(ANALYSIS) I remember in grad school we used to sit around in the graduate assistants’ office and ask each other super nerdy questions, like “What is your favorite journal article?” Yeah, I know — that’s exactly what you would expect from a bunch of folks in their early 20s who were reading hundreds of pages of political science every week while making poverty-level wages. No money for beer, but the library offers us free books!
When it comes to religion and politics, I have a few answers to that question. The one I probably think about most often is an article by Wald, Hill and Owen simply titled, “Churches as Political Communities.” It was published in 1988, which is forever ago in the world of religion and politics. But the theory is just as relevant today as it was during the last days of the Reagan administration.
The thrust of the article is that every religious community is political, no matter how hard they try and hide it. Something so subtle as a fundraiser for the crisis pregnancy center can signal the partisanship of the congregation. The authors even talk about walking through the parking lots of churches and reading bumper stickers to get a sense of what they were about to encounter when they entered the worship space.
That article was formative in the way that I approach the world now. When I get invited to give a talk to a church group, the first thing I do after I arrive and greet my host is to walk around the building and just observe the subtle clues. Do they have a flag in the sanctuary? Do they have recycling bins? Or a gender-neutral bathroom? All those things tell me a lot about how that community thinks, worships and votes.
There is no doubt in my mind that politics is one of the main culprits for the emptying out of American religion. That was my starting point for this piece.
What follows is a peek inside how I think through a problem like that. My approach has always been to start broad, then narrow just a bit, but always look for the thread of the story. I need to find something that is easy for a reader to understand but hard for them to forget.
So, let’s pull on the thread of religion and politics a bit.