Is it a good thing for churches to engage in partisan politics?

In investigating further following my post on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, I was initially dismayed by the possibility that there was a reasonable chance that the US Supreme Court may rule that churches have the right to engage in partisan political activity and support candidates and parties while still retaining their tax exempt status. It seemed like it would be yet another case of privileging religion in public life, allowing them advantages that are denied to non-religious groups.

But on later reflection, I am not so sure that such a ruling would be a good thing for religion and may in fact backfire badly on them.

The paradox of the US is that the separation of church and state enshrined in its constitution has corresponded to religion being more robust in the US than in other developed countries. Modern states without such a barrier and with established religions tend to have much lower levels of religiosity, and some have argued that there is a direct causal relationship between those two facts. So will allowing overt political activity by churches be good for religion?

As far as its impact on politics, it is not clear that there will be much change. First of all, there are many ways in which clerics currently endorse political candidates without openly doing so. It takes the form of nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments, with broad hints being dropped as to who they support. If on the weekend before an election, the cleric rails against abortion or homosexuality or contraception, and the candidates running for office differ on these issues, is there any parishioner so clueless that they don’t know what they are expected to do? Are any of us really ignorant of which way the Catholic or Mormon churches or Pat Robertson or John Hagee want us to vote? The comments on the previous post gave other examples.

What the removal of these restrictions will do is enable the more political clerics to express their views openly. The more practical change that can occur is that it will also enable political clerics to use their churches for fundraising for their candidates and other forms of campaigning.

It is not clear that parishioners would like their places of worship become extensions of political parties. In general, Americans seem to prefer their places of worship to be a refuge from the outside world rather than the hub of it. Surveys show that 66% of Americans oppose the proposition that during political elections, churches and other houses of worship should come out in favor of one candidate over another. Only 27% support it (that crazification number again), while 7% don’t know.

I can think of many reasons why religious people feel this way. Many people join a church because of family history, not theology or ideology, and so churches are umbrella organizations containing people of different political stripes. Even families that go to the same church often have amongst them differences in their political allegiances. Furthermore, religious people tend to think that religion is on a higher plane, above politics, and thus they can get together despite political differences. Whatever their views, they may not like having political lectures from the pulpit, with the discussions spilling over into their potluck suppers or in the soup kitchens they run. How will such people react when their pastors start openly campaigning for candidates?

Some families may start shopping for new churches where the pastor’s politics agrees with theirs. Some family members may stop going altogether. My feeling is that there are many churchgoers who go out of habit and are looking for reasons to quit. A political pastor may provide the nudge they need. In any event, the closer identification of religion with politics will not reflect well on churches since politics is viewed with such distaste.

Kevin Drum points out that in the latest Pew survey on religion, after being flat for a long time, the rise in unaffiliated began in 1991, more than doubling from around 9% to nearly 20% in just 20 years. The unaffiliated are now approaching the number of Catholics (22%). He argues that the rise occurred around the time when the religious right began going full tilt into politics and infers that this is the reason.

I don’t think it is that clear. It is hard to draw an unambiguous causal connection between the rise of religious political activism and the rise in the religiously unaffiliated. Religious political activism has always been some part of the American landscape and it is not easy to pin down when the more virulent form began. Was it with the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that helped the various Christian sects in the US coalesce around the umbrella label of ‘Christian’ to fight abortion? Was it the election of the first openly born-again evangelical president Jimmy Carter in 1976? Was it with the election of Ronald Reagan, the first president who actively courted fundamentalist right wing Christians, though his own religious devotion was doubtful?

There were also a flurry of new Christian political organizations around that period, such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (1977), Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (1979), Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council (1983), and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition (1989), created by him following his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in 1988.

So was this the cause of the rise in unaffiliated in the last two decades? Perhaps. But there are other significant factors as well that originated around 1990. The internet is perhaps the most significant in my opinion. It has enabled modernity to penetrate into even the most closed and backward of societies, the dark corners where religions flourish. Religion cannot compete with modernity and this, in my opinion is why it is on the ropes. Having churches openly and actively engage in partisan political activity may merely hasten their demise.


  1. steve84 says

    But it often took decades for churches to lose their social and political influence in other countries. In some, like Ireland, it’s happening extremely fast, but there is no reason to assume that letting them officially engage in politics will have an immediate effect. It may get worse before it gets better.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Quite likely. These things rarely follow a straight line trajectory. There are usually shifts back and forth but a trend line can usually be seen.

  3. says


    I think that you’re closer to the point at the beginning. Madison said it best when he noted that allowing religion to get involved in government and vice versa basically contaminates both.

    Government gets too involved in religious affairs and polarizes the issues according to religious affiliation and religion gets so involved in secular affairs that it is forced to ally itself to issues which are often diametrically opposed to its most basic tenets.

    A close look at politics today shows clearly that his words were true, and if you look at European history, it becomes obvious that the mixing of politics and religion is why so few people today in Europe go to church.

  4. Jared A says

    I also disagree with Ken Drum that 1991 was when religion started getting overly tangled in politics. There has been an ebb and flow for centuries, and the current flow has been a national influence since around 1980 with the ascendancy of the Moral Majority and other right-wing christian organizations.

    My source is Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore, Oxford History of the United States, Vol 11. which I should really check again to make sure I got the timeline right.

  5. raven says

    Some families may start shopping for new churches where the pastor’s politics agrees with theirs. Some family members may stop going altogether.

    This happens a lot.

    If you don’t want to be a right wing extremist and gibbering idiot you can always change churches or drop out all together.

    The fundies long ago hitched their wagon to right wing extremist politics. If they fail, the fundies fail with them.

    It’s bad religion anyway. The alleged purpose of xianity is salvation, making sure you are “saved”, going to heaven instead of hell. It’s not to make fundie leaders into multi-millionaires or elect a non-xian like Romeny.

    At least in theory. In practice, a lot of xianity is just a cover for the usual human drives for money, power, and sex.

  6. raven says

    It was the fundies that drove me out of xianity.

    My church was moderate Protestant and didn’t have a problem with evolution or women. In fact almost half the ministers are women.

    Then I collided with the creationists. I thought they were extinct. A little investigation showed that US xianity was seriously sick. I went from xian to militant atheistic Pagan in about 6 months.

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