Just over half of churchgoing American Protestants went into the tense midterm elections believing that the people in the pews around them would vote the same way they did.
A Lifeway Research online survey in September found that 50% of those in its national panel agreed with the statement, "I prefer to attend a church where people share my political beliefs," while 55% agreed that "My political views match those of most people at my church." At the same time, 10% were not sure about the first question and 22% the second.
"What we are seeing is a pretty complex situation," said Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research. While churchgoers are divided on the need for political uniformity in their pews, there are enough believers who take that stance to prove that "this is not one or two people that pastors need to talk to and try to understand. This is a GROUP of people in most of our churches and that's something pastors have to deal with now."
This new survey began with questions used in 2017, he noted, and while the results are similar, some new trends are clear. In the earlier survey, 51% of respondents felt their church was politically homogeneous, with only 11% "strongly" agreeing. Now 21% strongly agree. Also, a rising number of believers assume they can predict the politics of others in their churches. In 2017, 30% were unsure if they shared the views of others in their congregations, but that number dropped to 22% this time.
In a survey result clashing with a popular stereotype, those with evangelical beliefs (44%) were less likely than nonevangelicals (54%) to say they wanted a church in which believers shared their political views. The survey defined "evangelical" in doctrinal terms, stressing beliefs such as "The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe" and "Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God's free gift of eternal salvation."
Other significant results included:
• Methodists (88%) and those attending Restorationist movement congregations (80%), such as the Churches of Christ, were more likely to seek political unity in the pews. Among other flocks, Baptists (47%), Presbyterians (47%), Lutherans (38%) and nondenominational believers (38%) were less likely to do so.
• What about the "old guard" in pews? Younger churchgoers were more likely to seek political uniformity. Nearly 3 in 5 of those under 50 (57%) took that stance, as opposed to 47% of those 50 to 65 and 41% of those 65 and older.
• Race and ethnicity affected the results, with white (54%) and Black (53%) Protestants being more likely to seek a church in which believers shared political views than Hispanic churchgoers (25%).
In another sign of tension, McConnell noted that, while "almost 1 in 5 churchgoers is adamant that they want to attend church with those who share their political views, there are just as many who strongly disagree." The 23% who "strongly disagree are clearly saying the source of unity they have with others in their church has nothing to do with partisanship."
This leads to the crucial question: Why is this happening?
McConnell proposed three possible answers. First, many Americans are striving to take political stands consistent with centuries of traditional Christian teachings on issues such as abortion, gender and the church's definition of marriage, he said.
A second possibility, said McConnell, is that many believers want their churches to have a practical impact on life in their local communities. As "activists," they believe this would be next to impossible without some kind of unity on key issues in modern life.
Finally, some churchgoers and their pastors may be exhausted after the trials of the coronavirus pandemic, and they are looking for "a safe place" without lots of debate and tension, he said. The problem is that "people keep having different reactions" when facing practical political questions and also "how to deal with the imperfect candidates they end up seeing on ballots on Election Day."
McConnell added: "These people may be saying, 'I'd love for my church to be that calm, peaceful place where people agree on the big issues, and they aren't arguing all the time about politics.' ... The question is whether that kind of peace is possible in such a divided time in American life."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.