It is well known that religious disaffiliation is rising in America. Hypocrisy and the engagement of politics in church are two paramount reasons. (See Ryan Burge’s 2021 book “The Nones” and his 2021 commentary in the Deseret News.)
Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the nation’s largest megachurches, states in his recent 2022 book “Not In It To Win It” that he was embarrassed by how certain church leaders acted in the aftermath of the 2020 election and during the COVID 19 pandemic. His frustrations lie with how Christian leaders twisted scriptures to support political agendas and demonize differing groups.
Although Easter has long passed, I believe this Biblical story can help Christians reflect on how their own hypocrisy and politics is causing people to question and leave Christian intuitions. In this story from the New Testament, Jesus Christ calls out hypocrisy in the churches.
The chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees were the dominant religious groups when Jesus Christ lived and they had a transactional political alliance with Roman governor Pontius Pilate. These religious leaders used an immense temple economy to profit themselves and gain social control as they manipulated the poor and less educated, all in the name of God.
These religious heads wanted Jesus killed after the Only Begotten Son condemns the core of their power – the Temple in Jerusalem (and other aspects of the Mosaic law) – as a vehicle of big business that sustained the religious elite’s hierarchical way of life, while they polluted foundational teachings of God. They were a loud and vocal group, turning down three attempts by Pilate to not kill Jesus and wanted Barabbas, a murdering insurrectionist, freed instead of Jesus. These religious leaders tried to conceal their dealings and present the governor as the person who killed the Beloved Son. Hypocrisy and politics within the Christian establishment.
Hypocrisy and politics remain today in some (not all) Christian institutions. Various church leaders have written on how Donald Trump’s behavior was “OK” as it was needed to win Supreme Court justices in a war against abortion. Although both extreme left and right want to portray Trump as the architect of the recent Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, ending the right to abortion, I have a hard time believing that other conservative candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Pence or Ted Cruz would have nominated pro-choice justices.
These modern-day religious leaders are not very different than the chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees, leaders of dominant religious groups who had a political alliance with the president, who advocated and voted for Trump for favors and then turned a blind eye to violence, violent rhetoric and the normalization of abuse and mental pathology (e.g., no compassion and empathy).
I was just as stunned to hear some (not all) Christian leaders condemn science-based strategies as some type of government takeover of churches. This slippery slope fallacy was led by too many (but not all) Christian associations who were too cognitively rigid and hell-bent on fighting for religious freedom and demonetizing government leaders rather than making adjustments to prevent a terrible virus from spreading.
Even in my own denomination, despite leaders modeling mask-wearing behavior, I was surprised at how many members came to church without masks, singing praises to the Lord in hymns while potentially spreading a deadly virus – harming others – as they were proclaiming their love for Jesus Christ.
Some proudly outlined they were not wearing a mask to fight for religious freedoms. To provide one Utah example, Sen. Mike Lee links politics and religion by comparing Trump to Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon and by this contention-driven rhetoric that COVID 19 health prevention restricted people’s religious freedoms.
Is it any wonder that religious disaffiliation is rising in America?
Rodney B. Dieser, Ph.D., Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a professor of recreation, tourism and nonprofit leadership and mental health counseling at the University of Northern Iowa and works as a licensed mental health counselor at a private Christian college. Views expressed here are solely his own. He can be contacted at Rodney.Dieser@uni.edu.