The Rise of Global Christianity (Part 1)

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The Rise of Global Christianity (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Part 2 may be read here.

There is a unique relationship between religion and politics in America with significant implications for the corporate identity of Seventh-day Adventism that continually places us at risk of becoming “entangled” in the web of socio-political ideologies.

Why does an individual identify with, and maintain membership in, a particular Christian (or other) denomination? Indeed, why should I belong to a larger group or church denomination at all, rather than just walk the Christian life alone (me, my Bible, and my Lord), or with a few local friends in a study group that splits every time it grows too large (house church)? It certainly would be easier to avoid many unpleasant disagreements this way. Or, to be realistic, surely just fitting myself into a local church’s identity in the community (congregationalism) would be enough, wouldn’t it?

At smaller and more local levels, the average individual can still exert some personal influence (express his or her “individuality” and be noticed) and have at least a truly democratic voice in the church’s activities. Many younger people these days seem to want to experience religion or church only at this level, primarily because they want church to feel “meaningful.” Perhaps this has always been true of younger generations, although in today’s complex globalized multicultural and pluralistic society, it manifests itself in fresh ways.

But after everything has been said on the complex realities of today’s world, the logically inevitable conclusion remains the same: Unity is power and influence. Even most young people soon realize this as they mature through college and beyond. So what most individual Christians have chosen to do historically and continue to do today is to join faith communities that are larger than their personal influence. They submit to the possibility that the corporate identity to which they belong may not noticeably or meaningfully include and reflect their personal identity or contributions to the larger group.

Seventh-day Adventism is one such “larger group.” Yet members still submit to identification with the larger group’s corporate identity because they have enough of a shared worldview, or way of looking at the world as a whole. A shared identity always implies the existence of a correspondingly shared corporate worldview. So what does a worldview really mean in this context?

Although one could imagine many possible answers to this question, Adventists traditionally have based their corporate identity and worldview on a biblically grounded doctrinal and lifestyle distinctiveness developed during a specific historical situation. This distinctiveness anticipates an eschatological context, which, interestingly, highlights America. Beyond this specific context, however, philosophically and sociologically, one of the primary purposes of most religious groups, churches, or ecclesiastical bodies is to foster a public witness through their corporate identity that testifies to their internal spiritual moorings.

As such, although spirituality may be discussed more frequently as an individual or personal matter in today’s postmodern culture, when people of similar beliefs band together, there is the hope that together they can more effectively witness to their understanding of authentic spirituality for the individual. The refrain becomes, “Witness our love for one another! Don’t you wish to believe and behave as we do?” Such persons strive for a specific public witness through their corporate identity, believing that God is more fully and clearly revealed through such a broader witness to people outside their group. Of course, such a corporate witness allows for the possibility of articulating a corporate worldview, meaning that a group’s beliefs and behaviors can be contrasted with alternative corporate beliefs and behaviors.

In a pluralistic society, there is a natural consequence of the above. After some time, elements of differing worldviews, whether purportedly religious or not, begin to compete, meaning they begin to engage society in all mainstream social, political, and economic issues. Essentially, every issue eventually becomes “political.” Ultimately it is not possible for anyone to avoid socio-political leanings or preferences. A worldview’s engagement or lack thereof on the issues of slavery, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, civil rights, abortion, homosexual marriage, equitable economic policies, vaccinations for children, environmentalism, the teaching of Creationism in public schools, etc., are unavoidable, and also, always, in some manner or another, political. The intertwining of one’s religious convictions and politics is inevitable at a foundational level.

This should not be surprising. When religious groups become large enough, the logical consequence is that the varying religious worldviews begin to compete with one another as well as with any secular worldviews. Put simply, and this remains very much true for Christians, “a worldview ultimately determines a person’s ideology in politics, religion, and ethics,”[1] as well as economics. Naturally, one primary concern of this broadened conception of a worldview is that “when a common philosophy of religion and politics coalesce into joined purpose and function, the character of government may become theocratic, that is, subjected to theological ideology as hurtful as secular despotism, for politicized religious belief seeks the enforcement of secular authority,”[2] highlighting the importance of individual and religious liberty. This is true not only globally or nationally, but also in more localized contexts.

