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The Complexities of Forbearance

Augustinian insights for an age of polarization.

Gregory Lee
Gregory Lee
Gregory W. Lee is associate professor of theology and urban studies at Wheaton College, where he is also senior fellow for The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies. He is author of Today When You Hear His Voice: Scripture, the Covenants, and the People of God (Eerdmans) and several articles on Augustine. He lives with his wife and two children in the Lawndale neighbourhood of Chicago, where he is theologian in residence at Lawndale Christian Community Church.

In the middle of the twentieth century, American Christianity experienced a subtle but seismic shift. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow observed, where Christians had once distinguished themselves according to denominational identity, following the Second World War, institutional affiliation began to be overshadowed by political inclination. People no longer cared whether you were Methodist or Presbyterian, Catholic or Baptist. Ideological leanings were taking centre stage.

According to Wuthnow, this development had roots in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s but accelerated decades later through a series of historic events, including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, denominational mergers, and the rise of new religions. Each became an issue on which liberals and conservatives staked “pro” and “con” positions, pressuring Christians also to take sides. Underlying this fissure was the expansion of higher education in the 1960s, which created a new educated “class” and tended to promote progressive social positions. Churches experienced these effects in a widening gap between less-educated congregants of a conservative persuasion and more-educated congregants and clergy who promoted liberal ideas.

Fast-forward to the chaos of 2020, when political leanings have hardened into battle lines across American society, and the major Christian traditions have fragmented accordingly. Denominational identity is a forgotten relic, of interest primarily to veteran pastors and seminarians seeking ordination. The real question is whether you love Trump or despise him, whether you vote on abortion and religious liberty or racial justice and climate change. The wrong position on these matters seems, from one side and the other, so immoral that it is inconceivable how those of the opposite persuasion can call themselves Christian. During a raging pandemic, even masks have become a symbol of partisan division.

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