Don't talk about faith and politics

Don't talk about faith and politics

September 30, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Randy Varcho | iStockphoto graphic.
Faith and politics — topics we're advised better not to bring up in polite conversation. But in this U.S. political season, and in elections over the past three decades, religion has played an increasingly important role in how Americans select their candidates and vote on issues or amendments.

An August 2007 poll by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that 69 percent of Americans agree that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. While not a requirement to hold public office, it is no surprise, in light of this statistic, that candidates from both major parties have highlighted appeals to religious values and their impact on policy decisions.

Recent history has shown conservative organizations, namely the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, to be highly effective in limiting the debate to issues they deem important to people of faith. Their ability to parse candidate selection based on a finite set of either/or stands such as abortion and gay marriage, galvanized their constituencies while, at the same time, polarized the majority of the electorate. Indications are that the tide is turning in this election cycle. No doubt, certain watershed issues remain for many voters throughout the political spectrum. Yet, by inviting a fuller discussion of topics influenced by faith, candidates have tapped into a more populist version of religion that affects a greater percentage of peoples' lives.

The 2008 presidential campaign has featured three nationally televised forums on faith and politics. The first, held April 13, between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama (John McCain declined the invitation due to a schedule conflict), was hosted at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pa. Sojourners and CNN co-hosted a forum for the Democratic presidential candidates on June 4 that included Clinton, John Edwards and Obama.

A final forum garnered much more attention than the others along with a Saturday, Aug. 16, prime-time broadcast spot. It was held at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and featured hour-long interviews with Obama and McCain. Saddleback's pastor, Rick Warren, moderated the event, which was viewed by an estimated 5.5 million people. 

Questions on topics such as care for the poor, international relations, climate change, the Iraq war, torture and HIV/AIDS framed the debates, signaling a sharp departure from divisive issues that previously gained attention from "religious" voters. True, these events sought responses from the candidates on reproductive rights and gay marriage, but the discussion was not limited to or directed by how they answered these questions.

These religious forums, in addition to continued references to religious values in candidate's speeches, mark a sweeping change in what comprises the discussion of faith and politics in the mainstream media. By asking candidates a variety of questions, ones that relate to U.S. responsibilities and perception in the world, stewardship of the earth, and concern for vulnerable populations here and abroad, the debate on how faith influences political decisions has been expanded to include moral issues that were once seen to be concerns only of "liberals."

Sandy Sorensen, team leader for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries public policy office, is optimistic about the broadening religious dialog. "I think enlarging the ground of social justice concerns that people of faith can work on together across the spectrum of progressive to conservative is encouraging and positive," she says. "It enhances the dialogue when we can move forward and not allow differences on other issues to block progress that we might be able to make in other areas."

Across the (great) divide

As evidenced by the televised forums and polling information, a variety of believers are transcending the barriers between conservative, moderate and liberal, mainline or evangelical, to raise important issues of conscience for people of faith.

A well-publicized statistic notes that one in four Americans describes themselves as an evangelical Christian, a constituency Republicans have generally counted on as a sure vote. Although exit polls were incomplete in many states, those that asked questions about religious preference showed that nearly 40 percent of white evangelicals voted for Democratic candidates during last spring's primary season. When compared to the 2004 presidential election where George W. Bush secured 78 percent of the white evangelical vote, it is evident that this group's ballots are no longer firmly in the hands of the GOP.

What is different this year is the amount of attention paid by the media and candidates alike to the remaining three-quarters of America's voters — who aren't white or evangelical and many who aren't Christian — - along with an increasing number of socially progressive white evangelicals.

One vocal group of evangelicals defying their historic party affiliation has been dubbed the "Red-Letter Christians." In a interview, Tony Campolo explained the movement's goals as to follow more closely the words attributed to Jesus, often printed in red type in modern Bibles. "In those red letters, [Jesus] calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn't kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for his followers."

Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, sees the trend of religious voters transcending party lines and ideological labels as a theological move toward social concerns with political consequences.

"People resist any sort of political label being imposed on them," Butler said in a May 20 Pew Forum on religion and progressive politics. "They want the label, or their name, to come from their particular faith community. Sometimes, for some Protestants, that's prophetic. They want to say that they stand outside these political categories and that they want to hold both to account. They want to be nonpartisan. They want to reclaim faith. And they want to reclaim American debates so that they're focused on real issues of the day."

To be sure, many challenges still exist and consensus is far from assured. "Even around energy and the environment, where there has been some common ground forged between progressive faith voices and voices from the religious right," said Sorensen, "there are differences on, for example, oil exploration and drilling."

She doesn't see the polarizing topics of previous election cycles going away any time soon. "I wouldn't dismiss the very real differences that still exist on hot-button social issues — we continue to see the fault lines in this election campaign with regard to reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, gun violence and sexuality education, to name a few examples."

Sorensen also adds that she doesn't think evangelical voices have so much "caught up" to traditions like the UCC with its long-standing social justice witness; rather, that the policy dialogue has started to become somewhat more nuanced.

"And that is a welcome sign," she said, "because the realities of our global society today demand that we recognize and grapple with the complexities of issues more fully in our policy debate and dialog."

Our Faith Our Vote

While the Pew Forum research cited above indicates a solid majority of Americans expect political candidates to be people of faith, an almost equal number, 63 percent, oppose churches' direct endorsement of candidates. Only 28 percent of those surveyed believe their churches should endorse candidates.

So what role can religious institutions play in political dialog? The IRS has specific rules governing the things a non-profit organization can do or promote in regards to the electoral process (see sidebar "Guidelines"). All 501(c)(3) organizations, religious or not, are required to abide by these restrictions lest they jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

These restrictions are summed up as prohibitions against endorsing or opposing a candidate, political party or political action committee (PAC); forming a PAC; rating candidates and soliciting contributions for a candidate, party or PAC.
Religious institutions are allowed to speak about issues and policy — even when candidates have aligned themselves on one side or the other of a particular issue. As long as the organization doesn't communicate a preference for or against a particular candidate as part of its issue discussion, they have followed the guidelines.

Beyond issues, faith communities are permitted to explore candidate profiles, publish voting guides that refrain from candidate endorsement, sponsor debates, conducts voter registration and advocate for referenda, constitutional amendments and similar ballot initiatives assuming they comply with tax exempt organization lobbying guidelines (see "North Dakota" on this page).

The UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries have designed the Our Faith Our Vote program to address congregation's concerns and prepare them for involvement in political activism. The program, now in its third edition, includes resources aimed at helping congregations and their members get involved in the political process while honoring a commitment to separation of church and state.

The 2008 edition of Our Faith Our Vote includes guidelines for nonpartisan activism as well as issue briefings on the key justice issues of health care, poverty, climate change, immigration, the global economy and the war in Iraq.

The UCC's Sorensen welcomes a shared sense of priorities around issues concerning religious values in the public debate. "I think that enlarging the ground of social justice concerns people of faith can work on together, across the spectrum of progressive to conservative, is encouraging and positive."

In its introduction, the Our Faith Our Vote guide states, "When we wonder whether we should be part of the election process, we need only remember Jesus' witness of challenging the powers and principalities in search of justice for the 'least of these.' "

The addition of many religious voices to these concerns, including issue education and congregational activism, is indeed strengthening the justice efforts of congregations and introducing a renewed dialog on faith values in the 2008 voting year, which will likely be a deciding factor in the outcome of the election.

Political action guidelines for congregations and clergy

IRS allows broad range of activities while others jeopardize tax exempt status

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