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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Andrew Walker

  • Will Barrett

    Marvelous – thank you for this. Too often our brothers who reject the culture war are critiquing something that doesn’t in fact exist, or they are critiquing the comments made by a wayward deacon at the Sunday School coffee pot. You are right to point out that the world Merritt, et al, critique scarcely exists. One caveat, though, is the Justice Sunday debacle. Mohler and Colson still owe us an apology for that, and I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool WFB conservative.

  • Andrew

    Indeed, a thoughtful, helpful piece. Thanks much.

  • I appreciate the spirit of the critique and I think you have a real point. But I think you dismiss some real examples. Justice Sunday is one. The NAE response to issues like the environment is another. There is very real compatibility between parts of the Christian faith and part of the Republican ideology. Just as there is very real compatibility between part of the Democratic ideology and parts of the Christian faith. I think the issue is that when there is an orientation to speak of only part of the Christian faith in a church, the part that supports your political values, then there is danger that Merrit is rightly noting. It is more subtle than a flag wrapped cross.

    I attended a men’s prayer meeting at my church for about 2 years. The leader was a lay person, but several of the church staff also attended. Regularly he held up books he was reading or movies he had seen that he thought were important. Every single time they were republican oriented political books or movies or new articles. This was during introduction of the prayer time. He said “I think everyone needs to read Ann Coulter, she is such a good example of a Godly Christian Woman.” I took him out to breakfast once and said I thought what he was doing was inappropriate for a prayer meeting. And he disagreed. As far as I know no staff ever questioned his comments.

    I do not believe that our church is a republican church. But it is a very wealthy, primarily White, suburban, southern church. So speaking up against issues that are culturally difficult even if they are theologically correct is an example of where partisanship is real. That does not mean I believe it is the only cultural issue. Wealth, race, class are all also issues that in our church could be handled better and more Christianly. But they are issues that are strongly affected by the political leanings of the individuals that lead and participate in the church. In my previous church, the issues were very similar, but Democratic leaning. It was an Urban, multicultural, highly educated center city congregation. The point I do not think is that churches are or are not political. It is that culturally churches are usually mono-political (just as they are usually mono-racial, mono-class, etc.) So while Merrit is reacting against the cultural understanding of politics from his background, that is probably more helpful than the usual lack of reaction against culture.

    I agree that his thesis is probably too simplistic. But I also know a number of people that left their cultural background (in part because political issues) and because their background of faith was unable to adapt to a different political understanding, their faith was jettisoned just as their previous political understanding was. Many of these people have slowly found their way back to faith, but not in churches that were like the ones they left.

  • I agree, Matthew, that conservative theology is as abhorrent to the the left as conservative politics, and it is in fact the former that is at the heart of the evangelical movement in the US, not an alliance to Republican politics. Yes, there are undoubtedly churches that wave the flag, but surprisingly few. For the most part, evangelical churches major on the Gospel, not politics.

    I think that’s because at the heart of conservative theology is the proposition that the Gospel is a transformational movement of God aimed at bringing people into a right relationship with Him through a saving relationship with Christ. So conservative Christians, while they care about politics and society, see the main task of the Church as taking the Gospel to the world.

    The Left, on the other hand, sees everything through the lens of politics, including the Church. It sees the mission of the Church as political, not spiritual, and views the church as a political force that should spend its energies righting social injustices. The Left is therefore quite comfortable using the pulpit to put forward political views and to try to rally the troops behind a political agenda.

    My own experience is that one is far more likely to hear political exhortations from the pulpit in theologically left-leaning churches than those with a conservative theological perspective. Good work, Matthew. Keep it up.

  • Joseph

    I think we are missing the real point of Merritt’s piece which centers on youth leaving the church in “alarming numbers”. Even the LifeWay Research survey admits that their own statistics are “less clear” on why the youth are leaving.

    We need to first stop looking to any political ideology to redeem ourselves or this country. We are not saved by the the Republican or the Democrat Party platforms. We are saved by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

    The question becomes to what extent are the churches actually preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and using the Bible as tool for instructing our youth to live out their faith. It is becoming increasingly hostile for youth to live out a Biblically centered lifestyle in a culture that is extremely aggressive in opposing anything Christian. How is the church addressing sexual purity in a era of Lady Gaga, Drake, and Nikki Minaj? How are we using the gospel to help them deal with divorce, drugs, depression, bullying and temptation in general? These youth and none of us are going to be delivered from the sin of this world by any political figure. Jesus paid it all and that should be the focus. When we get back to the basics of Jesus Christ and His Word and how the Bible can help the youth address the myriad of issues in this life, maybe we will give the youth a reason to return to the church.

