There’s an excellent YouTube video by Beau of the Fifth Column (and I highly recommend his channel although religion is definitely not his typical topic) about the idea of a “post-Christian church.” In it, Beau discusses the fact that many churches today are in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ. Beau asks viewers to consider their church parishioners’ likely response to any government efforts to feed the hungry (think, food stamps), house the homeless, heal the sick (universal healthcare anyone?) –basically those core good deeds Christ promoted to his followers in the Bible. Would most Christians in churches today support these proposals? Even though they are literally part of the teachings of Christ? One would hope so.
But I remember my fellow Catholics doing presentations about why Obamacare was going to be terrible, and we needed to fight against it (pretty much the opposite of “heal the sick when Obamacare itself was nowhere near enough to resolve the US healthcare system’s massive problems, though certainly a small step in the right direction). I recall them raving against social safety nets and “welfare queens” whenever someone tried to pass a bill to help the poor. Sure, they did charity work. They volunteered at a food pantry or soup kitchen. I don’t think those charities are a waste of time, but they’re Band-Aid solutions to systemic problems. My fellow Catholics voted repeatedly against systemic change and bragged about it to each other.
There are a lot of posts here about why I left Catholicism, but politics played a huge role in the deconstruction of my faith. I was expected to be “pro-life,” anti LGBTQIA+, and generally right wing. Then I met my high school best friend, who is queer. And it introduced a massive internal conflict.
I stumbled upon this article in the Atlantic by Peter Wehner, talking about how Evangelical Christianity is falling apart post-Trump and post-pandemic. A lot of people never returned to the pews after Covid, and those who remained feel more strongly about masks and vaccines, and anti-woke beliefs than they do about Jesus. They’re choosing their church based on the political beliefs it espouses. Wehner’s description of the post-Trump Evangelical church felt simultaneously worse than I remembered in Catholicism, but also unsurprising and familiar. I’ve seen both in the news and from Catholic family members: a lot of people didn’t come back to Catholic churches either after Covid. Multiple parishes in my state closed, or were combined with another parish. I suspect this may be impacting Christianity broadly across the United States, not just Evangelical churches.
Wehner identifies Trump and the Pandemic as having wreaked havoc on the culture within American Christianity. I don’t disagree, but I suspect too much emphasis has been placed on these elements as the source of the trouble. Trump and the pandemic caused a lot of problems to surface in our society in a way they hadn’t in a long time, but they were already there. George Floyd’s death wasn’t the start of racist police brutality and the cultural dialogue in response. His death merely magnified it.
Wehner also briefly brings up the social media and broader media diet problem within our country, wherein people are reinforcing their political beliefs on a daily basis. Wehner bemoans that Christianity cannot compete with the feeding frenzy that is the political media beast, yearning for people to turn to the Church and the Bible more strongly. What I don’t think Werner quite grasps is that the Church, by being a community of people, is reinforcing these beliefs even without preaching them from the pulpit, when it gathers groups together for Bible study or men/women’s retreats, or any other organized event, even just when congregants talk with each other in the hall after service or mass, the gathering in and of itself provides opportunities for people to link their political identities with their religion. People implicitly trust the other members of their church communities. Their words hold more weight than an outsider’s thoughts. When a parishioner mentions a political view, the community’s de facto response is “Amen.” And then another statement reinforcing or building upon that view.
Another YouTube channel I’ve been following lately is Fundie Fridays, which goes over a lot of Christian fundamentalist people and organizations. While listening to their video on James Dobson and Focus on the Family, I realized how much my Catholic upbringing was influenced by our local Christian radio station, which heavily featured right-wing Christian radio powerhouses like Focus on the Family. Sure, my parents watched EWTN (a Catholic media network) but Dobson’s Evangelical beliefs spread through Focus on the Family influenced us too. If Christian radio recommended another piece of Christian media, it had a lot of the same value as a recommendation from a fellow church member. This cultural change was happening through Christian media throughout my childhood and beforehand.
Yes, Focus on the Family is an anti-LGBTQIA+ and otherwise right-wing organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Yes, the one with the recent shooting.) Focus on the Family doesn’t just say political things on their radio station, they have also done anti LGBTQIA+ lobbying. They were founded in 1977. EWTN’s first broadcast was in 1981. Christian media mixing politics with faith is not that new. EWTN heavily promotes pro-life (anti-abortion) views on their television channel.
The incendiary, polarizing voices affecting American Christianity today didn’t start with Trump. They didn’t even start with social media polarization. There’s an axiom in journalism, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The most intense, frightening and attention-grabbing headlines were the front page on the newspaper or “breaking news” on TV long before social media started capitalizing on people’s fears and biases for views at the accelerated rate we see today. Christian media organizations are not immune to the need to grab and hold an audience’s attention. That need is present in all forms of media.
Make no mistake, Trump and a pandemic dumped gasoline on this fire. But it was started long ago. Thanks to Christian media, church is inextricably linked to right-wing ideology, even when it isn’t preached at the pulpit (and in my experience, it often is.) This doesn’t mean there aren’t congregations that aren’t like this, or that there aren’t individuals within a church who don’t adhere to these ideas. But church is increasingly about consolidating political power and applying it in a call to action. Think, church-organized transportation to the march for life, an annual anti-choice protest which is heavily promoted in Catholic media. Think, signing a petition against legalizing various forms of LGBTQ+ rights. Think, donating to organizations that lobby for the right on those issues and others.
I’m glad to see Wehner and others are pushing back on the linkage between religion and politics. That linkage is pushing people out of their churches, communities, and even their families, from lay people to pastors, and it’s consolidating political power on the right in a way that I believe had a hand in the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Where Wehner promotes Biblical thinking as a solution, I’d like to suggest critical thinking, and better general education regarding things like how to evaluate the quality of information and sources. Churches are going to continue to fall apart at an alarming rate if this political behavior continues, but they will take more basic human rights with them while they still hold considerable power.
What are your experiences with churches promoting or otherwise reinforcing political ideologies and action? I’d love to hear from you.