WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (RNS) — Each Wednesday evening, a group of congregants from First Baptist Church of Mt. Olive, located about 65 miles southeast of Raleigh, gathers for a Bible study called “Tackling Tough Topics Together.” The 10 to 20 regulars have discussed race, human sexuality and mental illness.
Those kinds of conversations are rare and becoming rarer at churches like First Baptist, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a network of congregations that offers a moderate alternative to the Southern Baptist Convention.
CBF-affiliating churches generally allow for women’s ordination and view the Bible as authoritative but not literal. They are distinguished these days by the diversity of their congregations, mostly white, but tending to be split nearly equally between Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning voters.
They are, as the CBF of North Carolina likes to call themselves, neither red nor blue churches, but “purple.”
In an era of increasing polarization, when a deeply acrimonious partisan divide has permeated nearly all aspects of American life, including church, that’s a tough spot to be in.
A recent survey of 467 local pastors by two University of North Carolina political scientists found that of seven Christian groups surveyed in the state, Cooperative Baptist churches were the most evenly politically divided, ahead of Methodists, while, at the other end, Pentecostals and Southern Baptists were least divided.
That makes political discussions in the country’s 1,800 or so CBF-affiliating churches particularly fraught, because pastors risk alienating half the church’s members.
“It’s constraining the kind of debates on moral issues that pastors in purple churches feel comfortable addressing,” said Liesbet Hooghe, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who authored the study along with Gary Marks and Stephanie N. Shady.
For First Baptist’s pastor, Dennis Atwood who attended the leadership forum for CBF pastors in Winston-Salem last week, the effort to reach members about the moral issues of the day is worth the effort.
“We’re pushed into dualistic thinking where we have to have either/or,” he said. “My approach is to model a big tent approach. We can have unity without uniformity.”
Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, whose bestselling book “Jesus and John Wayne” traces the rise of militant masculinity in evangelical churches, spoke at the retreat about the difficulty of leading an evangelical congregation in polarizing times.
“Most white evangelicals were not marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, nor were most evangelicals storming the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Du Mez told some 200 church leaders at the leadership forum, sponsored by CBF of North Carolina, on March 23. “But it’s also true that underlying affinities make it difficult for mainstream moderate evangelicals to unequivocally condemn these acts.”