Weakened democracy makes for weakened churches

January 5th, 2022

We are one year out from the insurrection at the US Capitol building in which riotous crowds did great damage to the building, threatened US Congresspeople—both Democratic and Republican—beat Capitol police, and tried to stop the counting of electoral votes. Moderates are retiring, leaving more extreme voices at the forefront of leadership. Signs of weakened American democracy are apparent.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, a conservative, no-nonsense newspaper, notes that in the year past, the unthinkable has happened. Instead of former president Trump’s influence waning through this obvious attack on the institutions of democracy, as of late 2021, 81% of Republicans have a favorable impression of Trump while 57% continue to believe the false story of stolen elections. His standing among many Republicans is stronger than ever as he continues to trumpet the falsehoods of a stolen election. Meanwhile a sustained investigation by the Associated Press shows that less than 475 votes of the 158 million votes cast during the 2020 presidential election might be potentially fraudulent.

When truth is attacked, questioned, battered, and simply negated through the repetition of falsehood, and the false is lifted as true, democracy suffers.

How weakened democracy weakens churches

Meanwhile, this degradation of democracy has not stopped at the doors of the church. Rather, skewed narratives of true and false have infiltrated, fractured, and polarized congregations. This divisiveness shows up in the partisan-inspired debates over COVID-19, masks, vaccines, and safety. Managing this internal opposition has stretched pastors to the limit as they add this to the long list of dramatic changes to manage.

In the polarized environment in which we live, weak democracy makes for weak churches. Of course, it’s not just weak democracy that weakens churches. As I note elsewhere, congregations are in decline due to other internal factors.

Even so, the form of government has not always had such an outsize influence on churches. For example, during the early days of the church, under repressive Roman rule, the church flourished and thrived. At that time, Jesus's teaching was not equated with political processes or empire. Rather, Jesus stood in opposition to the powers that be. His rule was a countercultural ethic of love, inclusion, hospitality, miracles, and the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus is equated with political identities

Jesus's alternative to the Empire is not widley practiced now. When Jesus is equated with political identities the church suffers because the followers of Jesus are then asked to serve a lesser power. Instead of the ultimate command to love God, neighbor, and self, followers are subject to the whims and manipulations of partisan politics. The common good is pushed aside for monied interests, power grabs, self-serving falsehoods, and even coup attempts. Jesus’s followers, blessings, and Kingdom are easily manipulated by leaders who are not necessarily aligned with the gospel message.

What can the church do?

As we approach the Day of Epiphany—the day on which Jesus is recognized as the incarnation of God, we also approach the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection and a failed coup attempt to thwart the US government. On the Day of Epiphany and beyond we are faced with two opposing images of power: one that manifests the love of God in humble human life, and one that selfishly attacks civic institutions that safeguard democracy.

Which image of power will your church choose to recognize? To follow? To emulate?

Even more important are these questions: How will we separate fact from fiction?  How will we tease apart lies from truth?

The church would do well to teach people how to hear each other, to respect each other, and to discern the truth. For the bottom line is that, in these polarized times—when democracy is weakened—the church is weakened too. This dual weakness does not serve our communities, our message, or the Kingdom of God.

Putting Jesus first

When the church puts Jesus—not politics—first, true strength can grow. This strength is borne of love, forgiveness and humility. This kind of strength is good for everyone. It’s the soil in which the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, can take root. That is good for the church, for society, and for democracy.

We must seek to strengthen the church and the communities we serve through love of God, neighbor, and self to navigate polarizing times.

May God be with us as we seek anew to follow Jesus.

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