The Retreat to Red and Blue Corners in America’s Churches

Beth LyonThis week’s post is by Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

The political divisions in our nation are sharper than they have been for a long time. So are the divisions within our churches. Right after the election, here in southeastern Pennsylvania, the local Lutheran seminary sponsored a seminar for clergy on how we might preach and care for our congregations in these divided times.The seminar was well attended. It had struck a chord.

In April, the Washington Post published an article by professors Paul A. Djupe and Jacob R. Neiheisel examined the way that political division and religious division are linked.  While 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump for president, 68% of religious “nones” voted for Hillary Clinton. Djupe and Neiheisel gathered data before and after the 2016 presidential election to see how politics might affect church membership.They concluded:leaving

Of those who said they had attended a house of worship in September, 14 percent reported that they had left that particular church by mid-November. . . In the 2016 election, “leavers” were distributed across the religious population, and included 10 percent of evangelicals, 18 percent of mainline Protestants, [emphasis mine] and 11 percent of Catholics.

To determine if leaving had to do with politics, the researchers asked if the clergy addressed any of eight political topics.They also asked if seeing evidence of political stands in church reminded them of how divisive politics has become. They concluded, “About 15 percent of those who believe that American politics has become divisive left their political houses of worship. Of those who don’t think politics is inherently divisive, close to none left their political house of worship.”

The rest of the article focuses on evangelicals. Those who perceived disagreement with their clergy over Donald Trump were most likely to leave their congregations. No more was said about the 18% of mainline Protestants who had also left their churches around the time of the presidential election. Djupe and Neiheisel point to “sorting” as an important factor aggravating the sharpness of our political divisions. When people leave a congregation, and seek out one that is more in line with their political views, both the church they leave and the one they join become more homogeneous.

I’ve seen this kind of sorting go on in the congregation I serve. Back in 2004, we signed on to the United Church of Christ’s God-Is-Still-Speaking Campaign. It allied us with the social values of the United Church of Christ in a more visible way than ever before.  It brought us new members who were attracted by what it meant to be a part of the United Church of Christ.  Some of these new members were gay and lesbian couples and their children.  And, we lost a few members. I’d describe this group as those who’d attended the church for more than a generation, but had not given much thought to or were not really aware of the social values of the UCC. That process continues when we became officially Open and Affirming in 2009. What happened was sorting. In terms of our values, we became more homogeneous.

I will admit that this makes my job easier. I don’t have to worry if I feel called to preach about a hot topic. I can teach and preach about White Privilege, or mass incarceration, or climate change, and not have angry church members emailing me the next day.  On the other hand, you’ve no doubt heard the expression, “preaching to the choir”?  Our church risks becoming a comfortable bubble, unable and perhaps even unwilling to engage with those with different views.

And the self-sorting of churches along political lines will no doubt continue. In a recent executive order, President Trump discouraged enforcement of the Johnson amendment which prohibits churches from endorsing or actively campaigning for candidates for office. His evangelical base is supportive of this order. Others hope it will backfire against conservatives. Either way, it’s bound to accelerate the sorting and further sharpen the nation’s divisions.

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One thought on “The Retreat to Red and Blue Corners in America’s Churches

  1. Years ago a Conference staff person called clergy of my generation and his “dinosaurs” because we grew up in either the E&R or CC traditions and were ordained into the UCC. Well like the other “dinosaurs” we will soon be extinct but this article makes me wonder after over 40 years in ministry, we don’t have to return to our roots in the UCC. AT its founding one of the things that made the UCC “Liberal” was its toleration of a wide variety of ideas and theologies because our founding traditions covered a lot of ground theologically. In theory we were to be a denomination that would tolerate disagreement and a certain level of conflict to explore a wide range of theological and intellectual ideas, seeking God’s Will. We too believed God was still speaking but understood sometimes it was from the left and sometimes the right. No one side had a lock on God or God’s Word. As our thinking has shifted to the more “progressive”, I wonder if we haven’t lost a part of our heritage, in the same way we gave away linguistically our claim to proclaim the Gospel, by letting others claim to be the true “Evangelicals.”

    In a divided nation and divided religious discussion there needs to be a place where both sides can come together in the Name of Jesus Christ, to seek out common ground that does exist. We need to build trust, not only in the church and the Christian Faith but in people of different races, religions, sexual relations. Bridging gaps like those that exist between these groups and areas like rural and urban congregations. For example in this very rural and conservative area two different groups, the conservative ministerial group and the progressive DFL (Democratic Party) held similar views that perhaps a ban should be placed on assault style firearms and fear of the extremes on either side controlling the discussion. Our heritage says the UCC can fill that need. The question is do we have the will to do it?

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