How Politics is Driving People to Leave their Churches

How Politics is Driving People to Leave their Churches



I attended the Sarasota-Bradenton March for Democracy today.  I had to park about a half mile away and walk through the streets to reach the huge crowd that gathered at the Sarasota landmark statue, “Total Surrender.”  I went to find out what kinds of people attend such events and to get a feel for their mood.

The crowd was much larger than I anticipated.  The popular word these days to describe such events is “organic.”  There was no evidence of behind the scenes orchestration.  Actually, I wondered what I was supposed to do.  I didn’t know if the event was a march or just a gathering.  It turned out to be a march, which I discovered as I drifted with the crowd towards the John Ringling Causeway Bridge.  Shoulder to shoulder with others—men and women in equal numbers with lots of strollers and kids.  There had in fact been, as I learned from marchers, speakers and a loosely structured launch to the event.

I was impressed with the homemade signs—which numbered in the thousands.  There was no single organization handing out identical signs.  I realize now that in many cities the gatherings were reminiscent of last year’s Women’s March.  Sarasota did not emphasize the Women’s March, thought hundreds of pink caps were sprinkled through the crowd.  No political candidate was visible, though Democrat State House candidate Margaret Good had planted her people along the causeway.   The mood was sunny even carnival-like.  However, as I began to talk with people I realized that many were deeply distressed.

As we walked  to the blare of honking horns, across the Causeway and back, I struck up several conversations.   All of the men and women with whom I talked were professionals including educators and nurses.   Several commonalities emerged in these conversations.  All the people I talked with lived full-time in the Sarasota area, but were transplants from Ohio, New York State, Tennessee, and other states.   All the people I spoke with had become politically active in the last year out of a sense of alarm that their value—indeed their country– system was rapidly eroding away.   Said one teacher in her thirties, “On the day after the election last year I was so riled up that my best friend had to talk me down.  That’s when I started getting involved.”  With that she handed me a flyer for a second march on Sunday.

In every conversation, I heard people sigh over the divisions that have opened up between family members and among old friends.  I heard, “My dad’s pretty progressive so he understands.  But my mom doesn’t really talk to me too much these days.”

One Who Left

One chat lingers in my thoughts.   After small talk about the size of the crowd, this medical professional, upon hearing that I was a Presbyterian minister, lit up in her resentment.   “I don’t go to church these days.  For a while, I looked for another church.  But it’s the same with all of them.  One church spent the whole sermon talking about how awful people have an abortion or even are friends with a homosexual person.  I just left and never went back.”

Sometime in the last year, she left her church–the evangelical congregation of her childhood where her parents had long attended.

She said, “My mother feels the same way I do.  It’s been awful for her.  She’s more depressed these days and drinks too much.  This has been really hard on her.”   She went on:  “We have gay relatives.  I have a cousin married to a Hispanic.  How do you think he feels when Trump talks about Mexico?”

Her voice became intense, “The Church is all in for Trump and has abandoned me.”

I jumped in, “Well, not the whole church, there are lots of…”

She knew what I was about to say.  “I don’t see it.  I haven’t heard one word of condemnation of the Evangelicals.  If there are Christians who aren’t with them, they need to say something.

I kept telling myself not to be argumentative.  I felt like I was working with an irate parishioner.  “To be perfectly honest with you,” I said, “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’d never even heard of  Trump’s Evangelical advisors.  None of the Church leaders, I admire, even in the evangelical world, are not going along with the Administration. “

She returned, “Well if Christians don’t agree with these White Nationalists, and haters of ethnic groups, they need to speak up because I haven’t heard any of it.

Kicking myself for being defensive I took a pastoral tone—“So you don’t hear much from those in the Christian community who have a more moderate view or who create a more welcoming atmosphere.”

She said, “I don’t see it.  Where is it?  I don’t hear any criticism of the Evangelicals.”

Again, in pastoral tones, “So it’s like the Muslim majority not speaking out against radicals.”

She shot back, “But they do speak out.  I know Muslims…lots of Muslim leaders who have spoken out against ISIS.  But I sure don’t hear anyone from the Christian Church speaking out.”   She went on.  “I’ve gone to church all of my life.  I grew up going to church every Sunday.   I believe in Jesus and that he died for my sins.  But now I’m wanting to become an atheist.”

“So this is really sad for you, leaving your church?”

“No!  It’s a relief.  It’s like…I don’t have to fight it any more.  I’m just out of there and able to do my job and live my life.”

We stopped walking to wait for a light at a crosswalk.  I said, “I really appreciate your sharing this with me.  I appreciate your candor.”    I went on, “Are there others, your friends, who feel the same way?”

“A lot of my friends have left their churches.”

What I’m Learning

It would be easy for me to dismiss this individual as a radicalized partisan whose opinion is limited to her own circumstances.  But a voice inside me kept saying, “You need to shut up, Doug, and listen, because it just may be that your experience is the parochial one.”

Christian mission, stated simply, is the interface between the Church and the world around.  I need to think of Mission not as projects such as the soup kitchen, but as every point where Christians make contact with neighbors.  Mission is what neighbors see and hear from us.  It’s how they feel in our presence.  It’s what they learn as they observe our lives.

For several years, I’ve suspected that Jesus’ core purpose in laying out such stringent ethical standards, such as those in the Sermon on the Mount, is so that Christians’ behavior does nothing to impede people’s hearing of the Good News.  My conversation with the marching woman gave me a good look at how the mission was going.  I saw vividly what we look like and how we make people feel.

If I’m correct about this, we’ve got our work cut out for us.



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