Like red, white and blue bunting, pastors and prayers have been prominently displayed in Denver at the Democratic National Convention — as they will be in St. Paul for the GOP.
Much of the appeal to God from political podiums is no doubt sincere. After all, most Americans are religious people who expect political gatherings to have invocations, benedictions and a fair amount of God-talk in between.
But beyond the benign rituals of civil religion, the mixture of God and politics in America can be a volatile brew, often poisoning the body politic with charges and counter-charges about which party is religion-friendly – and which candidate is a true Christian.
From Mitt Romney’s church to Barack Obama’s pastor, this year’s presidential race has been marked by some of the ugliest debates about religion in living memory. And all of the leading candidates have scrambled to reassure the so-called “values voters” that they are on God’s side.
It’s no accident that the first joint appearance of Obama and John McCain was held in a megachurch and moderated by an evangelical pastor asking questions about what it means to be a Christian.
Many churches have become political hot spots, organizing for causes from peace on the left to abortion on the right — all while trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid violating the IRS rules against electioneering by tax-exempt nonprofits.
Until now, at least, most Americans have voiced support for mixing God and politics. According to polls taken over the past 10 years by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans have favored the idea of churches’ speaking out on social and political issues.
Now the pendulum is moving the other way. In a survey released by Pew last week, a majority (52%) now want churches to keep out of politics.
Here’s the surprising part: The greatest shift in opinion has occurred among conservatives. Four years ago a mere 30% of conservatives said churches should stay out of politics. Today, fully half of conservatives feel that way.
It’s not just conservatives generally, but social conservatives in particular who are re-thinking the role of churches in the political arena. In 2004, for example, only 25% of people who rated gay marriage as a top voting issue said churches should stay out of politics. Today, that percentage has risen to 50%.
Even the faithful are growing weary of faith-based politics.
While the causes of this discontent may be hard to pin down, I suspect that much of the shift in opinion is rooted in disillusionment with the political process. The strategy of some evangelical leaders to ally churches with the Republican Party hasn’t paid off. The same might be said of African-American churches aligned with the Democratic Party.
As in the folktale of the boy who rode the tiger and ended up inside, religious groups seeking to influence a political party are swallowed up as just one more interest group to be appeased.
That’s one reason why many emerging evangelical leaders are trying to divorce the Gospel from political ideology — and simultaneously attempting to expand the religious agenda beyond abortion and sexual orientation to include such issues as poverty and the environment.
For some Americans, of course, any involvement of churches in politics is too much. On a billboard near the Denver convention, the Freedom From Religion Foundation proclaims: “Keep Religion Out of Politics.”
But for most Christians and for many others, faith by definition requires political involvement of some kind. Contrary to the freedom-from-religion crowd, the First Amendment doesn’t bar religion from politics. It protects the right of houses of worship to speak out on the public-policy issues of the day.
Pollsters may be asking the wrong question. It isn’t “Should churches keep out of politics?” but rather, “How should churches engage in politics?”
Religious groups have always played a key role in shaping American political life. From abolition to child-labor laws to suffrage to civil rights, no important social change in U.S. history took place without the involvement of religious people and institutions.
The “how” question is best answered when churches keep an arm’s length from political parties and partisan rhetoric – and instead focus on proclaiming a prophetic vision of the kind of society they believe God requires.
As Martin Luther King put it: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, never its tool.”
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.