America’s Churches Are Now Polarized, Too
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the first Sunday after the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January, the Rev. Bill Corcoran stood before his socially distant parishioners at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in suburban Chicago and finally, unambiguously, crossed the line.
“Over the past four years,” he said, “I have failed you by not speaking out when awful things were said and done.” He should have spoken up, he said, about Donald Trump’s abuse of women, his contempt for truth, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his denigration of political rivals, his disrespect for the parents of a dead soldier.
As everyone in the pews understood, Corcoran’s mea culpa implicated more than a lone parish priest. If Corcoran was wrong not to have denounced Trump’s bad words and deeds, what of the parishioners who had supported them, and then voted for more?
Reaction was swift. A dozen congregants walked out of 7:30 Mass, Corcoran told the Chicago Tribune. Nearly two dozen at 9:30. About 30 more at 11:30. Corcoran was “rattled” as he watched members of his flock turn away, he told me in an email.
America’s 380,000 churches have long managed political conflict. Issues such as abortion, capital punishment and government aid to the poor all have a religious valence. But as political polarization has grown more intense, the most sacred spaces have grown more vulnerable to it. Some churches have turned to professional moderators to help keep congregations together.
“I’ve been studying religion and religious congregations for 30 years,” said Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of numerous books on American religion. “This is a level of conflict that I’ve never seen. What is different now? The conflict is over entire worldviews — politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.”
The erosion of White Christian power in a nation historically dominated by White Christian men has posed new challenges. According to a Pew Research Survey released in February, 58% of Republicans expect “White people” to lose influence under President Joe Biden. In a January poll by the American Enterprise Institute, a majority of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
The insecurities of White Christian conservatives have created a robust market for demagogy along with a rationale for political extremism. Trump warned his followers time and again that if his political opponents gained power, “You won’t have a country anymore.” Fox News builds its nightly programming around the same message of fear and victimization. Millions carry their grievances through the week, Sundays very much included.
Fear of racial and cultural change on the right has been met with, and exacerbated by, moral revulsion on the left. Liberal churchgoers found it inconceivable that Christians occupying adjacent pews had supported a man who had spent a lifetime subverting Christian values and who ran his campaign on racial aggression. Many deemed a vote for Trump not simply wrongheaded, but unconscionable.
“The astonishment of the left at the election of Trump produced high tension in churches in 2016 and 2017,” said Allen Hilton, executive director of House United, a nonprofit he founded in 2016 to work on bridging partisan divides. Churches soon became two-thirds of his clientele. “I probably visit 30 churches a year,” Hilton said. The erosion of trust among congregants after Trump’s election, he said, was “standard operating procedure in those churches, whether they were left-leaning churches that had a few right people, or right-leaning that had a few left people.”
Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Houston, Texas, said the effects of partisan tribalism, intensified by social media, are increasingly apparent in the feedback he gets from church members on both sides of the divide. “Talking points become drivers of opinion instead of Scripture,” he said in a telephone interview. “When I recently preached a sermon in which I spoke about caring for the poor, there were a couple comments made to me afterward about how that was pushing a ‘liberal agenda.’ Obviously, caring for the poor is pretty central to the New Testament.”
Lydia Bean is a sociologist and author of a book on evangelical churches on each side of the U.S.-Canada border. She’s also a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Texas House of Representatives and a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. At Broadway Baptist, she said in a telephone interview, “most leaders in the church would say that their goal is to be welcoming to both Republicans and Democrats.”
Trumpism’s aggression, however, is difficult to map onto even the most pliable Christian moral framework. How do you christen a policy of strategic sadism inflicted on migrant and refugee children?
“It just made it really apparent that there’s not a shared moral worldview between those who support and those who oppose Trump,” Bean said. “Either separating children from their families is wrong or it’s not. But, all of a sudden, that’s supposed to be something that we agree to disagree on in the congregation? I don’t think so.”
The spread of political extremism has brought tensions even to solidly conservative congregations. Battles over face masks and in-person services became proxies for deeper struggles.
