August 2, 2004
The Greatest Divide
Martin E. Marty
In the Austin, Texas, American-Statesman (July 25), Bill Bishop climaxed a series on "the great divide" between the two Americas this election year. Perhaps he expected to find that local congregations would be places where some give-and-take of theological and political debate could occur. Posit that the members are in some sort of agreement about creed and mission. They might use that basis to discuss war-and-peace, justice-and-mercy, wealth-and-poverty issues, as they are framed by the political parties this election season.
Not at all. Bishop could have called his article on the churches, "The Greatest Divide." There, least of all, do people evidence openness, humility, and readiness to hear viewpoints with which they might disagree, even when these are voiced by fellow-believers. To do our own framing, let me suggest an experiment for those who attend worship (non-attenders can easily get reports from experimenters). In the polite company of fellow-believers, on church premises, whisper words such as "Bush" or "Kerry," "Democrat" or "Republican." Thereupon, if you are not met with spite or spit, go on to the second part of the experiment: voice support for one party or candidate and reject the other. The custodian will clean up your broken glasses or other debris left over from the smashing that will follow.
I exaggerate a bit, but only a bit. More common than such brouhahas is the evidence of avoidance. In order to keep peace and quiet, members pass each other in the corridors or pass on to other topics than religion-and-politics.
So much for framing. Bill Bishop and his fellow-staffers went on to find a different situation. There are few such encounters for the simple reason that more and more congregants choose congregations that match their styles and ways of life, their secular tastes and commitments. A church building will not have a sign out front: "This is a Republican congregation" or vice versa. But when the Republicans go trolling for votes by asking for membership lists, or ask pastors for formal endorsements, they know exactly which congregations in any urban or town and country setting to approach. And Democrats, should they also go pushing the edges of I.R.S. regulations by asking tax-exempt churches to go partisan and support a candidate -- as some do especially in the case of African-American congregations -- they know better than to walk down the aisle of "the other kind" of church and bid. "Regardless of denomination," writes Bishop, "churches have attracted new members by appealing to cultural and political similarities." Churches have increasingly become astute marketers.
In one survey, we read, "Overwhelmingly, people said the people they met in church were extremely homogeneous with them politically." That being the case, there is less need for avoidance of the topics or bopping of "the other" than my earlier paragraphs pictured. Members of religious bodies can lean back and enjoy their own kind, protected from the voice of "the other" and, perhaps, from the word of judgment or mercy that they associate with the word of God.
Editor's Note: Dr. Alena Ruggerio, author of last week's "Biblical Feminists" (7/29/04), is Coordinator Emerita of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus. This information was inadvertantly omitted from her bio.