Congress and the Religion Imbalance
We've got to talk about religion and politics -- especially in church -- or things are going to get worse.
Having watched the spectacle of fifteen rounds of back-stabbing votes in last week’s Speaker of the House election here in Washington, I wanted to reflect a bit on questions of religion and politics. Religion didn’t play an immediately obvious role in those proceedings. Indeed, one could argue that what was on display were the Seven Deadly Sins — the exact opposite of a life of Christian virtue.
There were a few overtly “religious” moments — the House chaplain offering prayers, and a few speakers quoting scripture. The three main characters in the political drama — Kevin McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, and Hakeem Jeffries — are all Baptists. (There’s an entire dissertation in American religious history in that single sentence!) But for the most part, religion was not an overt factor in the Congressional debacle. Mostly, the fifteen votes reminded Americans why they don’t like politics — and why the separation of church and state was one of our nation’s best ideas.
I don’t mean to sound cynical here. But I’m thinking quite a bit about religion and politics these days. I know, I know. It isn’t polite. It is divisive. I hear my late mother fussing at me from heaven. Every time I write about politics, I watch my follower count go down. It is safer — especially these days — not to talk about it.
That is, however, exactly why we need to discuss religion and politics. Because it is fraught and too important to ignore. The admixture of the two has fractured and is transforming American society in some profound ways, and it differs from the historical patterns and tensions of religion and politics in the past.
For all the “invisibility” of religion last week, religion wasn’t absent. In some ways, it was made more conspicuous by being ignored. Many of the upcoming issues facing Congress in the next two years will involve faith and ethics — immigration, budgets, education, human and civil rights. And then there’s the continuing questions of January 6 with its attendant issues of domestic terrorism and white Christian nationalism, problems underplayed even in the recently released committee report. All of these concerns are threaded with religious perspectives, theological beliefs, and moral choices shaped by faith.
Religion isn’t just a matter of saying public prayers or bringing faith to the fore in policy decisions. It is also a matter of identity, one of the dimensions of who we understand ourselves to be, what motivates us, and the voices we most value and trust. On the same day that the battle for Speaker of the House began, the Pew Research Center issued their biennial report on the religious composition of the new congress.
The report’s top line observation is significant:
The U.S. Congress remains largely untouched by two trends that have long marked religious life in the United States: a decades-long decline in the share of Americans who identify as Christian, and a corresponding increase in the percentage who say they have no religious affiliation.
Since 2007, the share of Christians in the general population has dropped from 78% to its present level of 63%. Nearly three-in-ten U.S. adults now say they are religiously unaffiliated, describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” up from 16% who did not identify with a religion 16 years ago. But Christians make up 88% of the voting members of the new 118th Congress being sworn in on Jan. 3 – only a few percentage points lower than the Christian share of Congress in the late 1970s.
This has a few implications for the next two years that need to be understood by church people and the media. And so, here’s my list of hard truths about religion and politics:
Christians are not being persecuted in the United States.
Despite rapidly shifting demographics, and a rise in religious disaffiliation, Christians — particularly white Christians — hold enormous political power in Congress. Persecution, by its nature, means the group is powerless and without any legal or institutional protection. It actually demeans persecuted groups (of which there are many, including Christians) across to the world to say that American Christians are persecuted. American Christians now live in a more diverse society but that hardly amounts to persecution.
The imbalance between continued Christian political dominance and demographic diversity will cause more rifts and religious hostility in American society.
Rifts and hostility are not persecution. Being disliked for your beliefs doesn’t mean anything about your religious liberty. It means that people don’t like you and don’t want what you are selling — and are willing to argue back in defense of their own opinions and liberties. These are reactions to perceived unfairness or injustice in response to the power differential between elected leaders and those who feel their views are not represented. Sadly (from my perspective at least), public scorn for Christianity in general will increase and add to the ranks of those deconstructing and disaffiliating. In the long run, good churches will suffer from what is happening politically.
Evangelicals — especially those who appear to be most closely identified with Christian nationalism — are overrepresented in Congress.
While Christians dominate Congress, a minority group of radicalized white evangelical Christians will dominate all the other Christians.
Data is collected based on denomination, not on the “family” of Christian. For instance, “Baptist” includes everything from independent Baptists to Southern Baptists to a variety of Black Baptist churches. In order to figure out who among the Baptist group is more evangelical, you need to find out what congregation holds their membership, the specific Christian PACs and interest groups who support them, or you might ask if they consider themselves evangelical (instead of “mainline,” “social justice,” “liberal” or some such other familial moniker). Looking through the denominational lists, it appears (more research is certainly needed) that the more theologically liberal members are Democrats, while the more evangelical ones are Republicans. This makes sense.
But the real change isn’t in the traditional denominational categories. Although there are more Protestants in Congress than in several cycles, the denominational affiliation of those Protestants is less certain. Four Democrats identify as “non-denominational Protestants,” while eight Republicans do. Thirty Democrats identity as “unspecified/other Protestants” (11.4% of the total Congress) while a whopping 77 Republicans do (28.4% of the total Congress). Together, the “non-denominational” and “unspecified Protestants” account for the greater numbers of Christians in the Congress (a rise of 14% over the last Congress).
