Red vs. Blue: How to Deal with Politics in Church

–Daniel S. Ferguson

For the last half century, the prominence of the Christian Right was not to be trifled with. It has been the Christian Right, the so-called “Moral Majority” that has chosen and defined moral issues for conservatives on any range of topics: school prayer, abstinence-only sex education, abortion, marriage equality, women’s rights, and even foreign policy (there’s a reason the Right obsesses over our alliance with Israel).

As America continues to secularize, the fall of the Christian Right has been predicted repeatedly. We were told its influence was null when President Clinton was elected. We were told it was defunct when Governor Romney was nominated. And we were told most recently that the Christian Right was done forever when President Trump won the nomination and was elected, despite his obvious lack of Christian credentials.

But the Christian Right has proven far more resilient than pollsters and pundits have prophesied. Its stick-to-it-iveness was strong enough to infuse the Tea Party with religious rhetoric, to prevent the confirmation of a thoroughly qualified Supreme Court nominee in favor of a far more pro-life one, and to unify behind President Trump to the tune of 81 percent of their votes, higher than even President George W. Bush received.

The Christian Right is far from done. Even though they lost (for now) on abortion, LGBT rights, civil rights, and school prayer, they still hold massive influence over huge swaths of elected officials.

I grew up so used to the Christian Right and have been surrounded by their influence for so long that I’m forced to ask what might sound like a stupid question:

Why is there no Christian Left?

First of all, there is one. It’s just not very effective. The Christian Left is the Toledo Mud Hens to the Right’s Yankees. The two aren’t even in the same league.

I say this lovingly as a fellow liberal: The Christian Left is so divided by individual issues that it couldn’t ably forge a coalition over what to have for brunch.(Click to Tweet)

The Christian Left exists largely as a hodgepodge of small groups that focus on singular issues and don’t usually interact or cooperate. Typically, they exist in efforts to solve problems through targeted efforts. Key examples include People of the Second Chance, Crazy Love, and, oddly enough, some whole denominations. Some of this looks to change as the Left unites to oppose the current presidential administration, but I haven’t gotten my hopes up for a lasting coalition.

There are lots of reasons that Christian Liberalism hasn’t taken off and had the influence or brand recognition that Christian Conservatism has had, but instead of fixating on that, let’s look at a different problem: How the political stranglehold on American Christianity has pushed people out of church.

Let me start by saying this:

If Christians compel people to conform to anything other than Christ, no matter how good, that thing is an idol. (Click to Tweet)

There are only two Gospel equations that the Bible allows for:

  • Jesus = Salvation, and
  • Human = Saveable

We are not permitted to add or subtract from those equations. The Bible simply doesn’t allow for it. The whole of Christianity falls apart if there is anything else people must do or believe in order to be saved.

The second our equation becomes Jesus + [x] or Human + [y], the whole thing comes crashing down. At that point, we’ve introduced an idol, something other than the cross that saves us.

It doesn’t matter how good or righteous [x] and [y] are. It matters that they’re not part of the equation at all.

I certainly don’t expect churches to have no political opinions. We are supposed to be advocates for justice and peace, and that means interacting with governing authorities to bring those about. But there’s a difference between rallying for justice and socially enforcing political norms among each other.

And that is exactly what happens in churches. While I disagree with much of the church’s general stance on abortion, for example, I fully understand its rallies. That’s a move for what it sees as justice. I can at least wrap my head around that. The march makes some modicum of sense.

But I’ve been in churches where homosexuality wasn’t just called sin but homosexuals themselves called abominations. I’ve been in churches where the United States budget was preached on. I’ve been in churches where gun owners’ rights were preached from the pulpit. I’ve been in churches where political candidates were supported or despised openly by pastors and other church leaders. I’ve been in churches as specific political leaders have been prayed against to the point of damnation. I’ve heard sermons on taxation, alcohol policy, and the drug war. I’ve definitely sat through some sermons that barely mentioned Jesus, the Gospel, or the Bible, but instead opined on the Ground Zero mosque, our alliance with Israel, or Brexit–all to hearty Amens and Hallelujahs.

This has happened on both sides. I’ve seen it from both conservative and liberal churches. And it’s more than sermons and teachings; it’s social enforcement. It comes from youth parents and Sunday School teachers and volunteers. There is a general sense in many churches I’ve been to that there’s a political perspective you’re allowed to talk about and that everyone else should either sit quietly or get out.

Make no mistake: that’s an unacceptable church practice.

No one was baptized into conservatism or liberalism. We were baptized into the Holy Spirit. (Click to Tweet)

While I admit that I’ve seen liberal churches socially enforce their political ideology on their congregants, most of what I have seen has come from the Christian Right.

Part of that is sheer numbers; the Christian Right is simply that much larger. And part of that is because I grew up Southern Baptist in Nashville, Tennessee.

But I’ve heard the same story now from dozens upon dozens of people from all over the place. They grew up in conservative churches, became more liberal in high school and college, felt more excluded from church over time, and then finally left. Most of them don’t discuss that their liberalism was one of the reasons that they started to feel excluded, but I can’t help but notice the pattern.

Because there are nine bajillion denominations (that’s my official count) and a godzillion of independent churches out there, churches tend to ebb and flow not only because of church practice, but also because of ideology. Those who are somewhat liberal find their way into somewhat liberal churches, and those who are more conservative find their way into more conservative churches. That’s natural.

But it’s not right. The Holy Spirit was given to us in order to unite us, not to divide us. We (myself included, sometimes) hold up these ideologies as if they are more powerful or more important than the Christ who saves us.

So no. Not anymore.

Churches, find ways to intentionally include people of all ideological perspectives. And individuals, intentionally infuse yourself into churches where you can be useful and stretched. Stop looking for the comfort of people who agree with you; look instead for compassion like Christ’s toward everyone. (Click to Tweet)

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