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The evangelical divide

Political and social issues are splintering American Christians. Can the Church find unity?


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The evangelical divide

Part 1 of a 3-part series

IT’S SUNDAY MORNING. Two evangelicals in two different states get ready to go to church.

Beth Daranciang is a 55-year-old white woman in Seattle. Michael Byrd Sr. is a 37-year-old black man in St. Louis. Daranciang attends Westgate Chapel, an independent Pentecostal church in Edmonds, a suburb about 20 miles north of Seattle. Byrd pastors Faith Community Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church plant in inner-city St. Louis. Both share beliefs in essential Christian doctrines. But they differ in assessing and addressing problems in the United States and the Church.

In Seattle, Daranciang listened to a fiery sermon about fighting for faith. “We’re in a bloody battle,” the preacher bellowed. “Amen,” the congregation responded. “We’re fighting for our neighbors,” the preacher went on. “Our schools. Our churches. Edmonds. For our nation, our sons and daughters, our granddaughters and grandsons, for them to come back to God!” Daranciang nodded along. She had a full day of fighting ahead: After church, she would attend two events—one among local Republicans to showcase upcoming political candidates, the other among people fed up with the homelessness crisis—and then back to church to attend a forum on school choice and public education.

In St. Louis, Byrd sat in a 111-year-old church building with peeling paint, praying for the upcoming service. He was running low on fuel. Two nights ago, he and his wife had just returned home from a date night when his sister called him: His cousin was dead. Someone had shot him three times in the head at a store. Byrd slept less than three hours that night and spent the next day comforting family. His heart ached. But in half an hour, he had to preach on a series about resetting the rhythms of faith that many of his church members had lost during the pandemic. 

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. called 11 o’clock on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” Though the United States has seen the number of multiracial churches increase in the last 20 years, another form of segregation is burgeoning among faithful worshippers. In the last several years—especially 2020, which plunged churches into battles over pandemic restrictions, racial unrest, and a tumultuous election—many evangelicals have shuffled from one church pew to another based on those hot-button issues. Many splits occur not over theological, denominational, or missional differences but over how Christ-followers view and approach the cultural and social forces of the day.

“We watched our church catch a sickness,” one 30-year-old woman in rural Pennsylvania told me. “We used to be able to disagree on the secondary things.” But in the last two years, she began hearing increasingly hostile rhetoric against fellow Christians whom the church deems “woke,” including people who wear masks. She and her husband left that church in April. She had been a member for six years, and her husband had attended since he was 12.

Two months later in Los Angeles, a 32-year-old man and his wife also left a church he’s been attending for nine years because he thought the pastors had allowed the “social gospel” to distract from core doctrines. In the past year, that church led prayers of lament over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the Atlanta spa shooting. Community groups got into heated arguments over their conflicting views on justice: “We couldn’t even have a civil conversation,” he said. “The church I knew changed.”

Cultural commentators have written essays outlining different factions within American evangelicals. But I wanted to understand two very different evangelicals, not just by getting to know them individually, but by getting to know their families, their communities, and the web of relationships that influence them and are influenced by them. To report this story, I spent two consecutive weekends following Daranciang and Byrd. I joined their group prayer and Bible studies, hung out with their friends, visited their homes, and met their families. Daranciang cooked her mother’s special salmon recipe. Byrd’s wife Traci baked her famous “sexy mac and cheese.”

I met Daranciang through Twitter and Byrd at the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) annual meeting in Nashville. Neither fits simplistic tropes: Daranciang is a culturally aware wife of a Filipino immigrant with two biracial children. Byrd is a loud and proud Southern Baptist who admires Pastor Charlie Dates (a prominent black pastor in Chicago who vocally left the SBC) but says, “Some people are leaving loud. I’m staying loud.” Yet Daranciang and Byrd diagnose problems within America and the Church differently and are battling those problems in different ways. This three-part series will examine how they do so on questions of race, politics, and the culture wars.

Beth Daranciang

Beth Daranciang Photo by Daniel Kim/Genesis

DARANCIANG IS A UNICORN. In the ultra-blue city of Seattle, she’s a conservative evangelical and the senior vice chair of the King County Republican Party. Her next-door neighbor planted a sign affirming “Black Lives Matter” and LGBTQ rights in the front yard. Daranciang plastered a sign on her window that states her own values: freedom, self-sufficiency, small government, law and authority, family. In her kitchen hangs an American flag and a “Blue Lives Matter” flag.

