The end of religious centrism

As of last night I didn’t have anything I wanted to write here. A friend of mine with a far more successful newsletter said she didn’t monetize hers was because she didn’t like the pressure. She wanted to write when she wanted to write.

During my early morning scroll through Twitter, I stumbled on this post “How the Decline of Religious Institutions Fueled the Rise of the Trump-Evangelical Coalition.”

The long and the short of the piece (and you should read the whole thing) is that what best explains the Trump-Evangelical coalition is not the endorsement of evangelical leaders or Trump’s positions (or supposed positions) on particular issues of concern to evangelicals like abortion or immigration. Instead, what best explains it is that evangelicals tend to vote Republican and identify heavily with the Republican party.

Think about the last time you did something that your entire community thought disdainful, actively discouraged, and that you knew would make you an outcast amongst your friends. It’s hard to come up with one, huh? That’s basically what not voting for Trump would’ve been like for millions of evangelicals.

In the post, Compton points out that prominent evangelicals as far back as Jerry Falwell didn’t lead the rightward movement of the group so much as they got out in front of it. There are a number of reasons for this but one is the lack of strong institutional networks that exist between evangelical churches and the influence they have over the members. I think this lack of strength is probably due to the way that capitalism corrodes all of our institutions. Capitalism, by its nature, breaks us down into individuals, component parts subservient to the accumulation of profit. The time you need for your friends, family, church, or any other community don’t matter to the capitalists making money.

The most powerful institution in the lives of millions of Americans is not a church, a local government, a rotary club, or any of the other institutions the decline of which no shortage of Christians bemoan. The most powerful institution in the lives of most people is Wal-Mart, Amazon, fast food, grocery stores, universities (if you include the hospitals). They control people’s time, energy, and attention and because there’s less and less leftover for church, there’s also less and less leftover for developing institutions and communities that have such tight relationships with leadership that leaders dictate change instead of responding to it.

Pastors are concerned with change and while some might say the kind of change we hope to lead people to isn’t reducible to voting for or against Trump, every pastor of a “moderate” church that I know that has Trump voters in their congregation wants to know what they could say or do to wake them up and help them see that by doing so they’ve voted for someone that doesn’t align with what they take to be a more Christian politics. But if what Compton writes is true, that’s likely going to be a losing effort. It also explains why efforts to build a religious left by swaying evangelicals with better messaging likely won’t work. Religious centrism doesn’t work because it doesn’t have an actual message beyond whatever happens to be in the center. (I wrote about this in regards to Pete Buttigieg for Vox a few months ago).

One of my favorite pieces of writing is Rebecca Solnit’s “Preaching to the Choir.” In it, she writes about how maybe political (and I would add religious) centrists spend too much time focused on persuading people we think the middle or even a little further to the right or left of us. Of course, the common wisdom says that there’s no virtue in “preaching to the choir.” The already convinced need no further convincing. Instead, she writes, leaders ought to focus not on convincing the unconvinced, but on firing up those that do believe so much that they’re led to act. She writes, “To win politically, you don’t need to win over people who differ from you, you need to motivate your own.”

I need to get to the church office so I’ll wrap this up. One of the co-pastors is out today so I need to make sure the trash gets put out. Work of the Lord and all. But I want to close by saying where I see things possibly going.

Because of my writing and work at Jubilee, I often get asked if I think there are a lot of Christian Socialists out there (not online). The answer is that I don’t. But I do think there’s a solid enough group of Christians Questioning Capitalism out there. And I think a lot of them are like me: struggling to find not just the intellectual resources to make sense of things, but the communal resources to feel empowered to speak and act as if their faith still matters to them not in spite of their commitments to socialism or their questions about capitalism, but because of it.

I don’t know how things will go at Jubilee Baptist. We’re officially four months in, but people keep showing up. We just wrapped up a class about how capitalism works and exploits us. We closed by reading and discussing an essay on what we should do about it because of Christian love. The answer is fight and hopefully win the class struggle. We have church members actively organizing their co-workers for unions. We have members that very well could be on strike soon and because of our life together we’ll support them in that fight. When people at church complain about their jobs, they have pastors that tell them they should organize and we’ll help them do it. We do all this because we love each other and we show that we love each other by paying off each other’s debts.

Solnit writes, “The performance of integrity is more influential than that of compromise. Rather than meet people where they are, you can locate yourself someplace they will eventually want to be.” At Jubilee Baptist we’re trying to locate ourselves someplace we think people will eventually want to be and where a good number of them actually want to be right now. We might lead a few there. Others are probably going in that direction and have no sense a church could be waiting on them. It might all fall apart or maybe we’re only taking our own cues from demographics and what I or the other pastors say or do doesn’t matter. I don’t know. Neither do you. I only know that we (all of us) aren’t going back. We aren’t going back politically or religiously. Figure out where you think things should go, locate yourself there, and try to live a life together with more integrity than compromise. Then hope people show up and then you act.