(RNS) My neighborhood polling place is in a church a short walk from my house. But providing a space to vote is about as political as many churches get. A study I recently published suggests fewer churches are participating in political activities such as sponsoring candidate forums, conducting voter registration drives, and distributing voter guides.
In contrast, the study also finds that more churches are participating in service-related activities.
These trends suggest that churches are changing how they seek to address social needs.
The research draws on three waves of data from the National Congregations Study to provide the first national-scale study to identify trends among churches addressing social needs.
Between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of churches participating in at least one type of service-related activity increased from 71 percent to 78 percent, while the percentage of churches participating in at least one type of political activity decreased from 43 percent to 35 percent.
This study also examines trends among subpopulations of churches grouped by their religious tradition, ethno-racial composition, and ideological orientation. Among most types of churches, participation in service-related activities is substantial and increasing while political participation is less substantial and decreasing.
White evangelical church accounted for the most substantial decrease in political participation. For example, between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of evangelical churches that distributed voter guides decreased from 19 percent to 11 percent, and the percentage promoting opportunities to participate politically decreased from 21 percent to 7 percent.
Meanwhile, the political participation rate among liberal churches has been substantial and increasing. In 2012, 80 percent of liberal churches participated in at least one type of political activity, making them three times more likely than conservative churches to be politically engaged.
Although the overall number of politically engaged conservative congregations remains greater than the number of politically engaged liberal congregations, the gap is shrinking and the difference in public attention each group’s political activity receives is of greater magnitude than the difference in their actual levels of engagement.
This trend of fewer conservative churches and more liberal churches participating in political activities runs counter to popular perceptions. These perceptions are fueled by the media and by political pundits whose coverage of religion and politics tend to focus almost exclusively on the religious right and rarely mention religious progressives.
Also deviating from the general downward trend in political participation among most types of churches are Roman Catholic and predominantly Hispanic churches, whose participation rates have been increasing. For example, between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of Catholic churches that lobbied an elected official increased from 12 percent to 24 percent and the percentage of predominantly Hispanic churches that participated in a demonstration or march increased from 1 percent to 17 percent.
Although Catholic and predominantly Hispanic churches represent a small percentage of all churches, Catholic churches are among the nation’s largest congregations and predominantly Hispanic churches are among the fastest growing.
One part of the analysis suggests that changes in voting laws are influencing churches’ involvement in political activities. For example, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act had made it much easier for community-based organizations, such as churches, to conduct voter registration drives. However, following the 2008 elections, several states began introducing and enacting more stringent voting laws, some of which impose burdensome requirements on organizations seeking to help people register to vote. These regulations led many civic engagement organizations, and apparently several churches, to discontinue their voter registration activities.
Regardless of the reasons, the general decline in political participation among churches has implications for the role churches can play in addressing social needs. Relieving people’s immediate needs without also pursuing long-term solutions through political participation can limit churches’ ability to comprehensively address social needs.
When churches combine acts of service with political engagement, they can provide short-term relief while at the same time advocating to improve social conditions.
Putting ballot boxes in the fellowship hall, as the church does in my town, helps the neighborhood one day a year. Combining more substantial political activity with abundant acts of service has the potential to help communities for years to come.
(Brad Fulton is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. His research, “Trends in Addressing Social Needs: A Longitudinal Study of Congregation-Based Service Provision and Political Participation” was published this month in the journal Religions.)