The members of any healthy and dynamic group need to know who they are for their identity and worldview to thrive and be persuasive to others, and this is especially true of Adventists.


The Contours of the Contemporary American Socio-Political Landscape

Following World War I, from 1918–1980, political fluidity reigned in the United States. The major political parties did not entrench themselves within a large number of polarized positions on major issues for an enduring period of time. Very few clearly established “party platforms” lasted from one decade to the next. The positions of a given party, at least on many issues, ebbed and flowed over the years, with a given voting demographic (men, women, age, ethnicity) favoring alternating parties and respective presidential candidates as the decades passed. Presidential candidates from either party could win elections with a strong majority of voters in an overwhelming number of the States. No region of the country was overwhelmingly bound to a large political framework with clear positions on a wide range of issues for an enduring period of time. However, this fluidity is no longer the case. For more than 35 years, an increasingly rigid polarization has been the trend, and it is unprecedented in American history.

Recognition of the existence of the American “culture war” was introduced in 1991 in sociologist James Davison Hunter’s classic book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Its use by Patrick J. Buchanan in a speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention explicitly united religion and politics. And political polarization in the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate, and White House crested, in 2015, at the highest level since shortly after the end of the South’s Reconstruction in 1877.

This is seen clearly with more votes on significant bills in Congress aligning almost strictly by party affiliation on both domestic and foreign-policy issues. The most expensive and important domestic bill in U.S. history, the 2010 American Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) well illustrates this division. Virtually all Democrats at every level supported it, while virtually all Republicans opposed it. This polarization, on many types of bills and policies, is unprecedented for this long a duration. Two competing “socio-political worldviews” have developed. Unlike some other democratic nations that may have more than two major parties, the United States essentially has only two significant political parties today, creating a sharper polarization than is found in most other countries.

Although genuine “moderates” or “issue-based independents” (notably, frustration with the polarization has led some to declare as Independents who are actually representatives of the most extreme positions of the major parties) are still alive and breathing among the more indifferent or uninformed general population (although, note that “young adults like to think of themselves as independent . . . , [but] when it comes to politics, they’re more likely than not to lean to the left”[3]), self-identifying conservatives and liberals are at an all-time high, and this is reflected clearly within those who do identify with one of the two major parties. There are now fewer “liberal Republicans” or “conservative Democrats” than ever before, even as the number of “Independents” has also reached historic highs.

Furthermore, the more informed people are through the news sources they trust most, the more one-sided and polarized their socio-political perspectives tend to become. Additionally, the mass popularity of so-called extreme groups is seen readily with the rise of names such as the progressive Occupy Wall Street movement and the conservative Tea Party, which have “secularized” the older strictly “moral-religious” side of the culture war with an marked focus on economics.

And the broad contours of this “culture war” are not going away anytime soon. This is because a large-scale historic migration is underway from the countryside to urban centers and new megacities, meaning that the culture war will continue to grow in ever-deepening ways. Sometimes one’s politics pertain more to one’s culture and lifestyle than to policy. Most rural or countryside multi-generational Americans vote Republican, while the growing and heavily immigrant-populated cities vote Democrat.

Some interesting consequences of this situation relate to the ability to promote unity as Americans. For example, as county-level voting maps of the past few U.S. Presidential elections indicate, especially since 1992, smaller, more-populated zones (“liberal-blue” coasts and cities) are increasingly at odds with the geographically larger but less-populated (“conservative-red” heartland) rural areas. There truly is a cultural divide. A strong political polarization has emerged between these regions that is real among both the general populace and the politicians, who naturally must cater to their constituents who elected them.

