July 2, 2013
Evangelicals Are Too Political & Other Popular Myths
Rethinking perceptions vs. reality after the defeat of DOMA.
Since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 last week, it seems everyone with a keyboard has been analyzing the implications of the decisions. What does it mean for the gay rights movement? What does it mean for social conservatives? What does it mean for churches and religious liberty? Understandably many saw last week’s rulings as a significant victory for the LGBTQ community, and a seismic defeat for politically-organized evangelicals.
Critics outside the church say it is time for evangelicals to admit defeat and lay down their culture war weapons. Voices inside the church, like John Dickerson, echo this call. Last week in The Washington Post Dickerson wrote, “The repeal of DOMA proves that political involvement–useful as it may have once been—cannot stop the change of culture.” And, “The fall of DOMA demonstrates the end of investing too much into political involvement.”
On the surface I agree with Dickerson and others who warn evangelicals of the perils of social engineering through politics. I have issued such warnings myself. But as I’ve absorbed media reporting in the wake of the SCOTUS rulings from both Christians and non-Christians, I’ve grown increasingly confused by the assumption surrounding evangelical political activism. Have evangelicals really been “investing too much into political involvement”? And has evangelical political engagement really come at the expense of engaging other streams of the culture? Finally, does the perception of evangelicals as rabidly political fit with reality?
Let me begin with anecdotes--admittedly the weakest of arguments. One would assume from media reporting that evangelicals are obsessed with two things: politics and homosexuality. In my 30 years of involvement with evangelical churches, parachurch ministries, and mission organizations, I cannot recall hearing a single sermon about homosexuality. In addition, my role with Christianity Today connects me with evangelical congregation all over the country. Politics and gay marriage may arise in my private conversations with pastors, but I've never heard them engaged in a worship service. That does not mean these topics are never broached in a church setting, but they reside very, very far from the spotlight. And what about this past Sunday after the “culture shaking” ruling by the Supreme Court? Nothing. I did not hear a sermon, a comment, a prayer, or even a conversation in the church foyer about it. And this silence isn’t limited to LGBTQ issues. In three decades I’ve not heard what I would classify as a political or partisan sermon.
Given the lack of politics in my evangelical church experience, why do 75% of young non-Christians say evangelicals are “too political”? How do we explain this gap between what actually happens in evangelical communities and the media’s portrayal of evangelicals? There are two possible explanations. Either my church engagement is wildly outside the norm, or perhaps evangelicals aren’t as devoted to political social engineering as the outside culture seems to believe we are. To determine which is closer to reality, let’s consider some research.
In 2008 Pew asked Americans of different faiths whether churches should ever endorse political candidates. If evangelicals are more inclined to mix their faith and politics, as the popular perception says, one would expect evangelicals to see political endorsements by churches as more acceptable. But the Pew findings showed that white evangelicals were no more likely to support political endorsements by churches than anyone else. And surveys by Lifeway have found that evangelical pastors are overwhelming against (90%) bringing politics into the pulpit.
There is other research, of course, that shows most evangelicals do consider abortion and gay marriage to be important issues when voting, and most evangelicals do vote Republican as a result. But this does not mean evangelicals view themselves, their faith, or their mission in the world primarily through a political lens. How else can we explain two-thirds of evangelicals not wanting their churches engaging politics? With research showing evangelical churches and pastors firmly committed to a non-partisan expression of faith, why does the wider culture still see evangelicals as “too political”?
Let me offer two possibilities. First, the fact that most pastors avoid addressing politics or politically-charged issues may be at fault. By not tackling the complicated intersection of Christian faith and politics, pastors abandon this area of spiritual formation to the “Christian” voices on the radio and cable news claiming to speak for the church. The average evangelical, therefore, has her political ideology shaped more by conservative pundits dressed in a veneer of evangelicalism than by her pastor or local church community. Ironically, if pastors talked more openly and thoughtfully about politics evangelicals may be perceived as less political, or at least less partisan.
Second, the presence of socially conservative, politically rabid evangelicals fits the narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media. With 24 hours of airtime to fill each day, finding more extreme voices, to say more outrageous things, and incite more conflicts has become the mission of the news media. That’s why last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” pitted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow against the founder of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed. Are these the two people you want on your news program for an intelligent, respectful conversation about gay marriage? Not likely. These are the people you want at the table when making the news is more valued than reporting it.
When Christians like Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the traveling troop from Westboro Baptist are constantly given a media microphone, we shouldn’t be surprised that Americans, including evangelicals, think evangelicals are too political. But consider this surprising interview with NPR’s Ira Glass. A self-identified “secularist,” Glass is the brain and voice behind “This American Life.” He says the way Christians are depicted in the media is unfair and inconsistent with his experience of them.
So before we jump on the bandwagon denouncing evangelical political involvement, we need to ask ourselves if we’re reacting to a media-created perception of evangelicals or a reality rooted in truth and experience. Have evangelicals actually put too much focus on politics? Are evangelicals really more interested in legislating laws than loving their neighbors? Were evangelicals truly the big losers in court last week, and does the SCOTUS decision mean evangelicals must now rethink their entire cultural and missional strategy?
In the wake of the DOMA and Prop 8 rulings, evangelicals shouldn’t only be investigating their view of marriage, sexuality, and politics, but also their perception of themselves and who is shaping it. As Stephen Colbert has said, “It doesn’t seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”