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Did 2012 Make Religion Less Political?

Yes, in Some Corners. But the Partisan Faithful Doubled Down.

Continued from page 1

Having aligned Christian witness with a particular type of political speech years ago, religious leaders of Land’s and Mohler’s ilk were not about to back off or strike a broader chord now. Doing so would undermine their integrity, it seems, and diminish their brand in a competitive religious marketplace.

Meanwhile on the left, progressive leaders in mainline denominations continued to witness through advocacy for social justice causes, which often translates into championing Democrats’ agendas. Issue briefs from the United Church of Christ, for instance, left no ambiguity about how Christians should vote. One read: “Congress must raise taxes on corporations and wealthy households while making further cuts in military spending and preserving social programs.” The denomination went on to cheer Obama’s position on issues from gay marriage to contraception coverage.

Why so much coziness with one party’s program? Didn’t they realize Americans have had enough of religion in politics? Again, branding – and the ideologies behind it – plays a big role. The UCC has forged its identity around fighting for progressive public policies. Less overt politicking would mean the church would need to rebrand itself, or even forge a new identity – a daunting task.

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Hence even though the public is weary of seeing faith reduced to thinly veiled partisan politics, the UCC and other outspoken denominations hope their people have a higher tolerance than most. Perhaps some Americans love to hear the Gospel wrapped in campaign slogans. Some churches are doubling down because political activism has become part and parcel to their denominational calling cards. They’re not ready to change that.

Other religious tribes are meanwhile celebrating with new passion the non-partisan essence of their respective identities. It’s no coincidence that Mennonites, whose pacifist tradition meant they shunned voting altogether a half-century ago, were the driving force behind Election Day Communion. They’re suspicious of both parties’ willingness to fund military campaigns and glamorize war efforts. They’re also hard to pigeonhole politically as they tend to be staunchly anti-abortion, anti-violence and pro-environment. Having never cozied up to either party in the culture wars, Mennonites can now comfortably ride the current wave to depoliticize religion and take religion out of politics, all while reclaiming their distinct spiritual identity.

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G. Jeffrey MacDonald
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