The Evangelical Turn Toward Politics and Entertainment
[On the September 30, 2022 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, guest Peter Wehner discusses the sources of the division and acrimony in the evangelical church.]
Mona Charen: Some of the figures in the evangelical right are among those who are feeling the most alienation, dislocation, loss of power. . . . I’d like to sort of reprise the piece that you wrote last year in the Atlantic, because it was really, really eye-opening about what’s happening. I would ask you first to sort of sketch what you see as happening. You’ve been an evangelical Christian for decades, and you sense that the identity of Christians is becoming more politically based and less God centered, less focused on Jesus. Is that a fair statement? . . .
Peter Wehner: I think what’s going on—there’s several things. One is that you do see a fracturing of the evangelical church. And when I did that piece in October for the Atlantic, I reached out to probably thirty or forty pastors and theologians, and what was interesting to me is I didn’t get a single dissenting voice in terms of the divisions and the acrimony that’s rising within evangelical churches, splitting them apart. A lot of it is political, but some of it is just stuff that’s in the air. It’s just a tropism to our disagreement in temperance and antipathy.
But the deeper issue which you touched on and actually summarized quite eloquently, is this matter of what I would say is core identity. Most people, if they’re evangelical Christians, if you ask them what’s core to their being, what’s most important to their life, they would say their faith. And they would say that, not cynically, but with complete authenticity. . . .
I think that what is [now] . . . increasingly core to a lot of people in the Christian faith, and particularly in the white evangelical world, is politics and culture. And in a sense, faith is engrafted. It’s a secondary issue. A friend of mine uses the term “hood ornament”—that faith becomes a hood ornament: It validates these pre-existing attitudes and ideologies. But the way it’s being done is that people are unaware of it, because they’re going through and, in my experience and in my observations, is they’re proof-texting their preordained political, cultural, sociological beliefs, and then saying this is what the Bible says. . . .
When that happens, it can really become dangerous for politics and for faith, because you’re taking already intense issues and passions and divisions and you’re overlaying on that the sense that I have the imprimatur of God on this. And then you’re in a struggle of the children of light and the children of darkness. And we need politics to have the temperature turned down, not up. I’m afraid to say, and sad to say, that for a lot of American Christians, they’ve made not just their faith worse, but our politics worse. And it’s a terrible witness for the church and for the claims of being followers of Jesus.
Charen: One of the things you point out in this piece is that you cite a survey showing that 29 percent of pastors said they were considering or actively had plans to leave the ministry. [Editor’s note: A more recent iteration of the same survey, conducted in March 2022, puts the figure at 42 percent.] Talk about that, if you would about what is driving them away what’s happening in their congregations?
Wehner: Yeah, I think it’s that a lot of the political divisions in the countries have located themselves within churches. And that’s not what pastors want to be involved with. That’s not why they got into the profession of being pastors and ministers. And it’s just wearing them down.
Being a pastor is a hard job in any event. There are the portions of administration that most people don’t know about, but you have to run churches. There’s the pastoral side, ministering people through grief, there are the sermons, and so forth—there’s a lot is going on. And they’re kind of overwhelmed. And then when you get these divisions within the church . . . that’s just wearing them down.
I have a lot of friends who are pastors, and I’ve really been struck in the last two years, just personally, hearing their stories and how worn out they are, and how some of them are thinking about leaving the pastorship. There’s a real crisis among pastors in this country and the church, which one would have hoped, as a person of faith would have been largely insulated to some of these polarizations and divisions in the country is not only not insulated, but in some ways, it’s more accentuated there. And pastors, among others are paying the price for that.