“There are pastors who are exhausted,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore cited the case of a pastor “who doesn’t engage in any political talk at all but simply offered a prayer for President Biden, as we’re commanded to do in the Bible, to pray for our leaders. And a woman started yelling at him from the congregation that Biden is not president, that it was a stolen election and so forth.”
Propaganda and violent fantasies pervade MAGA culture. The pathological miasma of QAnon, in which Trump is portrayed as a kind of Muscle Jesus with superhero accents, ends with the mass execution of perfidious Democrats. “I write a newsletter every Monday,” Moore told me. One week, “I was responding to more questions than I could count from people saying, ‘What do I do with family members who have embraced conspiracy theories and are into QAnon and so forth.’ So even in places where that’s not affecting the church, it’s still affecting the larger ecosystem where these people live.”
Much discussion of religion in the Trump era focused on his devoted following of White evangelical conservatives. Serial business failure and manic self-indulgence were recast for evangelical audiences as crucibles by which Trump was tempered by an affirming God. The lacerating news media and Russia-obsessed Democrats played the role of Pontius Pilate to Trump’s divinely sanctioned savior.
Yet Trump’s appeal was never confined to evangelical conservatives. And it persisted even after his months-long attempt to overthrow the government culminated in a violent cataclysm. “At the end of the year, following the riots at the U.S. Capitol, White mainline Protestants reported nearly identical favorability levels for Trump (41%) and Biden (44%),” noted Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, in an email.
The attack on the Capitol pushed some congregations to draw a line, just as Father Corcoran finally did. At Lydia Bean’s Baptist Church in Fort Worth, “We issued a statement against the insurrection and defending democracy and the results of the election,” she said. “That was a big step for us. We hadn’t made that kind of public statement before.”
Since the attempted coup, said Allen Hilton, the executive director of House United, he has seen an “increased opening” for discussions among Democrats and Republicans in churches. “Conversations right now are actually pretty productive,” he said. He likened many Republican churchgoers to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, whose partisanship is unshaken but who has distanced himself from Trump and disavowed the violent fantasies of QAnon. “People don’t like to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I’m wrong,’ but I think what we’ve seen in McConnell, for instance, has happened with a lot of people in churches: ‘I voted for a guy thinking that he couldn’t do this level of harm.’”
Julie Boler is an executive with Braver Angels, a nonprofit founded in the wake of the 2016 election with a goal of de-polarizing civic life. The group recently ran an election-related program called With Malice Toward None, which was designed to foster community dialogue, empathy and cohesion. “We had a total of 400 organizations that signed on,” she said in a telephone interview, “and more than half of those were churches.”
I asked Boler how her group fosters comity in churches that include members who cling to conspiracy theories about the “stolen election” and the instigators of the Jan. 6 rioters. “There have been discussions in the workshops and debates that we’ve had, where that has really come to a head,” she told me. “People on the left are more inclined to say, ‘We can’t even have this conversation if you don’t agree with this factual situation.’”
Boler says that, despite obvious difficulties, it’s better to keep the reality-challenged engaged in discussion than to reject them. Using a moderated, structured curriculum, Braver Angels tries to steer dialogue in the direction of reasoned disagreement. “We just made a decision,” she said. “We’re not going to reject new members who have doubts about the election.”
Sojourners, a pillar of the American religious left that was founded during the Vietnam War, is working on its own curriculum to address polarization in churches. “The church should be one of the few places where you can bring together people of very different ideological perspectives and political leanings, and be able to create a space for civil dialogue that’s rooted in core Christian principles and values,” said Sojourners President Adam Taylor. “Part of the reason we have been developing this curriculum is we realized that many clergy and pastors don’t have the training, tools or experience doing that.”
Politics, for many clergy, is perilous terrain, and they expend substantial creativity avoiding it. To counter polarization, however, programs designed to foster conversations must confront the narrative of White Christian victimhood and loss.
