Believe it or not, the senior pastor at the conservative evangelical church I attend — Perimeter Church in Johns Creek, Georgia — does not (I repeat: does not) condemn homosexuals and abortionists from the pulpit every week. In fact, in the 1.5 years in which I’ve attended Perimeter Church, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Randy Pope (or any of the other preachers) speak of homosexuality or gay marriage from the pulpit. They’ve spoken of radical self-denial in pursuit of the kingdom of God. They’ve spoken of employing your talents and your gifts in service to the mission of God. They’ve spoken of the basics of the gospel and the process of spiritual maturation. Although I don’t recall any specific occasions, they may have referenced the hot-button issues in brief from time to time. But no sermon has been devoted in whole or in part to abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia or the like. The preachers have never endorsed any candidates or political parties, or even (that i recall) mentioned any elected officials by name. The only reference to Barack Obama has been to pray that God would guide “our President.”
This tends to shock my non-evangelical friends.
I don’t blame them. They live in thought-worlds where evangelicals only rear their zealous heads when they support Prop 8 or vote pro-life or say something spectacularly offensive. The media is little help. Pathologically attracted to the extremes and the grotesques, mainstream media journalists leap with delight to stories like the Quran-burning Terry Jones, the apocalyptonaut Harold Camping, or the alternative-universe “dominionists” who want to cast the demons out of all the Masonic lodges throughout America. Or when the mainstream media shows a positive portrayal of an evangelical, it’s an evangelical of the “progressive” persuasion who pours scorn on his conservative brethren and champions the media’s favored causes. When they report on the conservative church in the suburbs that mobilized in support of Prop 8, do they mention the boatloads of canned goods the same church sent to Haiti after the earthquake? Or when they recite the latest outrageous thing Pat Robertson said, do they mention that he founded a relief and development organization that’s delivered over $1.2 billion worth of goods to needy people around the world? Of course not.
So it’s easy to get the impression that conservative evangelical churches are filled with fire-breathing hate-peddlers. It’s easy to conclude that conservative evangelical churches are not centers for gospel proclamation, for healing the damaged and the wounded, and for expressing God’s grace through acts of love to the community — but are, instead, GOP recruitment centers and bristling outposts in the culture wars, training centers for a mindless conservative militia.
First of all, let’s admit: there are “evangelical” churches that have bring-your-gun-to-church Sundays. There are “evangelical” churches where you can hear sermons like “Why I Hate President Obama.” And there are people who do prayer walks outside mosques and Masonic lodges in order to win spiritual dominion over the land. Evangelicals need to acknowledge that such churches and groups exist, in order to dispense with bad apples and bad theology.
Yet these are a vanishing minority. Like “Cyclops Kitten,” they make the news because they’re bizarre and rare. They also make the news because liberals tend to resent evangelicals for voting conservative, and stories like these give liberals a convenient way to dismiss, mock and marginalize the evangelicals who disagree with them. And when conservative evangelicals do engage in the political process, or make a biblical case for a particular policy or politician, this occasions lamentations and accusations that evangelicals have forgotten the essence of true Christianity in favor of a “Constantinian” theocracy.
As it turns out, however, evangelical churches are arguably the least-politicized of all the major churches. At a recent meeting of the excellent Faith Angle Forum, David Campbell, author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, presented his updated research. When asked whether they heard sermons on political or social issues once a month or more, here is how America’s major religious groups responded:
- Jewish: 41.4%
- Non-affiliated: 30.5%
- Black Protestant: 29.6%
- Catholic: 20.7%
- Mainline Protestant: 16%
- Evangelical: 13.7%
The findings for evangelicals match perfectly with my experience. I’ve spent 35 years in evangelical churches, and I’ve attended and visited scores of congregations in California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia. I’ve never attended a church — I’ve never even visited one — that addressed social/political issues frequently. Most evangelical churches believe that the sermon, the pulpit and the Sunday service are for growing in our understanding of God and what the revealed Word of God means for our lives and our mission in this world. Issues like abortion are tremendously important; they’re not merely “cultural” issues but deeply moral and theological issues; yet they are rarely addressed before the whole congregation.
My current church has often refused candidates and politicians who wish to address the congregation. To give you a flavor, here are the announcements in a recent Perimeter Church bulletin: An “Orphan Sunday” training class for foster parents and adoptive families, a “diaper drive” for the Salvation Army, disaster relief for Thailand, mentoring elementary school children, “how to be a certified safe family” for children of families in crisis situations, a ministry to the jobless, a “home repair ministry,” a medical missions trip to Guatemala, delivering furniture to families that have lost their homes, and a ministry to children with special needs.
And yet, again, when I tell some of my skeptical friends that my theologically conservative evangelical church very rarely speaks of homosexuality or gay marriage, they find it almost impossible to compute. Since the only thing they “know” about evangelicals is that they love guns and hate gay people, they assume that evangelicals gather together around their causes and prejudices. The consequences are severe:
- When evangelicals are depicted as obsessed with issues like homosexuality, they do not recognize themselves in this depiction. They wonder what world their critics are describing. Evangelicals feel marginalized, misunderstood, and savagely misrepresented by American media culture. Unfortunately, this adds impetus to the movement to withdraw into the evangelical subculture and view themselves as a persecuted minority.
- Secular liberals in particular get a distorted picture of who evangelicals are and what they care about, and the broader culture misses out on opportunities to engage and collaborate with evangelicals in areas where there is common cause.
- Liberal Christians should not underestimate the damage this does on a spiritual level. How many people might have gone to the local evangelical church, and how many might have started down the path toward faith — whether they go on to become evangelicals or Mainliners or Catholics or Orthodox, whether they’re politically conservative or liberal or nothing in particular — if they had not been handed a raving caricature of evangelical churches, if they had not believed that all they’d find in those churches was the mobilization of prejudice and political enmity?
This is why (and I’ll write more on this shortly) liberal Christians should fight against the caricature of evangelicals just as much as conservative Christians do. Some have earnestly bought into the caricature, even though they should know better, or should at least take the effort to investigate whether it’s true. Others propagate the caricature as a way of making themselves look better by comparison. I’m not one of those evangelicals, they say. Everything you say about them is right; in fact, I can condemn them with even greater gusto than you; but I’m the rational and progressive Christian who really gets what Jesus was all about. But confirming the caricature for the secular world does a tremendous amount of damage — first of all to the truth, and second to the spiritual lives of those who might have benefited from an evangelical church if they had not been armed with misinformation against it. The theological differences that distinguish us are important. But Christians Right and Left should not caricature one another, and should dispute the caricature against “the other side” that prevails on their side.
So as stories multiply of evangelical churches engaging the election process for 2012, let’s remember this: evangelical churches are, among the larger religious groups, the least likely to reference political and social issues from the pulpit. Many who condemn them for “hyper-politicization” are less concerned with the fact of political engagement than with the fact that evangelicals tend to support the causes they oppose.