Political, social, cultural issues cause separation in churches, ‘silence’ in pulpits
July 17, 2014
There was a time in America when a pastor could raise significant social matters of the day and correlate them to Scripture, all without offending most folks in the pews, Pastor Craig Carlisle recalled.
“I remember the days when we could speak openly on issues without fear of retribution because there was unity and uniformity in the beliefs of the congregation, community and even our nation,” said Carlisle, pastor of Twelfth Street Baptist Church, Gadsden.
Rob Nash, an associate dean and professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, agreed.
“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,” Nash said.
Just how radically that’s changed became obvious in mid-June when the Pew Research Center released a study on political polarization in America. It found that Americans are increasingly identifying with political views on the far right or far left, and that the center is constantly 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.”
Carlisle said most of the cultural issues the Church faces today “are issues we never thought we would have to deal with as a society, much less as churches.”
“The changes and challenges are occurring so quickly that it is difficult to keep up with the trends. ... It is almost as if we were blind-sided by the current cultural shift, wishfully thinking that the issues we are dealing with today would never materialize to the point we would have to deal with them,” Carlisle said.
Several other 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. Carlisle said that although he has not preached a series dealing specifically with political issues he does deal with such issues as they come up in Scripture and as he preaches through the Bible.
But the Pew poll suggests that speaking on difficult topics like politics can be an increasingly tall order in many American houses of worship.
For example, the survey found that the negative views Republicans (43 percent) and Democrats (38 percent) have of each other have greatly increased in recent years. The survey of 10,000 adults also found that 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.
Culture focused on conflict
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.
That’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 piggy back 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 influenced 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.”
It’s why a liberal and conservative church may read the same biblical passage on a given Sunday morning, but interprets, preach and talk about it in starkly contrasting ways, Froese said.
The implications of the polarization described in the poll is a likely continuing slide in social civility because of the resulting isolation between groups with differing beliefs.
“The conservative looks at the liberal and thinks they’re completely nuts, and [vice] versa,” Froese said. “They don’t understand each other because there’s so little interaction.”
But public engagement of cultural and political issues in a “Christ-shaped manner” is crucial for pastors and other Christians, according to Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“So many of our (Baptist) pastors think they have to choose between speaking about the gospel or speaking about issues in the culture, and one of the things we’re trying to do at the ERLC is show that it’s not an either/or situation but rather a both/and,” Moore said.
“We have a Great Commission that demands we both make disciples and observe all that our Lord has commanded us — including the need to work for justice and righteousness and be a voice of conviction and kindness as we seek to persuade an increasingly secular society,” he said.
And in regards to talking about politics in church, Moore said, “We see in the New Testament that in this age the power of the sword is given to the government,” referencing Romans 13. “Even more, in America in our democratic republic we as citizens are asking elected officials to wield the sword on our behalf. So it’s critically important not only to honor and pray for our government officials, as Scripture calls us to do, but also to be engaged in the public square on issues of gospel significance.”
And churches must be vigilant not to succumb to the draw toward uniformity. By nurturing and defending an environment that puts God and worship first, the church makes it safe for people to disagree on issues secondary to that.
United in essentials
That work must be done by ministers and laypeople alike, pastors in the poll suggested.
Church 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.
And Carlisle said that although the Pew poll found certain trends in the population, cultural battles “do not seem to be respecter of geographic region.”
“Perhaps we have been protected by the ‘Bible Belt’ moniker ... but I fear we are no longer the ‘Bible Belt’ and the cultural battle is being brought to our doorstep. ... I believe the answer to all of these (political and cultural) problems, issues and more is a national spiritual awakening and revival.”
(ABP, BP, Neisha Fuson)