Since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8 last week, it seems everyone with a keyboard has been analyzing the implications of the decisions. What does it mean for the gay rights movement? What does it mean for social conservatives? What does it mean for churches and religious liberty? Understandably many saw last week's rulings as a significant victory for the LGBTQ community, and a seismic defeat for politically-organized evangelicals.
Critics outside the church say it is time for evangelicals to admit defeat and lay down their culture war weapons. Voices inside the church, like John Dickerson, echo this call. Last week in The Washington Post Dickerson wrote, "The repeal of DOMA proves that political involvement–useful as it may have once been—cannot stop the change of culture." And, "The fall of DOMA demonstrates the end of investing too much into political involvement."
On the surface I agree with Dickerson and others who warn evangelicals of the perils of social engineering through politics. I have issued such warnings myself. But as I've absorbed media reporting in the wake of the SCOTUS rulings from both Christians and non-Christians, I've grown increasingly confused by the assumption surrounding evangelical political activism. Have evangelicals really been "investing too much into political involvement"? And has evangelical political engagement really come at the expense of engaging other streams of the culture? Finally, does the perception of evangelicals as rabidly political fit with reality?
Let me begin with anecdotes–admittedly the weakest of arguments. One would assume from media reporting that evangelicals are obsessed with two things: politics and homosexuality. In my 30 years of involvement with evangelical churches, parachurch ministries, and mission organizations, I cannot recall hearing a single sermon about homosexuality. In addition, my role with Christianity Today connects me with evangelical congregation all over the country. Politics and gay marriage may arise in my private conversations with pastors, but I've never heard them engaged in a worship service. That does not mean these topics are never broached in a church setting, but they reside very, very far from the spotlight. And what about this past Sunday after the "culture shaking" ruling by the Supreme Court? Nothing. I did not hear a sermon, a comment, a prayer, or even a conversation in the church foyer about it. And this silence isn't limited to LGBTQ issues. In three decades I've not heard what I would classify as a political or partisan sermon.
Given the lack of politics in my evangelical church experience, why do 75% of young non-Christians say evangelicals are "too political"? How do we explain this gap between what actually happens in evangelical communities and the media's portrayal of evangelicals? There are two possible explanations. Either my church engagement is wildly outside the norm, or perhaps evangelicals aren't as devoted to political social engineering as the outside culture seems to believe we are. To determine which is closer to reality, let's consider some research.
In 2008 Pew asked Americans of different faiths whether churches should ever endorse political candidates. If evangelicals are more inclined to mix their faith and politics, as the popular perception says, one would expect evangelicals to see political endorsements by churches as more acceptable. But the Pew findings showed that white evangelicals were no more likely to support political endorsements by churches than anyone else. And surveys by Lifeway have found that evangelical pastors are overwhelming against (90%) bringing politics into the pulpit.