How Political Extremism Is Fracturing the Church
You used to worship alongside them every Sunday. You met up with them for small groups. You grabbed lunch with them to process work drama. You watched sports with them. Prayed with them. Did life with them.
But over the last few years, you’ve noticed a growing tension in your relationship with them. Suddenly you find it harder to see them at church, trust their advice, and assume the best about their intentions and view of the world.
Who are they? Christians who don’t share your political-cultural identity. Of course, you don’t want politics to be a barrier. You don’t think it should be. But it’s as real as a concrete roadblock on a once-busy street.
You aren’t alone. Increasingly, people are leaving their churches in search of Christian communities that align with their political ideology and cultural outlook. Conversely, some church communities are pushing out and demonizing those who dissent.
The best local churches were once big tents that could incorporate people across a wide political, social, racial, ethnic, and economic spectrum because they shared a theological vision and kept Jesus at the center.
But everything is changing. This seems increasingly impossible.
After reading an impressively incisive Mere Orthodoxy article by my friend, Michael Graham (and seriously, please go read it), I am convinced that my experience is not unique. The big tent is falling over.
What are we fracturing over?
What’s happening inside of churches is also happening to evangelicalism at large. Evangelicalism has always been a big tent. Christians within the movement disagreed about predestination, baptism, church polity, female ordination, charismatic gifts, evangelism, contextualization, and more. There were heated fights. But they were family feuds, not all-out wars.
But now, the big tent is collapsing.
One-time icons of evangelicalism now question the movement. They haven’t changed their position on core doctrines. What changed is how we engage topics like politics, sociology, and ethics. Cultural-political issues like vaccines, race, patriotism, political affiliation, gender, and sexuality, not predestination or baptism, now divide evangelicalism.
As a pastor, I long for the days when people evaluated our church on the basis of our theology. But those days are gone.
Why are we fracturing?
Unfortunately, the seeds of evangelicalism’s demise were sown four decades ago, when religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and James Dobson officiated the marriage of evangelism and the Republican party. In 1976, 49 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter.
This was the last time both parties split the evangelical vote evenly. Since then, Republican and evangelical have been relatively synonymous. This is not to say that there were no Democratic evangelicals — anywhere from 20–25 percent of evangelicals reliably sided with the left over the last three decades. But since 1980, the merger of Republican and religious identity grew tighter and tighter.
Ironically, this allowed many churches to push political divides into the background. They focused on spiritual disciplines, the Bible, and theology, knowing that Republican loyalties were always operating in the background, confident others shared their conservative political principles.
This allowed for silent political diversity. If political topics were not frequent visitors to the pulpit, people from both parties could feel comfortable in the pews. Pastors of more politically diverse churches reliably refused to share their voting habits and promoted their churches as politically neutral.
Of course, the numbers always begged to differ and many people with more liberal leanings can attest that their politics — even in “neutral” churches — sometimes became grounds for conflict. These conflicts, however, were mostly handled interpersonally. This fit the ethos of politically neutral churches because they saw interpersonal relationships as the key to growth, evangelism, and discipleship. Social and political issues were largely viewed as a distraction from the main thing, which was increasingly interpreted as “spiritual” matters.
I must admit there was a simplicity to those days, which I miss.
And yet, I now see that it created a generation of evangelicals with anemic ethics and weak-muscled political thinking. As Chuck Colson said about Christians during the Nixon era, evangelicals became pliable clay in the hands of ambitious Republican politicians.
The election that broke everything
The election of Donald Trump toppled the big tent.
In both 2016 and 2020, he won a greater share of the white evangelical vote than Mitt Romney and John McCain. Simultaneously, social issues like racial justice, LGBT+ inclusion, immigration, Christian nationalism, and #MeToo were becoming ever-present parts of American discourse and social consciousness.
The extreme wings of the right and the left increasingly demanded that their church leaders speak about these topics in a way that affirmed their perspective. This put politically neutral churches in a bind. Speaking about these issues often infuriated one side, causing mini-exodus after mini-exodus.
