The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. The division, he said, was about race.
But a new study from LifeWay research suggests something else is dividing Christians—politics.
For many, religion and politics go hand in hand.
More than half (57 percent) of Protestant churchgoers under 50 say they prefer to go to church with people who share their political views. And few adult Protestant churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion.
“Like many places in America, churches are divided by politics,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “And churchgoers under 50 seem to want it that way.”
For the study, LifeWay Research surveyed 1,010 Americans who attend services at least once a month at a Protestant or nondenominational church.
Forty-six percent agree with the statement, “I prefer to attend a church where people share my political views.” Forty-two percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure.
More than half (57 percent) of churchgoers ages 18 to 49 agree. Fewer churchgoers ages 50 to 64 (39 percent) or ages 65 and over (33 percent) agree. Men (51 percent) are more likely to agree than women (43 percent).
Methodist (57 percent), nondenominational (51 percent) and Baptist (49 percent) churchgoers are more likely to agree than churchgoers from other denominations. Lutherans (33 percent) are less likely to agree.
“Only a third of churchgoers in the study had strong feelings on this subject,” said McConnell. Twelve percent strongly agree, while 22 percent strongly disagree.
Some Can’t Separate Religion and Politics
“Politics doesn’t seem to be a high priority for most Protestants when choosing a church to attend,” he said. “But for a small group of churchgoers, it’s really crucial.”
LifeWay Research also asked Protestant churchgoers if their political views match those of people in their church. Half agree (51 percent), while 19 percent disagree and 30 percent are uncertain.
Churchgoers ages 35 to 49 (61 percent) are more likely to agree than those ages 50 to 64 (47 percent) or those 65 and older (44 percent). Men (58 percent) are more likely to agree than women (46 percent). Those who attend services at least once a week (52 percent) are more likely to agree than those who attend once or twice a month (43 percent).
American churchgoers who hold evangelical beliefs (57 percent) are more likely to agree their political views match others in their church, compared to those who don’t hold evangelical beliefs (44 percent). Baptist (58 percent), nondenominational (54 percent) and Assemblies of God/Pentecostal (53 percent) churchgoers are more likely to agree. Lutherans (31 percent) are less likely.
Protestant churchgoers and other Americans who attend worship services at least once a month made up about half of voters (52 percent) in the 2016 presidential election, according to data from Pew Research.
While politics plays a role in a Christian’s decision about where to attend, a previous LifeWay Research study of Protestant and nondenominational churchgoers found only 1 in 10 (9 percent) would consider leaving their church over political views.
“More than a few churchgoers in the most recent study (30 percent) don’t know the political views of people besides them in the pews,” said McConnell.
“Politics isn’t the only thing that churchgoers care about,” he said. “In some churches, politics isn’t mentioned at all—at least in the pews.”
Pastor Matt Adair of Gridiron calls on churches to be politically diverse because Christians are political exiles. “The Bible should be our north star when it comes to political belief and practice,” Adair wrote on his blog. “And if that is true, then Christians will adopt a political philosophy that is sometimes more conservative than conservatives and at other times is more liberal than liberals.”
And he includes this advice for church leaders:
“As pastors, we should expect our churches to be politically diverse. There are faithful and thoughtful Christians in every mainstream political party…we must help our people never believe that their party of choice is God’s part of choice. No single political platform fully embraces the policies of the kingdom of God.”
While churches continue to work at being racially diverse, they should not overlook the importance of being politically varied as well.