The main takeaway from this is that while the percentage of Christians in Congress has risen, their ties to traditional Christianity have loosened. That means Christian members of Congress are most likely less influenced by the arguments about church and state honed over generations by thoughtful political theologians and Christian ethicists of the past and more likely to be swayed by the influence of local pastors and popular religious movements. While some politicians may still care about what Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Roger Williams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph Bernardin, or Oscar Romero (to name a few) wrote about religion and politics, most do not.
Of course, the older traditions don’t have all the answers to contemporary questions, but they provide frameworks, ballast, and wisdom for political life and the common good — as well as practices of decision making that allow for humility, self-correction, and the inclusion of new voices. The long conversation with serious thinkers like these has been largely abandoned in favor of political theologies shaped by people like Franklin Graham, General Michael Flynn, Rod Dreher, and worship leader Sean Feucht.
It seems telling that of the 147 members of the last Congress who voted against certifying the presidential election in January 2021, 42 were either non-denominational or unspecified Protestants and 26 were Baptists (predominantly evangelical Southern Baptists) — meaning almost half of the “insurrection caucus” are people whose primary religious influences are in the orbit of white evangelicalism.
The internal tensions and divisions of American Christianity will continue to dominate our political life, both overtly and more surreptitiously.
If you have a Congress with a significant Christian majority, what happens in churches and denominations matters for politics. American Christianity is far more than a radicalized nationalist evangelicalism — it is racially diverse, theologically complex, liturgically varied, and organized through a dizzying array of polities. While white evangelicals might be the majority of Christians in Congress, they are NOT the majority of Christians in the United States. Indeed, white evangelical Protestant make up only 14.5% of the American population.
When journalists and pundits equate “evangelical” with “Christian,” a whole bunch of Christians are left out. And that doesn’t mean just Catholics. It means a host of ethnic Christians, liberal Protestants, social justice Catholics, Black Protestants, progressive Christians, and members of peace churches (like Quakers and Anabaptists). There are many, many Christians who would like to see a more representative and diverse Congress — and who vigorously oppose white Christian nationalism.
Any fair analysis of religion and politics must take into account all the Christian dissenters to the sort of hyper-radicalized white Christian nationalism that has overtaken both evangelical churches and American politics. And the diversity among the dissenters matters as well — Christian communities right now are stressed internally by the need to adapt as they re-imagine their missions and theologies in conversation with concerns of generational change, understanding racism and gender issues, and continuing economic struggles. Those Christians who aren’t overtly supportive of white evangelical politics are having a hard time finding a common voice or common ground in a world of increasing diversity — and that is leading to many internal institutional conflicts even in the most un-evangelical Protestant denominations.
In coming months, I’ll be writing more about this last point.
* * * * *
Lots of church people would like their churches and faith communities to be an escape from all this. But that would be equivalent to burying our heads in the proverbial sand. American culture is at a point where the threads of religion and politics are nearly impossible to untangle. We’re all living in this knotted reality.
The only way out of this mess is through it. That means that churches should — and must — talk about religion and politics. We need to re-introduce the old traditions and the long argument regarding church and state. We need to argue about what it means to be Christian in a less-Christianized world. We need to figure out humility and hospitality. We need robust, creative sermons, theology, and spiritual practices that make political sense now — and embody a beautiful biblical faith that contributes to a flourishing, fairer world.
In recent years, some Christians have worked on the two “de”s — decolonization and deconstruction. I’d like to add a third. We Christians need to de-radicalize our own churches to make things like white Christian nationalism anathema. Ignoring the dangers of what is happening in the current Congress isn’t a spiritual escape from the tensions of religion and politics. Ignoring religion and politics won’t spare us from divisions, anger, and pain. Ignoring them ensures that even more extremist and more dangerous forms of Christian politics will arise to the detriment of not only American politics but to Christianity itself. Ignoring religion and politics is like ignoring cancer. It only gets worse.
So, let’s get to work. Even in church, especially in church. If we don’t do this, nobody else will. We Christians have a say in own fate.
I may live to regret this, but leave a comment. Please. Thoughtful. Prayerful. Not defensive or mean. What kind of political theology do we most need now?
There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
— Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times Are These?”
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Taking the Bible seriously should mean taking politics seriously. The major voices in the Bible from beginning to end are passionate advocates of a different kind of world here on earth and here and now.
Many American Christians are wary of doing this, for more than one reason. Some are so appalled by the politics of the Christian Right that they have rejected the notion that Christianity has anything to do with politics. Moreover, the word “politics” has negative associations in our time. Many think of narrowly partisan politics, as if politics is merely about party affiliation. Many also dismiss politics as petty bickering, as ego-driven struggles for power, even as basically corrupt.
But there is a broader meaning of the word that is essential. This broader meaning is expressed by the linguistic root of the English word. It comes from the Greek word polis, which means “city.” Politics is about the shape and shaping of “the city” and by extension of large-scale human communities: kingdoms, nations, empires, the world.
In this sense, politics matters greatly.
— Marcus Borg
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On January 13-15, on St. Simons Island in Georgia, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a weekend festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
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