A man-of-the-cloth friend asked my advice recently.
“Wait a minute,” thought I. "We supplicants are supposed to be the ones asking his advice when we have issues.” And I wasn’t prepared for his question.
“What do you think about a church study class dealing with politics and religion,” was his query? “I know both are touchy issues.”
“Touchy?” No more than cooking steak for a Hindu picnic. But what surprised me more than his question was the quickness and firmness of my response.
“Not only do I think you should,” I said, “I think it should be part of the faith programs of all churches that feel a responsibility to work in the worldly community of their parishioners. Not so those same parishioners are taught some obligation to vote or think a certain way, but so they can resolve issues of religion and politics that most of us have but are unsure how to reconcile.”
Then, in days following our discussion, I ran across an article by Rachel Held Evans who writes professionally about issues of faith and politics from an evangelical perspective.
Armed with a bundle of recent religious surveys, Ms. Evans concluded many young adults are turning their backs – especially on evangelical churches – because “they perceive evangelical churches to be too political, too exclusive, too old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
She wrote, “I point to research showing young evangelicals often feel they must choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness. The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a set of rules when these same millennials long for faith communities in which they’re safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.”
Ministers wearing jeans, a fancy coffee shop in fellowship hall, larger worship bands and other current “style changes” are not what she means. She points out millennials were raised on advertising and rock bands and have a “sensitive B.S. meter.” It may be those “style changes” are some of the very things causing an exodus among the young.
Evans says many of her peers are being drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem unpretentious, unconcerned with ‘being cool’ and are refreshingly authentic. “We want a truce between science and faith,” she wrote. “We want to be known for what we stand for – not what we're against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the Kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single (political) party or a single nation.”
One more thing from Ms. Evans: “Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from 40-somethings and grandmothers – Generation Xers and retirees. Their messages are clear: ‘Me, too!’”
Just after reading her latest work, the collective worlds of modern Christianity and politics collided full-on for me as Pope Francis stunned many Catholics and much of the rest of the world. When asked about gay men in the priesthood, he responded “Who am I to judge them?” That must have put some new cracks in the old Vatican walls.
Just as many Americans are feeling their recent votes have brought them a political world they weren’t expecting, some are also re-examining recent religious swings away from mainstream churches. They’re looking a second time at the newer, hipper, more flashy services that mask an unforgiving base of rigidity mixed with similar unforgiving political themes. They’re finding churches of the “you’ve-got-questions, we’ve-got-answers” approach to Christianity are more exclusionary than inclusive.
Many years ago, we were told of old-line Baptist – and even Mormon churches – where congregants were told to seat themselves on one side of the aisle if they were Democrats and the other side if Republican. I never experienced that but heard the stories too often to discount them.
A lot of more moderate, mainline clergy are hesitant to introduce the subject of politics in religious study classes. For good reason. Some have either been handed their walking papers after doing so or found themselves with a congregation splintered along political lines. If you wear a turned-around collar, mixing the two can be a career-changer. It shouldn't be.
But, as Ms. Evans writes, “Millennials want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in care of our world and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte, go about business as usual and expect us to stick around.”
At the end of any hour-long worship service, congregations walk back out into the other world where they’ll spend 167 other hours before meeting again next week. For one hour. Many will either find their belief system challenged by a world of politics or their politics caught up in their beliefs. Some will try to reconcile the two – some will simply be confused.
Without trying to convert votes like souls, churches have a responsibility of spirituality of citizenship for the family and body as they do for preparing us for life everlasting. We turn to religion for comfort, for perspective, for truth, for relief, for sustenance, for meaning, for the outreach it provides to make us more well-rounded creatures of God.
But, our lives are lived overwhelmingly in a secular world. If churches don’t help us understand and become more comfortable with our surroundings and decisions in that world, they’re avoiding a responsibility to help us become better individuals. We don’t need to be told whom to vote for or what to vote against. We don’t need to be told what Jesus would do. We don’t need to be given lectures about political issues.
If approached in an open, moderate manner – if reasoned discussion can make us better informed – if acceptance of other’s views can be allowed as equally important as our own – if new associations can be made between our American systems of governance and our faith to create more informed, more intelligent participants – the worlds of religion and politics can be very compatible. And we may be better for the experience in both our worlds.