What's Tony Thinking

Why Liberals Leave Church


I don’t think it’s a shocking revelation, but this article puts some research behind the hunch: those who tend to be politically liberal have left churches in growing numbers because of the Religious or Christian Right.

To be clear, liberals aren’t leaving Religious Right churches. They were never there. But there are turning their backs on the church altogether because of their distaste for the Religious Right and its role in politics. 

Here’s a key paragraph from the article:

“But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.”

I’ve believed this to be true for a long time. I was once standing on the street for some parade in downtown Seattle when some guy walked by blaring out the worst sort of fundamentalist message, “Accept Jesus or die,” kind of thing. I said out loud, but to no one in particular: “That guy actually drives people away from church and Jesus.” Someone who overheard me took exception to my remark. Whatever.

One thing that the article does not mention but which contributes to this outcome is that the media, at least in the 90’s and 00’s reported disproportionately on the religious right and its luminaries as compared to mainline or liberal Protestants and Catholics. The disproportion was quite high, like 20 to 1, articles on the Religious Right.

The upshot of that was two-fold. One, if you weren’t involved with a church that gave you a different impression, you would conclude that all of Christianity in America was politically right-wing. For many people “Christian” now meant “right-wing” or at least “conservative.”

A second result was that those who tended toward political liberal or centrist began to either hide the fact of their church involvement, or if it came up, rushed to say, “But I’m not that kind of Christian.” Some have grown tired of being tarred with the same brush, and dropped out of church/ faith altogether.

But there’s another consequence of all this that I particularly lament. Here’s the closing paragraph of the article:

“But Campbell warned that this shift is already reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together and break down partisan barriers. That, in his view, threatens to further undermine trust in religious groups and make our politics more and more divisive. ‘We have very few institutions left in the country where people who have different political views come together,’ he said. ‘Worship was one of those — and without it, the list is smaller and smaller.’ ” (Italics added)

That gets it. I went into the ministry, in no small part, because I saw the church as a place that transcended partisanship and reminded us of our common humanity. Sadly that has become less true over my years in ministry as churches have tended increasingly to mirror a more politically polarized culture.

Final comment, three cheer for political liberals and centrists who keep the faith and maintain their church involvement. They are swimming against the stream, which is where Christians ought always be.

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