In 1879, Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms stated this rule of conversational etiquette: “Do not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he will not convert you. To discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result.”
I feel ambivalently about this rule. On the one hand, it seems like good advice, especially when social media has done so much to polarize us. On the other hand, religion and politics are too important not to talk about, especially with those who disagree with us. They touch on two basic needs: our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.
Moreover, those two basic needs are mutually symbiotic. What we believe about God shapes (and is shaped by) how we relate to others. Hill’s Manual used the conjunction “or” to distinguish religion from politics, but the conjunction “and” seems more appropriate. Religion and politics go together.
So, it seems we are stuck with a conundrum. We must talk about religion and politics, but doing so can be needlessly divisive.
Enter Ryan P. Burge. Burge is assistant professor of politician science and graduate coordinator at Eastern Illinois University, as well as an American Baptist Church pastor. He has carved out a niche as an expert on polling data regarding the intersection of religion and politics in America.
In 20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America, he debunks false beliefs about how those two terms interact. Here are the myths:
- Evangelicalism is in decline.
- Donald Trump wasn’t the choice of religiously devout Republicans.
- Most Americans have strong views about abortion—but are willing to change their minds about it.
- Researchers are biased toward Christians.
- College leads young people away from religion.
- Nondenominational Christians are rare.
- Born-again experiences are common and dramatically change a person’s life.
- You have to go to church frequently to be an evangelical.
- The personal faith of a presidential candidate can activate part of the electorate.
- People return to religion late in life.
- Abortion is the most important issue for evangelical voters.
- White evangelicals agree with the Republican party only on social issues.
- Most Catholics and evangelicals do not support women in leadership.
- White Christians have always been conservative Republicans.
- The growth of the nones is largely from people leaving church.
- America is much less religious today than a few decades ago.
- Black Protestants are political liberals.
- Mainline Protestants are politically liberal.
- Young evangelicals are more politically moderate than older evangelicals.
- Pastors often discuss politics from the pulpit.
Burge uses four data sources to debunk these myths: the Cooperative Election Survey, the General Social Survey, proprietary surveys that he led, and the Voter Study Group. These sources look at both the beliefs and practices of representative samples of American adults.
Some of Burge’s debunked myths may surprise readers. Contrary to popular sentiment—and as a Christian minister, encouragingly—evangelicalism isn’t declining (1), college doesn’t lead young people away from faith (5), most evangelicals support women in leadership (13), and Americans are as religious today as they were a few decades ago (16).
Other debunked myths may concern readers. Regarding those, readers should keep in mind that surveys indicate what is, not what out to be. Take 7, for example. As a Christian minister, I believe the new birth should “dramatically change a person’s life.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least with regard to frequency of church attendance.
Or take 11. As a pro-life evangelicals, I might want abortion to be a more important issue for my religious group, but the data indicate that only 42% of self-described evangelicals rank it as having “very high importance.” It ranks 12th out of 15 issues in a Cooperative Election Survey poll. The top nine issues—all of which a majority list as having “very high importance”—are national security, corruption, immigration, Social Security, health care, jobs, deficit, taxes, and crime. By comparison, the “culture war” issues of abortion, race relations, and gay marriage are ranked 12th, 13th, and 15th, respectively.
What should readers do with this information?
Burge closes the book with three suggestions for general readers. Knowing the need to talk about religion and politics, he suggestions that they (1) “ask questions” before they “stake out a position”; “stop arguing about things on social media” (for reasons similar to the ones given by Hall’s Manual); and (3) “recognize you might be wrong.” That’s good advice. A little curiosity, wisdom, and humility go a long way in potentially divisive conversations.
I’d like to add an additional insight for Christian ministers, however. In 2000, I attended the Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church. President Bill Clinton was completing his second term in office, and Pastor Bill Hybels (one of the president’s spiritual mentors) interviewed him. The most interesting part of the conversation concerned what he had learned from his affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment. (Hybels justifiably grilled him on this.)
The thing that stuck with me most, however, was a comment Clinton made about polling. Basically, he said that leaders should not use polls to shape their agenda. However, they should use polls to shape their communications about their agenda. That seemed right at the time, and still seems the correct approach today.
So, if you’re a Christian minister reading 20th Myths about Religion and Politics in America, use Burge’s data to shape the way your preach and write about these issues. Challenge people in the pews to live fully into the reality of the New Birth. Uphold the value of life from the cradle to the grave. Stay mindful of the way that politicking from the pulpit has the potential to be needlessly divisive. Be encouraged by the good news about the state of American Christianity, and be savvy about how to respond to the bad news.
And do all of this because it behooves people who follow “the Truth” (John 14:6) not to be taken in by myths (1 Timothy 4:7).
Ryan P. Burge, 20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022).
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