When Polarization Hits the Pews


UNIFYING THEME: Under God: The Role of Religion in a Divided Time

America's political fractures reach beyond polling places and into the church pews.  Christian church leaders and laypeople should heed their faith's fundamental creeds to foster "big tent" congregations where church members can practice what they preach by listening and modeling civil dialogue.

For many years, Russell Moore, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, must have felt like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. While most people in his denomination openly embraced Donald J. Trump, as a candidate and then as president, Moore simply could not do it. As a result, he faced attacks, criticisms and even threats to his family. For Moore, it appears that it was never about conservative policies or platforms. Yes, he has stated that he is pro-life, supports the appointment of conservative judges and believes passionately in the importance of religious liberty. Moore, and some other conservative Christians, simply could never come to terms with the lack of character and the troubling pattern of behavior exhibited by the 45th president-behavior that was anything but presidential.

The chaos sown during President Trump's White House tenure exacerbated underlying division in the Christian community and presented an especially emotionally exhausting challenge for preachers, like me, who serve politically diverse congregations. Growing polarization and lack of civility in American culture have also taken an immense toll on denominations, families and personal friendships. My own congregation, Woodmont Christian Church, has not been immune to this tension. We have Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Ronald Reagan was a part of our denomination, as was Lyndon B. Johnson. We believe in "big tent" Christianity, but the past four years have shaken the tent poles.

This all culminated with the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Based on lies touting a stolen election-a contention that was tossed out in more than 60 courts due to lack of evidence-our nation's Capitol was ransacked by an angry mob, something that has not happened since the War of 1812. Although many who attended that day were not violent and only wanted their voices to be heard, lives were lost and threatened. Members of the House and Senate ran for cover and locked themselves into offices. Vice President Mike Pence was unable and unwilling to do what Trump wanted-overturn the results of a lawful election. Trump became the first president to be impeached twice before leaving office, only driving the country's division deeper.

Persons of faith, including Christians of all denominations, have an important role to play in our nation's civic life. What seems to be missing in today's political discussions are core moral values, grounded by faith traditions, that made this nation great to begin with. These include treating each other with civility and respect; listening to the other side; telling the truth; loving our neighbor as ourselves; welcoming the tired, lonely and downtrodden; being faithful to our spouses; maintaining a sense of humility; taking the log out of our own eye; being reminded that we do not worship money and wealth but God alone; and recognizing that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with respect. Political loyalty to any party or candidate should never exempt one from moral accountability. As Jesus profoundly put it, "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?"

When it comes to the American presidency, character and values should matter just as much as policies and platforms.

When it comes to the American presidency, character and values should matter just as much as policies and platforms. Ed Stetzer, dean and director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, argues that evangelicalism today faces a serious and historical reckoning.  Reflecting on the Trump administration, Stetzer states, "Of greater concern for me is the trail of destruction he has left within the evangelical movement. Tempted by power and trapped within a culture war theology, too many evangelicals tied their fate to a man who embodied neither their faith nor their vision of political character."

Christianity now stands at serious crossroads. Will it continue to contribute to the ongoing polarization of America, or will it be an antidote for a nation's troubles? Will followers of Christ work more diligently and seriously to live out Jesus' final prayer, the night before his crucifixion, that "they may all be one … so that the world may believe"? Can Christianity be part of the solution and not just part of the problem?

For Christianity to rise to this challenge, four things must happen. First, primary allegiance must return to Christ and not to a political party or figure. Idolatry is real, and politics is a common form of idolatry. Political figures are not saviors. They always disappoint, some more than others. Christians are called to focus on Christ, his teachings, his priorities and his call to love God and love neighbor. This involves a return to scripture and to Jesus' agenda. At the outset of his ministry, he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." The Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is based in love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility and service. Christians must focus more on Jesus and less on partisan politics, especially partisanship cloaked in hero worship.

Secondly, civility and open dialogue must be revived, prioritized in local churches and modeled by congregants inside and outside the sanctuary. Demonization of other human beings who vote differently is not acceptable and contradicts the fundamental tenets of our religion. In his recent book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, "Something new is happening: the sense that the other side is less than fully human, that its supporters are not part of the same moral community as us, that somehow their sensibilities are alien and threatening, as if they were not the opposition within a political arena, but the enemy, full stop." Christians have not been immune to the incivility and toxic rhetoric infecting the nation's culture. However, congregation by congregation, Christian churches can begin to provide the antidote. Conversation and peacemaking must begin in the local church. Political issues should not dominate, but they should not be avoided. Churches, and especially pastors and lay leaders, can practice what they preach by listening and modeling civil dialogue. Churches must represent an alternative way to coexist, even when we disagree.

Christians have not been immune to the incivility and toxic rhetoric infecting the nation's culture. However, congregation by congregation, Christian churches can begin to provide the antidote.

