Sunday, January 31 2016
Feeling Good and Kicking Butt - the politics (and religion) of anger
Two conversations triggered my thoughts. The first was with an individual who had attended a mega-church for the first time. He grew up in a traditional Reformed church, but having married a Methodist whose mother was Roman Catholic, and his grown children attending (or not attending) churches of various denominations, he told me he wasn’t sure what he was. “I just get up on Sunday and go where I’m told.”
One Sunday he was told, by a son-in-law, to go to a famous mega-church in the Chicago area. He was impressed, first by the 17-acre parking lot, then by the well-choreographed shuttle system, then by the food court, and the 6,500 seat auditorium; but most of all he was impressed by the preacher. The fact that the preacher was not theologically educated was important enough to emphasize in the program bio. He had been a captain of industry who felt a call to preach, and so he was preaching.
What impressed my well educated and professional conversation partner was how “un-sermon like” the preaching was. “This wasn’t some read from the Bible tell you what they used to think kind of thing, he told us how we were supposed to think about things. Stuff we needed to hear about, real issues like homosexuality and abortion.”
The second conversation was one I heard between news analysts discussing the Trump campaign. As so many have noted, they explained his success for having tapped into anger among the people. “People are feeling disconnected from the power of government and Trump tells them they have a right to be angry, and he’s going to go to Washington and kick some butt – that’s what people want to hear, and Trump taps into that feeling.”
It was then that I realized where I had felt the voter apathy/anger thing before. It wasn’t from the cycle of electioneering, it was from the church!
Bear with me here. For several decades congregations have lamented their declining attendance, ballooning budgets, and detached leadership. Folks used to get angry and try to change how their church ran. There were fights and splits; the Second church was often the group that had left the First church because of disagreement. Over time people grew tired of the divisions and some forgot what they were fighting about anyway. Eventually many figured they were better off sleeping in on Sunday and attendance dropped.
Many who sense they should be involved in church did what the American voting public is doing, follow a leader who doesn’t speak the old language, and plainly tells you how to feel about things. Yep, Donald Trump is politics’ answer to the mega church. We’re big, we’re relevant, we justify your feelings, and we’re winning! (Curiously enough, my mega-church-visitor friend commented that the entry to the church looked like a beautiful luxury hotel… is there someone we know who is famous for beautiful hotel lobbies?”)
Here’s the common struggle. Churches declined because people no longer cared about the things over which church people were fighting. The language became irrelevant to those who had lives beyond their congregation. The leaders became insiders who needed to explain several things before you could understand what they were saying. When things were going well, those same leaders (clergy and laity alike) were more than happy to take your money and garner your support; but beyond that there was little connection between the institution and the parishioner. Over time the whole thing became a bloated irrelevancy (are we talking denominations or political parties?).
I am not sure that affirming anger, or offering relevant lectures about feelings are going to solve the situation in the pews or the polling places. Just having someone who will kick butt may be great entertainment, but what if there’s something more important than cheering bruised behinds?
The fact is, politics matter because it is the process whereby a society distributes power; and church matters because it is the context where people discover the values under which power should be constrained. The simultaneous rise of the charismatic outsider politician and the outsider theologically untrained preacher go hand in hand. They both appeal to the persuasion of entertainment and the power of feeling. The non-denominational mega-church has been setting the stage for the anti-party politician.
I believe this accounts for the surge of support for Donald Trump from conservative evangelicals. Even four years ago his thrice-married, casino-enriched, womanizing, reality show persona would not have garnered anything but condemnation from the Christian right. Now, because he’s an angry, butt-kicking, outsider winner, evangelicals claim him as one of their own.
What concerns me isn’t the future of the American political process or the decline of the traditional church; what concerns me are the folks who have yet to hear why this all matters. It matters because I believe people are more than their feelings, and way more important than their win-loss average. I live in a world where nearly 50 percent of everyone I know, graduated in the bottom half of their class. I believe feeling like a winner is nowhere near as important as knowing the game was fair. I believe that knowing you’ve contributed is significantly more important than watching someone else play. I believe being poor isn’t proof of failure, but a fact that needs to be changed. But then again, I learned to think this way in church!
Yes, the political outsider may have followers who haven’t voted in a long time, just like the mega-church may have attendees who haven’t worship in a long time. But I’m not sure the new voters or the new pew sitters are getting the politics or the religion they deeply need.
I’d say more, but I’ve got a sermon to write.
Jonathan B. Krogh