Politics in the Pews: Anti-Trump Activism Is Reviving Protestant Churches—at a Cost

Politics in the Pews: Anti-Trump Activism Is Reviving Protestant Churches—at a Cost

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Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., a historic Episcopal church, hasn’t been a very political congregation. It has welcomed Democratic and Republican presidents.

George Washington

and Robert E. Lee had been members. Stone plaques commemorating them adorn a wall.

Then final yr,

Richard Spencer,

the chief of a white nationalist group, rented workplace house in Alexandria. A number of parishioners organized protests exterior his workplace, which grew to become bimonthly occasions. The church launched a written assertion denouncing white supremacy, and later determined to take away the plaques honoring Washington, who owned slaves, and Lee, who led the Accomplice Military.

“We simply must preserve standing up,” mentioned David Hoover, 61, a member of the church who helped arrange the protests exterior Mr. Spencer’s workplace and is inspired by the church’s sharper political tone.

That very same foray into politics outraged different members. After the announcement that the plaques could be eliminated, no less than 30 individuals give up the congregation, in line with present and former parishioners, together with some who had been there for many years.

“There is no such thing as a sanctuary at Christ Church, only a battleground,” Riki Ellison, 57, a former NFL participant, wrote to fellow members of his household’s determination to depart.

Political activism is reshaping what it means to go to mainline Protestant church buildings within the Trump period, with tensions effervescent between parishioners who imagine church needs to be a drive for political change, and people who imagine it needs to be a haven for non secular renewal.

Galvanized by opposition to Trump administration insurance policies, these congregations, which usually are theologically liberal and traditionally white, are turning themselves into hubs of activism. For some congregations, that shift has prompted a surge in attendance—particularly amongst younger individuals—one thing mainline Protestant church buildings haven’t seen in a long time.

Liberal church buildings are organizing rallies, taking up racial points and providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Some clergy have returned to the entrance traces of protests, the place they’re taking part in extra outstanding roles than any time because the Vietnam Battle.

These strikes have alienated conservatives, or worshipers who assume politics has little place in church. Pastors pushing their congregations towards activism acknowledge their efforts might hasten the demise of a mainstay of American life: the apolitical mainline church the place Republicans and Democrats sit comfortably side-by-side within the pews. However they contend it’s one of the best ways to observe

Jesus

’ instance—and possibly the one method to save church buildings whose membership and affect have been in decline for half a century, having been overtaken by their evangelical counterparts.

“If we’re not going to cease the wall and the deportations, then I don’t assume we’re following Jesus,” mentioned the Rev. Kaji Dousa, pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan. “We’re simply getting individuals in church, and that’s not attention-grabbing to me. The purpose of following Jesus is that you simply transfer and also you do.”

When Ms. Dousa took over within the fall of 2016, weekly attendance hovered at round 15 individuals. The church, a 107-year-old stone- and stained-glass constructing, is affiliated with Disciples of Christ, and with the United Church of Christ, one of the vital progressive and activist mainline denominations. The earlier pastor had largely eschewed politics, members mentioned.

Ms. Dousa started preaching about refugees and has accompanied immigrants dwelling within the nation illegally to their check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. In a single sermon, she likened the U.S. underneath Mr. Trump to Weimar Germany.

Now the church is bustling almost on daily basis of the week. About 200 individuals lately gathered on the church for a rally led by two survivors of the Parkland, Fla., college capturing, who advocated stricter gun management. Common Sunday attendance, in the meantime, has jumped to about 100—together with an inflow of younger individuals who hadn’t attended church in years, or generally ever.

Danelle Bain, the 28-year-old daughter of a pastor, joined Park Avenue Christian Church final yr after almost a decade away from organized faith.

“Church buildings have upped their activism this yr, as a result of there’s been a name for it,” mentioned Ms. Bain, who took half in a current protest towards deportations that the church helped arrange in Washington Sq. Park. “These church buildings are actually drawing the millennial crowd.”

Wading into politics hasn’t gone as easily for her father, a pastor in Stillwater, Okla.

For 3 a long time, the Rev. John Bain led politically blended Disciples of Christ congregations, the place Democratic and Republican celebration leaders sat side-by-side within the pews. Holding the peace was by no means tough, he mentioned, till final yr.

Trump supporters assailed him for being too important of the president. On the identical time, liberal members pressured him to have interaction extra instantly with politics.

The church created a particular ministry for immigrants, which outraged some members who noticed it as taking a political stand. A number of longtime members left the church. Attendance has dropped from round 220 per week in 2016 to 180 on common now.

He mentioned he needs he might do extra to “be the arms and toes to this world,” however is afraid for his livelihood “with one in all my children nonetheless at school.”

