Listen To Article
Years ago I had a page-a-day calendar that featured each day a quote from some semi-famous person or another. I can’t remember to whom this was attributed but someone on one of those pages that year said “Being in church no more makes you a Christian than standing in the garage makes you a car.”
Fair enough. But being in church–and regularly at that–has long been seen as a hallmark of discipleship. In more recent years we have also come more and more to appreciate the formative nature of thoughtful worship. Liturgy shapes us. Habits get formed in us through the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, the gestures we make in church. These are habits of practice but also habits of mind. Hard data on this may be hard to find but now and then one runs across something that bolsters the idea that regular exposure to the rhythms of worship and the teaching of thoughtful sermons make an impact.
Enter a recent column by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. Anyone who knows me or who has followed some of my blogs here on The Twelve knows that I have deep and abiding concerns about our current President. The fact that millions of people voted for him–including 80% of evangelicals–less than a month after hearing him expressing the most loathsome of things on an Access Hollywood tape was, for me, scandalous. (And spare me all the “Hillary was worse” stuff, which I have heard a million times. And by the way, she really wasn’t but that is a discussion for another day . . .) In any event, some of my fellow bloggers here–and other friends of mine–have since then gone so far as to denounce evangelical identity altogether. Even those who have not gone that far have put a very large asterisk by the label “evangelical” in order to set up a whole string of caveats by which to nuance the label insofar as it applies to them.
At the time and for a long while afterwards, I wondered how and where the church had failed. Given the strong theme of white-first identity politics associated with some of Trump’s base–as well as ugly attitudes toward immigrants and anybody who might qualify as “the other”–I wondered how and when all of that stopped mattering to some fellow Christians. I know there is no such thing as the generic “Trump voter” (or the generic Hillary voter for that matter too). And I know it is grossly unfair to put all of the people who voted for Trump into a single category of angry folks at Trump rallies who chant “Lock her up” or who have jeered at–and occasionally physically assaulted–people of color at such rallies. (And again: also unfair to lump Clinton voters as all abortion-loving people who want open borders and all genderless bathrooms throughout the land.) Everybody had their own reasons for voting how they did on either side of the last election’s divide (and people on both sides had what they regarded as plenty of good reasons they voted as they did too). Still, the last election–and events since like Charlottesville–have been so tainted with racism and racist overtones and undertones that I wondered how this all squared with the teachings of the church.
In any event, back to the Douthat article: he quotes a recent study and survey done by the Cato Institute. This may be the first study that really drilled down into Trump voters and that used church attendance as a key marker of differentiation. It turns out that by some pretty significant percentages, the people who voted for Trump who attend church regularly/weekly diverge pretty sharply from those who attend seldom or not at all (the latter group includes, I believe, both self-identified “evangelicals” and those who would not so identify). Again, by some pretty significant margins, those who go to church every week do not stake their identity on their race. They also exhibit far more generous attitudes toward those of a race different from their own, have more libertarian views on economic policies, and do not view multiculturalism or globalization as de facto threats to anyone’s way of life.
Again, there have been lots of studies and surveys before and since the 2016 election but few–if any–that looked at the influence of the routine practices of piety that regular participation in worship form in people. True, one could wish that 100% of churchgoing Christians would distance themselves from anything even remotely racist or any form of racial identity politics. (But then, I wish my own heart were 100% pure all the time too but . . .) Still, it is more than a little encouraging to see that faith, the practices of discipleship, and a person’s worldview are positively influenced by being a regular part of a faith community at worship.
All of us who attend church every week need to hang onto this. Indeed, no matter how you voted in the last election or how you plan to vote in about 6 weeks, I think we could all agree that we are at a bit of a national precipice right now. As I write this at the noon hour of Monday September 24, the depute Attorney General seems on the cusp of resigning or being fired, a nominee to the Supreme Court is in peril and the whole country seems both roiled and riven by it, and the President remains a seemingly daily epicenter of chaos and controversy that is unsettling even some of his more ardent supporters.
There are moments when it feels to me like the whole thing could come apart. I hope and pray not but these may be dangerous times in which we are living. It may just be that the faith we nurture in worship every week will once again be the anchor to which we all need to cling if the storm waters rise. “Put not your hope in princes” as the psalmist once encouraged. I need to keep remembering that.
Maybe all of this is overblown (and a few of you will no doubt point that out for me in the comments!). But for now I will be encouraged to see that the formative nature of corporate worship is indeed more than just an academic point we talk about in my neck of the woods among my preaching and worship colleagues on Faculty. It really is a place where the Holy Spirit does significant work in all of us. For that I am–on this day in which the news is so taut–grateful.
This church attendance variable is very important and actually reduces my despair, at least a little. Thanks, Scott.
