In September of 2017, a study of faith in America was released. Though this study is now two years old, it is increasingly relevant as more recent (though less rigorous) studies show that the trends are deepening. In any case, the study shows that white Christians are no longer a majority of people in the United States. However, white Christians make up 73% of the Republican party. Believe it or not, white Christians make up a smaller percentage of the Republican party today than 10 years ago. Furthermore, fewer than 33% of the Democratic party consists of white Christians (down from 50% 10 years ago). This is a drastic change. In the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was president, white Christians accounted for 80% of the U.S. population.
PPRI, a public policy research firm that specializes in issues of faith conducted this survey for over a year, interviewing more than 100,000 people. USA Today reported on the survey, concentrating its article primarily on how the two major political parties in the country are becoming more and more divided, tribalistic in fact, with the Republican Party becoming more and more a white Christian party that is heavily rooted in the South and Midwest and the Democratic Party kind of following the demographic changes, becoming less white and less Christian. I am sure that this not a great surprise to any of you.
Quite obviously, strategists for both the Republican and Democratic Parties are exceedingly interested in these demographic shifts and how it will affect the ability of each party to shape policy and win elections (probably more the latter than the former). For those interested in politics, this is clearly a very interesting topic. What will this shift in demographics do to the face of our Republic in the next 10 years? 20 years? Beyond?
For political parties, there are real costs with becoming too closely related to one religious group or another, particularly during this time in our country’s life, as religious affiliations and lack thereof are shifting. Does the Republican Party want to be the party of only white Christians? Does the Democratic Party want to become the party that does not appeal to religious folks at all?
I think, however, that while these are interesting political discussions, what is far more relevant for the Church is how we will address the changing demographics in our country and community. What is more, does the Church (The United Methodist Church? First United Methodist Church of Sheridan?) want to become identified with only one political party? It doesn’t take long to discover that our denomination, in spite of our ongoing denominational dispute, is a fairly “big tent” with people of all political persuasions, some passionately so, represented throughout United Methodism. Did you know that such wildly divergent political personages such as George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are faithful United Methodists? It takes even less time to discover that we have passionate Democrats and passionate Republicans in our own church, indeed, who share the same Sunday School classes and other small groups!
There are many points of discussion to be raised for the Church from this study and from the changing demographics in our country. However, I’d like to point out two in particular. First, most United Methodists, including folks in our own church, have learned that as our country has become more tribal in our politics, if we are going to maintain “peace” in our church (or in our families or in our small groups), then we don’t talk about politics. What better way to get folks riled up and angry than to even say the names “Obama” or “Trump”? Yet I would suggest that the Church, if it lives its life authentically following Christ, is exactly the place where Christians should discuss politics. What is necessary is not an avoidance of the key topics of our day and how we might address them as citizens, but rather a commonly shared understanding that we can have discussions about hard and divisive topics with one another in a space that is safe because as Christians we have made a commitment to love one another. Just because we disagree about politics need not mean that we hate one another. In fact, what a wonderful witness it would be if we could have civil discourse about controversial political topics, where our goal is not to “win” or even to change the other person’s mind about the issue at hand, but rather to engage in conversation with one another where the goal is to find common ground and to know that at the end of the discussion we will still be united together by the love of Christ, and therefore, friendships will not be destroyed. In a country that is increasingly polarized on political and racial lines, perhaps the Church is the best place to discuss politics, at least under the guidelines that our conversation be guided by a shared commitment to building up the Body of Christ and witnessing to the love of God, instead of trying to shout over the other side.
Secondly, if the Church can become a place where we are able to disagree with one another in love and yet remain in covenant with one another under the Lordship of Christ, then perhaps the Church will become more relevant to the increasing number of people in our country who have no religious affiliation at all. The PPRI study shows that in 20 states the largest religious group is “unaffiliated.” What is more, “unaffiliated” – the unchurched and the de-churched – is the fastest growing “religion” in the entire country. In many ways, many people see the Church as irrelevant, in part because denominations and/or local churches are so polarized and made entirely of one political persuasion or the other OR because those denominations and/or local churches refuse to engage in civic discourse in a meaningful way that does not divide people into opposing camps. It is so easy for churches to exclude people on the basis of their political leaning or to try to force people to conform to only one particular political tribe. Many people in our society have grown weary of this and so they avoid church all together. Shame on us! The Church should be a safe space – not safe from political discourse, but safe to have political discourse (or other kinds) where we know that we will be loved and accepted even if we disagree with one another.
This is not to say that politics should become our primary focus. After all, if our goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then converting people to becoming Republicans or Democrats is hardly the best method (as the PPRI study indicates). But letting the figurative pendulum swing too far the other way and completely avoid the topics of politics within the Church is also not working either. Disciples of Jesus Christ are defined by a different ethic than everyone else. We are in the world, but not of the world. Therefore, we cannot be primarily defined by our political affiliations (or even our political leanings). We must be defined by the radical hospitality and grace of God and desperate love for our fellow human being (no matter what race, tribe, or party). Finding ways to live out this ethic is not easy, especially during these times so fraught with political division. But if we are to truly be the Church that Christ calls us to be, I believe that we must not become a church that is Democrat or Republican, nor one that is apolitical. I believe that we must become a community of faith so defined by our covenant to love God and one another that even such deep divisions as our politics will not keep us from living together in faith. And I believe that we United Methodists in Sheridan can be a part of living out our faith together…no matter whether we are “red” or “blue.”