It is remarkable to see a 2008 U.S. presidential county-level political map that is geographically 85 percent “red-Republican” and realize that the 15 percent “blue-Democrat” side won the presidency easily with 67 percent of the electoral votes, reflecting the population density of where the majority live, namely, a few major cities. In fact, in recent presidential elections, geographically, the political campaigns have often been simplified to a few consistent “battleground states,” and even more intriguingly, a mere handful of “battleground counties” to determine the winner of the U.S. presidential election. Again, it must be pointed out that such an enduring and sharply defined polarization described above has not existed since the Civil War.


Religion Within the Socio-Political Polarization

While there is surely some socio-political identity mobility among members of most major religious groups, the recent trend of all major religious groups and denominations, including Christianity since 1980, has been to combine their religious identities with a single socio-political identity to gain greater influence and power. This was a logical result of the greater polarization of America’s developing political reality, and combined various religious identities’ convictions and emphases on any number of moral/social issues with secular or mainstream political positions and emphases. Many churches still officially espouse political neutrality, but despite this, a survey of their members that do participate in politics often reveals a clear bias toward either the Right or the Left.

The rise of the so-called Religious Right (sometimes identified as Moral Majority and Christian Coalition) in the 1980s and 1990s matched the profile of religious people seeking a socio-political identity. The Religious Right has been pointed out and strongly emphasized by several prominent Adventists of differing theological persuasions during the past 25 years, almost unanimously predicting a central role for the Religious Right in the creation of a national Sunday law.[4]

In brief, the Religious Right represents a coalition of several conservative or traditional Christian groups and denominations (in particular the so-called traditional evangelicals) that share enough of a worldview to combine into a single socio-political identity; in their case, the Republican Party in the United States. That worldview, in Christianized language, could be loosely described as the “capitalistic moral gospel” perspective. It is important to note that though some Religious Right advocates do desire to create a union of church and state, the Religious Right also has many who sympathize with various aspects of their overall philosophy who could be described as more libertarian concerning church-and-state issues.

What matters most for the Religious Right is the individual’s morality, which is to be “guided” legislatively to varying degrees (especially on matters of marriage and abortion), while individuals are to be on their own to increase their socio-economic standing and wealth, which is believed to surely be sanctified wealth if they are moral and following the guidelines. Obedience to the moral law (Ten Commandments, with Sunday substituted for Sabbath), namely, biblical marriage and unobstructed business dealings, etc., is of paramount significance. That the wealth generated by these policies will reach the poor or less fortunate is assumed as a given (and is often true, contra popular perception, as conservatives are far more generous in giving their wealth away than progressives/liberals),[5] and is to be done outside of the Federal Government, so far as possible, through voluntary private institutions like churches, local charities, and on occasion local governments.

Of course, some members of the Religious Right also pursue their agenda through a postmillennial “kingdom on earth” eschatological emphasis, meaning that they hope to create a heaven on earth before Christ’s second coming, which they believe comes after the millennium in Revelation 20:1-10. This is evident in much of the thinking behind Christian Reconstructionism. However, it must be noted, not all members of the Religious Right are united on a single view of the “millennium” or the ideals of Reconstructionism; conservative Protestants and Catholics hold differing views among themselves, with the Catholic Church favoring an Augustinian amillennialism, “equating the Christian Church with the realized Millennium and postponing the Second Coming of Christ into the nonimminent future.”[6]

Historically, it is critical to point out that conservative Christians had a respectable place in higher education prior to World War I, and as such also had a corresponding socio-political presence by default. The radical impact that World War I had on society shifted public opinion greatly concerning God and religion in ways that would require Christianity to react. American Fundamentalism was one such related response, wherein conservatives retreated from the public sphere from the 1920s to 1970s, especially after defeats—in the eyes of the public—following battles over evolution in public schools. The current iteration of conservative Christianity through the Religious Right has been almost completely shut out of higher education since the 1920s, and it is highly unlikely they will be able to return in any strength in the 21st century for a variety of reasons, leaving the mainstream academy first to the Religious Left from the 1930s through 1969, and then finally the Secular Left, where the situation remains today. Most secular university faculty lean Left in the 21st century.[7]

With the above in mind, if a year were to be given for the official birth date for the contemporary Religious Right, it would be 1980, when the Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan ran for President and won, and Reagan’s Republican Party adopted a few of the concerns promoted by the Christian Right expressed by individuals like popular evangelist Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority. Although it must be noted that the conservative impulses of more fundamentalist leaning or conservative Protestant Christians had intersected with politics earlier in the century, they had never quite crystalized together in the way the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition would do so with the Republican Party after 1980.

