Red churches, blue churches, smart churches, dumb churches

red-churchOver the weekend, I ran into an amazing pair of articles on the Newsweek home page that really left me pondering this question: Has anyone in that newsroom ever heard of people like Martin Marty and James Davison Hunter?

Without a hint that others have been writing about this topic for, oh, a decade or so, Newsweek ran a commentary by Melinda Henneberger entitled “Red and Blue Churches: Is religion more influenced by our politics than the other way around?” For readers, this ought to sound like a major-league echo chamber. If not, click here or here.

Or even better, go get yourself an old, used copy of “Culture Wars” by James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and read up on the ongoing divide between the progressives (truth is personal, experiental and evolving) and the orthodox (truth is transcendent, revealed and eternal).

In her quest for red and blue churches, Henneberger visits Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in the appropriately named Zionsville, Ind. It does not appear that the reporter understands that this is a conservative congregation in a more progressive denomination, even if the word “Evangelical” is in the title. So there is a layer of irony missing.

But the people in these pews are not interested in the religious views of John Kerry, since they believe his stands on basic issues of Christian morality clash with his newly adopted faith-friendly soundbites. You end up with comments like this:

Gala Wurdeman, wife of the assistant pastor at the fast-growing suburban church, said President George W. Bush’s faith is very important to her “because my faith is important to me.” But of Kerry’s beliefs, she said wryly, “I think I have a pretty good idea” already.

Another church member, Marilyn Mesh, said that in fact, she was infuriated when Kerry “started off quoting the Bible” at a local campaign appearance she saw on television. (“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord,” Kerry had said, quoting from the Psalms.) “I thought, “Oh, that sounds sacrilegious to me,” Mesh said, “speaking these words as if he were a prophet … I know his voting record is very liberal and to me that does not jibe with a profession of faith.”

It will not be a surprise that the Newsweek reporter attends a blue church. It is also not all that surprising that it is a blue Catholic church, in a blue Catholic stronghold, with an enthusiastically blue Catholic priest who believes that it is wrong for his church to enforce its doctrines at the level of its own sacraments. That sounds like this:

In America in 2004 there are very definitely Red State churches, like theirs, and Blue State churches, like my Roman Catholic parish in Georgetown, where John Kerry, who lives in the neighborhood, received communion not long ago.

blue_churchA priest there who announced at a later mass that Kerry had been given communion at the church received a hearty ovation, amid the controversy over whether pro-choice lawmakers are entitled to receive the
sacraments. (I would like to believe the applause was not for the candidate, but for the principle that no one should be turned away from the communion rail.)

The article contains a variety of other interesting details, such as the progressive true believer who mildly stuns the reporter why his pronouncement that conservative Christians scare him more than anti-American terrorists. Henneberger quips: “Not me; I’ll take the roomful of Biblical literalists every single time.”

But the big idea seems a bit vague. She does not seem to grasp that the red vs. blue pew phenomenon is rooted in concrete Christian teachings about our culture’s hottest political issues. Like I said, there seems to be little recognition that this is an old story, one dissected by some fine commentators on both the left and the right.

Perhaps it is hard to see this reality when the worldview of the publication is — dare I suggest — so closely aligned with one side of the debate?

For a shockingly blunt statement relevant to this claim, check out the conclusion of the Eleanor Clift commentary in the same Newsweek online package — the one with the headline “Faith vs. Reason.” Honest, that’s the headline. It ends with this statement, which sweeps aside volumes of competing data and dogma on some of the most complex issues of our time.

The Republican message is don’t vote for Kerry because he supports abortion rights. Kerry thinks abortion is wrong, but he’s not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country. Bush on the other hand has turned his religious beliefs about embryonic stem cells into public policy.

Voters have the choice between a president who governs by belief and a challenger who puts his faith in rational decisionmaking.

So there. In addition to red churches and blue churches, there are also smart churches and dumb churches and, apparently, some major voices at Newsweek have certainly decided which churches are which.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • molly

    “…divide between the progressives (truth is personal, experiental and evolving) and the orthodox (truth is transcendent, revealed and eternal).”

    Why are there ever only two options and at the extreme poles? Why cannot there be someone, somewhere talking about the reality that (I would hazard a guess) most of us find to be the case – that we have experienced both truths and have had our faith develop around each? Or am I being naive? I know I am going off topic….

  • Kedron Bardwell

    Molly…wouldn’t it be safer to say that truth itself is transcendent, but that God allows us to experience it in amazing and diverse ways? I’d be reluctant to go down the slippery slope by saying the truth itself is personal (i.e. relative). The issue is more appropriately related to the issue of perspective.

    An analogy: the same evening’s sunset seen by 3 different people who describe a range of color because of their diverse locales and backdrops. Other than its astounding (and consistent) beauty, it’d be difficult to harmonize journal entries (poems, songs, whatever) about the sunset written from the 3 points of view. There are too many other factors coloring the picture.

    But a scientist who tested the properties of the light itself and its source (the sun) would find both of them strikingly consistent & even predictable…

  • Jeff the Baptist

    I agree. I believe truth is deeply rooted in the personhood of God. God is transcendent, eternal, unchanging, and can only truly be understood by revelation. These things must be true for him to be the Creator of Heaven, Earth, and Time. I must therefore conclude similar things about truth since truth is grounded in God’s being.

    The problem is that application of truth is situational and personal. Something I do may not be a sin for me, but for someone else who is wired a little differently it might be a road to temptation. Similarly how I react to a give situation must take into account the people involved and the nuances of the situation. A lot of “orthodox” christians seek out cookie-cutter solutions to their problems that are universally applicable in all situations. There are no such things. The proper solution is to take God’s path whatever it may be. That is the point of the “there is a season” passage in Ecclesiastes.

  • BK

    “Voters have the choice between a president who governs by belief and a challenger who puts his faith in rational decisionmaking.”

    Funny, at first reading I initially thought that the first of the two was Bush and the second was Kerry. But after I thought for a minute, I realized that cannot be because Bush is the one who puts his faith in rational decisionmaking because his faith informs and gives substance to the rationality that is used in his decisionmaking.

    Thus, Newsweek must have accidentally switched the two. It is the President who puts his faith into rational decisionmaking and the challenger who wants to govern by faith–faith in his liberal, progressive social agenda.

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