Being Apolitical Won’t Heal Polarized Churches

The church should be a place where people with divergent political views can coexist and be in fellowship because our unity in Christ supersedes our political and partisan loyalties. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Galatian church, in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But that’s not often what we see in our churches today, is it?

In 2017, a Lifeway poll found that more than half of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion. Instead of being a space where people of very different perspectives can build on a shared unity in Christ, many churches are becoming citadels in which Christians’ pre-existing politics and worldviews are simply reinforced.

Given all our nation has experienced in the five years since the poll was conducted, I can only imagine that the polarization in our pews is even more stark today and — like polarization elsewhere — increasingly rooted in contempt. According to a recent NBC poll “some 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that many churches are exacerbating this polarization rather than trying to treat it.

This polarization in our churches feels especially urgent given the fast-approaching midterm election and the increasing ease with which white Christian nationalist ideas are finding a home in U.S. politics. After all, if people who are swayed by this perversion of the Christian faith are only worshipping with like-minded folks, how will we disciple them out? Likewise, if pastors who are fiercely denouncing Christian nationalism are only preaching to congregants who already agree (or discovering that congregants who disagree simply find a new church), how does that help overcome polarization in the body of Christ? While the temptation to place allegiance to ideology over faith seems most prevalent on the Right, this seductive pull is evident across the political spectrum.

The solution to polarization in the church is not to become apolitical or completely disengage from politics. While tempting, this response would abdicate the church’s critical role in serving as an instrument of justice, righteousness, and peace in the world — something I believe is integral to faithful Christian discipleship. Instead, we must lean more deeply into the core biblical call for the church to serve as a balm, a bridge, and a beacon in an increasingly divided nation and world. Here’s what I think that means.

Be a balm

The purpose of a balm is to heal wounds or reduce pain. The prophet Jeremiah cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? (8:22)” At its best, the church can play a role both in healing and addressing the root causes of poverty, violence, racism, sexism, and everything else that wounds our society. But for the church to do that, it also needs to heal the wounds of its own body.

Since the early 2000s, pollsters have found that young people predominantly perceive the church to be hypocritical, homophobic, and overly judgmental. Researchers at Pew Research Center recently suggested that if current trends continue, the share of the U.S. population who identify as Christian would decrease from 64 percent in 2020 to between 35-54 percent in 2070. Of course, what many people perceive the church to be isn’t necessarily the full truth; I know many church programs and organizations that are the first responders and service providers in their communities, offering food pantries, homeless shelters, drug addiction programs, mentoring, tutoring, reentry programs for incarcerated folks, and so much more. These examples of charity and service are important ways the church demonstrates Christ’s love and compassion.

Yet being a balm also requires a deep commitment to reconciliation: telling the truth and repairing relationships broken by injustice. Within our congregations, this means being honest about the ways our houses of worship have so often fallen short of the message of inclusive love that Jesus preached and modeled and acknowledging the ways in which Christians have misused our faith to baptize injustice throughout our nation’s history, including the genocide of Indigenous people, slavery, Jim Crow, homophobia, sexism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.

The paradox is that while truth-telling is a pre-requisite forovercoming polarization, telling the truth can also exacerbate it, especially in an environment where social media spreads disinformation and some news sources distort our perceptions of each other. As a result, many churches sacrifice truth-telling to maintain unity.

For pastors and church leaders who fear dividing their congregation or facing a backlash if they engage in more truth-telling, it is essential to ground your congregation in a shared sense of biblical values, including loving our neighbors (Mark 12:31), bearing the fruits of the Spirit like kindness and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22-23), and courage to stand up for our beliefs (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). These values are a toolbox that you and your congregation can use to sift through the messiness of politics and cultivate an openness to different points of view. As my pastor so often reminds us, the job of a pastor is not to get the congregation to think or even to vote the same as they do; a pastor’s job is to enable congregants to think critically about faith and apply it to their lives.

Pastors can also model and teach how to center every contentious conversation in steadfast love, which helps to generate empathy and leads us to affirm the humanity in those we disagree with. This doesn’t mean that we pursue a superficial unity, nor does it mean that we acquiesce to points of view that are rooted in hate; it does mean that we affirm the divine image in everyone and seek understanding before judgment, placing our shared identity in Christ as more important than our political or ideological loyalties.

