With the recent media storm surrounding Planned Parenthood’s practice of fetal tissue donation, we are once again faced with the seemingly ongoing divide between religious and secular America. We’ve seen it before, in debates on education, marriage, and war. And there’s no doubt that we’ll see it again. The problem is that with all the attention we pay to the differences between religious and secular views, there’s too little attention paid to the power of the Christian voices in these debates, and the ability that Christian groups have to organize and effect change.
In particular, secular nonprofit groups should be paying much more attention to communities of faith. Having been involved in a number of nonprofits, I’m amazed at how frequently the outreach efforts of secular organizations exclude them. Two avenues of thought seem to persist: First, within many liberal, educated communities, recognizing organized religion seems “taboo”; second, many people seem to believe that strong differences in political and religious opinion do not allow for any area of commonality.
We must understand that the face of Christianity has changed. It is no longer the religion of our grandparents; instead, it comprises young, social-media-savvy believers who wear skinny jeans, have ironic tattoos, and conduct Bible study on their iPads. Yes, there are areas where Christian and secular views clash profoundly. But there are also many areas where young Christians’ passion for social-justice activism could easily be confused with those of recent, non-religious, college grads who are eager to work for nonprofits and change the world. For many believers, the Bible provides an established set of values that creates a moral framework and influences daily interactions. It provides commentary on issues ranging from slavery and human rights to the environment. In this capacity, it is a text full of social-justice teachings, and while some may feel that Christianity poses as a blind set of beliefs, if we take a step back, it is clear that many commonalities emerge within the moral framework of both secular and religious advocates.
The ongoing presence of Christian communities and their ability to mobilize followers through social media should encourage secular nonprofits to take another look at religious outreach. As a society, we have begun to shift away from organized engagement. We no longer know our neighbors, belong to clubs, or participate in traditional community groups. And yet, while a nonprofit’s leaders may spend thousands launching a social media campaign with specifically targeted platforms, they often ignore taking an hour on Sunday to talk to a church group or meet with a church leader. What if, instead, or in addition, nonprofit leaders took that step and encouraged a pastor who, in one mention during a sermon, might influence hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people? By reframing issues in a religious context, many nonprofits might be able to establish significant new avenues of supporters and tap new sources of volunteers.
While recent polls suggest that religious participation in the United States has gone down, and mainline Protestant groups may be on the decline, 70.6 percent of Americans still identify as Christian, with 62 million identifying as Evangelical. Influential Christian leaders such as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Rick Warren hold a strong social media presence with millions of Twitter and Facebook followers. While the numbers may not reach Kim Kardashian level, Twitter has noted the engagement that surrounds these accounts and employs staff to cultivate relationships with religious leaders.
What’s more, the three largest churches in the country tally a weekly attendance of 43,500; 23,659; and 22,557 respectively. And those figures don’t even take into account the people who watch religious TV shows, podcasts, and other productions.
Hollywood has gotten on the Christian bandwagon with a growing market for movies and TV shows geared to Christian audiences for good reason. The Bible miniseries released in 2013 by the History Channel attracted more than 11.7 million viewers for its finale episode. (People who work in the legislature take note as well: 58 million Evangelicals will be eligible to vote in the next election, representing one of the largest voting blocks in the country.)
American Christians are not going away. Any and all groups that hope to make change on a systematic and social level would be remiss to disregard those coming from a position of faith. The common ground is worth finding.