“Even amid our current moment of reckoning and enlivened consciences around issues of racial justice, the role that White Christianity has played in granting moral legitimacy to White supremacy has largely escaped scrutiny,” said Robert Jones of PRRI when I interviewed him last summer about his searing book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.”
Can churches succeed with “courageous conversations” that confront unreality? It’s not like a debate about the morality of abortion, where even the most extreme positions are generally comprehensible and follow their own moral logic. To believe that Trump won the 2020 election is to wage war on reason itself.
Julie Boler ominously noted that the conflicts of 2016 look like “a cakewalk compared to where we are now.” But there are also bright spots. Younger evangelicals are less beholden to their elders’ cultural and racial obsessions. “These are people,” Russell Moore said, “who were formed theologically in a time when they never considered themselves to be part of a cultural majority in the United States.” Unlike many of their parents, they don’t equate the end of White Christian dominance with the end of America.
Community is central to Christianity. Paul compares the church to a body; cut off one part and the entire entity is wounded. “Christianity succeeded where the Hellenistic and late classical philosophies had failed,” wrote political theorist Sheldon Wolin, “because it put forward a new and powerful idea of community which recalled men to a life of meaningful participation.”
In his influential best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Church,” the 1995 publication of which preceded his influential best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California advised church builders to market church as a family, and use relationships as the fuel to make it grow. “Christianity is not philosophy,” Warren writes, “it’s relationship.”
Warren is a genius at church building. According to the Saddleback website, “more than 200,000 church leaders from around the world have been trained in Saddleback’s purpose-driven philosophy.” In a January email to church members, Warren, who strives to hover above partisan politics, delivered what reads like a warning: “Unity is the soul of fellowship,” he wrote. “If you destroy a church’s unity, you rip the heart out of the body of Christ.”
Churches have confronted polarization before (in addition to a few centuries of sectarian violence). McCarthyism, a demagogic force to which Trumpism bears significant resemblance, makes an interesting case study.
As Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions cut a swath through America, assassinating characters and destroying careers, some churches felt compelled to take sides. The Presbyterian Church USA came out in opposition to McCarthyism in 1953. It was not a risk-free move. House Un-American Activities Committee Chairman Harold Velde, an Illinois Republican, announced that year that clergy and church organizations were fair game for investigations. Republican Representative Donald Jackson of California, deploying trademark McCarthyite style, sneered that a Methodist bishop worked for the church on Sundays and for communists the other six days of the week.
Many American churches were forced to grapple with McCarthy. But they did not defeat him. They couldn’t. What crushed McCarthy was the political establishment that he had bullied and manipulated. His fellow Republicans were the driving force behind his censure by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan humiliation in 1954. Disgraced, McCarthy died three years later. McCarthyism withered.
By contrast, at every juncture, the bulk of the Republican Party has excused Trump’s outrages and crimes. Some Republicans compete to be the most demagogic replica of his viciousness. Trumpism is still very much at large — in the GOP, in the Congress, in the land, in the pews.
In the version of his sermon printed in the church bulletin, as the nation was still coming to grips with Trump’s attempted coup, Father Corcoran said:
The only way forward, is to go forward differently. I want to say that men cannot grab and abuse women; that serving our nation is noble; that personal sacrifice is often necessary; that we cannot bully anyone — disabled or able-bodied; that the truth and facts matter; and that we do not settle things through violence. By going forward in such a manner, we live out the grace of our own baptism.
Simple truths, plainly spoken, have power. And while scores of parishioners walked out on his sermon, Corcoran told me that he subsequently received more than 1,000 calls, letters and emails — more than 9 in 10 supportive.
With help from professional moderators and talented leaders, churches may be able to keep angry, divided congregants from becoming bitter, permanent enemies. But they are ultimately ill-equipped to demolish the cultural myths and political potency of Trumpism. It will take politics to do that — specifically White conservative politics. The antidote will have to come from the source of the poison. Until then, churches must muddle through as best they can. The beloved community, once again, will have to wait.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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