In particular, prior to 1980, Catholics were mostly Democrats, as illustrated by Catholic politicians like presidential hopeful Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, between 1980 and 1990, a number of Catholics joined with conservative Republican Christians on the Right, a relationship made attractive because they shared similar positions against abortion and gay marriage. Hence, the modern picture of the Religious Right can’t be said to truly begin until 1980, when conservative Catholics began slowly joining conservative Protestants around a single socio-political rallying flag, the Republican Party, and its candidate, a somewhat unwilling Ronald Reagan.

It would be remiss at this point to neglect to mention one of the primary motives that actually ignited the Religious Right in the first place, and that would be the use of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to desegregate some conservative Christian schools like Bob Jones University in the 1970s. This was a decade that included the term of the politically liberal evangelical Democratic President Jimmy Carter, though he didn’t prompt this governmental initiative. Yet, despite this poor choice upon which to initiate their political activism (in the eye of public opinion), the Religious Right also emphasized a number of other sensitive and more controversial issues, such as the government’s involvement in issues like abortion and gay marriage, alongside prayer and the teaching of Creationism versus evolutionism in public schools.

Collectively, these latter issues are the real reason the evolving Religious Right became influential politically, and indeed, for most of the movement’s eventual members, these latter issues constitute the real reason the Religious Right grew among Christianity generally. The Religious Right gains socio-political strength only relative to the proactive nature of the Secular and Religious Left. When the Left is quiescent, the Right is seldom able to muster support among the populace.

The Religious Left. On the flip side from the Religious Right, there now exists a still-rising Religious Left, which aligns closely with the Democratic Party in the U.S. in 2015. As Steven Shiffrin recently observed, “Although the mass media tend to ignore it, there is a strong religious Left in the United States.”[8] As such, although the Religious Left is a more complex movement, and has been less organized in some ways than the Right and thus often ignored, it actually has historical roots as deep as the Right that directly contribute to the shape of the contemporary political polarization in America.

In contrast to the “capitalistic moral gospel” of the Right (free enterprise, opposition to gay marriage, anti-abortion, support for Creationism and prayer in schools), the Left’s gospel can be encapsulated in the phrase, “economic-Marxist social/prosperity gospel,” which it pursues for the sake of the common good of society. It is primarily concerned with decreasing poverty, improving social equalities of various sorts, and resolving various other social ills, in addition to other contemporary globalist concerns like climate change and broad-based (multi-faith) ecumenism. Its key figures in recent years have been Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. Other names would include Mark Noll, Randall Balmer, Brian McLaren, and David Gushee.

Following the Fundamentalist Right’s retreat from the public sphere and declining influence during the 1920s-1970s, the more liberal mainline Protestant churches during this period constituted what would be called the Religious Left in the United States. They exercised a significant influence throughout higher education, while outside America the Religious Left manifested itself in an even more radical form of direct social engagement through Liberation Theology. Though it is often true that the Religious Left is more theologically liberal in recent times, owing to its relationship to more liberal mainline churches in the 20th century that embraced theistic evolution, etc., this is not necessarily the case historically, nor in the present. It is possible for an adherent of the Religious Left to be theologically conservative (holding Right-leaning views on moral and theological issues), but socio-politically Leftist concerning economic matters, so much so that their overall Leftist leanings dominate their political affiliations. It should be noted, however, that such dipolar perspectives within Leftists are becoming harder to maintain as the Secular Left entrenches itself more firmly within views more naturally compatible with liberal theology and moral values. Additionally, although there are also libertarian leanings in some Leftists, the same as with the Right, such libertarians typically apply their views exclusively to so-called personal morality and not to socio-economic theories.

