The White Church’s Problem with “Politics”

Race matters.  Not in the sense that it makes people more or less valuable, but in the sense that income, health, marriage rates, crime, and educational achievement, and much, much more all have racial components.

However, you probably haven’t ever thought about the relationship between race and a church’s willingness to engage in “politic issues”.

I know I hadn’t.

Until very recently.

I find myself, once again, part of an effort (Initiative 1552, more information at www.JustWantPrivacy.org) to require schools to maintain separate locker rooms, showers, and bathrooms for student’s based on their sex. This is now a strangely controversial idea.

Washington State law currently says that students (and anyone else for that matter) have a legal right to access facilities based on the gender that they express or identify with.

A lot of us think this is a bad idea.

Within the church world, most people have an appreciation for the fact that God made people male and female, and while we can have compassion for the real distress people who experience gender dysphoria have, the best solution is not pretending that biology doesn’t matter.

As a result, most churches agree that your gender is something you are born with, not something you discover.

But you’d be surprised at how hard of a sell it is to ask a church to take what they know to be true and apply it in a tangible way. Particularly when it comes to “political issues”.

I put that term in quote because no issues are inherently political. All issues are ultimately about what is true or false, better or worse.  What we refer to as “politics” is simply a process for resolving those questions.  We have created a category of “political issues” that we have given ourselves permission to ignore, in some cases, as a way of avoiding the hard conversations.

“We can’t do that. We want to create a safe space for people to hear the gospel and those issues are divisive.”

“We don’t want to jeopardize our tax-exempt status.”

“That’s not our model of ministry.”

“We just preach Christ and Him crucified.  Politics is a distraction from what’s most important.”

Always followed immediately by, “But I want you to know I’m personally very supportive and so thankful you’re doing what you’re doing.”

In other words, “I hope we win, we just shouldn’t try very hard.”

There’s something unique about these arguments that didn’t dawn on me until recently.

There must be exceptions to this rule somewhere, but as far as I can tell, the only churches making these arguments are white, conservative churches.  Of course not every white, conservative church takes this position, but the ones that do have that in common.

Strange, isn’t it?

I have spent the last nine years living at the intersection of church and politics and interacted with hundreds of churches and pastors. Maybe thousands.

I have never heard an ethnic church of any kind, be it Russian, African American, Romanian, Chinese, Ukrainian, Korean, or Hispanic, make the argument that engagement on a political issue would be inappropriate in the same way I hear almost daily from white conservative churches.

Why? I can’t speak for other people, but I can speculate.

Many in Slavic and Chinese churches have personal experience with totalitarian forms of government and many saw their families punished because of their faith.

Maybe that’s why they are genuinely excited to use their influence to try to make their community a better place now that they finally have some.  I think they’d look at you funny if you said some version of, “you shouldn’t use it, you’re a church.  People might misunderstand.”

I’ve also never heard an African American church talk about the need to keep their faith-based convictions to themselves.  The heritage of so many black churches is one of fighting publicly for what is true, not despite their faith, but because of it.

I doubt the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would approve the message, “Don’t get involved.”

Hispanic churches do have hesitations with engaging in government, but not because they see it as in conflict with their primary mission.

Overtime, I had, without realizing it, developed an expectation that when I talk to an ethnic church I find support but when I talk to a white church I will find hesitation, if not opposition.

There are certainly exceptions to the latter, but none to the former.

Generally, ethnic churches are happy to help. Generally, white churches will either say no or send it to a committee.

Of course, not all white churches are opposed to political engagement.  Just conservative ones.

Progressive churches are downright enthusiastic about it.  In many cases, they advertise their political leanings and convictions about the day’s most controversial issues on signs and flag poles outside their churches in ways that would make even engaged conservative churches blush.

The next time I hear a progressive church talk about how important it is to keep their morality inside the four walls of their church will be the first.

In fact, the campaign to maintain unisex locker rooms in public schools, Washington Won’t Discriminate, was launched inside of a church with a cross as the backdrop in every picture.

Their current headline on their Facebook Page is “Washington Faith Leaders Say No On I-1552” with a picture and quote from a man in a collar headlining a public letter from a number of religious people talking about how discriminatory it is to suggest that someone with a penis not be allowed to undress in front of a 7 year-old girl.

If history is any indication, this campaign will feature far more “faith leaders” publicly opposing God’s understanding of sex and gender than supporting it.

That isn’t because faith leaders as a group have come to realize that God sometimes makes mistakes and puts people in the wrong body, but because on every issue in Washington State, progressive faith leaders are far more public about how their beliefs apply to cultural debates than those who believe the Bible.

That’s just the way it is.

And it’s not just a progressive church v. conservative church phenomenon.  Though that difference is stark. Within conservative churches, it is white churches v. everyone else.

Why?

I’m not sure I know the answer. But at this point, I’m awfully curious.


If you and your church would like to participate in Signature Sunday on June 4th to help I-1552 qualify for the ballot, you can do so by clicking here.

6 replies
  1. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Thanks for initiating this very important dialogue, Joseph. I am in agreement with everything you have said. In my attempts to reach out for signatures on the petition from friends, in particular, these are the comments I have heard about their churches’ lack of involvement: ( #1 reason given) Our pastors don’t like politics. (#2) We aren’t allowed to talk about “those things” unless the pastor brings it up. (#3) I wouldn’t dare ask Pastor_____ to change and get involved. He has authority over us, and he’d be offended. Besides, some of our pastors are ready to retire and don’t want to rock the boat. (#4) Well, one of the pastors mentioned that there are bad things happening out there, but we have to go elsewhere to speak out against it. He said that’s not the church’s business. (#5) I think our pastors are afraid of upsetting some people who might be giving a lot of money to the church so they play it safe. ***What this comes down to me is a control issue. There are some pastors and church boards who have forgotten that their church belongs to God, not themselves. Their flock is weak in knowledge of God’s Word, and the pastors don’t mind it being so. Too much authority can go to pastors’ heads. Because they are afraid that “their people” might start thinking independently, they stifle growth and close the doors to any outside influences. But that’s just my opinion.

    Reply
    • Larry Ingram
      Larry Ingram says:

      It’s a matter of comfort. And it’s a problem that is even worse with the larger or megachurches. One of the exceptions to this rule is the First Baptist Church of Dallas, which was an early supporter of Donald Trump. These churches and pastors really want a pure spirituality, one that is unmuddied by issues that can cause conflict. They really want issues related to politics to stay out of the church. Joel Osteen and Lakewood church is an example of that. If you don’t know if Muslims are going to heaven or not, how can you preach that Jesus is the only way to God? If you want to know why more Christians are not involved in the media, journalism, this is probably the reason. Liberal churches talk about issues. Conservative churches don’t.

      Reply
  2. Mary
    Mary says:

    Joseph has identified a problem at my church (i.e. involvement in politics might hinder the proclamation of the gospel). Rev. Martin Luther King is a persuasive argument to the contrary. Can you give other examples of well-known clergymen/evangelist who spoke up on public issues without fear of negating their call to preach the gospel?

    Reply
    • Larry Ingram
      Larry Ingram says:

      Yes I can. The entire 19th century was a battle in the U.S. against slavery. Christians opposed slavery in England as well. William Wilberforce was a politician in who opposed slavery and stood again it in the House of Commons (or Lords) for years. He was mocked by non-Christians regularly. They won the right to end slavery on a technicality.

      Reply
  3. Sara
    Sara says:

    Amazing article and great observations! If we can find out the root of this issue, perhaps then we can finally have success.

    Reply

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