For the last three years, I directed a grassroots research project on vital mainline Protestant congregations that involved “on the ground” – or perhaps “in the pews” – surveys, interviews, and field observations. In the fall of 2004, immediately before the last presidential election, I was at Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, amid Ohio’s fractious political environment, one woman remarked, “We’re not really red, and we’re not really blue. We’re sort of purple.”
Her comments rang true. Some of the congregations along my way leaned toward being blue-purples, others, red-purples. None matched any media depiction of Christian politics; none was a pure form of any political party. Mainline Protestants are somewhat politically unpredictable and do not form a unified voting block. In the 2004 elections, my team estimated that slightly more than half of the study participants voted for John Kerry, while slightly less than half voted for George Bush. Purple churches.
A liberal friend recently quizzed me on the political commitments of mainline Protestants, and I told him about purple churches. He guffawed, “Well, that’s where the problem lies. Purple won’t get us anywhere.” He wanted BLUE churches, a mainline counter-movement to the Religious Right’s RED congregations. Purple, in his view, appears wishy-washy.
I do not share his perspective. Purple is more than a blend of red and blue, a right-left political hybrid with no color of its own. Purple is an ancient Christian symbol. Early Christians borrowed purple, the color of Roman imperial power, and inverted its political symbolism to stand for their God and God’s reign. Christian purple – the color of repentance and humility – represents the kingdom birthed in the martyred church, unified around a crucified savior, and formed by the spiritual authority of being baptized in a community of forgiveness. By choosing purple to represent this vision, they purposefully picked a political color to make the point that their politics would subvert those of the empire.
For Christians, purple is more than a blending of political extremes, a mushy middle. Purple is about power that comes through loving service, laying down one’s life for others, and following Jesus’ path.
No wonder mainline Protestants are politically unpredictable. Given the issues and candidates in any particular campaign, following Jesus may take different forms at different times, involving a host of policy solutions, and balancing elements of each political party in a “lesser of two evils” voting strategy. For purple people know that God’s reign judges politics, that voting is an act of Christian discernment, and that theology should critique policy. No earthly political party speaks spiritual truth.
Even though I am, like my friend, a Democrat, I hope for more purple churches – not just pure blue ones. I do not want to be part of a political movement that is the mirror opposite of the Religious Right; I want my politics to follow in the way of Jesus. So, I was glad to find that the mainline congregations in my study were not a slam-dunk for any political party. That makes them a stronger witness for grace, not a weaker one. And I was equally cheered to see a recent Newsweek poll reporting that the “white evangelical” vote for next week’s election was running 60% Republican, 31% Democrat, and 9% undecided. That is, of course, significantly down in the Republican column from the last election (when nearly 80% of “white evangelicals” voted for George Bush). Christians should not be a voting block. Christians should be disciples of Jesus.
Mainline Protestant congregations have long been purple. Maybe evangelical churches have started to turn color, too. Could be a pretty interesting autumn – at least more colorful than 2004.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of the new book Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, published by Harper SanFrancisco. For more about the purple churches in her study, see “Some Protestant churches feeling ‘mainline’ again,” in the Nov. 1 issue of USA Today.