Daranciang is ever-mindful of her minority status. Seattle is one of the most unchurched cities in the country at 54 percent. Many historic churches are selling their buildings due to dwindling and aging congregations—a reminder to Daranciang that her country is heading fast toward a post-Christian age.

We drove around Seattle’s University District, where the historic neo-Gothic building of University Christian Church is now a giant hole, slated for a 22-story mixed-use residential tower. The majestic Greek-style Third Church of Christ, Scientist building may be next to crumble. A once-beautiful, century-old United Methodist church is now rubble. On ­demolition day, the remaining congregation—about two dozen white-haired folks—watched their church collapse into bricks and dust.

Those churches were dying before their buildings fell, Daranciang said. Many had already abandoned traditional sexual ethics, planting rainbow flags and collaborating with left-wing nonprofits. “That’s where I protested Cecile Richards,” Daranciang said while pointing to the demolished Methodist church. The congregation had allowed the former Planned Parenthood president to speak at an event there. Daranciang was holding up anti-abortion signs when a parent of her daughter’s friend spotted her. It was an awkward encounter.

A block away is the University Presbyterian Church (UPC), which Daranciang and her husband attended for 26 years. UPC, a PCUSA church that still upholds traditional marriage, underwent turmoil in 2019 when several church members, including a youth pastor, disagreed with the church’s stance. Eventually the LGBTQ-affirming group left, but the experience left Daranciang feeling sour: “To see so many people I know leave the church over that? I just didn’t want to fight anymore.”

To see so many people I know leave the church over that? I just didn’t want to fight anymore.

Daranciang had been feeling sour for a while. During the border crisis under the Trump administration, church members mourned the conditions of migrant children in border patrol cells but tensed up when the pastor spoke out against abortion: “They always talk about Trump’s failures, but never Obama’s failures.” She grew frustrated that her church rarely pushed back against local progressive policies with serious consequences—such as legalizing puberty blockers for adolescents and double mastectomies for teenage girls—despite its emphasis on justice.

Then 2020 struck like an earthquake. UPC held virtual services for more than a year due to the pandemic. After George Floyd died, UPC leaders condemned police brutality and racial injustice from the pulpit. Daranciang seethed: “There hasn’t really been any police brutality in Seattle!” Instead, she was watching news about riots, looting, and assaults on the police. She worried for her nephew, a Seattle police officer. Who was speaking out for him, also a Filipino American? “It was so one-sided,” Daranciang said. “The church continuously talked about people of color, but not one word about our injured police?”

Last year on Aug. 1, while Seattle roiled in a long summer of conflict and chaos, Daranciang co-organized a pro-­police rally in front of City Hall. About 200 people gathered, holding “Protect Our Police” and “Defend Not Defund SPD” signs. Another group of counterprotesters tried to disrupt the rally by blasting King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from a loudspeaker. Pro-police protesters chanted back, “USA! USA!” Then on Oct. 10, she attended another pro-police demonstration. This time, a black-clad group descended with black umbrellas. Daranciang watched as one of the pro-­police protesters began arguing with them. Concerned for his safety, she rushed over to push the black umbrellas away, and someone pepper-­sprayed her. Her entire face burned.

That’s the kind of antagonism she has to deal with, Daranciang told me: “Conservatives are so sick of being pushed around, because we’re constantly being attacked. We can’t have a Trump sticker without getting our car trashed.” She was tired of being on the defensive even at church. So in December 2020, Daranciang decided, “I shouldn’t go someplace where I’m outraged all the time.”

She left UPC and found sanctuary at Westgate Chapel. There, she met like-minded people who share her concerns over abortion, gender issues, critical race theory, religious freedom, school choice, law and authority. There, she found a pastor who’s “not trying to be politically correct.” Instead of pointing out white supremacy, the church highlights the many immigrants in its congregation, an approach she feels is more conducive to racial reconciliation: “It’s more positive. It’s more like, ‘Wow! Look, we have so many people from different countries here!’”

Michael Byrd Sr.

Michael Byrd Sr. Photo by Sean McRae Loftin/Genesis

TO GET TO BYRD’S CHURCH OFFICE in Jennings, Mo., I drove by rows of beautiful, brownstone Tudor houses and lush trees. But once I headed north across Delmar Boulevard, the scenery changed.

