Fewer churches are involved in politics, and that’s not good

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Milwaukee's Divine Peace Lutheran Church during the Wisconsin U.S. presidential primary election on April 5, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 3, 2016.

(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.) 

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  • Separation of Church and State. I COMPLETELY think Churches should participate a lot more, and cement in the loss of Tax Exempt status. It isn’t like they aren’t preaching GOP rhetoric anyway.

  • I for one am happy that we have freedom of religion and that our constitution has a “separation of church and state” clause because I don’t feel like putting people to death for adultery.

  • That tax exemption status costs our country like $71-$82.5 billion a year or more. Even though some religions seem so rigidly enforced to generate money such as Scientology and Mormonism.

  • In the most notorious anti-gay Hate Vote of all, the 2008 California H8te Vote that actually took away the established right LGBT Californians had to legal marriage, we saw that anti-gays cheated to throw the vote. The federal judge who revoked the H8te Vote had in his possession an email written by Catholic bishops to Mormon leaders in which they both agreed to violate California campaign finance laws to throw the H8te Vote by making secret, illegal cash and in-kind contributions to the H8te Vote. The email serves as proof positive they knew they were breaking the law; the email itself is an act of criminal collusion. We know the Mormons made the Hate Videos shown on TV, but they refused to report these in-kind contributions as required by law. We know Mormons were told by their leaders to make large, secret contributions to the H8te Vote under pain of excommunication, and we know Mormons sent their church members from out of state. Mormon leaders were required by California law to report these contributions, but they refused. We know Mormons operated secret, illegal call centers in Idaho and Utah from which they made deceptive calls, because a million Californians reported these deceptive calls where anti-gays claimed a “yes” vote would support marriage equality.

  • Here is documentation about that email:

    latimesblogs dot latimes dot com/lanow/2010/01/documents-show-close-links-between-prop-8-campaign-and-mormon-catholic-churches dot html#comments

    The email was included in the evidence the US Supreme Court reviewed before that Court affirmed the revocation of the 2008 California anti-gay H8te Vote. Clearly, the criminal acts committed by Mormons and other anti-gays failed.

  • Authorities in Washington State caught Mormon leaders supplying the same Hate Videos as misused in California but Mormon leaders refused to report their in-kind contribution as required by law. Maine authorities caught the anti-gay Hate Cult NOM red-handed in 2009. NOM’s appeal of their conviction was rejected by the US Supreme Court, but NOM is STILL in violation of Maine campaign finance and disclosure laws by refusing to state who gave them the millions of dollars they spent in Maine. Many Americans believe it came from Mormon leaders, and NOM is committing criminal acts to hide that fact.

  • I think it’s good that more Mainline churches are participating in politics. In my experience as a Mainline church goer, it was non partisan, no Republican “voter guides” or any voter guides. The churches helped with registration, offered rides to the polls, space for candidate debates and discussion, encouragement of public participation, etc.

    That’s the kind of electioneering that churches can be involved in with clear consciences.

  • Two mainline churches do become involved with right wing politics, the Southern Baptist and the UMC. These churches still, except in a few instances, do not allow full inclusion of our LBGTQ sisters and brothers. They will not perform weddings for same gender couples, nor will they ordain openly LBGTQ persons. Some UMC churches are Reconciling Congregations, and they live in the 21 century! These bishops and clergy and perform marriages for our LBGTQ sisters and brothers, as well as ordain openly LBGTQ persons. However, these clergy take the risk of being defrocked.

  • Please elaborate. Separation of church and state protects both from each other. Freedom of religion is a two-fold right. Right to free exercise of religion (which applies to individuals and organizations) and separation of church and state (which prevent the government from exercising a given religion as to show endorsement or favoritism).

  • The Constitution prevents the government from establishing a state religion, and from interfering in individuals’ free exercise of religion. It says nothing of people of strong religious beliefs trying to influence government.

  • “It says nothing of people of strong religious beliefs trying to influence government.”

    There is some intentional vagueness on your part which has to be developed a bit more to be accurate.

