THE BLOG
12/07/2011 03:28 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Partisanship in the Hijacked Church: A Book Review

In their forthcoming book Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, Mike Slaughter and Charles E. Gutenson (with help from Robert P. Jones) call Christians, especially evangelicals like themselves, to passionate and charitable engagement with the public sphere. In an age in which passion and charity rarely hold hands, their message is timely. Their call, italicized by the authors, involves the ability to participate in passionate disagreements without losing love or respect for one another in the process.

Both authors are evangelicals and United Methodists. In Slaughter's 33 years at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, the congregation has grown from about 90 members to over 5000. Gutenson taught at Kentucky's Asbury Theological Seminary and later served on the staff of Sojourners. Without giving away how they differ on specific issues, the two insist that their theological conservatism does not render them predictably conservative, much less partisan, on political and social issues.

The authors elucidate growing trends in American religious demography. Evangelicals demonstrate increasing political homogeneity, their political views shaped more by conservative and Republican ideology than by their theologies. In response, young people are abandoning the churches in droves, often in response to the perception that the church is anti-gay, judgmental and hypocritical. Meanwhile, congregations gravitate toward political and theological poles: when groups and movements lose their diversity, they naturally drift toward views that are increasingly extreme. According to Slaughter and Gutenson, some churches and denominations have thoroughly aligned their identities with one particular political party or another. Though the writing is often choppy, the urgent importance of these issues carries the book along.

Hijacked offers both theological resources and commonsense suggestions for moving forward. Most ordinary Christians are already on board with the reflection concerning unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things; their leaders, however, often stand in need of repentance. The authors point out the not-long-ago movement among evangelicals to embrace social justice and environmental responsibility, noting a resurgence of those concerns among younger evangelicals. The book helpfully characterizes the notorious "wedge issues" like abortion and homosexuality as issues that lend themselves "to conflation between ideology and theology." Interviews with "Christian first, partisan second" politicians humanize the book.

If I could interview the authors, I would press them on one point. They claim that partisanship has infected the church from both the left and the right. However, the book's real pressure comes from the religious right. The authors mention several instances in which partisanship has pressed upon their ministries, but guess what? Every single case involves pressure from the religious right.

Let's face it. Yes, we know that some Christians adhere rigidly to liberal party lines. But it's not liberals who split denominations when they find themselves in the minority on issues like gender, sexuality or theology. Conservatives do that. It's not liberals who identified "Christian" with "conservative," as if there were no other kind of Christian.

I endorse the goals of this book, and I regret promoting what some might call a partisan outlook. Surely readers can offer numerous examples of liberal pressure in the church. Nevertheless, we all recall Finding Nemo. "Fish are friends, not food" offers little help when the little fish find themselves locked in the room with the sharks. Neither does a call for unity that downplays the true story of how we found ourselves divided.