Seven church trends: Partisan extremism in churches will dwindle after November’s election

March 14, 2024

By Rev. Rick King

In the second letter of Paul to Timothy, and among other pieces of advice offered as he mentors his young protégé, Paul tells Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

While the trend of political extremism in pulpits began gradually, it’s now hard to ignore: Clergy, mostly in conservative churches, taking hard-line and sometimes partisan political positions because they think it will grow their congregations, which are filled with people who are fed up and want their clergy to take these positions in the name of “relevance”.

This was an emerging trend back in 2022 when Tim Alberta wrote in The Atlantic about it. The article’s title? “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church.” And part of the motivation to embrace conservative politics was the desire for power to remake the nation along supposedly “biblical” lines.

My own children are in their 20s and all three of them vote and have their own distinctive political and religious viewpoints. But a constant diet of politics from their parents at home is not what they want, nor is it helpful. Both Linda and I are committed to supporting government in making life better for everybody, especially those at the margins—but we have come to believe our practices are more effective than our partisanship.

Likewise in the pulpit: Although I will speak directly to matters of public policy as biblical texts relate to them, I’m careful to speak from the text first and to the policy later.

Never will I endorse a party or candidate from the pulpit, of course. And not just because it could run us afoul of our First Amendment rights and responsibilities and jeopardize our non-profit status. But also because a political solution is often not enough; we need a spiritual cure, as well.

Unfortunately, right now, an alarming number of evangelical and fundamentalist clergy are taking overtly partisan political positions in their churches. (Carey Nieuwhof points out that while progressive churches sometimes do this too, few of them experience much growth from it.)

Chris Bail is a professor of sociology, political science, and public policy at Duke University who founded and runs something called the Polarization Lab, which, among other things, pioneers new technology designed to make social media less polarizing.

Bail’s research shows, among other things, that just 6 percent of extreme positions on platforms like Facebook, X, Instagram, and others drive 73 percent of all traffic online, because of algorithms.

In other words, just as in a church or synagogue, in which a tiny group of people can create a majority of the destructive conflict in that community, a minority viewpoint amplified by a few others and algorithms can stir the proverbial pot and create a firestorm of controversy in the majority, over seemingly small matters.

Nieuwhof predicts that much of this extremism in conservative pulpits will decline past November’s election, but as some of you may have seen in the Rob Reiner movie “God & Country,” Christian nationalism is a cultural force that won’t go away so easily.

Churches, meanwhile, are still in the business of proclaiming the message persistently, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” embodying Jesus’ worldview and manner of dealing with people more than a political party or candidate.

What do YOU believe is the proper balance of faith and politics?