How some evangelical leaders are combating political radicalization in their congregations

Evangelical Christian leaders have sounded the alarm in recent years about problems of polarization and radicalization in their churches. Laura Barrón-López spoke to one pastor trying to shift the conversation.

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  • William Brangham:

    Evangelical Christian leaders have been sounding the alarm in recent years about growing polarization and radicalization within their own churches.

    Earlier this week, Laura Barron-Lopez sat down with one pastor who's trying to shift that conversation.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    In Tarrant County, Texas, outside Dallas, political allegiance is surpassing religious allegiance. That's led to increased division and even anti-government and conspiratorial beliefs.

    This week, a group of religious leaders from the Tarrant County-based Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, along with researchers at American University and other experts released The Peacemaker's Toolkit to help clergy across the country combat some of these issues in their communities.

    Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. co-founded the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, and joins me now.

    Pastor thanks been on the "NewsHour."

    You led an evangelical church for more than 30 years. Can you tell us a bit about the shift that you're seeing in communities like yours and more broadly in the faith community in recent years?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr., Co-Founder, Multi-Faith Neighbors Network:

    Thank you for having me.

    The shift that's taking place is for real. There was a time when church was something that we did, we worshiped, the focus was on God, he was first. But I fear that the church has been impacted with many of the things in the culture that is impacting everyone else.

    And I think, for a while, we have not dealt with it. It's been hard for us to come to grips that could we have people that are radixcal that are part of us. And I also think sometimes broad strokes, like all Christians are Christian nationalists and things like that, it's made it difficult for us to be able to speak into those things.

    But it's to a point now we can't ignore it. I don't think anyone would say that I'm a white supremacist, or they would say that they're an extremist or anything like that, but there are things that are taking place that are going deep within evangelical churches.

    Over 30 percent of evangelical churches believe certain parts about QAnon. That's cause for concern. Conspiracy theories are very present. There was a time when the church influenced the government and the political parties. I'm sorry to say that the political parties now, a political party, in particular, for evangelicals, have impacted us pretty dramatically.

    Instead of pastors being prophetic, they have become more pundits, more personalities.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Politics that you're saying is infecting what pastors are saying to their congregants?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    Tremendously. Tremendously. Pastors are afraid sometimes to say what they know they need to say, because, no matter what they say, they're going to get in trouble.

    So, when COVID was here, whether you wore a mask or didn't wear a mask, it was a controversial issue. And so, as a result of that, conspiracy theories, polarization, tribalization, all of this comes into play. And then you have got to understand, as Christians, we do what we do based on the Bible and because we passionately want to follow Jesus.

    And when a preacher stands up and says, you have got to vote for this person or you're not following Jesus, that's not good. And when you have politicians promise that they can fix things, sometimes, we can be susceptible to a politician promising to fix something that they can't or that they really don't have a desire, other than to use us for their own political purposes.

    And there's nothing wrong with being in a political party. We all have political views. That's great. But I think, as Christians, we have to realize that we are committed to a kingdom that transcends any nation.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Are you talking about former President Donald Trump there, or are there any specific leaders that you hear about?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    Any leader. Any leader. I don't care if it's Democrat or Republican.

    I think, when we start to look to a political leader to be our messiah, that's when we get into trouble. And when we look to political leaders and we give them pass on morals and integrity and character, thinking that the way to help truth and goodness and righteousness is to make a pact with evil, I think that's very dangerous.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    What are the consequences of what you're talking about here? What has been the impact that you have seen specifically on younger pastors?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    Oh, it breaks my heart.

    Many of them want to quit. But, right now, we're going through one of the toughest times ever in American history for pastors. They're burnt out. Their emotional health, their mental health is at risk. I mean, there are so many studies about this. I talk to pastors all the time, and they know they need to address certain issues: "Bob, how do I address this? What do I do? How do I even talk to the people?"

    Because they're being impacted by conspiracy theories, news channels. They're listening to others tell them what their position ought to be more than they are the Bible. And so how do you deal with that? And so there's not the same authority in the pulpit, sadly, for some that comes from political pundits and others.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    To fix this, you helped put out this Peacemaker's Toolkit.

    What are some of the things in that toolkit that you think will fix this problem?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    The Toolkit was critical for us.

    I'm sorry to say, as evangelicals, we don't talk about peacemaking near as much as we should. You can't read the Bible and not see that peacemaking is not there. So, it first of all, deals with a theological basis. What is the basis for peacemaking?

    And so, in that context, we look at the ethic of Jesus, not just love your neighbor, but love your enemy. And love your enemy works in a fantastic way when you're dealing with peacemaking and when you're dealing with people that are at odds, the polarization that's taking place, the isolation that's taking place.

    The second part deals with scenarios, challenges pastors are faced with. Had a pastor, call me. He was very upset. He said: "I don't know what to do." And he has a pretty good-sized church. He said: "I have got church members that are joining a militia across the state line in another state. They're coming back. How do I deal with this, Bob? How do I even address it? What do I do about that?"

    So, we try to think, what are some of the scenarios they deal with? Justify, well, violence. I mean, violence is up, and the justification saying violence would be OK in order to bring about a desired result, that's not good. But Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, it wasn't just enough to look at how we're not getting on with Muslims and how do we relate to Jews.

    We had to start looking at our own backyard as Christians. Now, wait a minute. When I started hearing pastors calling for war, when I would hear them trash other religions in the pulpit, disagree with them, challenge the theology, but you don't have to trash a religion.

    And when I see what's taking place in our country, and at MFNN, we knew we had to do something. And so it's simple. It's not hard. It's not complicated.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    And so what you just said, are you losing congregants to white supremacist militias or other violent militias more and more in Texas?

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    I don't think so.

    But I think we are having people that are leaning that way. And so civil society is one of those things, it can be destroyed really quick, and it takes decades and years to build up. We can't be silent. Civil society is like basket weaving. And so are there people? Well, sure. We know we have got white supremacists.

    We know that it's, according to the FBI, one of the biggest challenges that we face. But I don't think you ought to walk in a church and think, man, all these white people are white supremacists. They're not. Are there some there? You bet there are, but I'm telling you there's far more people that want to get along. They want to be at peace.

    And so we have got to give tools to push back against this.

  • Laura Barron-Lopez:

    Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. of the Multi-Faith Neighbor Network, thank you for your time.

  • Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.:

    Thank you.

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