While those siding with the left’s narrative of church and politics point to evidence that Americans have a general, theoretical preference for religious leaders to avoid politics,11 when the question becomes practical, few notice it in their own congregation, let alone find it bothersome. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans attending church services at least yearly about the partisanship of the clergy and other religious leaders in their own churches, 16% said they were mostly Republicans, 11% mostly Democrats, 27% said a mix of both, and 45% were unable to say.12 This is hardly evidence of the sort of politicized pulpits the left’s narrative of Christian politics would have one believe.
In increasingly popular view among pastors and other Christian leaders accepts a secular scholarly narrative about Christian engagement in politics. This view holds that when Christians engage in partisan politics to advocate for public policy that conforms to their beliefs about what is good for the polity, they politicize religion in ways that undermine unity in the congregation and ultimately drive people to apostasy.1 Those who engage in partisan politics also risk their own souls, creating false idols that threaten to come between them and God.2
There are likely several reasons why this view is en vogue. As we operate increasingly in what Aaron Renn calls the negative world, one which is increasingly hostile instead of positively inclined or even neutral towards Christianity, many pastors have sought shelter by advocating political neutrality to avoid conflict with the wider society – especially if that conflict threatens to divide their congregations. Some small number, surely, have taken this position to smuggle their own liberal politics into their churches so as not to be noticed by their laity.3 More commonly, however, is that, knowing no better, pastors simply accept this narrative on faith because it is repeated by “experts.” Drawing from a point raised by the sociologist Bryan Wilson regarding the clergy’s loss of status and purpose after scientific professions took over most of the myriad roles priests once served4, pastors feel compelled to adopt scholarly views unchallenged to retain what little respectability the modern world offers to have a chance of being effective in their compartmentalized roles.
Unfortunately, many of the claims about politics to which pastors and other leaders assent are wrong. Repeating them, even if simply to maintain respectability fails to diagnose – and very likely hinders their ability to successfully address – the real problems facing churches today. Following the recommendations of pastors spreading these myths undermines rather than strengthens religious faith.
For as much as issues of concern to Christians may be voiced by politicians, American politics revolves around two formally secular political parties. This fact underlines an important truth to the critiques of Christian participation in politics: because these parties are ultimately focused on winning elections and holding office, American politics can become an idol in its own right. When secular political parties and politicians, for reasons of expediency, operate in ways that defy Scripture, Christians’ loyalties are tested, and many are tempted to side with their political loyalties over their Christian identity.5
Out of an overabundance of caution, then, pastors have sought to distance themselves from politics and similarly encourage their parishioners to steer clear. In doing so, these pastors take a position that treats both sides as equally bad. This provides what appears to be a safe position – both from a hostile culture that grows less tolerant of its enemies by the day, as well as safe from having to wade into topics that would divide their congregations – from which they offer bland commentary aimed, however feebly executed, at preventing politics from displacing religion among the laity.
Regardless of the degree to which they may be believed, such “both sides” arguments are simply unsupported. One recent book, The Great Dechurching, claims that the right is just as injurious to faith as the left – or worse. The authors claim that “among evangelicals, there is more danger of dechurching on the right than the left…we saw evangelicals dechurching on the political right at twice the frequency of those on the political left, almost catching up to the total percentage of those who have dechurched on the secular left” (p.31).
The authors do not present direct evidence to support the claim that “there is more danger of dechurching on the right.” While they present a graph (from a separate work by the political scientist, Ryan Burge) as supporting evidence (p.32), this graph merely shows that, over time, more white Evangelicals who reported that they never attended at the time of the survey identify as Republicans – not that more Republicans have ceased attending than Democrats. It may be the case that among Evangelicals, there are more on the political right than the left who have dechurched. However, observing a greater “frequency” of conservatives dechurching is only possible because most white Evangelicals are politically conservative – implying that both sides are not equal.
While the authors’ language gives the impression that both sides are (at least) equally deleterious to faith, the second part of the quotation above nonetheless admits that the left has been more likely to dechurch than the right. Claiming that conservatives are “almost catching up” still requires a great deal of faith from the reader, especially because a fairly clear, robust finding in the scholarly literature shows that during the period of The Great Dechurching, liberals have been significantly more likely to cease attending than conservatives.6 A similar finding shows that Democrats are more likely to quit attending than Republicans.7 As people become more liberal politically, they become less devout and less likely to retain their faith – while the reverse is also true.8 Both sides are not equally detrimental to faith, no matter how hard some pastors pretend.
The Impact of the “Right’s” Culture-War Politics
At the same time that they claim “there is more danger of dechurching on the right,” the authors of The Great Dechurching also lay the decline in attendance of Christians on the left at the feet of ministers with conservative politics – or merely the conservative implications of their adherence to biblical teaching.9 So the argument goes, it is the right’s involvement with the culture war that has fueled much of the decline in church attendance and the rise of the religious “nones” since the start of the 1990s. In this telling, it was the right that initiated the culture war, which produced a backlash among liberals and Democrats who, so disgusted by this entanglement of religion and conservative Republican politics, disavowed their faith. The fact that conservatives and Republicans remain so much more religiously devout than liberals and Democrats serves as the proof, this story claims, that the weaponization of religion by conservative Republicans is to blame.10
To believe this, however, requires that one ignore the fact that the secularization of society through politics has been driven by the left.