Church-Based Politics

A recently released study shows that Americans have strong opinions about church-based politicking: They simply don’t like it.

In fact, some new research shows that opposition to pulpit politicking has reached new heights. Duke University Sociology and Religion Professor Mark Chaves recently issued the findings of a poll on the intersection of religion and politics. The results should give the Religious Right pause.

Americans were asked whether they agree or disagree with two different statements. One was, “Religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote in elections.” The other was, “Religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions.”

The number of Americans who support partisan preachers is in a tailspin. In 1991, 30 percent of respondents said they strongly agree that religious leaders should not influence voters in an election. In 2008, that number rose to 44 percent. Chaves reports that the survey’s combined figures show that 73 percent of Americans now agree that religious leaders should not influence elections.

“It’s a clear trend in the direction of disapproval of religious leader involvement in politics,” Chaves said.

These figures mean nothing to the Religious Right, of course. This month, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is sponsoring yet another “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a misguided effort to prod pastors to violate federal law by openly endorsing or attacking candidates from their tax-exempt pulpits.

Although there are no elections for federal office this year, some states and municipalities are holding them. The ADF’s effort is likely a run-up to 2012, when the Religious Right hopes to forge right-wing churches into a political machine to help carry its favored candidates to victory.

Americans United has asked the Internal Revenue Service to sanction churches that violate the law by intervening in political races. The ADF and its allies remain defiant, insisting that houses of worship have a right to instruct parishioners on how to vote.

They don’t. But in the end, this issue may be resolved not in the corridors of the IRS or in court but by the people sitting in the pews. Pulpit politicking is arrogant and divisive. Pastors who keep doing it may find that congregants are voting with their feet.

The Rev. Dr. Richard H. Cobble, president of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, recently spoke out strongly against pulpit politicking, telling the Spiritual Herald, “I seriously believe that clergy should not be endorsing candidates. Right now in this country we have a battle of hatred and divisiveness that is going on because there is religious ideology often involved in a lot of the issues.

“The clergy,” he continued, “ought to remain neutral whereas they become the prophetic voice for dealing with the issues.... In terms of clergy or non-profits endorsing candidates, they should maintain the separation of church and state in order to have the prophetic voice and have a clear field of dealing with the issues.”

That’s a sensible vision of religion and politics most Americans can endorse.