The paralyzing political polarization that grips the United States these days played out vividly this week at the circus otherwise known as the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser served merely as a Rorschach test for people’s prior beliefs. Republicans pledged to confirm Kavanaugh and Democrats talked impeachment once they’re in power.
“The Kavanaugh fight takes every raw divide in American society today—partisan, ideological, gender, class, generational—and rolls them all into one,” wrote Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s political analyst.
But why are Americans so divided right now? Many people have asked this question and offered various answers. In one of the most thoughtful explanations I've read, Jonathan Haidt, the always-interesting social psychologist at New York University, positioned the sources of division in changes in politics, media, immigration and the end of the Cold War.
But there’s a simpler reason that underlies most of the factors Haidt identified: declining church attendance.
I came to this conclusion not by listening to pastors but by reading left-of-center publications that are trying to make sense of the recent rise of more extreme, less religious political movements, from President Trump to Bernie Sanders to Black Lives Matter.
In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart drew a direct link between political polarization and declining church attendance.
Relying on data compiled for him by the Public Religion Research Institute, Beinart reported that the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has tripled since 1990. Among white liberals, those who seldom or never attend church rose from slightly more than half in 1990 to nearly three-quarters now.
Those changes had profound effects during the 2016 election, Peter noted. Polls during the Republican primary showed that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 percentage points among Republicans who went to church every week. But among Republicans who didn’t go to church, Trump led Cruz by 27 points.
The same trend played out among white Democrats. Hillary Clinton held a 26-point lead over Bernie Sanders among white Democrats who went to a religious service weekly. But Democrats who rarely attended religious services backed Sanders by 13 points.
“As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Beinart wrote. “Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconciliable ways.”
It’s fair to say most people on the the two sides in the Kavanaugh debate don’t view their opponents as having legitimate views of the matter.
In the digital magazine Vox, the economist Lyman Stone published an interesting analysis of 2016 voting data, which showed that Trump’s take of the Republican vote went down, compared with Mitt Romney in 2012, in counties dominated by evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Mormons. But in counties where mainline denominations are in the majority, Trump grabbed a larger share of the vote than Romney.
Stone concluded that declining attendance and affiliation with mainline Christianity—in areas where there’s a dearth of other options—leads people on the right and the left to embrace politicians with more radical ideas and rhetoric.
“For those who see in the decline of American religion a progressive, liberalizing force, I must offer a word of caution,” Stone wrote. “Some meaningful share of the rise of populism in the Midwest is likely due to the decline of the moral and political organizing force of mainline Protestant denominations. When moderate swing states lose their religious restraint, the right drifts to Trump, the left to Sanders.”
What does this mean in practical terms? When conservatives withdraw from religion, Beinart found, they get more tolerant of homosexuality but markedly less tolerant of immigrants and people of different races. When liberals withdraw from religion, they increasingly regard church-goers as not just wrong, but dangerous.
To be clear, I am not arguing for more nominal Christian adherence. Or endorsing without reservation much of the preaching that occurs in mainline churches.
My point is simply this: the church matters.
Jesus Christ came to earth to build His church. And He is continuing to build it, even if Americans in general are less enthusiastic about that than they once were. Christ loves His church so much, He showers it with blessings—even though the church has many failings, and the people in it have many failings.
The people of God have always received blessings that were so abundant, they spilled over into the larger society in which God’s people lived. That was true of Abraham and the Israelites in the Old Testament. It’s true today.
“In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,” God promised Abraham in Gen. 22:18.
And when the Israelites went off to captivity in Babylon, God encouraged them to actively seek to be a blessing to the community in which they lived.
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)
The point of church isn’t to serve as social glue or societal health. But as God uses the church to preach the gospel and change people’s hearts, those are some of the church’s side effects. As we watch the machinations over the Kavanaugh nomination, I hope Americans of all stripes can once again recognize that we all need the church.
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