Eavesdropping in on people discussing politics can be fascinating. In reading the roughly four hundred pages of transcribed conversations from total strangers in eight focus groups I discovered five common misunderstandings about Christians and politics that we will correct in todays devotional.
MISUNDERSTANDING #1 – AMERICA WAS FOUNDED ON FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
Focus group participants argued again and again that Christians should stay out of politics because “our nation is built on freedom from religion.”
As professor Wayne Grudem explains in an interview I conducted with him for this project, “Sometimes people raise the objection about separation of church and state and take it to mean we should have freedom from religion. That is, religion should be excluded from public places and public expressions and debates about legal things and moral standards.” But our real liberty is freedom of religion. Grudem continues, “I just ask people to go online and look at the First Amendment to the Constitution. It doesn’t say anything about freedom from religion. It says, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That means people of any faith or no faith have the right to speak up wherever they wish. Other people might not like what we say. They might not agree with our views. But we don’t have to apologize for our faith as the basis of the positions we advocate.
MISUNDERSTANDING #2 – CHRISTIANS ARE A MAJORITY IN AMERICA
Many of our participants felt Christians have overwhelming political power based on our sheer numbers. But as I’ve said before, there are more left-handed people, more Texans, and more pet cats than evangelicals in America. Back in the day when Christendom encouraged people to profess a faith they neither deeply possessed nor regularly practiced, it was tough to know how many people were true Christians. When Christendom was hitting home runs and winning games, faith had a lot of fair-weather fans. With Christendom dead and authentic Christianity fading in popularity, new numbers reveal there are shockingly few hardcore fans of Team Jesus. The most reliable data doesn’t come from asking if someone is Christian but inquiring how faith impacts their actions. The reality is only about 8% of Americans are evangelical Christians according to the polls that seem most accurate. It is debatable whether a majority in America or Great Britain ever practiced true Christian faith. Christendom created a cultural haze that made it nearly impossible to see who was or was not a devoted Christian, but we know conclusively that today Christians are a small minority.8
MISUNDERSTANDING #3 – CHRISTIANITY IS ORGANIZED AND POWERFUL
I can understand how people looking from the outside might fear the church as a united force intent on ruling the world. After all, we have hundreds of thousands of outposts on corners all over America. In reality, Christianity is so splintered that it is hard to get believers together to pray, much less conspire to dominate the rest of the population. Churches divide over how to respond to almost every social issue, and they disagree on the more basic question of if and how to engage culture. It gets attention when pastors have access to presidents and other politicians, but I’ve heard from them firsthand that talking with a leader is different from wielding authority or even influence. Most politicians meet with pastors for the same reason they shake hands with anyone else. They think a photo op with our guy will win votes.
MISUNDERSTANDING #4 – CHURCH MONEY IS USED FOR POLITICS
Some group participants believed that churches were fronts for political campaigns. In Boston our facilitator asked one woman, “You’re saying that churches have political action committee money that goes to the campaigns?” To which she replied, “Mm-hmm. Oh, yes.”
This is a misunderstanding of the legal boundaries churches must live within. The Internal Revenue Service says this about churches and other nonprofits:
All section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
The policy goes on to clarify that churches and other 501(c)(3) religious groups can have public forums on issues, hand out voter education guides, and encourage voter registration and voting provided their efforts are “conducted in a non-partisan manner.”9
Some in our groups asserted that churches should be using their money to help the poor and to do good rather than spending it on issue-oriented actions or voter education. Dr. Al Mohler counters that this is an issue of free speech. For that criticism to be fair it should also be leveled at Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, and every other 501(c)(3) group. Dr. Mohler said in an interview I conducted with him for this project, “In reality, in this country, incorporated entities, whether profit or not-for-profit, have both the right and the responsibility to contend for their deepest beliefs in terms of public policy.” Honestly, the vast majority of pastors care far more about evangelism and in-the-trenches social action than elections. A church that panders to one political party and pushes out everyone else is the last thing they want. Nor do they want to do anything to invite criticism that detracts from their mission of preaching Christ.
MISUNDERSTANDING #5 – ONLY CHRISTIANS ARE SEEKING TO LEGISLATE MORALITY
People in our focus groups resented what they saw as the efforts of Christians to impose their morality on others, and some even feared we aim to revive anti-sodomy laws. But non-Christians aren’t the only ones worried about inviting government into our bedrooms. I no more want anti-sodomy laws than I want anti-fornication laws because I don’t want the government that involved in anyone’s life. I don’t believe that is the role of government and even less the right way to sway people to the cause of Jesus. But the bigger fact for all sides of this debate to recognize is that every law imposes someone’s morality.
As Dr. Mohler explained in his interview, “People assume Christians are trying to impose morality when others supposedly are not. But in reality, all politics, all legislation, all public policy is a war of rival moralities.” Every piece of legislation—environmental law, military appropriations, foreign aid, social welfare, taxation, traffic laws—touches on moral issues. Like Mohler says, “There is no such thing as a morally neutral stance when it comes to legislation.” He continues, “Christians are unapologetically involved in this for the same reason that others with rival world views are involved. Based upon our deepest convictions, we feel that our approach will lead to the greatest human flourishing. We have competing visions of what will lead to that, and that conflict is what we see in our headlines today.”
8.Here is a summary of what I say in my book Call to Resurgence, on page 13: “Common statistics estimate that evangelicals represent anywhere between 40 to 70 percent of the country’s total population, or approximately 130 million people. More extensive research cited by John Dickerson in his book The Great Evangelical Recession indicates that the actual range is between 7 and 8.9 percent, somewhere between 22 and 28 million people. Moreover, all studies indicate that younger people are less likely to be evangelical. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, about 6.4 percent of the US population ages eighteen to twenty-nine identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, which means in all likelihood there are as many young people with alternative sexual lifestyles as there are active young evangelicals in the United States.”