Populist Religion

Populist Religion February 16, 2023

People forget George Wallace was a populist. He is known as a white racist segregationist who “stood in the schoolhouse door.” Wallace is not remembered for being “a man of the people.” His supporters could claim the Governor is “one of us” without any sense of irony. The present state of American Christianity is a populist problem.

The problems within The United Methodist Church is really a populist issue. Churches that are disaffiliating are following the message of populism. We are you. They are not us. We believe the Bible. They do not. We are traditionalist. They are not. It does not matter if these claims are true. What matters is the congregations feel the new leaders understand them. But it is not only that feeling of identity that matters in the populist message. The populist demagogue must promise a renewal of the ways things should be and would be without the corruption of the present denomination. What has gone so wrong?

Populist Temptations

Bill Clinton is a populist. He is not the same kind of person as George Wallace. But he managed give a message that allowed the majority of people to overlook his personal flaws. “I feel your pain,” was the rallying cry. The pillar of his playbook was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The two major pieces of the populist message are demonstrated here. Both matter to the majority of people. Leaders that appear aloof and condescending do not win popularity contests. President Clinton did not say, “I understand your pain.” He claimed to care about the people. Promising to help or protect people is always good. But being able to get people to believe the promises is about identity.

Churches give in to these temptations easily. If a pastor appears to care about the church members, they are on track to win them over. Congregants can say to themselves, “My pastor teaches and believes what is right.” Faceless and nameless potential pastors can be depicted in negative lights because they are not known. But the most important question is does the pastor care about them. This is the reason so many congregations are disaffiliating at the behest of the pastors.

A Metric System

The metrics are the bane of all pastors. Reporting the metrics is a source of depression for us. At the end of every year we must report numbers about membership, attendance, participation, giving, value of property, and expenditures to our Annual Conferences. It is a report about how good we are at record-keeping. Congregations look at numbers too. It is a major part of how they gauge a pastor’s effectiveness. Corporate America uses such data to make decisions on many issues the most important being how much revenue is being made. In church work, these numbers reflect the priorities of the congregation. They do not reflect the priorities of the clergy.

Pastors that increase the metrics are appreciated by everyone involved. The populist temptation is obvious. Bottom-lines encourage races to the bottom. The downside of the reports is congregations decide the Annual Conference and denominational leadership do not care about them. Here again is the nameless and faceless problem. If everything is about money, what keeps a conference from closing our church to sell the property?

Morally Neutral Populism?

I used the example of George Wallace and Bill Clinton as populist politicians as examples to show populism is not always the same. But it is not morally neutral either. Populist preaching changes the message from the kerygma to the person. Preaching Jesus’ teachings is not important. Warning people of threats to them and their ways gets more response. Populists frighten people about other people and ideas. The message of salvation is not about the kingdom of God. But how the pastor and the people will save themselves from the threats.

Consider how easy it is for threats of potential violence in churches sent Christians into a purchasing frenzy for guns, security systems, and training for churches. Populist messaging always has a violent component. Bill Clinton found it easy to threaten welfare mothers when it became convenient.

Confronting The Populist Gospel

Church leaders do not know how to overcome the populist gospel. They do not know how to confront it. It requires some deep soul-searching. How have we fed the beast? When will we stop feeding it?

We need to look closely at the popular styles of American preaching. Ask where our focus of worship has been? Were our stated goals what we really wanted? Clergy leaders are not the only ones who should ask these questions. Lay leadership in churches treat worship and church-life as consumer products. The recent “He Gets Us” ad campaign is a symptom of this problem. Americans buy and sell everything including Jesus and the Church. The populist train has derailed. Leave it where it is.

The Church does not need a populist message. We are not trying to win contests. The rest of the world is not our enemy. Christians who want enemies will call their friends heretics. Stop it.

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