Third, if Christianity is going to be part of the solution, we must begin to intentionally move away from politically homogenous congregations, red or blue, that serve as holy echo chambers. We must work to create a "purple church" culture. Broadly speaking, we have many evangelical churches that largely lean right and vote Republican. At the same time, we have many mainline and progressive churches (usually smaller in size) that tend to lean left and vote Democrat. What has been rapidly disappearing in recent decades are the "purple" churches, where political disagreement is held together by the love and spirit of Christ. It has been said before that "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Neither Christianity nor any other faith should be a rubber stamp on liberal or conservative politics. The church must become a balanced place where people of different ideologies, politics, denominations and backgrounds come together out of love and respect for each other. The church should be a spiritual center where important issues are analyzed and discussed through the lens of the Gospel. Complex topics like health care, immigration, poverty, racism, public education and just war should be debated. Instead of allowing the partisan divisions of our culture to bleed over into the pews, what if the church became a place where we were committed to having honest, respectful, face to face (not digital) conversations about these issues that truly matter, where well-meaning people disagree? The goal is not to change somebody else's mind but to build relationships, to foster community and mutual respect. This goal echoes Christ's teachings: We still have far more that unites us than that divides us.

The goal is not to change somebody else's mind but to build relationships, to foster community and mutual respect. This goal echoes Christ's teachings: We still have far more that unites us than that divides us.

I have seen this happen time and time again at Woodmont, but it takes intentionality. Civility can be modeled. Jesus teaches us to greet the stranger with kindness and compassion, and I do not recall the Samaritan asking the injured traveler about his partisan leanings. In fact, the most surprising aspect of that parable is that a Samaritan stopped to help the man who had been robbed. Christ did not demand that we agree, but he requires that we listen to and respect one another as children of the same God.

Finally, unity cannot happen until we remember Christ's ultimate command to love.  Christianity is grounded and based in love. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently published a book called Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. Curry, who rose to fame in 2018 when he officiated the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, writes, "Beyond our national identities and loyalties, beyond our political sympathies and ideologies, beyond our religious and spiritual convictions and commitments, there is a universal hunger at the heart of every human being: to love and to be loved." Yet, the trials and tribulations of the past few months have driven many Christians inward, both physically and spiritually. We look around and see a pandemic, raging polarization, economic strife, hostility, resentment and what often feels like chaos. We see anger and fear. We have been scared into selfishness. The opposite of love has never been hate. The opposite of love is selfishness, an isolating inward focus based on fear. According to Curry, "Selfishness is the most destructive force in all the cosmos, and hate is only its symptom. Selfishness destroys families. Selfishness destroys communities. Selfishness has destroyed societies, nations, and global communities, and it will destroy the human race by laying waste to our planet. If we let it." The good news of the Gospels is that God's love is boundless. As Christians, we are called to choose love and respect. We are called to choose compassion and understanding. We are called to choose sympathy and benevolence. Our hearts and our churches should be home to more agape love, where we begin to look beyond self to the needs and hurts of others.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer wrote a powerful book titled Healing the Heart of Democracy. Drawing on the words of Abraham Lincoln, Palmer says: "If American Democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the international communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we-you and I-became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form." Palmer argues that it all comes down to the heart and whether we have the willpower to change and work toward unity and healing. He says, "the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation."

Christianity has contributed to the polarization of our nation. Without a doubt, Christians have participated in the name calling, demonizing and divisive rhetoric that has divided our country. This has been true on both the right and the left. Christians have been self-righteous, closed-minded and mean-spirited instead of loving, benevolent and gracious. But if we are motivated, vigilant and committed, we might find that Jesus and his teachings are a redemptive force for healing, finding common ground, disagreeing respectfully and restoring unity to a fractured nation.

Clay Stauffer

Clay Stauffer

Rev. Dr. Clay Stauffer is a fourth-generation minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), senior minister of Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville and an adjunct professor of American studies at Vanderbilt University.

He is the author of two books: Preaching Politics by Chalice Press (2016) and Spiritual Reflections on Faith, Values, and Culture in 2019. He writes a regular column for The Tennessean.

His primary research interests include the intersection of faith and politics within American culture, moral foundations of liberals and conservatives, polarization, and the formation of character.

Stauffer was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He earned his B.A. from Texas Christian University in 2002, his Master of Divinity from Princeton Seminary in 2005, and his Doctor of Ministry from the University of the South (at Sewanee) in 2015.

[i] Mark 8:36, NRSV.

[ii] Stetzer, Ed. "Evangelicals Face a Reckoning: Donald Trump and the future of our faith." USA TODAY, Jan. 11, 2021

[iii] John 17:21, NRSV.

[iv] Luke 4:18, NRSV.

[v] Sacks, Jonathan. Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Basic Books: New York, 2020.  He cites four primary reasons for civility's decline: (i) Western society's growing individualism since 1960, (ii) growing dominance of internet and "polititainment," (iii) social media supplanting traditional communication with a "cacophony of noise" and (iv) growing societal divisions between what one journalist calls the "somewheres" (whose employment is usually tied to a distinct geographic area) and the "anywheres" (those persons, usually in high demand/high wage service sector jobs, with easily transferable skills).

[vi] Curry, Michael. Love is the Only Way. Penguin: New York, 2020.

[vii] Curry, p. 19.

[viii] Palmer, Parker. Healing the Heart of Democracy. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2011.

[ix] Palmer et al.