    Yes, people of religious belief can influence government. But there is a heavy caveat. Government cannot act on purely sectarian concerns. Laws must have a rational and secular purpose to avoid running afoul of the Establishment clause. Influencing government to act on something which only serves a sectarian end is official endorsement and establishment of religion. Which is not permitted.

  • As long as you distinguish between religious PRACTICES and religious ETHICS, you’re right. Washington has no right, for example, to require stores to shut down on Sunday. But when it comes to ethics and laws based on them, the “because God says so” that all theology has as its foundation is as valid as the “because I say so” that is the ultimate foundation of all philosophy.

  • I don’t need to distinguish anything of the sort. The rational and secular purpose test for laws is enough here. If a law serves a purpose beyond simply appealing to a given religious group’s beliefs, it doesn’t run afoul of the Establishment clause.

    “But when it comes to ethics and laws based on them, the “because God says so” that all theology has as its foundation is as valid as the “because I say so” that is the ultimate foundation of all philosophy.”

    I can’t agree with a word of that paragraph. A law which has no rational and secular purpose serves no end beyond sectarian, and by its nature, discriminatory ends.

  • Seriously, you think you need “god tells you so” to treat people with dignity and humanely?

    It doesn’t serve ANY sane rational purpose whatsoever for a society to avoid discrimination?

    You are just trolling me at this point. But I will take it seriously this one time.

    Human rights laws serve a purpose in providing that the citizenry can fully participate as members of a nation with representative government. Discrimination diminishes its members. Makes a democracy not truly representative of its people.

    In the US, we don’t have human rights laws. Our human rights are considered inherent. The default. Human rights are not granted by law. They are recognized by them and exist for people inherently. If anything it is more of a limitation as to what the government does as opposed to telling people what they are allowed to do.

    I do not, nor can ever ascribe to the notion that the only reason people are ethical and moral towards each other is that they are held on a tight divine leash. That otherwise they would run amok without God looking over their shoulder and commanding them to be nice to each other (with a ton of exceptions). It tells me more of the amorality of the religious believer than of moral concepts in general.

  • Ideally, people do the right thing BECAUSE it is the right thing, not because of a threat held over their heads. The justice systems found in every country show the problems with depending on it. But that isn’t the issue, the question is HOW you know what is the right thing to do. For the strongly religious, their rules ultimately come from doctrine — “because God says so.” For the strongly philosophical, their rules ultimately come from axioms — “because I say so.” Most people are a mix of the two, and take it on authority because they don’t have the time and/or inclination to do the deep thinking themselves. That’s not to say that reason doesn’t play a role in both, theology is logic applied to doctrine while philosophy is logic applied to axioms. But the root of both is beyond “reason.”

  • All you have demonstrated is that strongly religious people lack any regard or connection to fellow human beings without divine command. It speaks badly of their sense of morality. Really a lack of it.

    No recognition that people do not generally like to be maliciously harmed. No recognition that such behavior is likely to inspire others to harm you. If you are so bereft of basic empathy and understanding of people then psychological help is in order. It’s the classic definition of a psychopath.

    BTW theology is simply psuedologic to get to a predetermined end of supporting a given sectarian belief At no point is it a form of rational discourse. It may take the form of one but is entirely spurious in nature.

  • Apparently, you know what you know and don’t care how you know it. That’s actually the same as most people, but don’t pretend it is either rational or reasonable. Have fun preaching to the choir.

  • I never said I do not know where my respect for human existence came from. All I said was what it didn’t come from. Divine command.

    All you have demonstrated is how religious people can justify immoral and atrocious behavior. By claiming divine command and inspiration.

    Altruism need not be commanded to exist. One sees direct benefits from such behavior in an objective sense. It allows best use of resources for a group. We have an innate sense of empathy, the ability to understand emotional contexts for others. If you want to praise God for such abilities you are welcomed to do so. But it is not required.

  • Another VERY GOOD reason for laws passed after the 2008 election is the egregiously unconstitiomal laws to both make it more difficult and even to PREVENT persons who are motivated predominantly by racism!