It may be helpful to understand the above developments to know that the Religious Left and Right were at times the same groups and people prior to 1980 and the development of contemporary socio-political identities, prior to when the culture wars began. Both sides have voices that encourage religious liberty, even if slightly differing definitions of it. The complex nature of this history is part of the reason that many today mistake previous generations of Christian activists (such as William Jennings Bryan and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson) as precursors to the Religious Right, when they may have been just as much extreme Leftists by the present use of the term. It appears true that most Leftists prior to 1980 more readily identified with postmillennialism, the idea that Christ would return after humanity had perfected things for a thousand years here on earth. This idea permeated the origins of American political progressivism, which was later translated easily enough into a form that today’s secular science-driven liberals can embrace. Both are committed to improving the here and now as their primary focus.

Notwithstanding religious liberty as an ideal that moderates of both the Right and Left can espouse, it is also true that totalitarianism tendencies represent the extremes of both the stereotypical Right and Left, who in many ways often think the same way. They apply their similar way of thinking (psycho-philosophical), however, toward different moral, social, and theological ends at different times and in differing contexts. Accordingly, as Mark Edwards correctly perceives, even within purportedly conservative (Right-leaning) Evangelicalism itself, “evidence . . . shows that the evangelical left and right cannot be segmented so easily. Historically, both [religious] parties have sought to save their souls by gaining the whole world.”[9] Again, this time beyond only Evangelicalism, Michael Horton similarly observes, “In many ways mirroring the Religious Right’s confusion of Christ’s kingdom of grace with his coming kingdom in glory and the latter with the triumph of a particular agenda already defined by a political party, the emerging Religious Left seems just as prone to enlist Jesus as a mascot for our own programs of national and global redemption.”[10]

In its contemporary manifestation and stage of development, the telltale sign of the Religious Left (which is closely related to the Emerging Church phenomena as well as Liberation Theology) is its abandonment of a special focus on the moral part of the law, or the Ten Commandments, which is now often literally dissolved into Jesus’ simplification of the law, namely, love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Rather, Jesus’ counsel to the rich young ruler to “‘sell all that you have and give to the poor’” (Mark 10:21, ESV) becomes in itself a moral imperative, to be imposed coercively on society if necessary through various means, including taxation, to implement equitable wealth distribution. The free-willed attitude of the widow who gave her last mite to the Lord (Luke 21:1–4) is neglected by this new economic imperative targeting the wealthy, no matter how they acquired their wealth. “Social justice” is a key rallying concept for the Religious Left, as well as the Secular Left.

Additionally, as mentioned above, besides a greater focus on socio-economic issues in contrast to the moral part of the law, other issues that are connected to the moral dimension of the Ten Commandments are often (not always) reinterpreted in a “liberal” way by the Religious Left. For example, not only is support offered for homosexual civil unions for the sake of religious liberty, but even insistence upon homosexual marriage and the encouragement of a culture of pro-choice concerning abortion are sometimes encouraged. Insightfully, many in the Religious Left have long complained that “were it not for such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, which tended to galvanize conservative Christians . . . evangelicals ‘would not be a strong constituency of the Republican Party. There would be many more Democrats among them.’”[11]

The rising importance of socio-economic issues in the world, which has been picked up in the mainstream media recently, has invigorated the Religious Left. However, as also touched on above, Leftist Christianity, understood primarily as corporate socio-economic transformation (Christianized socialism) which is seen by Leftists as a more theoretically concrete public goal than private moral transformation, has existed since the earliest European settlement of America with the Pilgrims, who underwent a transition from collectivism to individualism.