Honestly, you really should stay out of the realm of political commentary, Scott. It does not suit you well. And, yes, your selective hand-wringing is overblown. You do well, however, when you call us away from the partisan world (even as you echo it) to the rhythm and unity of corporate worship.
Agreed. I just unsubscribed.
Good advice, Eric, and well stated.
I was aware of this already, having read of some research shortly after the election that showed that during the republican primaries, while many evangelicals supported Trump from early on, those who regularly attended church heavily supported non-Trump candidates, even as the field narrowed. Trump became their choice only after he was their only option. This suggests that Trump was a purely pragmatic choice – a ‘hold-your-nose’ vote, and that is certainly true of most of the people I know of that voted for him.
I will not attempt to judge which of Trump or Hillary are ‘worse’ – that’s God’s job – but it’s not like the choice was between Donald Trump and Mother Theresa, and given a choice between two questionable (at best) characters, one is most likely to choose based on which candidate is closest to one’s preferred policies.
I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote; my only pushback is that, while you work hard to be generous, I still hear an underlying bafflement at how a committed Christian could vote for a character like Trump. I actually understand that bafflement to a degree. What I don’t understand is how I frequently I read that lament from certain writers on this blog, while NEVER seeing any moral questioning of the fact that a vote for Hillary (or Obama, Kerry, Gore, etc or, really, almost any democratic party candidate for any office) is a support for abortion right up to the last moment before birth.
I’m just looking for a little balance; and, I guess, acknowledgement that while there are plenty of partisan yahoos that want to spout their opinions on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, most of us are just doing our best to figure out how our faith and values should inform our vote and we rarely find a perfect fit (where’s Vern Ehlers when you need him?).
I think part of the reason why there is less push back on HRC is because the election is over. She lost. She is now a citizen without any real power over public policy. I think if she had won, her feet would be held to fire and her choices, words, and actions would be scrutinized much like our current President’s. I would be willing to concede that he is probably scrutinized a bit more, but I think that has more to do with the fact that he makes choices that baffle people on a continuous basis (and when I say baffle, I mean that he says or does things that are unexpected of the office of the president, but are true to who he is). My frustration is that people don’t seem to realize the election is over. It has been for nearly two years. I think we need to stop talking about Trump voters and Hilary voters and instead wonder why it might be that someone, whoever it is, might be calling out the choices, words, and actions of the President…because he’s is the reflection of our country to the world and is making decisions that will impact our nation for future generations.
Would Clinton have been scrutinized like Trump has been? Well, was Obama? Was Clinton scrutinized during the campaign?
Rosalyn, your observation on bafflement seems good to me. The bafflement, I suspect, is twofold.
One, not everyone is familiar with negotiations. Trump’s strategy seems perverse to those unfamiliar with negotiations. Even when positive results accrue, the bafflement remains. Cognitive dissonance must be better borne than acknowledging new (to them) ways to do things.
Two, there’s the entitlement factor. The culture and the government were supposed to belong to people like Clinton. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone not sharing her values, or values even more extreme, have the audacity to lead the country away from those values?
But in fairness, when Obama was first elected to the presidency, conservatives hoped h would fail at implementing his policies. Now, those who preferred Obama are similarly hoping for Trump’s failure. Of course, this go-round, the opposition is doing far more than just hoping. It’s actively subverting, as we see with the trashing of Kavanaugh. Just another high-tech lynching!
Tom, good observation. Many of us started the primaries supporting Walker, Carson, Kasich, or Cruz, and finally winnowed down to Cruz, and then as you say, held our collective noses and voted for the least objectionable candidate.
Ross Douthat is a terrific writer. While I don’t always agree with him, he challenges me to think about my positions. His arguments are reasonable, charitable, and he seems open to rethinking his positions. In debate, he never allows himself to become easily offended and also never resorts to sophistry.
He is a writer and intellectual worth emulating.
Thanks, Scott, for your insight. John Calvin had said in his Institutes that the Christian sees all of life through the lens of Scripture. Isn’t that what you are basically saying? We see life through the lens of the influences that are strongest in our life? If your church has a strong influence (weekly, or even twice on Sunday) then the world and life view of your pastor and his preaching will influence your thinking. A Pentecostal church and Reformed church might influence a regular parishioner differently. A member of a cult, that requires total life commitment, will be influenced by the teaching of that cult. A person who appreciates a Fox News perspective and watches only Fox News will be influenced by their political philosophy. The same for NBC or CNN. So as you say, being in church regularly, will likely influence your world and life view, including politics. As you suggest, it’s what Christians call discipleship and from an early age its called “faith nurtureing.” Some would even say it’s brain washing. Thanks Scott. Keep us thinking.