Political polarization challenges U.S. churches

Distribution of Democrats and Republicans on a 10-item scale of political values, from a survey by the Pew Research Center.

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Not that long ago in America, a pastor could raise significant social matters of the day and correlate them to Scripture, all without offending most folks in the pews, Rob Nash recalled.

mosaic missions camp425Staying focused on what matters most — including engaging communities like this Mosaic church community garden summer camp in Clayton, N.C. — can help overcome internal ideological divisions, pastors say. (ABP / Mosaic Facebook photo)“As late as the ’60s and into the ’70s you could take on some of these issues from the pulpit and people didn’t tend to get their dander up about it,” said Nash, an associate dean and professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, in Atlanta.

Just how radically that’s changed became obvious recently when the Pew Research Center released a study on political polarization in America. It found Americans increasingly are identifying with political views on the far right or far left, and that the center constantly is shrinking.

The trends uncovered by the survey help explain why much of American preaching today, except in churches at the ideological and theological extremes, is muted when it comes to the hot-button topics of the day, like immigration and health care reform, Nash said.

“There’s been a great silencing of the pulpit on these issues that are significant and need to be addressed,” he said. “I think it’s causing us to compromise our ability to proclaim the word of God in these contexts.”

rob nash130Rob NashSome Baptist pastors say they’ve felt the tug to avoid difficult political and social subjects, but have pushed through by promoting cultures of tolerance and respect for those of differing viewpoints in their congregations.

But the Pew poll suggests that can be an increasingly tall order in many American houses of worship.

Gap widening

For example, the survey found the negative views Republicans (43 percent) and Democrats (38 percent) have of each other have increased greatly in recent years. The survey of 10,000 adults also found the percentage of Americans who associate only with like-minded people is huge—63 percent for conservatives and 49 percent for liberals.

The survey also reported lifestyle trends associated with the two increasingly isolated camps. For example, conservatives generally like to live in homes with lots of space between them and neighbors, while liberals like smaller homes, closer together and located near stores, restaurants and schools.

That so many Americans have self-segregated along political and ideological lines isn’t surprising in a two-party political system and a media culture that focuses on conflict, said Paul Froese, associate professor of sociology and a research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

paul froese130Paul FroeseThat’s why the Pew poll isn’t a surprise. But Froese said it is surprising to learn how the American division by political ideology seems to be dictating lifestyle and aesthetic choices—such as the kinds of neighborhoods and homes to live in, he said.

“You can piggyback onto that a whole host” of other choices, such as, “‘I should dress like this, I should drive this kind of car and drink this kind of drink,’” he said.  “You can build an entire identity around it.”

And another choice influence by that dynamic is what kind of church to belong to, he added.

“These liberal/conservative identities map onto religious stuff, too, such as denominational types and the language that is going to come up in churches.”

Starkly contrasting interpretations

It’s why liberal and conservative churches may read the same biblical passage on a given Sunday morning but interpret, preach and talk about it in starkly contrasting ways, Froese said.

The implications of the polarization described in the poll indicate a likely continuing slide in social civility due to the resulting isolation between groups with differing beliefs.

“The conservative looks at the liberal and thinks they’re completely nuts, and visa versa,” Froese said. “They don’t understand each other because there’s so little interaction.”

brandon hudson100Brandon HudsonChurch is a natural place for that kind of pairing off to occur, said Brandon Hudson, pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.

“I think homogeneity, by and large, is the norm on Sunday mornings,” Hudson said. “There is something powerful about wanting to be with people just like you.”

He said it’s not so much an American trait but likely in human DNA.

“But it’s exacerbated by the Internet, or the digital age.”

The online world means people can isolate from each other via the web instead of having to physically move away. “So we are with people who are just like us, whether we are really with them or not.”

Churches must be vigilant not to succumb to the draw toward uniformity by nurturing and defending an environment that puts God and worship first and then makes it safe for people to disagree on issues secondary to that, Hudson said.

That work must be done by ministers and laypeople alike, he added.

A temptation to ‘fundamentalism’

“It’s really difficult to hold space for others who are dissimilar, and I think the temptation is to be fundamentalists on whatever end of the spectrum you are on,” he said.

But it’s a necessary risk to take if people from the neighborhoods surrounding churches are ever going to be drawn into a relationship with the Christians inside the buildings.

“There are a bunch of people who don’t care about your ideology or your church,” he said. “If we really are the church in the community … we have to be open to the possibility that those outside have valid opinions.”

andy hale130Andy HaleChurch should be a place where participants are united in the essentials and are free to celebrate their differences. But getting there can be pretty messy, said Andy Hale of Mosaic, a Baptist congregation in Clayton, N.C.

Mosaic is made up of members with a variety of political and ideological perspectives but agree on the need to be of service to the community around the church.

“We have found a way to work through those,” he said of the philosophical differences. But it’s not an easy process.

 “It didn’t come without some difficult conversations with each other, and that’s not to say we haven’t lost people who aren’t OK with that,” he said.

It’s worth the effort because the resulting church culture is one that fosters relationships, Hale said.

But he added that’s an issue the wider church is going to have to grapple with.

“We just live in a day and age when people think it’s more productive to separate from those they don’t agree with,” Hale said.

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