The Political Use of Religion

As the midterm elections heat up, it is a good time to discuss the political use of religion. Many have linked Republicans’ electoral success in 2000 and 2004 to their ability to appeal to the values of religious voters. Exit polling revealed that 22 percent of voters in the 2004 presidential election considered “moral values” the most important issues at stake. People who attend church once a week or more voted for George W. Bush by nearly two to one (64 to 35 percent). Two thirds of all white Protestants voted for the president, as did 78 percent of evangelicals. Many complain about and others celebrate the strong link between the religious right and the Republican Party.

Republicans regularly used religion during the 2004 campaign to gain support for Bush and other candidates. Their convention featured best-selling religious writer Max Lucado and the Christian rock band Third Day. Bush made highly publicized visits to several evangelical organizations that received grants from his faith-based initiatives. The Republican National Committee devised a Web site entitled Bush strategists frequently consulted evangelical luminaries. Many evangelicals campaigned for Bush, dispensed voter registration forms, and secured signatures to place anti–gay marriage initiatives on the ballots of eleven states. Republicans provoked controversy when they sought to identify 1,600 congregations “where voters who were friendly to the president might gather on a regular basis” in the swing state of Pennsylvania and urged churches to send the campaign their membership directories.

While much less successful, Democrats also tried to inject religious values into the campaign, especially at their convention. Since November 2004 Democrats have been reassessing their strategy for reaching the nation’s religious communities. Many Democrats, including House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, have intensified their efforts to talk about moral values and faith. Democratic leaders invited Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, to advise them how to do this more effectively. After the election Democrats launched a website——to help persuade devout Christians to vote Democratic. The Democratic National Committee plans to create a “faith advisory team” of religious leaders to “provide counsel, direction and a sounding board” as the party reaches “out to people of faith.”  Therefore, the battle between Republicans and Democrats for the support and votes of America’s religious communities is likely to intensify in the future.

Meanwhile, several books, most notably Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God, Linda Seger’s Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Republicans Don’t Have a Corner on Christ, and Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America chastise Democrats for offending religious Americans in 2004, attack the relationship between the religious right and the Republican Party, and explain why Christians should support the left’s agenda. They and others urge the Democratic Party to revise its approach to relating to religious groups. Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, maintains that “the unholy alliance of the political right and the religious right . . . threatens to generate a popular aversion to God and religion by identifying religious values with a pro-war, pro-business, pro-rich, anti-science, and anti-environmental stance.”  Seger, a teacher and theologian, argues that there is a “close relationship between Democratic policy and Jesus’s teachings.”  Wallis complains that the religious right narrows “everything down to one or two hot-button social issues” and faults Democrats for their reluctance to articulate their views on issues in moral or religious language. Balmer, a professor at Barnard College, accuses the religious right of entangling its goals with the agenda of the Republican Party, denigrating the faith, and trying to impose its moral vision on the nation.

Religious leaders and communities do not need to avoid politics; the religiously devout have the same right and duty as other Americans to participate in the political process. In fact, their faith often drives Christians and Jews to run for office, support candidates, lobby Congress, or promote causes they believe in. Religious ideals have challenged the United States to abide by high standards and have helped inspire combat against social ills. Religious voices and perspectives have much to contribute in the public square. We need honest, open debates about moral issues and the common good among people of all faiths and no faith.

However, religious leaders and denominations must be careful not to associate their faith too closely with the platform of a political party. When religious groups have strongly identified with a particular party or ideology they have often been co-opted and lost their prophetic voice. They should resist the pleas of politicians to help them get elected or advance their agendas. Religion has often had its greatest influence when its advocates remained outside the political order and questioned governmental policies and practices.

Efforts of politicians to “use” religion in political campaigns should cause great concern. Religion is important to many Americans and has served vital purposes in their individual lives and society. Closely aligning religious faith with any political ideology or party is a dangerous enterprise that is likely to produce detrimental results.