Today, Christians in the extreme wings of both parties increasingly place their political-cultural identity before their identity in Christ, which means they are more interested in what ideological journalists, pundits, bloggers, politicians, and influencers say about ethical issues than Jesus himself. The rubric of a good church is whether it agrees with Michael Knowles, Ben Shapiro, or Rachel Maddow.
Now, an aging generation of politically neutral church leaders is frantically trying to hold their churches together with the politically neutral playbook. It’s not working. The right wing of evangelicalism calls them cowards. The left calls them complicit. More people leave.
The middle isn’t holding. In fact, even the middle is fracturing.
Millennials and Gen Xers who put Jesus first
Among those who agree that Jesus needs to stay at the center, a new divide is forming.
One group (mostly Gen Xers and boomers) wants to stay the politically neutral course by emphasizing classically pietistic practices: pray, study your Bible, develop relationships, deepen your theology. In many ways, this group is still implicitly right-leaning. They feel more affinity with the loud Christian voices on the far right than the far left. But because they never lost the evangelistic focus of Jesus, they want to minimize political disagreements in order to keep left-leaning Christians in the church.
A different group (mostly millennials and Gen Xers) agrees that the church needs to continue emphasizing pietistic practices. However, they see in the Bible a deep well of teaching on the very social issues dividing America. This group sees idolatry animating extreme politics on both sides. Thus, they believe that discipling the next generation of Christians will require Christians to confront social issues biblically and clearly, without caving to outrage and polarization. Anything less abandons society to idolatry.
They are also more willing to name and repent of the church’s past sins in the areas of race, the treatment of LGBT+ people, the handling of abuse, and the treatment of women. They do not see challenging these past failures as undermining the integrity of the church, but, to the contrary, they think they are making it stronger.
Both groups share a commitment to keeping Christian identity at the center of our churches and a commitment to resisting the allure of extreme political-cultural identities. They both infuriate the extreme wings of evangelicalism because they refuse to buy their syncretism.
Charting a Path Forward
Evangelicals are repeating a pattern that has plagued the church from its inception, when Jews and Gentiles separated into Jewish-Christian communities and Gentile-Christian communities. The apostle Paul wrote entire letters (Galatians and Romans) trying to reconcile these factions by emphasizing what they shared (Jesus), and calling both groups to set aside self-interest in favor of concern for others.
Paul told a fracturing Roman church, “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ … Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:2-3, 7).
Whether the heirs of evangelicalism call themselves “Democrats” or “Republicans” isn’t what matters most. What matters most is whether churches at the center can build a life-giving, gospel-shaped shelter in the no-man’s land between two warring sides at their right and left. What matters most is whether they can create an attractive, loving, generous community that welcomes all who wish to lay down their arms and leave behind the culture war.
The upshot is that 20 years from now, Christianity will not likely be associated with one party or the other. The marriage between Christianity and the right caused more harm than good. The divorce we’re currently experiencing, though painful, may produce a great deal of good.
It might allow us to create a community where political identity is neither in the foreground nor operating in the background. A community where, to misquote Paul, “There is no left or right, no libertarian or socialist, no progressive or conservative, but Christ is all and in all.”
The Mistake of Moderacy
Some people will read this and come to the conclusion that I am advocating for politically moderate churches. That’s incorrect. I am advocating for two things:
1) Politically diverse churches where charitable dialogue is the norm
2) Ethically informed churches, where the politics of God’s kingdom trump partisan politics.
Those who emphasize kingdom ethics will not discover that they are taking the center position on every issue. Instead, they will discover that they are taking the left position on some issues, the right position on others, and neither on a decent chunk. They will be the kind of people who can offer creative new solutions where secular politics is at loggerheads.
How do you know if you’re putting kingdom ethics before partisan ethics? Here are a couple of basic questions to ask yourself:
- Do you draw your ethical conclusions from the Bible or from talking heads?
- Do you carefully measure talking heads by the Bible?
- Or do you bend the Bible to fit your talking heads?
Christians should not be political moderates. They should be kingdom-builders. They should be radically committed to Jesus...
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Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter