According to “‘Nones’ on the Rise” – a report from the Pew Research Center – 20% of US adults don’t affiliate with a religion. This growing group of Americans (called “Nones”) has some negative perceptions about religious organizations like churches, and a full two thirds of them believe religious organizations are “too involved in politics.” What’s behind this perception? How might churches respond?
This is the last of a series of four posts about the growing group of Nones in the US and their negative perceptions of religious organizations. The starting point for these posts is the report “‘Nones’ on the Rise” from the Pew Research Center. This report finds that two thirds or more of the Nones view religious organizations as
1. “too concerned with money and power.”
2. “too [focused] on rules.”
3. “too involved with politics.”
In the previous posts, we explored the first two negative perceptions listed above, trying to figure out where the perceptions come from and how churches might respond. Now, we’ll delve into the third: “religious organizations are too involved with politics.”
“too involved with politics” – What are they really saying?
If we dig below the surface of this survey item, what’s the real criticism? What do the Nones really think about churches and politics? Is it that they think churches should stay on the political sidelines and keep neutral? Do they dislike the methods churches use in their political involvement? Do they question churches’ motives?
Or maybe they just flat disagree with many of the positions churches take.
That last option likely plays a part in Pew’s results. Most (but certainly not all) religiously unaffiliated people tend to have less conservative political views than most (but certainly not all) churches.
Still, Nones aren’t the only ones saying churches are too politically involved. The perception is more pervasive than that. Forty-six percent of all those Pew surveyed – and 41% of those who are religiously affiliated – answered that religious organizations are too politically involved. The prevalence of this impression of churches and other religious organizations suggests that it comes from more than just some people’s disagreement with the political positions many churches take.
Other research suggests that people aren’t so much critical of churches’ stances as they are of the perceived motives and attitudes behind them. The Barna Group, headed by David Kinnaman, researches public perception as it relates to Christianity, the largest religious category in America. Along with surveys, Barna conducts in-depth interviews in order to get under the topsoil of people’s perceptions to see what really drives them. As Kinnaman relates in his book unChristian, Barna’s research finds that 75% of those outside the Christian faith view Christians as too political. Kinnaman and coauthor Gabe Lyons, founder of the website Q: Ideas for the Common Good, write the following about this finding:
You might ask, “Since every group seems to have a political presence and agenda, why should Christians be subject to special criticism?” “Are outsiders asking us to stay out of politics?” According to our research, not exactly. Many outsiders clarified that they believe Christians have a right (even an obligation) to pursue political involvement, but they disagree with our methods and our attitudes.
Kinnaman and Lyons go on to explain that many of the outsiders they interviewed question the motives behind churches’ political involvement. They see self-serving bias rather than love. They also believe Christians take a needlessly condescending and uncharitable tone in political discussions, focusing more on attacking the views that they stand against than on ways to make positive changes.
So this criticism against churches, as seen in the Pew survey item, likely has a lot to do with churches’ methods, motives and tone, not just their stances.
Whether these negative perspectives are justified or not, a religious organization should be aware of them as it interacts with people outside their faith community. How might a church use this knowledge to temper their actions and interactions?
Lessons from History: Some Poignant, Heroic, and Religious Voices
Here’s where Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce and Gandhi come into it, as well as author Eric Metaxas. (Actually, the Gandhi part is uncertain, but more on that later.)
Metaxas thinks that, in response to the too-political charge, churches should look to some powerful voices from the past. He believes that religious organizations could inject a lot of zeal and wisdom into their political involvement if they would examine and highlight some of history’s great political activists whose inspiration and work took root in – and grew out of – their faith. Two of his most popular books (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery) are about two historic figures, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, whose religious convictions led them to take political stands and heroic action. By highlighting the examples these men provide, Metaxas reminds today’s up-and-coming generations that deeply religious people, lead by their faith, have taken some of history’s great political action. It’s a powerful reminder of some of the gifts that have come to society and culture when religious conviction joins hands with political action.
Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament, was the most instrumental figure in ending the British slave trade in the 19th Century. With his gifts for public speaking and statesmanship, and with an incredible never-say-die-ness, he continually brought bills and measures before an often hostile parliament for nearly 50 years until Britain abolished slavery in 1833.
Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, spoke heroically against the rising Third Reich, left the safety of the US to return to a Germany languishing under Nazi rule, and eventually even took part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1943 and hanged in 1945.
And of course, no discussion of religious, political involvement would be complete without Martin Luther King, Jr., who called on communities, politicians, and churches to raise a loud, unified voice against the injustices faced by African Americans.
Both were men with a deep religious conviction that they had a calling to stand against the injustices faced by their fellow men, be they slaves or Jews. Their belief in God compelled them to stand in the political square of ideas and decry the wrongs they saw. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants,” underscoring the principle that religious faith shouldn’t sit in a corner but rather should lead to action.
Churches may be able to highlight some of their current efforts in much the same way. Many will likely have less criticism for the political involvement of churches if they see behind the politics congregations who are motivated by love to help hurting people and take a stand for honesty, justice, the well being of the marginalized, the forgotten, the unvalued.
Do the unaffiliated see this motivation of love and justice? The research says they often don’t.
Of course, the kinds of conviction held and action taken by Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce won’t necessarily lead to popularity; something that stands out about those men is their willingness to be unpopular. Still, some of their staunchest critics couldn’t help but respect the courage and selflessness of their work. Few if any could look at them and claim they were just looking out for their own interests, or they didn’t really care about others.
Kinnaman and Lyons also have a suggestion that intrigued me, one that may inject church political involvement with the same kind of vibrant, positive vibe that Metaxas is going for. Michelangelo once said, “Critique by creating.” The authors think that could be a refreshing mantra for the church world, to spend less time and energy criticizing the people and ideas they oppose and spend more time developing creative solutions for the problems they see. That kind of work could act as a kind of indirect criticism of the current culture that is in a way more powerful. As Gandhi purportedly said, “We need to be the change we wish to see.” (No one has been able to verify that these are Gandhi’s words, but he supposedly said this in an interview and the quote is widely attributed to him. Whether he said it or not, his life exemplified it.)
The good news from the Pew report is that, as many Nones criticize churches’ political involvement, even more believe religious organizations “bring people together and help strengthen communities” and “play an important role in helping the poor and needy.” So there’s a willingness to see the good that can come from churches.
Religious organizations will always face criticism. It can’t be avoided. But if onlookers in the broader community can see in churches a serious, genuine desire, grounded in their faith, to make things better, to look out for each other as well as those beyond the church walls, they may take a closer look before they call churches too political, overly focused on rules, or motivated by power and money.
They may even see a family they long to have a place in.
Churches face a challenge – to cultivate, communicate and carry out that serious, genuine desire.