Myriam Renaud is the second scholar to respond to our Fall Forum question about the role of Christians and the church in political advocacy. For our Fall Forum, we have asked four scholars to respond to a question examining one facet of contemporary religious life, and we will publish their responses every Thursday for four weeks. Read last week’s response by Vance Morgan.
Though I am not a Christian, I have been asked, as a scholar of religion, to answer the question: “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?”
Though I prefer certain confessions over others, I don’t presume to know what is the true Christian confession. However, based on my study of the long arc of Christian thought, I have reached certain conclusions about what does, and does not, distort or compromise the Christian message.
Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek,” but I agree with Dorothy Day who wrote that we cannot be meek when faced when injustice. The Jesus on whom she modeled her political activism was the one who chased the money-changers out of the temple. I share Day’s view that the Christian message calls to us to participate in advocacy focused on helping “the least of these” and calls on us to join those who have taken up the work (too often thankless and frustrating) of ending oppressions. I am moved by Day’s immense gratitude to God for life and her drive to express her thanks by giving something back.
Today’s money-changers are the upper tier of U.S. households—in 2004, the top 1% owned 33% of net worth; the top 10% owned 70% (see Lisa Keister’s fine book, Faith and Money). In contrast, 16% of households had zero or negative net worth. The work to reverse the public policies and extant laws that not only enable but foster this kind of inequality will likely take decades of unflagging persistence in the face of countless setbacks. Not to work for policy change on these matters, or to work for policies that actually strengthen the status quo, strikes me as a distortion of Jesus’s example.
I worry about the decline in membership of Christian congregations on the left end of the political spectrum. I worry about this decline since my understanding of the Christian message, and my political views are more likely to be shared and supported by liberal and politically progressive Christians than conservative ones. We need churches that are willing to stand and act for justice, because political advocacy organized by religious institutions is more likely to succeed than solo attempts. In order to see the truth of this, we need only look back to the civil rights era to note that black churches served as a source of organization and inspiration. And, to note that black churches were able to count on allies in some of the northern mainline Protestant churches.
We can understand more clearly how the mix of religion and political advocacy actually plays out on the ground, whatever our loyalties might be, by paying attention to recent sociological research.
Sociologists of religion David Campbell and Robert Putnam, report in their book, American Grace, that religious evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Mormons are most likely to vote Republican. In contrast, Americans who rarely attend church or who have joined the ranks of the so-called “Nones” have a strong tendency to vote Democrat. In other words, the lower a person’s church attendance, the more likely s/he was to vote for the Democratic party. This doesn’t bode well for the future of mainline congregations—at least the ones that embrace progressive political views. The fewer Christians that commit to membership in politically progressive churches, the less likely they are to participate in these institutions’ organized efforts in support of the social justice causes that they (and I) embrace.
As Republicans and Democrats have taken ever more entrenched stands on abortion and same-sex marriage, Campbell and Putnam report that Americans choose to affiliate with congregations whose values are aligned with their political leanings. Simply put, we as Americans are choosing—or leaving—our churches based on our politics.
In surveys, 92% of Americans respond that they believe in God—a percentage that has barely fluctuated over the past three generations—but “Nones” are most likely to have left the Christian congregations in which they grew up because of those congregations’ conservative stances on sexual and political matters.
While this might seem obvious, this correlation has not always been the case; in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Christians were as likely to vote for a Democrat as liberal Christians and vice-versa. President Eisenhower, for example—a Republican—received the same percentage of support from conservative Christians as from liberal ones.
According to Putnam and Campbell, younger voters have moved in a politically progressive direction. However, the two scholars point out that younger voters are more likely to link conservative political activism with conservative Christianity than previous generations because, if they were born in the 1980s or thereafter, the tie-in between conservative-politics and conservative-religion has been the status quo during their entire lifetimes.
Young people, who perceive a connection between Christian congregations and objectionable political views, tend to reject religion outright. As a result, the pews of mainline Protestant congregations are filled with ageing worshippers/activists (see sidebar, “Tips for Progressive Churches”).
Besides being able to count on members who attend regularly, conservative congregations have another advantage with regard to political advocacy. Since the 1970s, Republicans have seen gains among college-educated churchgoers. Class and religion have become mutually reinforcing. Relative to the working class, college grads are more likely to be church attenders. The skew in the socioeconomic status of churchgoers has accompanied a skew in conservative politics.
With mostly well-to-do college grads are in the pews, Republicans can preach a single sermon that blends social conservatism (e.g. anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage) with the kinds of economic policies these grads favor. Political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that issues like abortion and same-sex marriage have the greatest impact on votes cast by upper class voters.
With this kind of sociological research in mind, I continue to worry about the decline of mainline Protestant churches for the following reasons:
- Conservative Christian congregations, with passion, a focused narrative, and financial backing, have monopolized media coverage with respect to religious political advocacy. As a result, increasing numbers of younger voters associate advocacy for conservative causes with institutional “Christianity.” Though many believe in a Christian God, are they unaware of the existence of politically progressive Christian denominations? Or do they view these denominations as irrelevant in the public square?
- Low church attendance currently correlates with Democratic voting patterns. Have politically progressive Christian denominations become so indistinguishable from “culture” that growing numbers of Americans see no difference between staying at home and going to church?
Only when younger Christians join with older Christians and give back by following in Day’s footsteps, passing judgment with “effrontery” on the economic situation of their state, other states, and of the country, will Christian believers follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the temple. Perhaps then, political advocacy that honors the Christian message will raise its hand against oppression more widely, more forcefully, and more effectively, working to reduce income inequality to tolerable levels so that more people—Christian or not—can have enough.