From Church Programs to Political Action: A Critical Challenge to Christians’ Selective Refrain from Social Movements

Like most single mothers, I could probably spend a lifetime writing books about the unique blessing and difficulty of parenting without a spouse. In 2007, I learned that receiving an educational loan that went directly to my university rendered me unqualified to receive state-funded healthcare or childcare (even though my annual income was less than $10,000). I learned how difficult it is to give up living independently and move in with family to save money, and how disappointing it is to drop out of school to find a job to pay for mounting medical bills. I had a great church home at the time – one that was an effective advocate of racial reconciliation and that had a powerful outreach to the drug dealers and homeless community that populated the area. They were a great support to me too – spiritually and relationally. But we never had conversations about the struggles single parents face or how some single moms fall through the cracks of our economic, political, and social systems. They never shamed me, and they always treated me like an equal member of their congregation – but by not “noticing” my single motherhood, they actually overlooked the real struggles I was facing every day in a way they probably would not have if I was dealing with, say, cancer or a death in the family.

My experience of being a single mother in the Christian church made me realize that I – and those like me – occupy a sort of liminal space created by the confusion of what Christians are to do when someone enters their midst carrying with them social struggles. Are we “color blind” or do we openly recognize the ethnicity of those in our congregations? Do we treat the homeless person as “just like everyone else” or do we ask them about their experiences being homeless? Do we try to “mainstream” single mothers into existing ministries to let them know that we don’t judge them,or do we create ministries specifically for single mothers so that they can meet others similarly situated?

In the research I do on Christian single mothers, I’ve found that these options miss the mark. And I would imagine that the dichotomous questions I’ve asked about the treatment of other populations fall equally short of being empowering to these persons and of cultivating a strong Christian community and advocacy in the battles waged against racism, homelessness, economic inequalities, and sexism, to name a few. But these are the questions, the confusion, in which we as Christians become mired.

My point is not just about what Christians do with the 13.6 million single-parent families in the United States. Rather, it is to examine an inconsistency and an inadequacy in Christian social action. The tendency, I believe, in the Christian church when it comes to social issues and injustices is to either spiritualize them (e.g. praying for peace and reconciliation, focusing on getting our personal lives right with God, talking a lot about grace and non-judgment for the single parent or the addict) or to create a ministry for it. When the latter occurs, as in the case of the new crop of single-parent ministries in churches, these programs tend to be based on the notion that spiritual and relational struggles are the greatest troubles a single mother faces and that the tangible, material needs of the single mother become more easily weathered and navigated with the spiritual tools provided by the ministry. Or, when the single mother has a specific request – a new refrigerator, help with this month’s rent, childcare, car repairs – a collection is taken up or volunteers come out to fill the need. That’s wonderful, but the public sphere and its systems of economics, policy and politics, education, and culture are never challenged.

Why is it that the Christian Church has been so reluctant of late to take to social activism and to organize as a collective voice against practices that victimize the working poor, the single mother, the ethnic minority? Some contend that the government meets many material requirements of the single mother, but the Church ought to meet her spiritual, relational needs. Other Christians argue that the Christian Church ought to provide support for single-parent families so that the government does not get involved in the private sector. Both responses share one thing in common: both neglect to call the Christian Church to advocate for policy or cultural change that eliminates or at least ameliorates the material struggles of single parents.

However, this Christian allergy to the political appears unevenly. History reminds us of how Christians mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, the integral role they played in abolition, and the leadership they took in temperance. On the international scene, Christians are collectively standing for and against a number of political issues, from economic justice in Central America to the cessation of gender violence in South Africa. Today, conservative Christians are the driving force behind the pro-life movement and the movement for “family values” (along with anti-homosexuality campaigns), which are perhaps the only two movements in operation today that have achieved wide recognition in the United States for their large Christian membership and leadership. These two contemporary movements certainly try to engage the government and influence policy. Why, then, do we not do the same for others in our midst who are clearly struggling against injustices that victimize them? Ambivalence characterizes the abortion and homosexuality issues as much as other social issues. There are Christians on all sides of these debates, just as there will be Christians who both oppose and those who support the death penalty, an increase in minimum wage, greater federal funding for single-parent families, or bills to close the wage gap between ethnicities and the sexes. Fear of dividing Christians on an issue cannot be our excuse. Furthermore, religion is unavoidably political. Our past confirms that we the religious are powerful beyond the walls of our worship centers as we seek to change every affront to the peaceful, just world we desire, and our present shows what the brave few whose faith informs and inspires their social action can do. So what excuse do we have not to politicize and organize?

Image Source: Peter Pettus (Attribution via Google Images) 

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2 thoughts on “From Church Programs to Political Action: A Critical Challenge to Christians’ Selective Refrain from Social Movements

  1. Thank you Haley for this post and for your vulnerability in sharing your story as a single mother in Christian churches. When you respond to the churches that are good with personal care/charity by saying, “That’s wonderful, but the public sphere and its systems of economics, policy and politics, education, and culture are never challenged,” it reminds me so much of how the idea of “reconciliation” is used with regards to racism. As an Afro-Latino working in Christian contexts, I have often seen ideas of reconciliation used to emphasize personal relationships over and against the material inequalities/structural barriers in racism. It’s interesting to see how this problem of “over-spiritualizing” intersects across race, gender, and class issues. There definitely needs to be a greater balance in churches between pastoral care/personal relationships and social/political witness. Unfortunately, the former has often been overemphasized to the neglect of the latter.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment/insight! Great point, Daniel. You’re exactly right to say that this is something that needs to be addressed intersectionally. It’s interesting how these seemingly good ideas – like reconciliation – can function to gloss over fundamental problems and keep the real systemic inequalities in place. It then flips the issue: if we complain about racism, we are “focusing on the material” rather than being good people of faith who focus on the spiritual or niceness. I see a lot of times in the Christian communities in which I find myself that there is an incredible discomfort with hurt, pain, and conflict. In looking at the roots of my faith tradition, I see ample examples of righteous indignation and exhortation to confront the issues and not gloss over the problems for the sake of “harmony”. I think part of this is that we don’t understand the difference between forgiveness and stifling problems or between righteous anger and bitterness. This misunderstanding fuels our push for “comfort” to the neglect, as you said, of social/political witness. And it props up a really harmful status quo, intentionally or not. I’m channeling Stepford Wives right now…

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