“I’ve had some fairly ugly conversations after worship,” he mentioned. He now steers away from mentioning Mr. Trump throughout his sermons.

Till the 1960s, mainline Protestants had been the dominant non secular drive within the U.S. Since then, their numbers have been in steep decline they usually now make up solely 10% of the inhabitants, down from almost 30% in 1972, in accordance a Billy Graham Heart evaluation of information from the Normal Social Survey, a federally funded analysis challenge.

They’ve a protracted historical past of advocating for social causes, together with an energetic position in abolitionism within the 19th century and the civil-rights motion within the 20th. Across the time their numbers started to say no, many church buildings withdrew from front-line political activism and targeted on less-polarizing work corresponding to serving to with meals distribution for low-income individuals.

Liberal clergy leaders say they acknowledge the dangers of politicizing the pews, however see a chance to reinvigorate the spirit of the mainline church.

“Church buildings and church membership are declining, and a part of me says, ‘Thanks be to God,’” mentioned Jason Chesnut, a Lutheran pastor in Baltimore who advocates for extra church engagement on social points. “A number of church buildings are attempting to carry on to what we had within the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not fascinated about persevering with what has typically been a glorified nation membership.”

Many denominations have not launched current membership numbers. Pastors at mainline church buildings across the nation, nonetheless, famous a rise in church attendance. The United Church of Christ reported a decline in membership nationwide in 2017, however at a slower tempo than the previous a number of years.

Various particular person church buildings within the denomination—together with 14 of 18 surveyed within the Southwest—mentioned attendance and rose throughout Mr. Trump’s first yr in workplace.

“Persons are wanting our religion communities to take a stand,” mentioned

Bishop Dwayne D. Royster,

pastor of Religion United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., and political director of the PICO Nationwide Community, which has helped arrange church buildings providing sanctuary to immigrants. “Those who do are going to see development. Those who don’t are simply going to ultimately change into extra marginalized.”

At Christ Church in Alexandria, the congregation is struggling to heal its rifts.

Rev. Noelle York-Simmons,

who took over as church rector in late 2016, mentioned she doesn’t draw back from political themes, however nor does she speak politics to the exclusion of different points—from dying to divorce—that have an effect on her parishioners.

“I like to evangelise with the newspaper in a single hand and the gospel within the different,” she mentioned. “However I’m not going to try this each week, significantly when the congregation is feeling fairly beat up.”

Round 80 newcomers joined the congregation final yr, in line with church data—almost 3 times as many as left. Church officers say they aren’t certain of the explanations.

“What individuals are saying to us is that they’re becoming a member of the parish for a similar purpose they’ve all the time joined our parish: the loving group, the unbelievable outreach, serving individuals regionally, serving individuals overseas,” mentioned Ms. York-Simmons.

The church has round 1,800 members, in line with data, with Sunday attendance at round 480.

Lt. Gen. Ed Soyster, 82, a retired Military officer who describes himself as politically centrist, left the church late final yr, alongside together with his spouse, after almost twenty years. As an usher in 2008, he escorted President

George W. Bush

to a pew throughout a go to.

He mentioned the choice to take down the plaques, which got here after a lethal conflict over Accomplice statues in Charlottesville, Va., was symbolic of an more and more political tenor.

“It’s simply a sign of the adjustments which might be happening in that church, and regardless of the biased left agenda is,” he mentioned of the plaques. Sermons, he added, would typically have “no point out of Christ or something. They had been political. They had been about racial equality and varied issues that needs to be accomplished.”

Charles Andrae mentioned the more and more political tenor is precisely why he left Christ Church final yr, the place he had been a member for about 30 years.

“I’m going to church to listen to the phrase of God and assist the place I can,” mentioned Mr. Andrae. “The political rhetoric in church—that’s no place for it.”

Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopalian and creator of books on American Christianity, mentioned fights over how and whether or not to have interaction politically are “happening in each congregation at this second.”

She as soon as labored at Christ Church in Alexandria, and mentioned she was happy with the church’s efforts to fight white supremacy, although it’s not “a front-line liberal activist congregation.”

Traditionally, she mentioned, taking a political stand is a danger. In Memphis throughout the civil-rights motion, she mentioned lots of the largest mainline church buildings waffled. Those who took a stand in favor of civil rights typically shrank or closed.

“If mainline church buildings do the correct factor, regardless of the price, possibly there shall be no one left in 25 years,” Ms. Bass mentioned. “However these church buildings can have adopted their calling—that’s what issues.”

No determination has been made about the place the plaques honoring President Washington and Normal Lee will go as soon as they’re faraway from the sanctuary. For now, they continue to be on both aspect of the altar.

Write to Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com

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