In the early 90s, I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church, as it was constituted back then, was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals somehow worshipped together, alongside a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.
The church decided to call a pastor to join the multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills and an all-around good candidate. But there was a catch. Controversy swirled around her because of her pro-gay stance and which made some of the evangelical members nervous.
A special meeting of the church was called to for congregation to vote. During the debate one woman stood to make her opinion known. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding of homosexuality. You probably could guess what she was going to say. However, she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the candidate had been involved with the congregation for a few years and the two had the chance to know each other. They created a relationship where they knew each other beyond positions on certain issues. She stressed the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on this issue. Nevertheless, this pastor was her good friend and she her friend was the right person for the job.
What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Actually, it wouldn’t happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. In fact, in the years since I left, the church has more firmly planted itself on the more progressive end of Christianity. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. This only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.
The 1990s was a time when many of the mainline Protestant churches grappled with the issue of homosexuality. I can remember hearing stories about congregations discerning the issue and after a difficult vote, someone would say something to the effect, “and now we have some healing to do.” People had their views on this issue, but the emphasis on healing meant that there was also an emphasis on the relationship as well. There was a sense that the other side might be wrong on the issue, but that didn’t mean they were evil.
Differences over ideology, sexuality and race were there 30 years ago, but there seems to have been more opportunities to come together and meet the other. Our modern self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different. We live in information bubbles where the only people we know agree with us and it makes it so easy to demonize anyone that is different.
Why am I telling this story? Because I wish we would revive the lost art of learning to disagree without being so disagreeable.
Civility, which used to be a civic value, has become a dirty word. It is viewed as a tactic to try to keep those involved in justice quiet. I have no doubt it could be used that way. But I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.
Why has this happened? What has happened in society that people with differing views don’t worship together let alone respect each other?
A few things. You can’t really have civility unless you acknowledge that there are people with different outlooks and beliefs. Also, churches have sorted just like everything else in American society. Just as liberals go to live with liberals and conservatives with conservatives churches are filled with people where everyone agrees. Many of the mainline Protestant denominations that battled over sexuality solved the issue by voting in favor of accepting LGBTQ members and allowing them to become clergy. Those that opposed the measure usually left to form their own denominations.
Third is a distrust of values that preach respect. If you really listen to discourse these days, people are no longer so keen on values like civility or reconciliation. We demand respect, but you can’t get respect without some sense of civility or reconciliation. Conservative Christians backed a man like Trump who had no sense of basic decency because they were tired of being nice.
But I think the main reason we don’t see two women from different backgrounds coming supporting each other these days is because of a crisis of meaning. The writer Martin Gurri recounts his days as a young man who recently immigrated from Cuba. He recounted how little politics played in people’s lives. Gurri writes,
“American life at the time revolved almost entirely around the private sphere — family above all, but also the church, school, sports, and community organizations like Masonic lodges and chambers of commerce. These institutions held our attention because they were near and real.”
There was a strong private sphere filled with institutions that gave people identity and meaning. In his youth, national politics was something far away and when the topic was discussed, there was room for tolerance and compromise. Gurri argues that you could practice tolerance in politics because as he describes, the stakes were small.
But we now live in a society where the private sphere has been hallowed out. Institutions like the church or groups like the Masonic lodge have either melted away or lost influence. We love our individualism, but we’re lonely. In this landscape of weakened institutions we look for something to fill the emptiness in our souls and what we latch on to is politics
But because we use politics as identity, we have a political culture that is a death match. Gone are people that want to compromise and in their places are people who fight. There is no room for compromise or tolerance.
Because religion is no longer as important in people’s lives, the church itself has become swallowed by politics. The church no longer gives meaning, but it is one more platform where politics can rule.
Our focus on politics has allowed religion to become flattened and robbed of its power. Philosopher James K.A. Smith notices how partisan politics reduce the infinite to the finite. “The problem with the Christian political imagination today is not simply that it is predictably partisan but that it has ceded its elasticity and expectation to the here-and-now.”
Faith shouldn’t ignore the present, but it should balance the now with the not-yet. But on the left and the right, there is a focus on the now. But faith is focused on life beyond now. Even religions that don’t have an afterlife are focused on something beyond the present world. There is a belief in something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the now.
How can we make faith much less partisan? We must be grounded in our faith, but that doesn’t mean politics doesn’t exist. The church should be as George Weigel says, a public church not a partisan church. Having grown up in the Black church, I know we have to focus on issues like racism. William Lamar, an African Methodist Episcopal minister says we can’t be nonpolitical. “We cannot transcend politics. The gospel is a word that was used to declare the birth of a new emperor. Our speech heralds a new ruler, one hated by the Caesars and Herods who continue to kill innocents and crucify dissidents in an attempt to hold onto their power and thwart God’s reign.”
But how can we focus on political issues without becoming partisan tools, slave to the current zeitgeist?
I think one way is to keep the church a place that transcends the toxic politics of our day is to not borrow political language.
More mainline Protestant congregations are declaring themselves as a progressive congregation with more and more frequency. A progressive congregation means a focus on LGBTQ rights, the environment, race, abortion, and other issues that would be issued from the political left.
Branding yourself as a progressive church can make the church attract more people. People want more and more to be with people they agree with on various issues.
Do I want my congregation to be progressive? No.
Now, before you start thinking that I am a wild conservative, let me explain. I don’t want First Christian to be a progressive church any more than to be a conservative church. Our congregation does do things that might make us appear to be Progressive Christians, such as support of LGBT rights and concern for the marginalized. We want to really study biblical texts. We do talk about politics in this church. It is not a sin to have strong opinions on things. But churches have to be careful in how they engage political issues. Churches are called to be “in” world and that means grappling with issues that affect the lives of many in our world. But it has to be careful to not be “of” the world, captive to partisan platforms that rob religion of its unique voice.
What I would say is this: we are a public congregation because Jesus was political in his care for the outcasts and critique of the powerful.
Every Sunday, we gather around a communion table. That table is a powerful symbol in Disciples theology. It is a place where God calls everyone, no matter their ideology, their race, or their ethnicity. The table calls us all and that is important these days when we are so fractured and so tempted to create a place where everyone believes the same things.
Can we move from bowing down to progressive or conservative idols and get back to a more humane way of living, where we see each other as humans and not enemies to be defeated? I don’t know. I used to believe we could if we tried, but I wonder if we are too invested in the current system to want to change. Many of us like being in like-minded communities where we don’t have to compromise at all. To top it off, most of can’t see a downside to moving to a position of compromise and tolerance. Unless the current zeitgeist fails, we will be happy to keep up with the current regime of hating the other side.
I wonder what those two women are doing these days. I’d like to think they are still close friends, sharing their lives and trying to love one another in a time when loving someone outside of our tribe is dangerous. That is my wish and hope not just for them, but for the sake of our nation as well.
Dennis is a pastor and media professional living in Minneapolis. He is also the host of EnRoute, a podcast on religion and modern life. Your membership fee directly supports Dennis Sanders and other writers you read. You’ll also get full access to every story on Medium. Become a member today.