Skip to site content

From The Pews: How Issues-Based Politics Destroys Churches

“And where do you stand on abortion? Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” I was asked.

“Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? It is very difficult to make universal decisions because universal decisions don’t include individual circumstances,” I replied. “Also, when we talk about pro-life we are referring to life in the womb and then we kinda forget about those lives when they are children who are hungry and refugees fleeing for their lives.”

“So, you’re pro-choice,” she responded dismissively.

This is why I don’t engage in these kinds of discussions, I reminded myself. These conversations always have the same question at the heart of the vocalized question, “Are you on my side or not?”

This insistence on choosing sides over issues-based politics is certainly not new in the public sector, but this conversation took place after church while I was still in seminary.

Our churches have become politicized to the point that people on opposite sides of issues can’t figure out how to be community together.

The result is church and denominational splits over political issues. The even bigger disconnect is the voiced stances of people and their actions.

As Stephen Mattson notes, “This represents a predominant theme of Westernized Christendom: proclaiming Christian rhetoric while actively – or passively – practicing the opposite in reality.”

A resolution was passed during the 1971 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting “‘encouraging Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother.’”

The politicized rhetoric igniting the religious-right evangelical movement is a far cry from this 1971 resolution.

So, when did the religious-right evangelicals become so anti-abortion?

“It wasn’t until 1979 – a full six years after Roe – that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools,” Randall Balmer writes in an article for Politico.

In other words, abortion was politicized into a moral issue in order to impact election results. So much for the historical tenet of Baptist belief: the separation of church and state.

In the wake of this 1979 political maneuvering, the religious right and evangelical movement have taken it upon themselves not only to ensure that the tenets of the faith – including the infallible nature of the Bible, that woman can only lead and teach woman, and the inerrancy of the Word of God – are taught in their congregations, but also that issues-based politics and the moral imperative to vote for a certain party are also taught.

But what happens when we have a candidate in the “right” party who doesn’t uphold the moral imperatives that the evangelical movement is supposed to purport?

A huge disconnect that falls on the shoulders of preachers.

What is the preacher who knows values and upholds the inerrancy of the word of God supposed to do with the commandment: “Do not commit adultery”? Does the preacher risk his and his family’s livelihood or tow the party line?

This is the question we all must wrestle with as we attempt to extract our communities of faith from issues-based politics and find instead that still, small voice calling us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Merianna Harrelson

Merianna Harrelson is pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, South Carolina, editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing, and an EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board member.