While few churches openly announce the political leanings of their members, many churches are comprised of members with similar political viewpoints. What are some drawbacks to this practice, and what might be gained from living our faith out within a more diverse body of believers?
This is the sixth installment in the “Segregating Worship Series,” and you can read my articles about Exploring Gender here, Worship Segregation here, Music Style Segregation here, Racial Segregation here, and Economic Segregation here.
In this continued series on the segregation of America’s churches, we explore the topic of political alignment as it relates to church participation. Among many churchgoers, the political persuasions of their worship-going peers are assumed to be like their own. Furthermore, in some congregations, correct political views are closely connected to being the “right” kind of Christian. For example, I have participated in guest leadership in churches in which members automatically assumed that my mere presence in their congregation assumed my political views.
How is it that many churches became comprised of members with similar political persuasions? While not really a part of my adult life, there seems to have been a historical time when politicians were willing to hammer out compromises, and the good of the group was perceived as more important than the idealism of the individual. However, it seems that members of faith communities (from all political perspectives) became involved politically in issues that closely intersected with our faith, and the traditional lines that separated the church and politics became blurred. However, for this brief post, the subject of separation of church and state is far too complex, and it has already been thoroughly examined by others. Therefore, we will explore why living out our faith in Christ in a politically diverse community might be a rich and meaningful exercise.
Regardless of our convictions that our political persuasions are “right” and “Christian,” it is enlightening to hear others who are also “Christian” share their views. As a result of such political dialogue, we have a choice – we can dig deeper in our pursuit of God and the teaching of Jesus or we can demonize others as ignorant or misinformed. Moving past the easy stereotypes and assumptions that often accompany political perspectives requires work and investment; however, the outlay of time and energy is worth the investment since assigning labels may allow us to side step the more important issues that underlie our political affinities. Stereotyping often robs us of nuanced conversation, and it may inhibit the possibility that we might find richer Christ perspectives in these unexpected places.
Just last week our high school sophomore son came home from school and asked his mother and me if our family were liberals or conservatives. After avoiding a ready answer and digging for context, we discovered that one of his teachers required the class to fill out an on-line survey meant to analyze their ideas on a number of subjects to determine the category of their political views. While such an exercise seems innocuous, it does start a process that labels and categorizes. Following are some considerations of how political uniformity may inhibit us as Christians:
Political uniformity in a faith community keeps us from hearing the stories of others and understanding why they believe as they do. We are robbed of assigning meaning based on lives lived rather than stereotypes.
Political uniformity within congregations may rob us of sharing our faith with those who view the world differently. For instance, allowing a negative view of President Obama to creep into our hall talk at church can easily snub those who are in need of health care and looking for the opportunity for affordable insurance. Conversely, openly expressing a positive view of the President and his political party could cause a person with dislike of the president’s initiatives to miss the God stories that should propagate church conversation.
Having any conversation about a politically charged topic (even in church) should only be attempted among people who have established a significant body of trust and maturity. Political discussions tend toward emotionalism, and they often lack rational thought that might characterize other civil discourse. Discussing politics in an emotionally charged environment runs the risk of overlooking important issues while opting for clichés and over simplifications.
Spending trusted God-time with people who think differently than we can cause us to think more deeply about issues and turn to God to guide us toward answers to question that we are tempted to mark off as “already answered.” When our answers regarding political questions too readily match those with whom we most closely associate, we may pass off our answers too easily as God’s answers when in fact they might not be.
Lastly, practicing a high level of political charity may actually become a spiritual exercise from which most of us could readily benefit. While my personal tendency is to avoid any political conversation, I have often found myself challenged toward deeper prayer and reflection when I have earnestly considered new perspectives based on the stories of those who held views different from mine. In the final analysis, the church’s foray into political involvement may have ended up weakening the prophetic role to which we are called. By concentrating energy on political agendas, we may have missed a more important message that the study of scripture and concentrated prayer might have yielded.
As we move forward, I challenge you to consider the following possible steps: (1) Begin by being aware of speech and action within your congregation that can be perceived as having a political assumption or intent. (2) Spend some time with others in your congregation discussing the possible benefits and liabilities of politically charged conversation. (3) Carefully analyze your church’s worship to discern what might be perceived by an outsider as “political.” (4) Sit vicariously in the position of someone whose political views are different from yours, and find ways in which your church’s hall talk, small group gatherings and worship speech might be a hindrance to someone else’s spiritual growth.
Do you have an opinion about politics and worship? Please leave a comment below.