I had crossed what’s known here as “the Delmar Divide,” the invisible line that marks the border between two worlds. South of Delmar is majority-white, with trimmed lawns, hip coffee shops, and vegan eateries. The north is majority-­black, with overgrown grass, liquor stores, and fast-food chains. Most of the 27,000 buildings and lots that sit vacant in St. Louis are clustered in the north. Although many of these abandoned houses are structurally sound with fine bricks and pretty porches, they’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the similarly built houses in the south.

Byrd was born and raised in the north side of St. Louis. So was his wife Traci, and most church members and friends. Traci grew up in a red-brick house in Baden, a neighborhood that’s more than 90 percent black with a median household income of about $29,000. Her childhood house now sits empty, rusty and creaky and boarded-up.

Traci remembers as a kid how close-knit her neighborhood was in the ’80s. Everyone knew one another, and no child could misbehave without a sharp-eyed auntie tattling. “And then the drugs came,” she recalled. One day, a young neighbor glided into Traci’s neighborhood in a new car that the neighborhood kids bounced over to admire. But even as a little girl, Traci sensed something was off—something about his eyes, his behavior, the way he frequented the weird house next to hers where strangers shuffled in and out.

The decades between 1970 and 2000 were also when many unskilled, working-­class blacks lost their jobs during the first wave of globalization and automation. Deindustrialization devastated manufacturing cities such as St. Louis, especially black communities, since more blacks worked in manufacturing jobs and had trouble finding new jobs due to lower levels of education, training, and connections. Those who had the means left the inner-city neighborhoods. Some who didn’t entered a cycle of unemployment, drug use, mental health problems, out-of-wedlock births, and violence.

For decades, a system of race-restrictive covenants, real estate agents who steered blacks away from white neighborhoods, and denial of mortgages and lines of credit spawned layers of racial disparities that continue today. Housing is cheap here, but fixing properties up can be expensive. Investors and businesses are reluctant to bring capital to an area with high poverty, crime, and violence. So the Delmar Divide persists.

Why in the world will CRT be a hot-button topic for me, when my family’s hurting over here?

Baden was where Byrd first planted Faith Community in 2016. The church rented a tiny space sharing a storefront with a barbershop. Byrd and his team did prayer walks around the neighborhood and asked locals what they needed. The answers varied—people wanted better jobs, schools, food choices, and transportation—but a common theme arose: “The church don’t do nothing for me,” Byrd recalled them saying.

“People don’t run to neighborhoods like this,” Byrd said as we drove by a vacant, decaying multistory apartment building with busted windows and ripped doors: “See, if somebody bought this building, they’ve got to tear it all down. That’s expensive.”

Byrd’s church hosted block parties in the neighborhood, did “random acts of kindness” by helping locals in the area pay for their laundry or gas, and visited people’s homes. When an elderly woman started attending his church, Byrd himself cleaned her gutters and trimmed her bushes. When a shootout erupted at the next-door barbershop, church members helped clean up the bloody mess.

In about two years, the church grew to about 70 people in a space built for 35. The St. Louis Metro Baptist Association, a local association affiliated with the SBC, offered Byrd an old church building five minutes away from Baden. Outside donations and Southern Baptist mission teams helped fix up the sanctuary. Faith Community now owns that building, which still needs an additional tens of thousands of dollars in renovations.

Helping his church members deal with crime, dysfunction, and poverty causes him to roll his eyes when he hears fellow evangelicals arguing about critical race theory: “All this conversation about CRT, wokeness, picking sides, makes me sick to my stomach.”

Just the night before, his cousin was shot dead. During dinner, his iPhone kept buzzing with messages from church members. One person’s uncle just died. Another person’s family member was just hospitalized. “Why in the world will CRT be a hot-button topic for me, when my family’s hurting over here?”

