Religious litmus tests

American Christianity deeply troubles me.

It’s not because some sociologists are saying that the influence and prominence of religion in American public life is declining. It’s not because more and more clergy leaders are leaving the ministry for less stressful and better paid professions. It’s not because I talk to someone nearly every week who tells me they’re “spiritual but not religious.”

Rather, it is how we as Christians across the theological spectrum relate to one another.  It’s no secret that Christians are often the most unkind to one another. It is as if our community life is not framed over the love commandment and to do unto others as we would want done to us.

But, what bugs me even more than this is the unofficial practice of religious litmus testing of theology, determining whether or not we “approve” or “validate” or claim the others’ faith as real. And, if the others’ faith is not “real” according to our standards then refusing to engage them.

It comes out in the particular questions we ask one another: “What is your church like?” “Or what is your pastor’s name?” or “Are you welcoming (i.e. do you like gay people)?”

It comes out in rolling of the eyes and looks away in disgust.

It comes on whether or not you watch Fox news or MSNBC and refer to it regularly in conversations.

It comes in the application questions for scholarships, employment and funding from Christian organizations. Buzz words like “I prayed about” “I accepted Christ as Lord” or even “I feel called” are used to validate the strength of faith.

Especially in this election season when it is so easy to judge one another based on who we are voting for to be President.

As our culture grows more and more geared toward sound bites, if something is not done about it, our religious litmus tests for one another will grow to be something we don’t even do quietly anymore but openly without shame. Consider how mainline denominations are parting more and more as we speak now on issues related to women in ministry, progressive theology and gay rights.  If a church doesn’t pass the litmus test, they are often thrown out of a local associations, for example.

There’s a chorus, we sing at my church every Sunday at the conclusion of the service as a sung benediction.

Make us one Lord, make us one. Holy Spirit, make us one. Let your love flow. So the world will know we are one in You.

It’s our hope as a community, that someone we’d find a way to be one just as Jesus once prayed for us.  It’s our hope that those who agree with us and those who call our community heretical that somehow in the end in the light of Jesus’ the minutia won’t matter so much to keep us from relationship with one another. After all we’re just human beings, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, right? Do we really we’re 100% right all the time? Let’s put away the tests. Like my grandma used to say, when all else fails, “Just be nice.”

Elizabeth Evans Hagan

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Elizabeth Evans Hagan is senior pastor at Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, Va. She blogs about the life of faith, writing, and meaningful conversations in everyday life at Preacher on the Plaza (

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