A House Divided

In an election year, we are bombarded with candidates and political parties promising to solve the many problems in our society. The messages we hear often speak less about these solutions and more about the immense dangers that would overtake our country if the “other side” were to control the strings of power. This negative, zero-sum perspective promotes fear and incivility.

It can be tempting to flee from politics completely and pretend these countless messages are not daily being launched across media at our congregation. Yet a better approach would be to follow Jesus’ prayer for his followers: “I am not praying that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15).

Jesus knew this world could be harsh. Yet he wants his followers to be present in the midst of the evil. He wants believers to be sanctified by his Word (v. 17) that we may be so different from the world that we are hated for not being of the world (v. 14). Let’s examine three realities of being in and not of this politically charged world.

To remove the political stumbling block, our priorities, teachings, and conversations should reflect that we are kingdom citizens first—with a call to pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2)—without neglecting our responsibility to have a positive impact on the democracy in which we live.

Politics as Usual

When followers of Christ put anything before God, we are of this world and beholden to that thing we have made our god. Politics becomes a god when the success of someone’s political party or the leader they admire becomes more important to them than the kingdom of God. Which do we talk about more? Which do we promote more? Which impacts our fears? Whose success do we long for most?

People notice the answers to these questions. Let’s look specifically at Protestant church switchers in a Lifeway Research study who changed to their current church for a reason other than a residential move. Their motivations for leaving their last church are numerous, but political stumbling blocks are on the list. When asked to indicate which among 10 broad reasons played a role in them leaving their last church, 22% indicated they “could not agree with some of the church’s teachings or positions on issues or politics.” These church switchers were asked to respond to 11 detailed reasons, including seven shown in the graphic in this article, that mentioned something political.

In addition, 11% of all church switchers who had not moved residences say they left their previous church because the church’s teachings on political/social issues changed in ways they didn’t agree with.

Among the 88 detailed reasons in the church switcher survey, nine mention something political. Among church switchers who had not moved, 17% selected at least one of these political reasons, saying it helped explain why they left their last church.

In another study, Lifeway Research found that among young adults who had attended a Protestant church for at least a year in high school, 66% stop attending regularly for at least a year between ages 18 and 22. When asked the reasons they stopped attending, the fourth most common reason was that they disagreed with the church’s stance on political/social issues (25%). This is up from 18% of dropouts who gave this reason a decade before.

Both studies reflect the stories of real people who attended church and stepped away because American politics appeared within their church. Regardless of whether it was the person leaving or the congregation idolizing politics, the stumbling block was present. “Therefore, let us no longer judge one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother or sister” (Rom. 14:13).

In Not Of

The Bible speaks to the problems we face in our individual lives and those our society faces. Our congregations need to learn and be reminded of what the Bible has to say about these issues. Our churches need to offer our communities hope found in Jesus, not in a political victory. A relevant church teaches the wisdom of God’s ways for today.

In a study Lifeway Research conducted for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 57% of adults with evangelical beliefs agreed that the teachings of their local church had influenced their political views. While the majority have noticed the church’s influence, they are split on its impact. There is room for the Word of God to do more sanctification, as only 24% strongly agree their church has influenced their politics.

One way the church can inform someone’s political perspective is by pointing out that some views and approaches our society embraces do not fit what the Bible teaches. More than a third of adults with evangelical beliefs (37%) agree they have realized that some of their political views were inconsistent with the Bible and need to change. 

Civility and Patience 

Support for political candidates is inherently complex. Eight in 10 adults with evangelical beliefs say their support for a political candidate depends on several issues. If people are not single-issue voters, the odds of a single candidate fitting everything they want when they vote is not very likely. Yet, it is common for people to judge others’ choice of candidates as if their own embodies all that is good and nothing that is not. This act of isolating one good over others is akin to the hypocrisy that Jesus used to describe the Pharisees.

It is not our role to constantly point out that every candidate is a sinner, but it is also inconsistent with our theology to pretend any candidate is flawless. If that is true of a candidate, it is multiplied in our parties and caucuses. Our conversations about candidates should always be couched with admitting our choice is not a perfect candidate. We are more accountable to God for our motivations for our choice than which flawed individual we vote for.

Using biblical principles to shape your opinions about laws and leaders is important. How we treat others in our conversations about politics is also important. Many evangelicals by belief understand this and agree their faith influences how they engage others politically (82%)—this includes 44% who strongly agree. Yet evangelicals admitted to bending the truth (16%), responding harshly (18%), doubting others’ motives (21%), and escalating political conversations (33%). Our congregations can fall into the same lack of civility and respect that plagues our society’s political discourse.

Christians are called to a different standard, and our congregations need guidance. The majority (55%) of those with evangelical beliefs want their church to help prepare them to engage in conversations about politics in a more respectful way.

Scott McConnell
Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is executive director of Lifeway Research.