Although the Secular Left has risen to prominence during recent decades, notably since the end of World War II, in many ways politically and socio-economically the Secular Left’s agenda is simply a repackaging of the Religious Left’s original agenda. This implies that the Left has, in many ways, been as influential as the Right, if not more so, on the development of American culture and American Christianity. As Christian Smith claims, “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.”[12]

This may appear paradoxical, but that is precisely the point, suggests sociologist of religion N. Jay Demerath. Liberal churches were so effective at promoting their liberal values and injecting them into mainstream culture that actual church membership declined, because secular society came to reflect some of the central values of the liberal churches.[13] Smith, concurring with Demerath, observes, “Liberal Protestantism’s core values—individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have difficulty surviving. . . . Having won the larger battle to shape mainstream culture, it becomes difficult to sustain a strong rationale for maintaining distinctively liberal church organizations to continue to promote those now omnipresent values.”[14]

So it appears that the Religious Left may now grow into a full-fledged competitor to the Religious Right, especially if it can learn to navigate through its own complex relationship with the Secular Left. Just as the early Religious and Secular Left helped create the Right by interfering in society on issues such as abortion, the contemporary Religious Left came to more fully organize its ideas, if not yet structure (it is more dominant in the academy, however, where it has inherited a pre-existing structure), during the presidency of George W. Bush, a figure much disliked by the Left for the Iraq War, and as one representing everything wrong with conservatives and, by implication, conservative Christianity. In other words, the advancement of more extreme positions from each side serve to effectually motivate the creation of their opposite. To highlight the contrast, it’s no accident that after George W. Bush, it has recently been stated favorably that “the person who symbolized the religious left more than anyone else was Barack Obama,”[15] the U.S. president in 2015. The zig and zag of American culture appears to be the pattern for the long haul.

In summary, it appears unlikely that the Left and Right, on their own as American socio-political philosophies and ideologies, will readily find harmony in the near future. Something external to them must trigger a change for unity to be possible. This is the case for many reasons, but primary among them is their perceived attitude toward the concept and function of science, a distinctly philosophical problem.

Although opinions may differ among individuals, Republicans as a collective are known to be more questioning toward the scientific consensus on a number of major issues, not least among them economic policies and philosophy, a key point of contention between the Secular Right and Left. Indeed, overall, “Republican voters are united by their economic conservatism, divided by their cultural values. Just as Democratic voters are united by their economic liberalism, divided by their cultural values.”[16] But within the even broader picture, the apparent or relative disdain for science by the Right has not been neglected for ridicule by Leftist secularists, and as the issues that science is applied to multiply, it appears harmony may be elusive.

The Significance of the Religious Left and Religious Right Today. The significance of the Religious Left and Religious Right in America is simple in their relationship to socio-political identities. Few other countries have such a simplistic reduction into just two major political parties, making America uniquely accessible for philosophical analogies and illustrations. Basically, as has been noted, the Left and Right have come to align with the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, in 2015. Thus, more than a century of development in religious political philosophy in America has “simplified/reduced” things down into two major positions or stances.

Of course, reality is always much more complex than such simplifications. Nevertheless, simplifications are also useful, even when reality is acknowledged to be more complex. Thus, although the labels of Religious Right and Religious Left align all too easily with their political counterparts, Protestant denominations and major movements labeled Right and Left do actually follow alongside the present secular or mainstream socio-political split at statistically significant percentages. In other words, most major denominations and religious groups do also have a single socio-political identity. This is because they were forced to choose one or lose relevance amid the confusion in the eyes of their members and the public.

For example, sociologists of American religion know that Mormons and Southern Baptist Evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican and conservative in their socio-political leanings, as are many other churches that are at least surviving the difficult secularized climate today, culturally. Conversely, mainline Protestant churches lean strongly Democrat, especially with their leaders, as do all historically black Pentecostal and charismatic churches despite being socio-religiously conservative on some issues, and similarly any number of other churches that have identified with the Emerging movement also lean strongly Left. Most other demographically smaller religious faith groups in America likewise lean strongly Democrat, like Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, who collectively, perhaps, have a disproportionate influence in today’s special-interests-oriented society. An especially noteworthy is that the so-called broader evangelical movement, associated so strongly with the Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s has begun to fracture. The new ecumenically oriented Emergent/Emerging church movement, its rebellious offspring, includes many younger Evangelicals, leaning strongly leftward to the Democrats.

