The Party Crasher
The Four Political Religions
Half the congregation disappeared. Out of three thousand people, around fifteen hundred left—and left angry. What happened? A handful of influential members walked away and sought to take down the church on their way out. They scoured pastors’ personal social media feeds, stalked the accounts of the pastors’ spouses, and meticulously watched sermons, looking for any ammunition to take down the church. They started email chains with every person they knew, spreading misinformation, rumors, and slander. They made YouTube videos saying the lead pastor was under the influence of Satan. They raced to another local church and asked that church to start a sermon series attacking the place they’d left. And it worked.
The congregation split in half.
This was a church I loved that our church had partnered with, in the same city. So it hit home personally for our congregation, too. The cause for this mass exodus? Political ideology.
I’ll share more of my own church’s story in the pages ahead. Mistakes we’ve made. Things we’ve learned. Convictions that have grown. We took punches from both the Left and the Right, in similar measure. And I know we’re not alone. Christians are facing partisan division in their families, friendships, and churches at unprecedented levels. The body of Christ is fracturing along political fault lines. Partisan politics is crashing Jesus’s kingdom party. The cause?
People are converting to the political religions.
The Political Religions
Imagine you wake up tomorrow and a third of your church has converted to another religion. Some to Buddhism, others to Islam, others to Hinduism. One dude’s now a Zoroastrian.
But they’re still part of your church. They proselytize fellow church members over coffee, post their favorite devotional mantras on Instagram, share videos of their favorite spiritual guru’s teaching on YouTube, and debate the tenets of their newfound faith on Facebook—not seeming to recognize there’s a conflict with the faith they’ve long professed.
Eventually, when friends refuse to join them, they break fellowship. When family members don’t share their zeal, they distance themselves. They seek new communities who will worship the way they now do. Your community is fracturing, and many people are wondering how to respond. Here’s the thing: This isn’t fiction.
This has actually happened.
Untold numbers of Christians have recently converted to new religions. These are friends and family members within our churches, and it’s happening right under our noses. It might not be a third of the church, but it’s a lot. However, we haven’t recognized them as conversions because they’re not turning to the typical old-school world religions. They’re turning to the new-school political religions.
There are four political religions that masses of people are increasingly converting to—in both our culture and our churches. I’m not calling them religions to be cute. The root of the word religion means something like “devotion,” and there’s arguably no greater zeal or devotion many people are showing today than to their political ideology and tribe.1 I want to explore the sacred rituals of each political religion—its priests and prophets, its authoritative texts and repeated mantras, its symbolic temples, sacred cows, and purity boundaries. Each has its own inflexible set of rules and expectations and will kick you out if you break them.
Each is competing for our ultimate allegiance.
These political ideologies are a primary feature of our cultural moment—in America at least, though there are similar trends throughout the West and around the world—and a central challenge for the church today. I want to explore how political rituals invest each ideology with transcendent weight and power; how they shape us with a particular story, meaning, and hope; and how they threaten to displace God as the true center of our lives.
All of them are a pale substitute for Jesus’s kingdom party.
Friends and I first recognized this phenomenon in 2016. What started as good discourse between people we knew and loved began to look a lot like conversion, undertaken with religious zeal. It happened on the Left and on the Right. Fellow Christians began to give more attention to the words of pundits than to the words of Scripture, to break fellowship with longtime friends in the faith, to cut out family members who saw the world differently.
As pastors, we saw couples we had counseled and married, friends we had walked and cried with through suffering or sat with at the deathbed of a loved one, angrily break ties because they disagreed with a fellow church member.
This was more than classic political debate. These disagreements possessed, for those involved, transcendent purpose. We witnessed intense evangelism from Twitter to TikTok proclaiming the good news of their political saviors. We saw new forms of catechesis, with sacred texts on Fox and CNN, with rising gurus on YouTube educating adherents on the doctrines of the faithful. Each side cultivated sacred boundaries to divide the pure from the impure, the faithful and orthodox from the heretics.
It made us realize that the religions of our day are political and cultural ideologies. No one I know is converting to Buddhism or Islam. But loads of people are giving their deepest allegiance to political ideologies competing with their allegiance to Christ, the King of kings. Many people are converting without even knowing it—they don’t recognize the religious nature of their newfound ideologies. They seem oblivious that it’s crashing their allegiance to Jesus.
In this chapter, I want to describe these ideologies in religious terms to illuminate the nature of their appeal and the temptations they pose. A good place to start is the Four Americas.
The Four Americas
We tend to talk about politics as Left and Right, but this doesn’t do justice to the current landscape, which is more fractured and complex. In The Atlantic, George Packer wrote a fascinating cover story on “The Four Americas,” and it has since become an influential book. He observed four different cultural narratives—different “Americas”—that are significantly shaping our politics.
• Smart America: the worldview of Silicon Valley and the professional elite, who believe we can use science, technology, and strong institutions to change the world.
• Free America: the worldview of the suburbs, with an emphasis on free markets and hard work, dedicated to caring for whatever small patch of the world we’re on and contributing to a thriving economy.
• Just America: the worldview of the urban core, with an emphasis on citizens as members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression, with a call to dismantle unjust systems.
• Real America: the worldview of the Midwest and rural areas, with an emphasis on loyalty to deep roots and protection from outside threats.
Keep in mind that Packer is not saying the fourth group is more “real” than the others; he’s simply identifying the quadrants with language popularly used for them. Also, there’s complexity and nuance in the details of these four Americas, broad brushstrokes and all, but I think we get the picture.
When I first read Packer’s article, my immediate response was, He stole that from my friend Jim! (I’m joking, of course. I doubt he has heard Jim’s sermons.) Jim and I were co-pastors, and he’s been talking about this idea for years. Jim and I used similar categories to help our church navigate the choppy waters of past election seasons.
Jim uses different terms to describe the Four Americas, which I find more helpful. While Packer’s language helps to recognize these movements in popular culture (on a sociological level), Jim’s language helps to understand the values and ideological roots driving these movements and engage them biblically (on a theological level).