THE TABLE

A setting to debate the issues of the day.

Are religious groups too political?

We Need Less Religion in our Politics and Less Politics in our Religion

By | February 5, 2013

A few weeks before last November’s election, a yard sign popped up in front of First Baptist Church of West Harwich, Massachusetts, not far from my Cape Cod home. “Scott Brown He’s For Us,” it read, giving a thumbs up to the incumbent Republican senator in his race with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren (who eventually won). Closer to my home, the Roman Catholic parish Corpus Christi in Sandwich, Massachusetts, displayed a yard sign opposing Massachusetts Question 2, which would have allowed terminally ill patients to be given lethal drugs by their doctors.

The IRS prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates, so the Scott Brown yard sign clearly ran afoul of federal law. And to his credit, when the Rev. Jonathan Cobb of First Baptist learned this, he agreed to take it down. The Corpus Christi sign was perfectly proper, however, since the IRS interprets nonprofits working for or against ballot initiatives to be “lobbying” rather than “political” activity.

But enough with legalities. How far should religious groups go when it comes to politics? Are U.S. religious leaders now crossing the line?

Let’s start with an easy example: Billy Graham’s support for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. A few weeks before the polls opened, and days after Graham hosted Romney at his Montreat, North Carolina, cabin, references to Mormonism as a non-Christian “cult” went missing from the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Just before the election, Graham ran full-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other leading newspapers urging his followers to vote for candidates “who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.” Graham never said, “Vote Mitt Romney,” but to fail to see this ad as an endorsement of Romney is to fail to understand both politics and the English language. 

Personally, I believe the Rev. Cobb when he says he didn’t mean to violate the law. But in my view Graham (or his son, Franklin Graham, whom many believe is pulling the strings here) knew exactly what he was doing. And what he was doing, as I see it, was violating the law, which states that churches and other nonprofits “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (which ran the ads) should lose its tax-exempt status in my view. But that won’t happen because the U.S. government does not want to take “America’s pastor” to court.

When it comes to church/state questions, I am not a strict separationist. Americans have historically opted to split the difference between living in a nation in which church and state are married and one in which they are not allowed to date. And there is wisdom in this compromise. Nonetheless, we could do with less religion in our politics today and less politics in our religion.

One reason many young people are disaffiliating from Christian churches (a third of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated) is because they see our churches as mouthpieces for the Religious Right. And one reason young people are disaffiliating with political parties (nearly half of young Millennials are independents) is because they see that Republicans and Democrats alike are more likely to quote from the Bible than from Jefferson’s First Inaugural and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Still, I think some fairness and balance is called for here.

In her 2010 book, America by Heart, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin praised “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for pushing for civil rights. However, given the fact that King made his argument in “explicitly religious terms,” she reserved the right to make her conservative arguments in equally religious language.

Palin has a point. If we are going to laud the Rev. King for making the nation less imperfect then we cannot in principle object to Rev. Graham’s effort to make it less Democratic.

Still, it must be acknowledged that American politics has crossed a line, perhaps with Jimmy Carter, perhaps with Ronald Reagan, perhaps when the Democrats “got religion” after the stinging Kerry defeat in 2004. We now have two religious parties in the United States, with Democrats and Republicans alike working to connect the dots between their public policies and the teachings of the Bible. Likewise, religious organizations and leaders are shading over into politics, mostly on the right but also on the left.

There are a few ways out of this overabundance of religion in our political life. I have been arguing for some time that an injection of religious literacy into our body politic would inoculate our civic space against many of the silly religious arguments that pervade our public square. If U.S. citizens knew more about the Bible, would politicians still be able to get away with simplistic (and often erroneous) claims that their views on abortion or capital punishment or tax policy are “biblical”? But the best way to restore some church/state balance in our public life is for American citizens to say, “enough is enough”—something they may have been saying at the ballot box on November 6.

The American story of the relationship between church and state is a story of pendulum swings. In the last two of these swings, Earl Warren’s Supreme Court made the country far more secular during the 1950s and 1960s, and the Religious Right made it far more religious during the 1980s and beyond. The 2012 election was a wake-up call for the nation on matters of racial and ethnic diversity. It might also just embolden us to push the church/state pendulum back closer to the middle, where it belongs. 

Stephen Prothero is Professor of Religion at Boston University specializing in American religions. His latest book is The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

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