Church and politics: Where do we go from here?May 26, 2016
According to the Religion News Service, “Fewer churches are involved in politics.” And while groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation will receive that as good news, the impact, as the RNS headline notes is “not good.”
Drilling down into the details, the reality is that more conservative Christians are withdrawing from the political arena while liberal Christians are significantly increasing the assertion of their influence.
White evangelical church accounted for the most substantial decrease in political participation…
Meanwhile, the political participation rate among liberal churches has been substantial and increasing. In 2012, 80 percent of liberal churches participated in at least one type of political activity, making them three times more likely than conservative churches to be politically engaged…
This trend of fewer conservative churches and more liberal churches participating in political activities runs counter to popular perceptions. These perceptions are fueled by the media and by political pundits whose coverage of religion and politics tend to focus almost exclusively on the religious right and rarely mention religious progressives.
The relative rise and fall of political engagement by churches may or may not indicate the same relative rise and fall in terms of the political engagement by individual Christians, but the institutional power of denominations and Church associations cannot be disregarded. When people of faith work together to bring about social change not only through helping their neighbors one by one but by helping whole segments of the population through legislative action, the societal impact is profound.
As Brad Fulton observes in the RNS article, “When churches combine acts of service with political engagement, they can provide short-term relief while at the same time advocating to improve social conditions.”
Fulton stops short of asking “why?” So I will. Why the rise in liberal Christian engagement and the fall in political engagement among conservative Christian churches? The answer is the internal politics of both houses.
As liberal mainline denominations shrink numerically, the concentration of genuinely liberal members rises. In those denominations, there is then less resistance to overtly political advocacy.
Those leaving the mainline for theological and yes, political, reasons are not interested in their new denominations engaging in the political agendas that drove them out of the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.
But there’s something else going on in conservative churches that’s worth noting. The hey-day of conservative Christian activism might be remembered as the rise of the Religious Right. It was the God and Country Christianity of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In August 1980, 10,000 conservative Christians gathered in Dallas the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing. One pitch heard at the political equipping event was “get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptized and get ‘em registered.”
The challenge is that Christianity is not so neatly partisan. There are planks of both American party platforms that resonate with the Christian worldview – and planks of both parties that are jarringly discordant. Where one party claims to value the life of the pre-born and those with special needs, the other party claims to better understand the value of the life of the immigrant and the criminal. Where Republicans were once the leading edge of racial equality, a clearly Christian idea, Democrats seem to lead on this issue today. That means that Christian engagement in politics is not neatly partisan in a nation like ours.
So, rather than pine for a return to the cozy relationship between certain denominations and political parties, we have an opportunity now to re-imagine the role of the Church in public life as both more robust and more concerned with advancing God’s Kingdom than any certain party or earthly power structure.
Politics is people in much the same way that culture is people. And where some have described the relationship between politics, religion and culture as a river with culture and politics downstream from religion; the relationship might be better described as the variant coastlines surrounding a dynamic sea.
[tweetthis]As the tide of political engagement rises – the coastline of culture is affected.[/tweetthis]
Because as the tide of culture rises – through secularism, media, great awakenings, massive migrations of people groups, war, etc. – the coastline of religion and politics are changed. In the same way, as the tide of political engagement rises – including but not limited to engagement by Christians – the coastline of culture is affected.
The question is not will the sands shift, the question is in what direction and by what force? Christian engagement in politics is essential if Christians are going to be faithful to the calling of God whose concern is not just for individuals but for the societies and nations in which they live.