This article first appeared in The Fulcrum
In Buffalo, New York, we know the trauma of social breakdown and tragedy firsthand, but we also know the healing that happens when neighbors come together across their differences. Over the course of this past year, we have suffered an extreme blizzard with devastating loss of life; the ruthless, racially motivated murder of ten of our fellow citizens; and the firebombing of a pregnancy clinic by an extremist pro-choice group called Jane’s Revenge. In the wake of these events, Western New York evangelicals have shed countless tears alongside our neighbors. But through trauma and tears, we have been reawakened to the vision of our leader, Jesus – “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Recently, a group of evangelical leaders in our area met to relearn and practice an ancient art form – dialogue. This fall, I received a surprise call from a rabbi offering support. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub co-directs an organization, Resetting the Table, whose very mission is to build healing and transformative communication across divides. In the Evangelical community in Buffalo, we were hungry for this work.
Among the many misconceptions afloat about evangelicals is the idea that we are resistant to building bridges with our fellow Americans. These misconceptions are rooted in long-standing media distortions of our community. Type the word ‘evangelical’ into mainstream media search engines, and you will likely find a flat and demonizing caricature. Evangelicals are represented primarily as a sinister voting bloc, duped with crazed conspiracy theories, and fomenting white supremacy and hate. Extremists are highlighted as stand-ins for Evangelicalism in America today. Nuances around important questions — like what the role of Christianity in public life should be — are lost in studies and articles that conflate wide-ranging Evangelical beliefs and internal debates with the most virulent forms of Christian nationalism. These media portrayals are not without cost; 43% of Democrats say they have “unfavorable” impressions of evangelicals – more than any other group in American society.
In fact, evangelicals are a richly diverse community consisting of an estimated 25% of the American public and embodying enormous viewpoint, racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity. 1 in 3 American evangelicals are people of color. Structurally we are decentralized; evangelicalism has no bishop, presbytery, or ruling body. Instead, we are a tapestry of denominations, institutions, and integrated movements. We uniquely span the rural/urban divide. Our opinions are manifold and complex, not captured by the simple story of what percentage of us voted Republican in the last election.
We are bound by shared foundational beliefs: one, that the Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative word. Two, that God is the author of life, Christ came to redeem life, and life in Christ is abundant life. Three, that Jesus’ resurrection is “good news”; therefore, we must share our faith. The word “evangel” literally means “the heralding of good news.”
Around the unifying power of these beliefs, lie many differences. Despite our voting patterns, we are deeply impacted by the political polarization infecting the rest of our culture. We are divided on issues ranging from race relations to vaccine mandates to gender roles to abortion law. Like many faith communities in the U.S. today, we face corrosive tensions on these issues that many of our pastors feel ill-equipped to navigate.
When Resetting the Table approached us, we were inspired by a dual aspiration: One, to mobilize regional evangelicals to contribute to healing across divides in Greater Buffalo, in the face of tragedy and pain that risks separating us further from one another. Two, to surface our own internal differences and hard conversations, both because that is the Christian way and because it is what our community and country need.
And so, we brought together twelve ideologically and racially diverse evangelical and Southern Baptist pastors in Western New York for a two-day training with Resetting the Table. This is what we found. Our views on guns, immigration, separation of church and state, and abortion were almost as wide-ranging as the U.S. electorate. Yet the training deepened and actualized our capacity to honor each other’s dignity without backing away from our honest differences. The commitment to dig beneath these flashpoint issues to affirm the dignity in each other, even as we came at issues from rival places. That is a spirit we need to restore in our public life.
I believe evangelicals could be a force for national healing. Today’s polarized climate could offer an opportunity for evangelicals to return to a proper understanding of ourselves. After all, our doctrinal distinctiveness is fixed in a belief that God speaks to humans through inspired words. We are no strangers to the power of dialogue.
To my own community, I call on us to live up to our theology of human dignity – to see how honoring our disagreements is a way to honor our fellow-image bears of God. Maybe as we learn to listen again to those within our walls and beyond them, we can be a force for breaking down the ones dividing our nation.
To the broader public, I invite you to try to see Evangelicalism in the U.S. in all our diversity. Courageous, mutually transformative conversations can only occur when all parties feel free to speak their minds without retribution or surrendering their own convictions.
If American democracy is to endure, we must all relearn this lost art of dialectic. When we do, we will see we are not each other’s enemies, even when we vehemently disagree. And we will surely find more ways to work together, in service of our collective human flourishing.