Some say that churches are all the same. But were they ever diverse?

In his article, “Church Attendance Used to Drive up Trust: It Doesn’t Anymore,” Ryan Burge suggests that the diminishing correlation between church attendance and interpersonal trust is a result of churches being less politically diverse than before. Particularly, he writes, “Simply stated, church used to be a great way to interact with folks who were different from you.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with Burge that the politicization of the church has resulted in a “sad state of affairs not just for American religion, but American democracy,” I find his conclusion about the lack of interpersonal trust being due to churches becoming homogenized unsatisfactory.

My concerns stem from two primary considerations. Firstly, contemporary American churches are more diverse than ever, with distinct branches of Christianity showing growth in multiracial congregations. 

For instance, as of 2018, 10% of Protestant churches, 22% of evangelical churches, 16% of Pentecostal churches, and 23% of Catholic churches were multiracial. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that this racial diversity seems to be one-sided, with minimal progress in Black Protestant churches. There is a significant need for increased religious diversity, particularly with white Christians supporting Black Christians and their congregations. 

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church, for example, has made substantial progress with the percentage of multiracial churches more than tripling since 1998. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ friendly churches have emerged since the late 20th century, signifying an evolving landscape of diversity within American Christianity.

There is evident merit for why progress and diversity should be important to the church throughout scripture. For instance, Philippians 1:9: “And it is my prayer that with your love may abound more and more with knowledge and discernment. The same can be made while reading First Corinthians 14:10: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free— and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member, but many.”

I contend that the political homogeneity of churches, as suggested by Burge, has a historical presence in the United States. It is currently accentuated by the growing diversity in some congregations. 

Examining the history of American Christianity, the concept of Manifest Destiny, which posits Europeans as chosen by God to colonize the Americas, has long been used as a justification for colonialism and genocide. This notion evolved into the idea of the United States as a ‘city upon a hill,’ signifying a beacon for all nations, which contradicts the separation of church and state as outlined in the First Amendment. 

The value of separation is emphasized in scripture as well as the United States’ governing documents. Like in Mark 12:17, where Jesus shows that he does not want to be compared to Caesar. Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the thing that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The intertwining of American politics and churches is also evident, from all U.S presidents being Christian to the inclusion of religious elements in state constitutions.

Furthermore, multiple scholars have pinpointed various moments in history, such as the rise of evangelism in the late 18th century or the political divisiveness in the 2016 presidential election, where politics influenced American faith. An argument I found compelling is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency marked the beginning of churches aligning themselves distinctly with political parties, leading to a more Republican-leaning Protestant voter base in 1984.

Considering the historical and contemporary connections between American churches and politics and the increasing diversity in some congregations, it becomes evident that the negative relationship between church attendance and interpersonal trust is not solely a result of congregational diversity, as proposed by Ryan Burge. Based on the evidence, I believe that Burge’s claims are not incorrect, but oversimplifies a complex issue. 

The lack of political diversity in American churches can be seen as a consequence of the growing social diversity within select congregations.  In my eyes, this is demonstrated by the growing number of distinctly right-wing churches, openly endorsing political figures who exemplify both Christian nationalism and open prejudice towards people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Congregations are unable to reconcile the strides the American churches are making in terms of progress with their biased worldviews. As a result, we are seeing more liberal churches identify/ position themselves as safe spaces for all individuals to worship. More conservative Christians commit to churches that offer a feedback loop of prejudiced politics.

This intertwined relationship between politics and religion is, in my view, a key factor contributing to the declining levels of interpersonal trust.

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