Overall, religious voters in America are split almost 50/50, Republican and Democrat, with explicit Christians only slightly leaning to the Right. As some pollsters recently noted, the latest data “puts to rest the question of whether there is a ‘God gap’ between Republicans and Democrats: ‘Clearly, from this data, it’s not only closing. It’s closed.’”[17] Thus, the God-gap that many pundits made headlines with during the height of the Religious Right’s influence no longer exists in a strong form, and the prevailing demographic changes anticipated for America indicate the traditional Religious Right’s influence will remain moderated.

More and more Americans are urbanized, representing various cultural/ethnic minorities, neither of which has been a strong suit for traditional conservative Evangelicals or Republicans. Unless there are some unexpected demographic changes waiting for America, the Religious Right will indeed enter a permanent and uneasy co-existence with the Religious Left during the next 25 years, and remain very much prone to ceding its dominance entirely as the more influential religious socio-political identity, even without superior drive and organization. Indeed, primarily secular independent groups on the Right like the Tea Party are writing their own epitaph with the demographic groups they have been neglecting, such as recent immigrants and various non-white minorities.

The takeaway point of the above situation, however, is not simply that most notable denominations align, overall, with a single socio-political identity. They must do so to remain relevant in the eyes of the public. In the U.S., all denominations or otherwise closely affiliated churches have fractured or are experiencing severe fragmentation affecting their missional outreach that do not maintain a super-majority preference by their ministers and members with a single socio-political identity.

Those that are divided socio-politically are fragmenting and declining the fastest. For example, in some instances, as with the mainline denomination United Church of Christ (UCC), one can easily understand how they are struggling with identity, growth, and outreach in today’s polarized American climate, when 77 percent of their ministers identify as Democrats, but only 51 percent of their members identify as Democrats.[18] People don’t know the identity of such a church, rendering them mostly irrelevant to the big picture.

Conversely, Mormons, with a much stronger ideological symbiosis between their leaders, ministers, and members, in their case toward the Republican Party, are maintaining moderate growth and success.[19] Of course, Mormonism’s somewhat limited, regionally focused demographic successes must be evaluated as such. They reach certain groups effectively, and others quite poorly. It’s hard for them to convert Democrats, for example. Conversely, the Emerging Church movement, although it is now realizing its own expected growing pains, has nevertheless made quite the splash in growth over the past two decades in part owing to its shared, unified, and clear socio-political identity with Democrats.

Overall, then, the fastest growing and significant church movements in America have a united socio-political identity. Churches that are divided socio-politically are either fracturing or shrinking. There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions.

To be continued. For part 2, click here. For the original full-length version, click here.



[1] Stephen Johnston, Tea Party Culture War: A Clash of Worldviews (Enumclaw, Wash.: WinePress Publishing, 2011), p. xiii.

[2] Sylvester L. Steffen, Religion and Civility: The Primacy of Conscience (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2011), p. 250. All of the Websites in the endnotes were accessed in March 2015.

[3] skipping church marriage-political-affilliations-study-finds.

[4]; see also Marvin Moore, Could It Really Happen? (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2007); G. Edward Reid, Sunday’s Coming! (Fulton, Md.: Omega Productions, 2005), 2nd ed.

[5] Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservativism (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[6] Catherine Wessinger, The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 16.

[7] Douglas Sloan, Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. vii.

[8] Steven H. Shiffrin, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 1.

[9] Mark Thomas Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 2.

[10] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2008), p. 114.

[11] John Green, cited in Amy Sullivan, The Party Faithful (New York: Scribner, 2008), p. 44.

[12] Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 287.

[13] N. Jay Demerath, “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34:4 (December 1992):458–469.

[14] Smith, Souls in Transition, op. cit., p. 288.

[15] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 129.

[16] Byron E. Shafer and Richard H. Spady, The American Political Landscape (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 171.


[18]‑Statistical‑Profile‑2012lr.pdf; and‑gaps‑strain‑churches.


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About the author


Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.