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The myth of the Republican church

Progressive churches are much more likely to preach politics on Sunday mornings

Elizabeth Warren speaks from the pulpit at Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia, S.C., on Aug. 18, 2019. Associated Press/Photo by Meg Kinnard

The myth of the Republican church

If you have been reading most political and religious coverage over the last several years, you’ll come away thinking that the biggest threat to American democracy are evangelical Christians, and especially those who attend church every week. A virtual cottage industry supports an endless stream of articles, books, sermons, and podcasts that give the impression that Sunday morning in conservative churches is like a Republican pep rally with prayer.

But the truth is much different than the narrative. Sociologist Ryan Burge, who studies the intersection of religion and faith, says, “Research shows that only a very small fraction of American pastors invoke politics from the pulpit.” To be sure, there are examples of unhealthy and ungodly displays of syncretism, but the latest research by Burge actually reveals that when it comes to hearing partisan sermons, it is progressive worshippers, rather than conservative church-goers, who report frequent political messaging from the pulpit.

George Yancey, who studied conservative and progressive politics for his book One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America, concurs: “One of our findings is that progressive Christians prioritize political values more than conservative Christians do. Political conformity is more important for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians. At first I thought this merely reflected a reality that progressive Christians care more about progressive political ideology than conservative Christians care about conservative political ideology.”

And yet there is such an imbalance in the way we think about the intersection of Christianity and partisan politics. When pastor David Platt prayed over President Trump after his impromptu visit, he was roundly criticized, and warnings were issued over the threat of a looming theocracy. And yet it’s routine for Democratic politicians to be endorsed from the pulpit in progressive churches and even offered the chance to stump for their policies, as if those polices are interconnected with Scripture. And there is never a corresponding avalanche of outrage. It’s almost as though the outrage is correlated with whether the political candidate or issue at question furthers narratives consistent with progressive thinking. It sure makes one wonder, at least.

To listen to many analysts, you’d think that in evangelical contexts, members are catechized every week in Republican talking points, given the latest tracking polls in their bulletins, and offer prayers to a statue of Ronald Reagan. And yet the opposite is true. Conservative worshippers may vote conservatively and, in a two-party system, they primarily vote GOP because of the stark moral contrasts of the competing platforms’ agendas, but they rarely if ever hear the name of a politician invoked in the pulpit.

To listen to many analysts, you’d think that in evangelical contexts, members are catechized every week in Republican talking points.

If anything, pastors are often too reticent to address prevailing moral issues in the pulpit, failing to help their members live out their citizenship throughout the week. This often leaves churchgoers overly influenced by media voices and other authorities whose worldviews may or may not correspond to Christian witness. This is why so many Christians possess a deficient public theology. Too often we fail to live out the way of Christ in the way we do politics.

But ethical formation based upon faithful proclamation of Scripture is a different practice than overt campaigning and outright endorsements. Preachers, after all, are to be pastors and not pundits. The gospel is not partisan, but it is political and always speaks a word of warning to the ideologies of the age. The job of the pastor is to shape consciences through the revealed and undiluted Word of God.

Christians on Sunday are citizens on Monday, so what they hear in church and in their small groups should impact the way they live in the world. It’s not an outbreak of theocracy to want to apply our Christian faith to the policies that affect our communities. And churches aren’t the partisan hothouses they are often assumed to be. Many conservative Christians are misrepresented by those who write about evangelicals in bad faith.

So, if you are interested in hearing a partisan sermon as the midterm elections get closer, you’ll have a hard time finding one this Sunday in a conservative evangelical church. If you do hear such a message, that is a failure of the pulpit. But you could always visit a progressive church, in which case you might just score a selfie with your favorite Democratic politician.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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