006 & 2012
|Opposed Same-Sex Marriage in 2006 but not 2012
|Supported Same-Sex Marriage in 2006 but not 2012
|Opposed Same-Sex Marriage in 2006 & 2012
It is hard to see what benefits, if any, pastors gain from advancing the secular narrative of Christian political engagement. Taking a “both sides” approach that is hands-off in matters of politics and fails to correct parishioners, however gently, when they adopt the sort of political opinions that lead people to apostasy does nothing to prevent people from losing their faith. If anything, it accelerates the trend witnessed over the last several decades. Even when pastors try to correct errors but operate under the premise that all partisan politics is equally toxic – and tell Christians they must avoid participation in politics for their own sake – they may still be undermining the faith of their conservative parishioners who lose political identities that reinforce their Christian identity.
In adopting the left’s narrative of Christian political engagement, pastors risk driving even more conservatives away (at least from their current church). This is because uttering untruths undermines pastors’ credibility. The impact of such statements is already starting to be noticeable. The rise of the Evangelical-to-Orthodox convert, although largely relegated to the vanguard of online circles today, portends further losses as mainstream pastors lose intellectual credibility. More immediately felt will be the loss of the most committed, conservative members to churches that do not shy away from politics, some more firmly established (e.g., the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches), others more sporadically formed – such as the non-denominational churches more susceptible to the sort of syncretism feared by Evangelical leaders. As a retreat from politics and culture solidifies the view of Evangelicalism as effeminate14, secular post-liberals, particularly the Nietzscheans (e.g., “Bronze Age Pervert”), will attract more cachet and ultimately lead many conservatives away.
In the end, those Christian leaders adopting the secular narrative of Christian political engagement to guard their churches from political division and preserve their own credibility will achieve neither aim. More people are going to fall away, following their politics out the door no matter how inoffensive and apolitical pastors strive to be because the Gospel is offensive to twenty-first-century American political culture. Now should be a time to reflect on the failures to catechize congregants against the sort of politics that causes people to leave the faith, to learn from past mistakes and prevent further losses. Instead, many pastors have sought to maintain cultural clout by chastising conservatives as being equally guilty of putting politics above faith as liberals even if the evidence for this claim is lacking. If pastors are too preoccupied with maintaining respectability in the eyes of their intellectual adversaries, they will quickly lose what remaining faith they have among the laity.
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