SALT LAKE CITY — Russell Moore met with the Obama administration, meets with the Trump administration and will meet with whoever’s next in office. No president will share all his political views, but he thinks they all deserve his respect.

“I think (such engagement) is not only necessary, but it’s biblically mandated,” said Moore, who serves as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Many of his fellow evangelical Christians disagree. Although nearly 8-in-10 self-identified evangelicals say their faith influences how they engage with other people politically, members of the community often treat their political enemies in ways that don’t seem very Christlike, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research on civility.

Twenty-two percent of self-identified evangelicals strongly or somewhat agree that being civil in political conversations is not productive. One-quarter say “insulting personal remarks” about an opponent are justified when they come from a candidate they like. Among evangelicals on social media, around half (47%) strongly or somewhat agree that they prefer to follow or befriend people who share their political views, LifeWay Research reported.

FILE - President Barack Obama meets with faith leaders, including, from second from left, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and then-President Dieter Uchtdorf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tuesday, April 15, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Moore and other Christian leaders said these results are troubling but not surprising. We’re in the midst of a “combative” political moment, and many pastors know it’s affecting the people in their pews, said Moore, whose organization sponsored the survey.

“I’ve heard from all sorts of people in ministry who are exhausted by some of the things they’re having to deal with,” he said. “Some of them ... have the sense that things seem more toxic now than they used to be.”

However, these frustrations rarely lead to a meaningful response. Pastors today often worry that calling out incivility could jeopardize their career, said Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical leader whose new book, “Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus,” was released this week.

“They’re afraid to raise these issues, even if they want to, because of the political polarization of their congregations,” he said. “They don’t know how to do it without dividing their people.”

The new survey won’t quiet all those fears, but it might inspire some pastors to finally take action. The research showed that 54% of self-identified evangelicals who attend worship at least once per month want their church to prepare them “to engage in conversations about politics in a more respectful way.”

“There’s room for the faith community itself, the evangelical community, to do a lot better,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

Evangelicals and politics in 2019

In general, it’s unreasonable to expect people with opposing political views to always get along or even be interested in getting along, according to policy experts. It’s part of human nature to gravitate towards people who share your values and concerns.

“As human beings, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be part of a group somehow,” said Derek Monson, vice president of policy for the Sutherland Institute.

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This natural inclination toward tribalism typically ramps up when it feels like the stakes of political debates are high. When political campaigns and advocacy organizations all claim that chaos is just around the corner, “it’s going to get pretty cutthroat,” he said.

In other words, evangelical Christians — and all Americans — have an excuse for acting uncivil in 2019. Much of the political dialogue these days is hyperbolic, Monson said.

“When you groom millions of people that way, with that kind of messaging, it’s no wonder they think things are so high stakes,” he said.

Nearly 6-in-10 self-identified evangelicals somewhat or strongly agree that if people they disagree with were in charge, “our democracy would be in danger,” LifeWay Research reported.

Even so, Moore and other evangelical Christian leaders expect better behavior from the people in their pews. The Bible’s calls to love one’s neighbor should trump political concerns, wrote Ed Stetzer, the author of “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” in an email.

“Politics can’t be our ultimate agenda, but living as Jesus calls us must be,” he said.

FILE - Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, as wife, Melania, left, watches after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. | Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Increasingly, it feels as if those priorities are out of whack, added Stetzer, who directs the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“Too many people, in the church and out, are being shaped by their cable news choice and their social media feed,” he said.

Evangelical leaders are more often quoted talking about controversial issues like abortion and religious freedom than the love of Jesus Christ, said Wallis, an ordained evangelical Christian pastor who founded and leads Sojourners magazine. They’re better known for their support for President Donald Trump than their support for biblical values.

Steps to take

To be fair, it may be a vocal minority of evangelical Christians who are spoiling the reputation of the whole group, experts said. On most of the survey’s questions, fewer than one-third of respondents admitted to bad behavior.

Just 14% of self-identified evangelicals somewhat or strongly agree that they’re comfortable with politicians lying in order to achieve their policy goals, LifeWay Research reported. Fewer than one-quarter (22%) say it’s important to them to win when they get in political arguments.

But these results likely offer little comfort to pastors who are feeling overwhelmed. Moore, Stetzer and Wallis each described regularly hearing from faith leaders who are worried about political tension in their congregations but aren’t sure what to do.

“They say the political polarization of the country has infected their congregations,” Wallis said.

FILE - In this March 26, 2006 file photo, the Rev Jim Wallis answers a question during a debate on the roll of faith in politics in Columbus, Ohio. | Will Shilling, Associated Press

It only takes a few people crossing the line to make the situation feel out of control, McConnell said.

“A small number of people can spoil the entire discussion,” he said. People with better habits “aren’t joining the conversation because of the uncivil nature of it.”

The good news is that faith groups and the United States as a whole have survived tense political moments before, Monson said. During the first few presidential elections, each party lobbed accusations of adultery, treachery and deceit at the other, and somehow the country made it through.

It’s valuable to keep today’s political tensions in perspective and also recognize that the crisis won’t be solved in a day, Moore said. He often has to disappoint pastors who are looking for a quick fix.

“There isn’t an easy fix to this. Some pastors who would like a three-step plan to end Facebook wars in their congregations or what have you won’t find one,” he said.

However, it is OK to start small, Monson said. In his efforts to bridge political divides, he’s noticed that big changes start with simple interactions.

“When you have associations and interactions with people who think differently than you do, you come to realize that they’re decent people, too. They just think differently than you do,” he said.

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The LifeWay Research data backs up this claim, McConnell noted.

“Those who listened to more diverse voices and weren’t just hanging out with folks like them, including on social media, tend to be more civil,” he said.

Christians should be more interested in getting to know their neighbors and staying true to biblical teachings than winning political debates, said Stetzer, who will be co-leading a series of discussions on civility and outrage at a California megachurch next month.

“I think we should all care about our country and its politics, but that’s not our No. 1 concern,” he said.

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