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Elephant in the pews: Is the GOP the party of Churches of Christ?

National survey highlights political affiliations of major U.S. religious groups.

Seventy percent of Mormons and 64 percent of Southern Baptists lean toward or identify with the Republican Party — but only 50 percent of members of Churches of Christ do, the Pew Research Center reports.

Those findings surprise Stephen Morris, a law and political studies professor at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.

Stephen Morris, left, speaks on a political panel at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. “That’s not my experience in West Tennessee, and it’s not my experience with my students,” said Morris, who sponsors FHU’s College Republicans group.

Like Morris, Tim Archer, director of Spanish-speaking ministries for Texas-based Herald of Truth, said he expected a higher GOP percentage.

After all, a majority of the 1.5 million U.S. adherents of Churches of Christ reside in Republican-dominated states such as Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma.

But according to Pew, 39 percent of members of Churches of Christ identify as or lean Democratic. The remaining 11 percent indicate no political preference.

“I would have thought Churches of Christ would score more like the Baptist church,” said Archer, a member of the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.

Gregory A. SmithThe data came from Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, an extensive survey of more than 35,000 U.S. adults — including 498 members of Churches of Christ.

“Keep in mind that these numbers are based on self-identification,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. “Self-identification — not just with Churches of Christ but with many religious groups — is not necessarily the same as being a formal member of a group.”

Morris wondered if perhaps more progressive groups such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were lumped into the results for Churches of Christ. They were not.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is not mentioned in Pew’s listing because fewer than 100 members were interviewed nationally, making the statistical margin of error too high to be reliable, Smith said.

Upon further reflection, Archer identified another possible reason for the disparity: race.

“Not long ago, there was another study looking at racial diversity: Southern Baptists don’t have much, largely because there were separate African-American Baptist denominations,” Archer said. “I’m guessing that some of our political diversity represents our racial diversity — which may not be great, but it’s better than Southern Baptists.”

Archer may be onto something.

In the 2012 presidential election, white evangelical Protestants voted heavily Republican (79 percent for Mitt Romney), while 95 percent of black Protestants supported the incumbent Democrat (Barack Obama), Pew noted.

Eighty-five percent of both Mormons and Southern Baptists surveyed by Pew were white. By comparison, 69 percent of members of Churches of Christ — a difference of 16 percentage points — were white.

The remainder of those who self-identified with Churches of Christ: 16 percent black, 10 percent Latino, 4 percent other/mixed and 1 percent Asian.

Among white members of Churches of Christ surveyed, the GOP support grew (61 percent Republican vs. 28 percent Democrat).

The opposite held true for nonwhites (64 percent Democrat vs. 25 percent Republican).

“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” said James O. Maxwell, vice president for institutional advancement at historically black Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas.

James O. Maxwell is a longtime minister and administrator for Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas. 

While many white Christians focus on issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, black believers frequently weigh concerns such as human and civil rights, jobs, housing and health care, Maxwell indicated.

He said he, too, is against abortion and same-sex marriage.

“But there are a number of issues,” he added.

“If there’s a Republican that I believe can do the job, and that’s going to be more effective, then I would vote for him or her,” Maxwell said. “I’m not married to the Democratic Party.”

Besides race, other factors could help explain the numbers reported by Pew, political experts told The Christian Chronicle.

John McAdams“It is not surprising there are still many Democrats in Churches of Christ because of the rural, small, older status of many congregations,” said Neal Coates, a political scientist at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “But it is also not surprising, with the events and policies of the two most recent Democratic presidents, that more members of the church identify with Republicans than Democrats.”

John McAdams, a member of the Northtown Church of Christ in Milwaukee, teaches courses on American politics, public opinion and voter behavior at Marquette University.

McAdams’ take: “Part of it is that members of the Churches of Christ aren’t as affluent, on average, as members of some other denominations. … Income is correlated with party identification, and the somewhat more affluent Methodists are a bit more Republican (54 percent).”

As Maxwell sees it, members of Churches of Christ can be united in Christ — even if they’re sometimes divided on politics.

“That’s just politics,” he said. “It’s not good for church and state to be together.”

Caleb Borchers is a church planter in Providence, the capital city of blue-state Rhode Island.  HOW WOULD JESUS VOTE?

Caleb Borchers, who is white, is the lead church planter for The Feast: a Church of Christ in Providence, R.I.

Serving in what he describes as a “very liberal area politically,” Borchers said he proclaims that Democrats can be Christians, too.

“I’ve literally heard people say, ‘I couldn’t be a Christian because I’m not a Republican,’” Borchers said. “That bothers me greatly. … I want our fellowship as a whole to recognize we are more diverse than we think.”

Robert PraterAt the 250-member Crosstown Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla., minister Robert Prater shares God’s word with a racially diverse congregation that includes “Donald Trump Republicans” and “Barack Obama Democrats.”

“I remind them that the Kingdom that counts is the eternal one, and regardless of who we vote for, we should always show respect to those in office, whether I agree with them or not,” Prater said.

“However, I don’t think Democrats or Republicans hold the answers to the problems we face as individuals or as a society,” the Oklahoma preacher added. “I doubt Jesus or Paul would consider either party or its leaders of any great consequence.”

Jordan Hubbard, preaching minister for the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, Texas, echoed that sentiment.

“Making Jesus of Nazareth into a conservative or liberal politician is pouring new wine into old wineskins,” Hubbard posted on Facebook this week. “He bursts any political label.”

Filed under: Headlines - Secondary National

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