  • James K

    Why must one’s theological position require a corresponding political position? For example, can’t one oppose same-sex marriage while simultaneously allowing those who do not share those sentiments to partake of what is essentially a consensual civil contract?

    How is it any different than suggesting that just because Jews can’t go to Heaven, it doesn’t mean the government can’t respect their right to worship and even provide the same recognition and tax exemptions afforded to your local Calvinist church?

    I think fewer people would feel threatened if religious beliefs didn’t so frequently seem to demand some form of civil action that directly impacts the lives of those who don’t see things the same way. Frankly, it just makes conservatives look like control freaks. Personally, I think gambling *can* be destructive while for others it’s a harmless pasttime. Why should I insist there’s some moral imperative in making gambling illegal? You must as well suggest we return to Prohibition.

    (When it comes to abortion, it’s unnecessary to even make a religious argument: the debate can be framed in terms of when a person’s right to life should be protected by the government (note that one does not even have to believe in the soul to insist that an unborn but developed fetus is still a “person”)).

  • ADanielle

    The evangelical church asks people of color to leave their cultures at the door- but no one leaves their politics at the door…and our politics give us a false sense of pride: “God is on our side.” God is on the side of righteousness which both sides have failed to demonstrate. Let’s bring JESUS back. Christ centered messages transform people to discern truth from error.

    • Michael H

      The evangelical church asks people of color to leave their cultures at the door

      What? It’s a simple, one word question – perhaps better phrased grammatically as “how so.” How so? I am kind of aghast. What can you possibly mean by this to be taken seriously?

  • “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.”

    How the hell did you get into my house?

  • G Dub

    I agree with Merritt, primarily because his thesis (with Putnam) is my story…I didnt leave Jesus, but I left the institution…and one gaping hole you leave in your article is that even though a church may not come out and blatantly espouse politically conservative points directly, it can indirectly do it by failing to preach on social justice, the poor, widows/orphans/immigrants, or an un-sugarcoated Sermon on the Mount. The churches silence on those key Old and New Testament themes speaks volumes. Also, the next generation thinks about the “kingdom of God” much differently than Boomers (generally speaking), and that is changing the game too.

  • tak

    The answers to your questions are simple. You can affirm that President Obama’s record on matters of life and matters of marriage are deeply and fundamentally flawed, and still support him because you feel that no Republican candidate would 1) affect serious change on either of those two fronts and 2) maintain the attitude towards matters of social justice (particularly towards the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed) which the Democratic party affirms.

    We can argue about whether or not the Democratic party affects positive social justice change effectively, but insofar as one can affirm that it does, one could easily respond to your two questions without controversy or trouble.

  • I love the chicken and egg analogy. I think it is theology and then politics that is at issue here.

  • Drew

    Three Comments:

    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.

    You’re overlooking part of Putnam and Campbell’s findings: the younger generation that left the church for being too political is actually more conservative on the abortion issue than their parents. “It would not be accurate to describe the post-baby boomer generation as ardently pro-life…few endorse a total ban on abortion, but they are more willing than their parents to place restrictions on abortion. In fact, their attitudes on abortion more closely resemble the opinions of their grandparents” (Putnam and Campbell 2010:406). It seems unlikely, then, that those people would have an instant abhorrence to the expression of pro-life values they themselves hold, as you’re implying. More likely, it’s when their church advocates the type of thing you’ve landed on: no christian could possibly vote for X party or X candidate.

    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?

    Yes, it is when you a) don’t hold Republicans accountable for their inaction on those issues (example: Bush’s years, when the GOP controlled both houses and the executive, did we see any government action that reduced abortion? I don’t see it in the abortion stats). b) take marching orders from partisan lobbying efforts, who are by design more interested in power for their party than actual cultural change (again, see Bush years).

    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.

    Exactly. So to answer your question “How do we avoid being partisan?” the answer is not, we can’t, the answer is, it’s easy: we profess the gospel, and the gospel messes up partisan voting. You’re not going to make friends at CPAC when you stand up for love of aliens and enemies, stand against torture, talk about the death that lies behind Ayn Rand individualism and rampant consumerism, and lead dialogue on combined public-private efforts that provide health care to the needy.

    I’m perplexed you make “the media will partisan-ize everything!” your inescapable problem: it’s your solution! You avoid partisanship by embracing a set of values so complex that it defies categorization. The only downside is you may be labeled a bit peculiar and maybe even “alien” to this culture, but I think we could live with that?

