Just hearing the two words, “religion” and “politics,” and the blood pressure rises, doesn’t it?
All the more reason to be surprised by a recent Pew Research Center study finding that an increasing number of people actually wish there was more religion in politics. Research points to a “growing appetite” for such things as church-endorsed candidates and other church-state intersections.
It’s not difficult to see why this desire is rising. While three out of four Americans – a record high – believe that religion is “losing its influence on American life,” a majority believe that this is for the worse.
So now fewer Americans believe churches should stay out of politics (only 48% in 2014, down from 52% in 2010), and about half believe that churches should express views on social and political questions, an increase from only 42% expressing that sentiment in 2010.
As for mixing religion and business, such as whether business owners opposed to same-sex marriage should be required to provide flowers, food or photography for such weddings – Pew found that Americans are almost evenly split (49% said they should, 47% said they should not).
Perhaps even more startling is that the number of Americans in agreement that homosexual behavior is sinful has actually risen. 45 percent agreed in 2010, and now it’s climbed to 50 percent. Whether this is a sign of a reversal of cultural opinion, or simply a leveling off, is unclear. But the rise remains statistically significant.
So what to make of these new findings?
To my thinking, the mix of findings point to a rising concern for the moral and spiritual condition of our nation. There’s enough “Christian” in the “post-Christian” nature of our context that a freefall into an amoral milieu is being met with alarm.
This is no call for a return to the days of the Moral Majority, which remains a period in time that is distasteful to almost all. Instead, the desire seems to be for an increase in winsome conscience and compelling conviction that is religious in nature.
Think William Wilberforce, or Martin Luther King, Jr.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote that we live in a “naked public square,” meaning that religious ideas and mores no longer inform public discourse. It would seem we are finding that we would like to put at least something on. Or at the minimum, to have those who are in the public square to at least have a loincloth.
But therein lies both the peril and the promise. It should not be assumed that the clothing of choice will be Christian in nature. It could be anything promising conviction or conscience, spirituality or transcendence, morality or character.
So rather than culture looking to Christians to speak out and lead, it is more of an opportunity for Christians to do so in a way that contends for the Christian faith in the spiritual marketplace of ideas. “We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ. But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean?” wrote John Stott. “Not a victory by force of arms...This is a battle of ideas.”
Yet there are surprisingly few warriors.
Those who follow Christ have too often retreated into personal piety and good works, or as one BBC commentator I heard over the radio while jogging one morning in Oxford, Christians have too often offered mere “feelings” and “philanthropy.” Speaking specifically to the challenge from Islam, he added that what is needed is more “hard thinking” applied to the issues of the day.
What remains to be seen is whether there will be any hard thinkers to do it.
But make no mistake.
People are more eager than ever to hear it.
James Emery White
“Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning,” Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, September 22, 2014, read online.
“Pew Surprised by How Many Americans Want Religion Back in Politics,” Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, September 22, 2014, read online.
James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.