Finding Common Ground & Discussing Politics at Church
By Paul Matsushima | Published on September 15, 2015
Dealing with the increasing polarization of opinions in American politics and how to have constructive dialogue in the church context.
Shortly after the 2012 presidential elections, I discussed via email the role of evangelical faith in American politics with a few older people from my church. Those of us involved in the email thread were not out to advertise our own political agendas, nor did we see eye to eye with one another.
We were simply concerned about the increasing polarization of opinions in American politics and how to have constructive dialogue in the church context.
The email thread began at the invitation of my dad. He was in a small group Bible Study with other men of a similar age and life-stage. Their topics of conversation — while usually touching on common evangelical subjects such as living as a disciple, loving your neighbor, or struggling against sin — often veered toward the increasing chasms between Christian groups in regards to their political beliefs. Prior to these emails, my dad and I had several conversations about the influence of theological and political beliefs on behavior and group dynamics, so when this email was sent, he invited me to join the fray.
At first, I was extremely hesitant to chime in. Some involved were simply acquaintances and I wasn’t entirely sure if my statements would come across as offensive or hurtful. The last thing I wanted to do was cause an argument or throw out an unintended judgment.
What persuaded me to jump in was that the others’ tone seemed inviting, which signaled to me that they really wanted to discuss different points of view, rather than just reinforce what they already believed. Also, holding the conversation in cyberspace, rather than face-to-face, made things a whole lot easier. Had this conversation been in-person, my Japanese American tendencies of sweeping touchy subjects under the carpet or actively avoiding confrontation would have probably caused me to gracefully bow out.
As the tone of the discussion was one of understanding and not debate, people shared negative experiences of discussing political matters at our church. In our congregation, for example, political conversation seemed to be either a) non-existent, or if it did exist, it was b) artificially cordial, or c) passive aggressively hostile.
Political conversation seemed to be either a) non-existent, or if it did exist, it was b) artificially cordial, or c) passive aggressively hostile.
The men shared recent situations from the second and third scenarios where their faith commitments felt challenged by other church members because of their political choices. “Why’d you vote for them?” some would ask with a slight accent on the word “them”. “Any self-respecting Christian can’t call themselves a believer if they support that party,” others would say, again with an emphasis that hinted at their disagreement and disappointment.
One Sunday I wore a shirt that said “Christians for [fill in the presidential candidate’s name]”. A church member approached me to say hi and after noticing my shirt, said, “Why are you wearing that?” While she never openly criticized me, the hint of disapproval in her voice implied she thought Christians should (maybe naturally) vote for the other candidate.
Interactions such as these demonstrate not only the hotly contested and emotionally invested nature of politics, but also why Christians who worship together weekly may be reluctant to discuss these topics with one another. Emotions may get out of whack, harsh judgments may be thrown around, and ultimately, friendships and congregations may get fractured. It’s no wonder many evangelical Christians, especially those with Asian American backgrounds, choose to avoid discussing politics.
All those in our email correspondence were involved because they had grown tired of how political conflict caused such tension. We wanted to tackle the elephant in the room because we believed our faith, and our church, demanded it.
We wanted to tackle the elephant in the room because we believed our faith, and our church, demanded it.
In our discussion, we unanimously agreed that faith should play an important role in how one votes, and how one engages in politics more broadly. We also reached consensus on the importance of treating one another with humility, respect, and kindness and to avoid painting those we disagree with as crazy or irrational. Our final, and perhaps most important conclusion, was to acknowledge where our political loyalties lay and how those biases tainted our perceptions of rival groups. Acknowledging how these emotionally charged issues can lead to deeply entrenched beliefs and rivalries was a helpful first step in having respectful dialogue.
Even though I saw the good in each of these takeaways and agreed with them all, I still felt uneasy with our conversation because it lacked something.
Yes, we all agreed that faith should determine our decision-making process, including voting, yet we never addressed why all of us on that email discussion still reached different conclusions on which issues or candidates to side with. Evangelicals claim biblical passages and values shape our political beliefs, and rightly so. But many times it stops there and we fail to examine all the other variables that contribute to how a person comes to such conclusions on faith.
We fail to examine all the other variables that contribute to how a person comes to such conclusions on faith.
For instance, when we think about the church’s role in politics, we misinterpret each other’s personal definition of “church”, “politics”, and how the two intersect. We all have different views on the role of government and the role of the church in society. There are varying perspectives on who defines — and how to define — what is right versus wrong. There are different understandings on the social problems that need to be addressed, whether they are individual, cultural, or structural. We have different opinions on who or what will alleviate these problems and bring about that change.
We even disagree on whether Christians should work toward change in the first place. And this list barely touches on the many controversies with biblical interpretation that come to mind.
When I had this conversation in 2012, I believed the reason I felt so uneasy about this entire email experience was that the other men didn’t understand that political beliefs are shaped by many variables and not just the Holy Scripture.
But after deeper reflection and three years time, I now see that the underlying question that has been bothering me is understanding what true unity within a congregation means — a question that affects not only politics but dialogue on all sorts of issues. Christians who selectively choose their church because they align with the church’s theology or mission may not be that concerned with unity because they chose to attend that church. But for others, such as those born into a church and who have chosen to stay, unity may not come as easily.
How can you act as a sister or brother in Christ when you conflict with another’s deepest held beliefs? What does it mean to disagree with someone in a loving and Christlike way? Is there a better option than “agreeing to disagree”? And how do you appreciate someone else’s opinions even though they don’t align with yours?
How can you act as a sister or brother in Christ when you conflict with another’s deepest held beliefs?
In terms of models, I take a leaf from a dear friend at my home church. After almost a lifetime spent working with nonprofit, public policy, and activist crowds, she’s no novice when it comes to dialoguing with others about contentious issues. In her earlier days, she subscribed to an “I need to educate this person” perspective, where she knew more and wanted others to adopt her views on life. Now, she’s adopted a heart that listens first, asks questions after, and speaks once she understands. Even if she vehemently disagrees with someone, she will still listen and refrain from asking pointed questions. Instead, she asks questions that draw out why they believe what they believe and where they learned those beliefs. This allows her to understand where the person is coming from and what has shaped them. It also helps her view them with compassion, empathy, and humility despite disagreeing with them.
I know this may sound elementary, but it’s harder than it sounds. Seriously.
Discussing politics or any contentious subject is not simple, and it’s easy to tune it out or regurgitate simplistic answers from our favored public personalities. Oftentimes, we all just want clear, direct, and nuance-free answers so we can know what to do and start doing it.
But what I’ve come to realize is that while the exploration of such questions may not come quickly or easily, it is at times deeply satisfying. And, in the interest of truth, understanding, dialogue, and Christian unity, it is necessary. As we reflect on these questions, we better understand our values, our non-negotiables, what’s important to us, and why we support who we support.
Our understanding toward those we disagree with increases as we better appreciate where they’re coming from. I believe examining ourselves and others in these ways will allow us to use politics, not as a soapbox for our positions, but as a launching pad for inward change, compassionate dialogue, and ultimately, a unified Christian body.
Our understanding toward those we disagree with increases as we better appreciate where they’re coming from.