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.