politics and religion

More Americans want less religion in politics, survey data say. But while that message resonated loud and clear this year in some religious circles, it fell on deaf ears in others.

As Election Day neared, Southern Baptist powerbroker Richard Land broke a longstanding personal pledge not to endorse candidates when he threw his weight behind Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. Earlier in October, more than 1,500 pastors used Pulpit Freedom Sunday (PFS) to preach support for specific candidates. This record-breaking level of participation in PFS happened despite warnings from the Internal Revenue Service that partisan politicking can jeopardize a church’s tax-exempt status.

Yet as some faith leaders went partisan, others made fresh efforts to stay above the fray. Example: more than 650 churches planned to serve communion on Election Day. They were part of a movement to reject “political idolatry” and refocus on Jesus Christ, not party politics, as humankind’s best hope.

What’s more, high-profile Christian writers such as Jonathan Merritt and Greg Boyd struck chords with calls to depoliticize faith. Boyd, a megachurch pastor in Woodbury, Minn., publicly vowed not to vote, saying on Twitter: “I’m better able to place ALL my hope in Christ when I don’t.”

These seemingly conflicting trends beg the question: is religious involvement in politics on the rise or the decline? The answer is both. It’s rising in religious circles that have hitched their identities to partisan wagons and now find much of their raison d’être in the prospect of influencing public policy. It’s fading in faith communities whose brands are removed from the political categories of “left” and “right.” For some groups, politicizing faith has always been unwise, but it’s even less wise in these times of polarization and distrust of institutions.

Consider which groups are doubling down on partisan politicking even though most Americans, according to 2012 data from the Pew Research Center, wish they’d give it a rest.

On the right, some Southern Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have made the championing of Republican policies a pillar of Christian witnessing. Land insisted this year that defense of traditional marriage and the unborn ought to trump all other issues for Christians. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler used his daily podcast, The Briefing, to tell why a Christian worldview dovetails conveniently with every major plank in the GOP platform, from low taxes to repealing Obamacare.

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.

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.

Or consider America’s 75 million Catholics. Like Mennonites, they don’t fit easily into either of the major political parties. One big reason: neither party reflects Catholic social teachings in a coherent way. Republicans share Catholics’ disdain for abortion; Democrats side with the church’s opposition to capital punishment; and so forth. The Catholic Church’s political independence might help restore trust in the institution as the public hungers for faith that keeps its distance from the corruptive effects of partisanship and raw power struggles.

To be sure, some Catholic leaders mixed it up in the partisan fray this year. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan openly tangled with the Obama administration over contraception and Obamacare. Nuns on the Bus fast became media darlings and heroines of the left as they offered a Catholic critique of potential cuts under a Romney-Ryan administration. And dozens of parishes took part in June and July’s Fortnight of Freedom, which some saw as a GOP-friendly effort to suggest Obama has imperiled religious liberty.

Yet for every Catholic leader who grabbed headlines by dabbling in overt partisanship, there were scores who took pains to keep a lower profile and avoid taking sides. Pastors are famously “undecided” voters as late as October, according to LifeWay Research. Religion scholars explain the phenomenon this way: being uncommitted (at least in public) keeps them from alienating as much as half their flocks. Staying out of partisan rancor might turn out to be the shrewdest politics of all – at least for religious leaders whose traditions will allow it.


G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). Check out his work at: www.gjeffreymacdonald.com and www.thievesinthetemplebook.com

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