  • Craig

    As many others have noted in some form above, why are abortion and sex the only issues Christians should be concerned about? And let’s not be naive: I know plenty of evangelical churches where expressing reservations about any conservative Republican position or candidate makes one suspect, and I know candidates for pastoral positions who have been asked their party affiliation in a way that clearly indicated Democrats need not apply.

  • Craig

    Christians who think abortion is the one main issue of our time, and care more about that than about partisan politics, should support every pro-life Democrat they can find. Single-issue voting in support of one political party may make us feel better about our involvement, but isn’t going to accomplish much else. As long as one party has a lock on the evangelical vote, very little will change in terms of policy, or at best will result in a constant see-saw of undoing what was done by the party previously in power.

    • Still a coalition of pro-life groups worked together together to defeat prolife Democrats in the last election. I believe six were voted out of office, two of them were replaced by pro choice Republicans (as memory serves)

  • Joseph

    I think we are really missing the thrust of the Merritt article and that is why are the young leaving the church in such large numbers. Reading these comments, I see that we are trying to stuff a theology into a party platform, but we have yet to build a foundation of that theology with the youth. How well do our youth truly understand the Word of God and what it means in their life? Do they leave for college with a solid foundation in His Word or is simply a surface religion with no roots? We are called in 2 Timothy 4 to preach the word in and out of season. Is the church doing that or are trying to make the Word line up with a party position? I can say as a conservative Republican that the Bible is very clear on the life issue, sexual purity and being a good steward of what God has given us. We will have to answer to God (not some political party) how we have managed the “talents” he has given us. The youth want Biblical instruction, so let’s get back to the basics.

  • James M.

    James K

    I don’t have a problem, per se, with your question “Why must one’s theological position require a corresponding political position?”, but it is at times unavoidable. You cite gambling as an example. While you don’t have any apparent moral qualms about the practice, some folks believe that the nature of gambling is in essence a violation of the 8th commandment and, thus, should not be condoned by the state, and certainly should not be utilized to raise revenue for the state. So, while the culturally hip crowd pummels these “anti-gambling fanatics” (read Christian right wingers), let’s not forget that they are taking a political stance of conscience that derives from a particular theological understanding. Now, we can debate the merits, but it is this kind of labelling that is a source of great irritation, and why Andrew’s contribution here is so welcome.

  • James K

    “While you don’t have any apparent moral qualms about the practice, some folks believe that the nature of gambling is in essence a violation of the 8th commandment”

    I distinctly recall “Bingo nights” at the local Catholic church growing up, all of which involved betting in a game of chance. True, the stakes weren’t high, but it’s gambling nonetheless, so not everyone agrees with your assessment about the morality of gambling.

    In terms of violating the commandments, though, it’s certainly LESS of a violation than the practice of idolatry, yes? Do you have a problem with the implicit state recognition of idolatrous, non-Trinitarian religions like Mormonism or Buddhism or even “heretical” sects like Calvinism and the Pentecostals? These all receive government recognition via tax exemptions. Should they be withdrawn, if not criminalized?

    I’m not suggesting that theological values and democratic values can’t intersect (I think they do in relation to abortion which can be opposed on purely secular grounds), I’m just saying that theological opposition to this or that cannot be the sole consideration.

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  • Chris Criminger

    Christian conservatives will be scape-goated for the loss of the 2016 election by the republican party. Christian conservative are at best tolerated, worst hated by the republican elites. They are going to use the conservatives of their base to run a third party alternative to Donald Trump and give the election to Hillary Clinton. When will conservative Christians wake up and smell the coffee that the Republican party is run by moderates and “uses’ conservatives for their own gain and scapegoats them for their ill purposes?

    If someone doubts this, watch the fox interview on Erick Erickson (search: conservatives stop trump fox news). The republican elites several months ago said if they can not stop trump at the convention, they would run a third conservative party to fight him. The republican leadership say publically that Trump can’t beat Hillary when the real issue is they are scared to death he will beat her.

    I am strongly against Trump and not concerned that he loses but I am highly offended by the gerrymandering of the Republican party elites who say they want to do away with primaries, they don’t care what the voters want, and their bylaws say they get to select who the nomination is, not the people. Worse, after they lose to Hillary Clinton by undermining Trump, they will blame Evangelicals of their party, t-party group, and conservative republicans for ruining the election and dividing the republican party. What I am curious to see if will conservative Christians just keep drinking the koolaide and blindly follow a party that neither fundamentally represents them and scapegoats them?

    Andrew or anyone else, please feel free to email me at: paleo_orthodox@yahoo.com