Religion and Politics How Much Mixing Do Americans Want?

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on the issue of religion and politics sparked headlines that, at first glance, seemed alarming. “Americans want more politics with their preaching,” one newspaper blared.

Well, yes and no. Americans have always had a pretty high tolerance for religious leaders addressing political issues. That’s nothing new. In this poll 49 percent of respondents said churches should express their views on politics, while 48 percent said houses of worship should keep out of politics.

Pew made a big deal out of the fact that the number of people who favor churches speaking out on political issues jumped six points since the last time they asked about it. The poll also saw a slight uptick in the number of people who favor allowing churches to endorse candidates, although opposition to that still tops 60 percent.

Pew is a respected organization that does solid research in this area. But all pollsters, no matter how conscientious, face certain problems when questioning people over the telephone, because people naturally bring their own biases and preconceptions to bear. The idea of a church bringing its voice into politics sounds non-threatening to many because they put that experience through their own filter. They like the views of the church they are most familiar with, so political engagement sounds like a good idea.

A gun enthusiast who hears his conservative pastor talk favorably about Second Amendment rights will smile and nod. If the pastor were to suddenly demand gun control, that same congregant would likely mutter, “He should stick to talking about prayer and Jesus!”

In other words, people are capable of telling a pollster one thing while behaving quite differently in real life.

Remember, we’re talking here about houses of worship addressing political issues, and there’s a long history of that in the United States. Progressive houses of worship spoke out against Jim Crow laws in the 1960s, and it’s not uncommon today to hear liberal religious leaders address issues like immigration reform, gun control, and so forth. On the conservative side, we often hear churches speak out against legal abortion and marriage equality. Frankly, I’m surprised that nearly half the population opposes houses of worship speaking out in the area of political issues. That’s quite high for a country steeped in religion.

Do the people who think churches should stick to preaching really mean they favor no political activity by houses of worship at all? Probably not. Again, biases and preconceptions come into play. Progressives might equate church involvement in politics with activity by far-right fundamentalists and well-heeled megachurch pastors who like to go on moral crusades. Many oppose that sort of thing. Yet those same people are unlikely to stand up and object when the local Unitarian minister calls for marriage equality or demands action on a living wage.

It’s also possible that the words “politics” and “political” confuse some individuals. To many people, these words convey concern over issues. They encompass things like same-sex marriage, gun control, access to healthcare, U.S. foreign policy, and essentially any question people are deliberating and debating. To others, “politics” and “political” mean campaigns, ballot boxes, election days, and voting.

Pew made a good effort to be clear. The question they asked was, “Should churches and other houses of worship keep out of political matters or express their views on day-to-day social and political questions?”

Still, there is room for ambiguity. Despite the second half of the question, some may have interpreted “political matters” to mean the business of electoral politics—getting someone elected to office or seeing him or her defeated. Most people are wary of churches getting involved in that.

Pew also asked people if they support allowing houses of worship to “come out in favor of one candidate over another” during elections. Thirty-two percent backed the idea, the highest figure yet. But other polls haven’t shown a number that high. And differently worded questions, such as “Do you believe your pastor should tell people who to vote for in an election?”, draw much higher rates of opposition.

Despite the ambiguity, these results are disturbing and can be interpreted as a challenge to humanists and defenders of church-state separation. But perhaps the poll’s most unnerving finding is this: 72 percent believe that religion’s influence over public life is losing ground, and most see that as a bad thing.

One can certainly understand why Americans would be frustrated with the state of the political system. Our elections are awash in cash and flush corporate interests hold sway. The voice of the average person simply is not heard. There’s a feeling of powerlessness. Corruption remains common. Leaders fall to scandal regularly.

In light of this, many Americans may believe—perhaps somewhat naively—that religion is the only thing that can impose some order on the system. They seem unfazed by the reality that religion has never actually succeeded in taming the darker side of politics. In fact, when those two merge, the church usually ends up being dragged down into the political muck.

Nevertheless, Americans retain a childlike (some might say childish) belief in the magical powers of faith-based solutions for a range of problems. Religion, many stubbornly believe, is the only force that can guarantee good behavior.

The idea of a truly secular ethic, the idea of decent behavior outside the confines of organized faith, the idea that one can be, as the American Humanist Association puts it, “Good without God,” is alien to many Americans. Their thinking seems to be, “Sure, our political system is a mess right now—but it would be even worse without religion!”

This attitude persists during a time when humanists are slowly making progress toward social acceptance. We have a long way to go, but the arc is bending in the direction of greater social equality. The number of people who say they would never vote for an atheist presidential candidate is still way too high at just above 50 percent—but remember, it used to be above 70 percent.

Despite these signs of progress, we’re just not making any headway in convincing Americans that ethics and values need not be tied to religion. Too many of our fellow citizens believe that without religion, society will descend into some apocalyptic Mad Max scenario ruled by violence and chaos. With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder that people yearn for a political system infused with faith (but only with their own, of course).

Persuading Americans that it doesn’t have to be this way, that secularism can indeed achieve a lofty ethical position that we can all rally around (as opposed to the parochial divisions fostered by organized religion), is perhaps the biggest challenge humanists face today.