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Of Foils & Scapegoats: Evangelicals & Partisanship

March 9th, 2012 | 6 min read

By Andrew Walker

There is no more of a popular and easy target for young evangelicals to skewer than a church wedded to political conservatism. Simply recounting the charts, the statistics, and the angst fueling the movement would prove unhelpful because of its sheer volume.

It’s even further apparent that the publishing industry salivates at the prospect of finding Christians willing to distance themselves and their generation from Religious Right politics.

Jonathan Merritt, who in his own right has established himself as a leading voice critical of politicized Christianity, published an article on the Christian Science Monitor in which he showed how churches that invite (Republican) presidential candidates into their pulpits are emblematic of the type of politicization that draws younger generations away from the church.

He draws on Robert Putnam and David Campbell to marshal his thesis.

It’s a 1:1: correlation. The greater participation a church has in conservative politics, the greater the likelihood that younger generations will be alienated and abandon the church.

In fact, according to Putnam and Campbell, "over the last 20 years, church attendance has become the main dividing line between Republican and Democratic voters." I think this is the case because political demographics show that the democratic party falls victim to what sociologists call the "God gap." In a word, Democrats are perceived to be the party uncomfortable—even hostile—towards faith, and public expressions of faith. At its opposite, people of faith identity overwhelmingly with the Republican party because it is the Republican party that is hospitable to people of faith.

Jonathan and I had a polite, if not terse, exchange about his article on twitter, which, as he correctly noted, is not the best place to discuss nuanced topics.

Jonathan is a brother in Christ—even of my own tribe, a Southern Baptist!—who has a book coming out on the subject of the problems of a politicized faith and how we can follow Jesus beyond the culture wars. For Merritt and others like him, rank partisanship and a Christianity too heavily ensconced in Republican politics is partly, if not largely accountable for the spiritual drift of young adults.

But, here’s my question: Is it really that simple?

As both a younger conservative and Christian, I get it. Some Christians have wrongly fused the idea of the Kingdom of God with American Exceptionalism. It’s wrong and condemnable. Here, Merritt and I agree.

The problem, however, is that I don’t know of any churches that are actually conservative. I know lots of Christians, however, who are.

But, I don’t know of any churches that have Wednesday night Bible studies where instruction in Reagonomics is taught.

I also don’t know of any churches that exalt or venerate the patron saints of conservatism —William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk—next to the painting of Christ by the church’s vestibule.

I’ve never heard of a church asking Irving Kristol to deliver a Sunday evening sermon on the merits of neo-conservatve foreign policy.

I’ve never known of children to forsake AWANA or TEAM Kid so that they could listen to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 convention speech or invite a Young Americans for Freedom representative to speak on the topic of individualism.

Neither, though, should Christians be interpreted as mere bohemians in their activity. As my colleague Matthew Anderson has commented and reviewed, there are many reasons to believe that the Christians who claim, individually, to be conservative, do exhibit democratic virtues.

As I noted to Jonathan, churches with flag-draped crosses are, in my experience, the exception—not the norm. Where these marginally rare events occur, an immediate foil is identified and pounced upon. I would like to know with some degree of specificity who it is that serves as Mr. Merritt’s foil in the culture war. What pastors are advocating Republican politics? What churches are adopting policies and positions that mirror the Republican Party or the Heritage Foundation? Let’s leave aside the issue of inviting politicians in the pulpit; the Left does that just as well as the Right—and yes, it's wrong.

Admittedly, I would wager that 90% of Southern Baptists vote Republican. Yet, the Southern Baptist Convention has never formalized a Republican policy position by resolution. If a resolution by the SBC ever mirrored a conservative policy position, it is because the topic first aligned or followed from a commitment to conservative theology. Really, at the end of the day, young adults aren't finding dissatisfaction with conservative politics; they're finding dissatisfaction with conservative theology, which calls upon them to hold difficult truths in the public square. The media and the academy, I believe, are unwilling to connect the two and assign, prematurely, the issue of spiritual apathy to politics. Like the chicken before the egg or the egg before the chicken, is it politics then theology or theology then politics? I'd argue the latter.

On every instance, I find that the authors lamenting politicized faith use conservative Christianity as their scapegoat for the spiritual lethargy of young adults. But I rarely hear the same authors denounce instances where Valerie Jarrett (an advisor to President Obama) is political in the pulpit or when she states—at a church—that, "Teachers, and firefighters, and policemen, whose jobs are now in jeopardy because Congress--well let me be specific--because the Republicans in Congress.” I’ve never, never heard similar rhetoric inveighed against Democrats or “Godless liberals” in any church that I’ve attended.

Churches can advocate for adoption, feed the poor, tend to the sick. Everyone can agree to the merit of these tasks. But when churches speak out against the evil of abortion—while tempering it with grace, mercy, compassion, and instruction on how to serve the local crisis pregnancy center—Christian ethics will run up against a culture where self-serving autonomy insists that a child is a “choice.” Here in my home state of Kentucky, churches were instrumental in defeating gambling. Worse, it was the Republican-controlled Senate that was against gambling and who killed the bill.  And sure enough, the pastors who gathered to denounce gambling as a social blight that devours families were denounced as pharisees and theocrats. God forbid that pastors rise up to denounce an industry that harms people.

And when churches insist that abortion ought to be ended, they’re immediately condemned, not just by secular elites, but by a band of intellectually-minded Christians who bemoan—often with sanctimonious condescension—any hint of partisanship.

The uncomfortable truth is that issues become ‘political’ when culture ascribes them as such. And partisanship is an inevitably when culture assumes (almost) every issue to be partisan.

My day job requires me to speak to churches and individuals about being “salt and light” in culture. Whenever I speak, I filter every word and principle through an understanding of neighbor-love and the common good. Yet, if I speak against abortion and same-sex marriage, I become automatically interpreted as Republican, and as a result, partisan. Is that my fault?

In the end, I don’t invoke the notion of a culture war. I call it having an opinion with political fallout.

I know that Jonathan has spoken out against abortion. I appreciate his clarity on that profoundly. Where I’d challenge him, however, is whether he could appear before Piers Morgan or before the ladies on The View and state his positions on controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and not be considered partisan or stoking the culture war regardless of how he says it. In my opinion and experience, no amount of kindness will defy partisanship when culture rejects what Christians affirm.

I would like to pose a few questions to Jonathan, then:

(1) Given that the Christian witness on life has been unambiguously against the practice of abortion since first-century times (despite, to our shame, a less-than-stellar record when Roe v. Wade was ruled), how would you justify an evangelical Christian voting for President Obama’s re-election when President Obama has been, indisputably, the most egregiously pro-choice president in American history? If a Christian finds his or herself unable to vote for President Obama because of this issue, is it really the fault of the Christian that his or her politics would then be considered “Republican,” if in fact the Republican party’s platform is against abortion? Is their registered disagreement with the Democratic party therefore “partisan?”

(2) If Christian teaching on sexuality has affirmed homosexuality is a disordered, sinful passion in need of redemption and a Christian finds his or herself unwilling to support same-sex marriage, is it really the fault of the Christian that his or her politics would then be considered “Republican” if in fact the Republican party’s platform is against same-sex marriage? Is their registered disagreement with the Democratic party therefore “partisan.”






Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.