Bridging the gap

One of the most powerful antidotes to our current crisis of toxic polarization is a common vision of the future. I believe that a reimagined concept of the Beloved Community powerfully captures that shared vision. Building on how Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other civil rights leaders defined it, my most succinct definition of the Beloved Community is one in which every person is valued, is seen, and is enabled to thrive. It requires building a society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, ableness, or sexual orientation.

Churches can use this vision to align people with different political views with a common goal, bridging the gap between what is and what ought to be. In polarized environments, shared language is important; the Beloved Community is a vision rooted in Christian values, but it also aligns with other faith traditions and our nation’s founding promise of liberty and justice for all.

While this can feel like a high bar, I think it’s a vision that most people could embrace. I love the ways that the Beloved Community combines the values of strengthening families and communities with those of protecting people’s rights and dignity. In the Beloved Community, our increasing demographic diversity is embraced as a strength, not a threat, as a source of hope and not fear. In the Beloved Community, radically inclusive and resilient love is the norm. It is a community in which we are constantly seeking to build and restore right relationships. In the Beloved Community, the needs of the most vulnerable are recognized and prioritized, because the moral test of our society is how the most vulnerable people, particularly children and the elderly, are faring. In the Beloved Community, a commitment to honor and protect human dignity becomes a sacred and shared responsibility.

A beacon to the world

Jesus said that Christians are the salt and light of the earth — a beacon to the world around it. King put it this way: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

If the church is to be the conscience of the state, we need to counteract a resurgent white nationalism and deep-rooted white supremacy with what I call in my book A More Perfect Unionredemptive patriotism.”

“Patriotism comes in many forms. Its most destructive, often nationalistic forms erode the very foundation upon which the Beloved Community is built. Redeeming patriotism requires reframing our love for the best of America’s ideals and aspirations. It requires understanding that the right to critique America is part of the brilliance of America. … Redeeming patriotism requires greater willingness to have courageous and civil conversations about the very ideals that make us love America. It refuses pointless arguments over who loves America more.”

The church also needs guardrails if it is to serve effectively as the conscience of the state. Otherwise, it risks slipping back to becoming the state’s master or servant. I have long relied upon guidance offered by U.S. Catholic bishops in their 2003 guide “Faithful Citizenship.” The 40-page booklet offers practical guardrails for Christian civic engagement including:

“Be engaged but not used” which emphasizes civic engagement as part and parcel to discipleship but cautions against allowing politicians to misuse faith to bless their narrow self-interest and pursuit of power.

“Be political but not partisan.” We should be seeking to hold all parties and politicians accountable to biblically rooted values and priorities and refuse to place our allegiance to a party over that first order allegiance.

“Be principled but not ideological.” The kingdom of God is never on any ballot and there can and should be healthy disagreement and debate around the best set of policies to achieve shared goals. As Christians, we must prioritize the principle of protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our communities, nation, and world and seek the best pathway to achieving this shared aim without becoming overly attached to a particular ideology.

“Be clear but also civil.” Greater civility is desperately needed in a time in which our politics is so often characterized by contempt and vitriol. Civility does not signal weakness, particularly when we are firm about our core values and convictions.

To this list I would also add that Christians need to be both pastoral and prophetic: Pastoral in the sense that we must refuse to demonize those who disagree with us and seek to minister to elected officials; prophetic in the sense that we must continue to speak the truth to those in positions of power and hold them accountable to our values and priorities.

Applying these guardrails to the messiness and ugliness of our current politics won’t be easy; however, if we more faithfully and boldly embraced them, the church could model a healthier form of civic engagement that could transform our broken politics. While toxic polarization poses an existential threat to the health of our democracy it also poses a threat to Christian unity and the very witness of the church. By serving as a balm, a bridge, and a beacon, the church can further step into its rightful and necessary place of becoming an indispensable cure to this growing disease.

This article was adapted from a speech given at the Christian Churches Together conference on October 5, 2022

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