—Part 2 will appear in the next issue of WORLD


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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DCal3000

I look forward to hearing more of this article, but I do think there is reason to be cautious about the following statement: "Many splits occur not over theological, denominational, or missional differences but over how Christ-followers view and approach the cultural and social forces of the day." That dichotomy is not always clear-cut. For instance, many critics of what is now known as "CRT" (for lack of a better term) view it as containing ideas inherently at odds with Christian doctrine. CRT's over-emphasis on race and group identity leads to divisions; the division is built into the idea. The fruits of the last few years bear that out abundantly. Moreover, as many have pointed out, the reasoning processes in "CRT" also lead to un-Christian views on sexuality, etc. So objection to "CRT" is not merely a cultural concern; it is very much a doctrinal concern too. Similarly, recent debates over COVID entailed questions about when it is worth risking one's life to observe the sacraments, etc. Again, what might at first glance look like a cultural concern is also very much a doctrinal concern. One of the individuals quoted in this article lamented their church's inability to agree to disagree on secondary issues; that individual left that church. I would posit, however, that concern about secondary issues works both ways. If you are offended that someone else is dogmatic on a secondary issue then you break fellowship over it, there is a chance that the issue may not be as secondary as you initially believe - either for you or for the dogmatist. Culture is influenced by doctrine much more than people these days believe, and the inability to deal with that is, perhaps more than anything else, the reason for the current divisions occurring in churches.

Kenley Leslie

The second paragraph of your article on evangelical divide illustrates why there is a divide in evangelicalism. Sundays have been turned into political action days. Yes we need to be politically active when we have the stomach for it. God gave us Sundays to focus on Him and what we can learn about Jesus and how we may live before his face.
In light of what Michael was dealing with that Sunday, I wonder if his sermon was more biblically oriented and dealing with the hurts of real people.
Did the church referred to in paragraph 5 of the article suddenly become “woke” overnight? The basis for “wokeness” was probably there. It just need a little help to be expressed.
The leaving of the church in paragraph 6 had a much better reason. It was biblical.
I keep trying to understand how a biblical evangelical can give their tithe to a denomination that supports abortion and gay marriage? It is good that Daranciang found a different church.
CRT and wokeness is important. Picking sides unbiblically is evil.
I like salmon more than Mac and cheese.

Salty1

“Helping his church members deal with crime, dysfunction, and poverty causes him to roll his eyes when he hears fellow evangelicals arguing about critical race theory: ‘All this conversation about CRT, wokeness, picking sides, makes me sick to my stomach.’”

This is the greatest irony. The Democrats are trying to use race, class, economic status and whatever else there is to divide us. The removal of police IS the problem why so many of the inner cities are having crime, drugs and other problems. Stores are being looted causing only more poverty and less jobs! The “wokeness” is a fundamental problem where they are using it to destroy our country. If we don’t see this then we will be the instrument of our own destruction as we don’t stand against this great evil!

If we do care about the racial divide - the poverty, crime, drugs, etc. of the inner cities- we will stand on these issues because we love our brothers and sisters in Christ no matter their color of their skin.

TayFlats

There are not "two sides." There is the Word of the Living God, and then there is sin/false teaching. Posing this as "two sides" IS the problem, not an analysis of the problem. While many Christians get things wrong, the "woke church" simply IS wrong.

SAWGUNNER

Ideally I would look across the US cultural landscape and see apolitical or publicly disinterested athletes, actors, singers and yes clergy. Politicized pulpits are poisonous. Are there issues of Biblical significance where the church must speak up for the voiceless, marginalized, weak vulnerable? Yes! And in that broad category unborn babies and their frightened mamas are at the front of the line, but it's a long line. In it too I see very much born babies, women abandoned by the "sperm donors" and yes even the "sperm donors" who created the whole "problem pregnancy" conundrum. I'm not a Culture Warrior or a Social Justice/Social Gospel crusader. Our job is to accurately demonstrate the unfailing love of Jesus to all who suffer in a sin-ravaged world even as we unswervingly proclaim His Holy standards so that those who love Him can learn and thus keep his commandments

BURNINGHEART

It is clear that "church" has very different meanings to these two. One is looking for political friends and the other is trying to "walk the talk" remembering Jesus' words about love: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and Love your neighbor as your self." Then, " love one another as I have loved you."

"church" is not something we "go to" or "belong to" or "become a member of". Perhaps this can be explained in this article. Jesus said He would build His church and that where two or three come together in His name that He would be there. Church is more of an organism than it is an organization. Hopefully this will become more clear as the articles appear in the future. Thanks - ron

SAWGUNNERBURNINGHEART

A famous general once said "People are not in the army. People are the army" You can and you should exchange the word "army" with "church"

LizzyBURNINGHEART

That is a very self-righteous statement to make. So what if someone is a Republican or conservative, that doesn't make them any less a follower of Jesus. And just because someone lives in a different set of circumstances and is a Democrat, that doesn't make them any more devout than the first person. The very judgmental tone you used is precisely why the church is struggling to find unity.
I identify with neither of the two people being interviewed - both seem to have been chosen solely because they fit the desired narrative, and we are left to infer what place God and Jesus hold in their lives. Neither represents a place where we will find unity and in the end the only true unity we will have is in Christ and centers only on Christ.

