The current turmoil in American political life is making it harder for churches to experience community.
This is particularly hard on political and economic conservatives who are not naturally theological or social conservatives — which describes a large swath of theologically progressive Baptists in the American South. I understand this group well, because for years I identified as just such a person.
Today, these political and economic conservatives would like political and economic issues to be separated from their church lives. I hear it all the time from those in the pew who feel that my preaching has gotten too political. White preachers like me, however, are increasingly feeling what black preachers have always known — namely, that it is untenable to proclaim a gospel of the heart that is disconnected from public life.
The stability churches like mine felt for a long time, we now understand, came at the expense of others who did not experience life the way we did. Increasingly, the church in America is wrestling with this awareness and dealing with it one of three ways:
- Ignore it and go on like we have in the past, which allows the forces at work outside the walls of the church to act without restraint and leaves things to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” outcome.
- Double down on support of our views of society, whatever they are — conservative or progressive — and become more deliberately partisan.
- Recognize that the church’s mission includes a strong commitment to advocate for the weak and vulnerable in the world as a sign of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
This last approach, which is my aim, intends to be politically non-partisan, issue-oriented and people-focused. It must emanate from a spiritual center that pulsates with the heart of Jesus, or it would turn the church into just another special interest group and have nothing unique to contribute to the world. Yet it must be willing to get into public policy that will sometimes feel partisan whether it is or not. Jesus summarized the gospel by the shorthand of loving God and neighbor, the latter being no less spiritual than the former.
President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a political approach to policy rooted in faith that attempted to change lives for the better. Whether it was the best approach is beside the point. The point is that there was a conservatism that cared about these things from a stance consistent with conservative principles. It attempted to tie love of God with love of neighbor. Where are those voices today?
When a pastor today talks about defending poor people from predatory lenders, say, it sounds to some like rhetoric of the Democratic Party criticizing free market capitalism. Something has changed. Many political and economic conservatives once cared about knitting together the social fabric and creating of ladders of opportunity on which the lower and middle classes might rise if they were willing to climb. In our current climate, if I speak about these things out of a gospel heart for all of life and not just a person’s spiritual hope for when he or she dies, it sounds not only political but ideological and partisan.
Given the three choices of how a church should respond to these cultural changes, I still think the third way is and always has been the best. But churches like ours are waking up to the fact that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything we do or fail to do provokes reactions inside and outside the church, and what is going on in the wider world has effects inside as well as outside the church.
When our congregation took a vote on whether or not to extend full membership inclusion to the LGBTQ community in November 2016, out of calendar necessity we scheduled the vote on the Sundays before and after the presidential election. In hindsight, it is clear that for some of our long-time members who are political and economic conservatives, the national election and our church’s vote merged into a shared moment of decision. The national political conversation made it all the more difficult for the church to have a theological conversation.
These same forces are making it harder for churches to relate to each other. More are making the decision that they will worship and cooperate only with churches, conventions, associations and fellowships that line up closely with what they believe, lest the influence of those other churches rub off on them in ways that pollute or dilute their own beliefs.
But there’s another way to think about this — both intra-church and inter-church — that I prefer: What if our beliefs and practices have a mutually beneficial effect? We may learn some things from each other that we have failed to see in our normal worship and practice, and those things might strengthen our commitment to Christ rather than weaken it.
This is the risk of relationship. Engagement is always fraught with risk, but withdrawing into distinct tribes brings risks of its own.
I never wake up in the morning trying to figure how our church can do this or that to be perceived as more liberal or more conservative. We don’t operate our church as a data-driven marketing position that would appeal to one group or another. I attempt to preach and lead from the center of my understanding of the gospel.
In our case, that has led to a decision about LGBTQ inclusion that has colored us “liberal” in the eyes of many outside the church and more inside the church than I wished. At the same time, we have grown in our understanding of Jesus’ mandate to advocate on behalf of the poor and at-risk, the unheard and unseen, the marginalized and misunderstood, the victimized and vulnerable. Similarly, when we speak out against racism and police brutality, in support of quality public education for everyone or on behalf of immigrants and refugees, we are doing so because we believe that Jesus is Lord of all of life.
For some, these voices of advocacy are part of a whole cloth of a political agenda, because that’s the way politicians and media forces define things today. National politics shapes or prevents meaningful dialogue within and between churches — dialogue that could help us better follow the way of Jesus if we are willing to be shaped by the Spirit of God more than by the spirit of the world.
Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom of God that is at hand. That good news threatened political leaders who failed to attend to the common good and it brought blowback from religious leaders who minded the status quo. Preaching the whole gospel will do that in any age, which is why it requires courage to speak the truth that alone sets us free and wisdom to speak it in love at all times.