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Church Leaders On Guard As Faith Follows Politics In Oklahoma

Kurt Gwartney / Oklahoma Engaged
Fellowship Congregational Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla.

Oklahoma’s claim to the buckle of the Bible belt is widely accepted as true. But when it comes to faith and voting, new research shows more residents are letting their political values influence the church they choose.

At a recent weekly Sunday morning donut hour at Faith United Methodist Church in Tulsa, people are busy talking about the start of school and the college football season while getting their weekly dose of juice, coffee and donuts.

Not everyone in this church — Which, full disclosure: This reporter attends — agrees on everything — especially college football. They also do not see eye-to-eye on politics.

Several congregants did share similar views that align with the results of a political attitudes survey conducted for the Oklahoma Engaged project that suggest honesty and character are important considerations when Oklahomans select a political candidate.

One church member said, “It really bothers me when candidates run on their Christianity and say, ‘Vote for me because I’m a Christian, aren’t I so good.’” Others said they want a candidate’s life to reflect their faith values, including support of moral justice.

But the Rev. Mitch Randall, executive director of EthicsDaily.com, part of the Baptist Center for Ethics, is concerned Oklahoma voters in some churches are led by pastors with misplaced priorities.

“It goes against the teachings of Jesus for religious leaders to use their positions and their voices to obtain political power, political influence, and build kingdoms of their own,” Randall said.

Randall, who is also the former pastor for North Haven Church in Norman wants voters to apply their critical thinking skills to their theology, politics, and how they read the Bible.

But new research shows more people are deciding to choose a church based on how much they agree with a congregation’s politics.

Houses of worship, echoes

Michele Margolis, author of the new book From Politics to the Pews, says this change is making houses of worship political echo chambers.

“It may seem counterintuitive, if not downright implausible, that voting Democrat or Republican could change something as personal as our relationship with God,” Margolis wrote in a New York Times opinion article. “But over the course of our lives, political choices tend to come first, religious choices second.”

She argues this is a marked difference from the past when social group identity, including faith values, would more often determine a person’s politics.

A 2018 study by LifeWay Research also supports Margolis’ findings. This survey shows that among American churchgoers, 51 percent say their political views match those of most people at their church, with only 19 percent disagreeing with that statement.

The survey also found 46 percent of respondents prefer to attend a church where people share their political views.

The Rev. Alexis Carter, discipleship pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Tulsa, said there are people who have become a part of that congregation who may not support all the Baptist beliefs preached from the pulpit, but like the political climate they find.

“We have people all the time who join the church who are like, ‘I was not joining when I came. I’m not Baptist,’” Carter said.

Those visitors, however, often return regularly after they see the work the church does in the community and how its members talk about people, Carter said. While some visitors say they don’t fully understand the Baptist doctrine, Carter said they can rally around issues of justice.

Purity tests

Tulsa’s Fellowship Congregational Church of Christ is known for its progressive stance on issues in the community. The Rev. Chris Moore, senior pastor, said he wants to help his congregants understand the importance of working together to make an inclusive community good for everybody, rather than simply supporting a political orthodoxy when voting.

“We have become so ideological not only in our faith life but also in our political life,” he said. “I mean those things have fed one another so much so that there’s this purity test for anybody and that is just as true on the left as it is on the right.”

Randall with EthicsDaily.com said it is easy for Christians, especially in Oklahoma where Protestants make up nearly 70 percent of the population, to think everyone believes like they do when casting a ballot.

“I think all of us should understand that we should address these issues and think about these issues in a way that understands there is a larger populace in this state just besides me as a Christian,” he said.

The most recent Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study found only 7 percent of Oklahoma adults do not believe in God, while 87 percent say religion is either very or somewhat important in one’s life.

Kurt Gwartney is the senior director of seminary relations for Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. He is on the national board of governors for the Religious Communicators Council and the former news director at KGOU. He is a member of Faith United Methodist Church in Tulsa where his spouse is the senior pastor.

Kurt began his radio career at 16 as weekend disc jockey at KOLS-AM/KKMA-FM (now KMYZ) in Pryor, Okla. He gradually began doing news work at his home town radio station. Kurt studied journalism at Oklahoma State University, serving two terms as managing editor of "The Daily O'Collegian." He returned to his radio roots while at Oklahoma State, working first as a part-time news producer, then as Morning Edition host at KOSU. Kurt left the station in 1990 returning to Pryor to be a part of a new business, ViaGrafix, that developed computer training videos. He eventually sold his business to attend seminary at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver and Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. He served as minister of communications for St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City for five years before starting his own media business, Discuss Communications LLC.
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