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America's Churches are Now Polarized, Too

On the first Sunday after the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January, the Rev. Bill Corcoran stood before his socially distant parishioners at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in suburban Chicago and finally, unambiguously, crossed the line.

“Over the past four years,” he said, “I have failed you by not speaking out when awful things were said and done.” He should have spoken up, he said, about Donald Trump’s abuse of women, his contempt for truth, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his denigration of political rivals, his disrespect for the parents of a dead soldier.

As everyone in the pews understood, Corcoran’s mea culpa implicated more than a lone parish priest. If Corcoran was wrong not to have denounced Trump’s bad words and deeds, what of the parishioners who had supported them, and then voted for more?

Reaction was swift. A dozen congregants walked out of 7:30 Mass, Corcoran told the Chicago Tribune. Nearly two dozen at 9:30. About 30 more at 11:30. Corcoran was “rattled” as he watched members of his flock turn away, he told me in an email.

America’s 380,000 churches have long managed political conflict. Issues such as abortion, capital punishment and government aid to the poor all have a religious valence. But as political polarization has grown more intense, the most sacred spaces have grown more vulnerable to it. Some churches have turned to professional moderators to help keep congregations together.

“I’ve been studying religion and religious congregations for 30 years,” said Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of numerous books on American religion. “This is a level of conflict that I’ve never seen. What is different now? The conflict is over entire worldviews — politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.”

The erosion of White Christian power in a nation historically dominated by White Christian men has posed new challenges. According to a Pew Research Survey released in February, 58% of Republicans expect “White people” to lose influence under President Joe Biden. In a January poll by the American Enterprise Institute, a majority of Republicans agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

The insecurities of White Christian conservatives have created a robust market for demagogy along with a rationale for political extremism. Trump warned his followers time and again that if his political opponents gained power, “You won’t have a country anymore.” Fox News builds its nightly programming around the same message of fear and victimization. Millions carry their grievances through the week, Sundays very much included.

Fear of racial and cultural change on the right has been met with, and exacerbated by, moral revulsion on the left. Liberal churchgoers found it inconceivable that Christians occupying adjacent pews had supported a man who had spent a lifetime subverting Christian values and who ran his campaign on racial aggression. Many deemed a vote for Trump not simply wrongheaded, but unconscionable.


Churches have confronted polarization before (in addition to a few centuries of sectarian violence). McCarthyism, a demagogic force to which Trumpism bears significant resemblance, makes an interesting case study.

As Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his minions cut a swath through America, assassinating characters and destroying careers, some churches felt compelled to take sides. The Presbyterian Church USA came out in opposition to McCarthyism in 1953. It was not a risk-free move. House Un-American Activities Committee Chairman Harold Velde, an Illinois Republican, announced that year that clergy and church organizations were fair game for investigations. Republican Representative Donald Jackson of California, deploying trademark McCarthyite style, sneered that a Methodist bishop worked for the church on Sundays and for communists the other six days of the week.

Many American churches were forced to grapple with McCarthy. But they did not defeat him. They couldn’t. What crushed McCarthy was the political establishment that he had bullied and manipulated. His fellow Republicans were the driving force behind his censure by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan humiliation in 1954. Disgraced, McCarthy died three years later. McCarthyism withered.

By contrast, at every juncture, the bulk of the Republican Party has excused Trump’s outrages and crimes. Some Republicans compete to be the most demagogic replica of his viciousness. Trumpism is still very much at large — in the GOP, in the Congress, in the land, in the pews.

Read entire article at Crain's Chicago Business