Faith Formation Can Heal Politically Polarized Communities

By: Stephanie Summers

April 7, 2020

Ethical Questions for the Religious Voter

During our most-recent general election, the organization I lead, the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), received numerous calls from clergy asking for our help. Unlike calls in previous years which asked for tools to share with members of their congregations to assist them in understanding the good of politics every day, not only on election day, this most recent series of calls had a new and troubling dimension. Clergy shared that their congregations were incredibly polarized. They lamented the way in which some of their members were absolutist and unyielding towards the views held by “the other side” while positioning their own political “team” as the only choice a religiously faithful person could make.

Clergy also expressed deep grief over the way their members were engaging one another about matters related to the upcoming election. One described how their congregation had a robust membership covenant that explained why, for the sake of the unity of the body, members committed that the congregation’s email list would not be used to send partisan information on ballot initiatives or candidates that would be up for a vote in their state. A group of congregants had upheld the letter of this law, but not its spirit, by gathering on a recent Sunday, lining the sidewalk outside the front doors, and inviting their fellow worshippers to endorse with their signatures a specific outcome for a particular ballot initiative. When approached by church staff who privately and gently reminded their members of the commitments they’d made in their membership covenant, one member cried out, “It is our constitutional right to stand here!” 

While the full truth of that statement actually depends on the location—in which state and where exactly the members were standing, since laws governing signature collection are quite unclear and thus an active area of ongoing litigation in many states—what is entirely clear is that the members inviting fellow worshippers to sign on a line as they entered worship had, in an uncritical manner, adopted the posture of the broader body politic. The philosopher James K. A. Smith helps us understand what has happened to these members, and what can be done by clergy to help their members grapple with moral questions raised by election year politics. Smith uses the term “cultural liturgies” to describe how we as human beings, who are created by God to worship, learn to worship—both the true worship of God and the false worship of any other thing we’ve allowed to take God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. 

Smith’s insight is that humans are generally unaware that we are constantly being formed for worship by the culture we are in, and more importantly, we are generally unaware of who or what has formed us. In the case of the congregation described above, evidence of the congregants’ formation was professed by an appeal to the Constitution and an autonomy right, while the church staff was appealing to Christian formation embodied in the idea of a covenantal commitment to a specific body, modeled on God’s agreements with God’s people that require certain moral conduct from them, with an eye to the well-being of the body as a whole in this case as being more important than the free exercise of an autonomy right.

Faith leaders and clergy members can help their members, who bear the God-given office of citizens in political communities, to grapple with the moral questions raised by election year politics. This work is primarily about formation, and it cannot be accomplished by only one sermon series or a few weeks of classes or seminars. In the United States, our dominant cultural liturgies about politics are powerful, and they are always at their work of formation. Every day, clergy and congregants alike are formed to enshrine autonomy rights above all others, to misunderstand the nature of authority, to view the well-being of the nation only through the lens of economic utility, and to believe that the primary role of government is to provide terrific customer service. Each of these beliefs is called into question by the teachings of most faith traditions. But recognizing and helping congregants understand the difference between these beliefs are imperative.

For example, within Christianity, the Reformed tradition teaches that government has been established by God to promote justice and the common good. God intended the rulers of Israel to execute justice, to avoid corruption, and to protect the poor and weak in society from exploitation by the evil and the powerful. This emphasis on justice and care for the vulnerable is a far more robust vision of the purpose of government at every level than running the best customer service department in the nation.

Faith leaders and clergy seeking to equip their members to grapple with the moral questions raised by election years should spend time forming their members through the teaching of scripture, and help raise questions that guide a process of uncovering what has contributed to their formation that is not aligned. At CPJ, we have a guide we recommend for groups to use when beginning their preparation for this lifelong journey, that begins by unpacking what is already in our “backpacks” so to speak, examining how we’ve been formed, and helping us commit to leaving behind what is determined to be misaligned for the journey.

Faith leaders and clergy members must recognize the headwinds they will face as they seek to form their members, and chart a route that accounts for these forces. Clergy and faith leaders must help their members to understand and navigate the moral questions raised by an upcoming general election, not by answering questions about the candidates but by devoting themselves to the work of forming their members not only for election day. Equipping congregants for true worship of God and for the implications of the faith for life as God’s people living in a pluralistic society is central to the task of preparing members to carefully discern prudential matters, such as selecting candidates for public office.

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