BURNINGHEARTLizzy

Greetings Lizzy: Your reply: "This is a very self-righteous statement to make" interests us. Could you please tell us all what you have read that is "very self-righteous"? Thanks - 'burningheart' (Luke 24:32)

TayFlatsLizzy

It seems burningheart was intentionally vague about who it is that is looking for politics and who is walking the talk. I'm assuming you assumed he meant conservatives were political and Leftists/Dems were "walking the talk."

Regardless of what burningheart actually meant, I will take a stand and specifically define. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat. End. The Democrat platform, and Leftism in general, is anti-Biblical in every way. There is no unity to be had with false teachers, which is what woke/crt/anti-racism/etc. is. It is a false gospel, not an area of "Christian freedom."

RFRI9819

Just went to a conference this past weekend where speakers had a biblical perspective on these "current" events: https://upsidedownconference.com
You should interview the speakers who presented for future articles. We need not be drawn into using the world's vocabulary, or even biblical vocabulary used in unbiblical ways in our conversations. There's POWER in the gospel as it is spoken and lived out in our lives, first in the lives of our Christian fellowship. We can have good and healthy conversations which the world can't duplicate and ultimately can't avoid.

MTWO2122

Interesting comments, I look forward to hearing more from folks on the God given means of unity, themes around the Gospel and discipleship informed by Scripture, Philippians 2:1-2 ff, Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-16.

BEGG2243

Just for clarity the Seattle Police Department has been under Federal oversight due to using excessive force for a very long time. https://www.king5.com/article/news/what-the-federal-consent-decree-means-for-seattle-police-department/281-1c410cb9-206c-4ff3-b6b9-e085ffb88648

BethBEGG2243

And tremendous changes were made in the next decade so that in May 2020, weeks before the George Floyd death, Mayor Durkan said "Nearly a decade later, as we submit the final report under the sustainment plan, Seattle police officers have become a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform,” said Durkan. “Our growing city has put more demand on police, and they have met the challenge, even during our COVID-19 crisis. In our City, our officers have responded to a record number of crisis calls, yet force has rarely been used." https://seattlemedium.com/seattle-files-motion-terminate-police-department-consent-decree-sustainment-plan

Earl C & Mary Peters

I look forward to this series. We know the answer is Jesus but somewhere we don't show it to others or ourselves. Prayer is important and needs to cover everyone.

EPOR3306

I am extremely excited to read this series. I find myself so baffled by the garbled messages dividing the church. I am seeking to understand what "the other side" is so upset about, all the while knowing I'm on "the other side" upset, as well. My biggest concern over the last year isn't that our nation is at war within itself, it is that the Bride of Christ is! What a picture we are. Come, Lord Jesus!

SAWGUNNEREPOR3306

It is time to concede that we cannot and should not expect Lost folks to act like they are Saved folks. On the never resolved issue of abortion, it may be time to agree to disagree. My state says when a heart starts beating a new life has started much in the same way that when a heart stops beating a life has ended. This was a arrived at by legislative compromise and given and take among elected representatives, NOT dreamt up by unelected "black robed masters" at a court house. If you on the other hand reject the proLife spiel you are free to have the law changed to line up with your viewpoint by elected like minded folks to represent you up in Albany or out in Sacramento. In the meantime, the church should expand any and all efforts to support family formation in the context of the sacrament of marriage

TayFlatsSAWGUNNER

While I get some of what you are saying, I cannot "agree to disagree" with injustice. Abortion is the torture and murder of children and not something a Christian can simply ignore. You cannot support family formation when you "agree to disagree" with the deformation into death of the most vulnerable of the family.

TayFlatsEPOR3306

Then you are missing the larger context. The Bride of Christ is not at war with itself, it is at war with false teachers. Most of the "anti-racist," "woke," "CRT," "leaving loud," etc. people call themselves Christians, as do many of the apostate preachers who preach racial reconciliation, reparations, etc. from the pulpit.
These are not Biblical, and they aren't Christians. They preach a false gospel and they lead many astray.