It’s a truism, isn’t it? In order to change, well, one has to want to change. During a recent conversation about the steps that we can take to reduce the rancorous and divisive partisanship that has infiltrated our churches, a friend commented along the following lines. He observed that the suggestions we had outlined to step back from the divisive abyss were all well and good. However, he went on, many of the folks he knew who were hip-deep in the very sort of partisan demonization we wanted to “cure,” really showing no signs of wanting to be cured. In fact, he went on, they seemed actually to enjoy it and tended to connect their personal identities very deeply with their particular mix of theology and politics. Before we can take steps to solve the problem, we have to see it as a problem that needs fixing.
So, who wants to change? Perhaps it is easier to answer the opposite question: who wants least to change? The short answer is: those who benefit from it. Who gains most from fueling the “real Christians belong to my party” mentality? Politicians, of course! The answer after that gets a little more ambiguous since different Christian constituencies come down on different sides of the partisan divide. As we all know, the most widely publicized alignment between a Christian group and a political party is that between Evangelical Christians and the Republican party. Notwithstanding how well publicized this particular alignment is, friends from both sides of the partisan divide report having heard religious leaders contend that “real Christians” vote with “their” party. So, who wants to change?
As long as politicians are able to gain partisan advantage from pushing the “real Christians vote for my party” meme, it is highly unlikely that they are going to give it up. Similarly, as long as religious leaders are viewed as power brokers, persons able to deliver voters for politicians that they favor and thereby able to influence that politician’s position on policy matters, these religious leaders are not likely to give up the meme either. So, who does that leave to push for change? Well, I fear, there really is only one group: those who realize the damage done to the church when we allow ourselves to be exploited for partisan gain. As we pointed out in our book, Hijacked, there are increasing evidences of the seriousness of the damage, young folks walking away from a church perceived to be “too political,” for example. Are you one of those who weary of the extent to which partisan divisiveness permeates our churches? Then, take the time to better acquaint yourself with the evidences that show the damage being done and let us, one person at a time, begin to build a movement for change, a movement built around the fundamental reality that those who name Jesus as Lord are united more deeply by that allegiance than by any political agenda. Can we make that change? Well, yes we can. We only have to have the will to let it begin with ourselves.
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is Chief Operating Officer of Sojourners. He previously served 10 years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology and Philosophy. Chuck is the author of three books and numerous articles on a variety of theological and philosophical articles.