Something sinister is happening in American churches. A “seismic shift” is underway within evangelicalism, according to a researcher quoted in a New York Times story of a conservative pastor who left the increasingly conspiratorial church in his hometown of Arkansas. Reporting from his own hometown in Michigan, evangelical writer (and pastor’s son) Tim Alberta recounts a pastor’s long rant about COVID-19 vaccines and ivermectin as well as “informal discussions about the civil war in places that claim to worship the Prince of Peace. A chasm opens up, in these stories, between an older, theologically and politically conservative style of Christianity and a newer, more aggressive style that embraces explicit partisanship and culture war grievances.
The alarm, alienation and schism created by political polarization in white evangelical circles is widely reported. But mainstream Catholics and Protestants are experiencing their own internal conflicts and polarizations over issues that could not have been imagined just a few years ago. What is happening here?
American Christianity and American politics have always been intertwined. The churches have been on all sides on just about every major issue, from slavery and abolition to bosses and unions, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, from abortion to war and peace. Both sides of the Civil War, as Lincoln pointed out, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Honest Abe wasn’t saying no one was right or wrong. (How, he wondered in the next line, could anyone invoke the help of the Almighty to wring his bread from the sweat of another person’s brow?), was then and always has been. been exact. Even congregations that carefully avoided controversial issues made their own political statement, and no one should admire it.
There has never been a period of apolitical innocence in our churches. What is different now – or at least what seems different to me – is that our identity as Christians risks being completely subsumed into the dynamics, language and team spirit of our contemporary culture wars. And we don’t necessarily do it on an issue like slavery (which divided many denominations in the 19th century) or the war overseas, but on very bizarre symbolic battles. There is no logical (let alone theological) connection between the off-label use of deworming drugs, the school history curriculum, mask rules, and abortion. Yet, as a society, we are sorting ourselves out with increasing uniformity between sets of shared views on these disparate issues. For churches and pastors in these stories, Christianity is being redefined as an overarching cultural identity, shaped by mainstream media voices and inseparable from political tribalism.
While I can’t say I’ve encountered anything like election conspiracies and eccentric medical claims in my mainstream Protestant circles, we have quietly developed our own culture-war labeling. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the debates and controversies have gradually moved away from doctrines like grace or the power of the sacraments, or ethical issues like divorce and the appropriate expression of sexuality, on the terrain of modern identity politics, cultural sensitivity and regulatory compliance. As one of the whitest denominations in America, we easily fall into the stereotypical scenario of a white person accusing another white person of acting like a white person. Claims of doctrinal truth or even due process are obscured and supplanted by claims and counterclaims of privilege, position, and prejudice. As dysfunctional as it sounds to me, I must recognize that our reliance on the language of nonprofit liberalism and higher education serves a purpose: it indicates who is and who is not in our culture.
Where does this seismic change come from? I suspect the answer has at least something to do with declining religious participation in the United States. Each year, a smaller percentage of Americans identify with a religious tradition or regularly attend religious services. Leaders and institutions are left to search for secular trends that we can co-opt. If our congregations, or the people just outside of them, are shaped by QAnon stories or the language of corporate diversity training, it’s tempting to borrow their energy to keep our herds engaged or attract new arrivals. And in an age of shrinking budgets and constant reinvention, it may just be too much to ask leaders to hold the cultural center while having to reinvent our outdated institutional forms. If we have chosen a side and excluded all dissent, it is at least one dimension of the conflict that we do not have to manage. After all, worshipers can always find a church that better reflects their cultural and political alignment, regardless of what we choose to do.
A little over a year ago, in these pages, I tried to offer hope that the culture war of COVID restriction in and beyond the churches would be healed by the arrival of vaccines. I could hardly have been more wrong. Henceforth, it seems that nothing at all can escape the all-consuming demands of cultural belonging. Today, I know not to offer false hope that churches will be an exception. Instead, I’ll just conclude with a word of warning. We are obligated to seek justice, to hold our civic leaders to account, and to speak out for our faith in the public square. But if the only way to do this is to emulate the rhetoric and obsessions of an increasingly hostile and fragmented secular culture, we will eventually disappear into it. And we won’t even miss.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in University Park. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.