The evangelical divide
Political and social issues are splintering American Christians. Can the Church find unity?
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.
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.”
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!’”
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.
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
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