We Have Some Healing To Do
How the common ground of faith became swallowed up by hyperpartisanship.
For the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast. It’s not like I have time to do a podcast, but I felt this feeling that I needed to try. There are a lot topics I could have talked about like autos or science fiction, but I decided to focus on the two issues that really fascinate me: religion and politics. I’m an ordained minister, that serves a small congregation in the suburban Twin Cities. Religion has always played a big part in my life and so has politics. Of course, I like to see where the two intersect. Sometimes we interpret the separation of church and state to mean that religion has no role in the public square, but that doesn’t work. Religion always influences politics for good and for ill.
So, that led to starting Spheres of Influence, a podcast where we talk about the two things we aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. Below is what I wrote for the third episode and you can listen to the podcast as well.
It was about 30 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, alongside a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.
The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.
We had a special meeting of the church where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding of homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with the congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.
What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. In the years since I left, the church has more firmly planted itself on the more progressive end of Christianity. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.
This was also a time when many of the mainline Protestant churches I was associated with were grappling with the issue of homosexuality. I can remember after a difficult vote, someone would say something to the effect, “and now we have some healing to do.” People had their views on this issue, but the emphasis on healing meant that there was also an emphasis on the relationship as well.
These differences were there 30 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunities to come together and meet the other. Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.
Why am I telling this story? I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways where we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.
Civility, which used to be a civic value, has become a dirty word. It is viewed as a tactic to try to keep those involved in justice quiet. I have no doubt it could be used that way. But I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.
So, why has this happened? What has happened in society that people with differing views don’t worship together let alone respect each other?
A few things. First, churches have sorted just like everything else in American society. Just as liberals go to live with liberals and conservatives with conservatives churches are filled with people where everyone agrees.
Second is a distrust of values that preach respect. If you really listen to discourse these days, people are no longer so keen on values like civility or reconciliation. We demand respect, but you can’t get respect without some sense of civility or reconciliation. Conservative Christians backed a man like Trump who had no sense of basic decency because they were tired of being nice.
But I think the main reason we don’t see two women from different backgrounds coming supporting each other these days is because of a crisis of meaning. The writer Martin Gurri recounts his days as a young man who recently immigrated from Cuba. He recounted how little politics played in people’s lives. Gurri writes, “American life at the time revolved almost entirely around the private sphere — family above all, but also the church, school, sports, and community organizations like Masonic lodges and chambers of commerce. These institutions held our attention because they were near and real.” There was a strong private sphere filled with institutions that gave people identity and meaning. In his youth, national politics was something far away and when the topic was discussed, there was room for tolerance and compromise. Gurri argues that you could practice tolerance in politics because as he describes, the stakes were small.
But we now live in a society where the private sphere has been hallowed out. Institutions like the church or groups like the Masonic lodge have either melted away or lost influence. We love our individualism, but we’re lonely and we latch on to politics because it gives us meaning.
But because we use politics as identity, it creates a politics is a deathmatch. There is no room for compromise or tolerance.
Because religion is no longer as important in people’s lives, the church has become swallowed by politics. The church no longer gives meaning, but it is one more platform where politics can rule.
Our focus on politics has allowed religion to become flattened and robbed of its power. Philosopher James K.A. Smith notices how partisan politics reduce the infinite to the finite. “The problem with the Christian political imagination today is not simply that it is predictably partisan but that it has ceded its elasticity and expectation to the here-and-now.”
Faith shouldn’t ignore the present, but it should balance the now with the not-yet. But on the left and the right, there is a focus on the now. But faith is focused on life beyond now. Even religions that don’t have an afterlife are focused on something beyond the present world. There is a belief in something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the now.
How can we make faith much less partisan? We must be grounded in our faith, but that doesn’t mean politics doesn’t exist. The church should be as George Weigel says, a public church not a partisan church. Having grown up in the Black church, I know we have to focus on issues like racism. William Lamar, an African Methodist Episcopal minister says we can’t be nonpolitical. “We cannot transcend politics. The gospel is a word that was used to declare the birth of a new emperor. Our speech heralds a new ruler, one hated by the Caesars and Herods who continue to kill innocents and crucify dissidents in an attempt to hold onto their power and thwart God’s reign.”
But how can we focus on political issues without becoming partisan tools, slave to the current zeitgeist?
I think one way is to keep the church a place that transcends the toxic politics of our day is to not borrow political language.
More mainline Protestant congregations are declaring themselves as a progressive congregation, meaning a congregation that focuses on LGBTQ rights, the environment, race, abortion, and other issues that would be issued from the political left.
Branding yourself as a progressive church can make the church attract more people. People want more and more to be with people they agree with on various issues.
But is my congregation progressive? I would say no.
Now, before you start thinking that I am a wild conservative, let me explain. First Christian is not a progressive church and it is not a conservative church. Our congregation does do things that might make us appear to be Progressive Christians, such as support of LGBT rights and concern for the marginalized. We want to really study biblical texts. We do talk about politics in this church. It is not a sin to have strong opinions on things. But churches have to be careful in how they engage political issues. Churches are called to be “in” world and that means grappling with issues that affect the lives of many in our world. But it has to be careful to not be “of” the world, captive to partisan platforms that rob religion of its unique voice.
What I would say is this: we are a public congregation because Jesus was political in his care for the outcasts and critique of the powerful.
Every Sunday, we gather around a communion table. That table is a powerful symbol in Disciples theology. It is a place where God calls everyone, no matter their ideology, their race, or their ethnicity. The table calls us all and that is important these days when we are so fractured and so tempted to create a place where everyone believes the same things.
Last week, there was a lot of surprise and shock of seeing the garish statue of Donald Trump in gold that was displayed at the yearly CPAC conference. Everyone was talking about how people were bowing down to the golden idol ala the Israelites in the book of Exodus. While I think that’s true, I think it also reminded me how we all can bow down to idols that take us away from what is important: family, friends, and faith.