Opinion

Can independents refresh our debates over faith and politics?

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — After years of scrutinizing the relationship between faith and politics for Republicans and Democrats, I recently realized I had overlooked political independents. Many of my colleagues in academia and journalism have, too.

One reason may be financial: Parties and their special interest groups are flush with cash to mobilize their side and demonize the other. Media organizations must feed their readers’ demand for news and analysis about party politics. I have written dozens of columns about Republicans and Democrats. This is my first about independents.

Most experts agree that people who claim to be independents actually behave like partisans. But if people like saying they are independent, we should pay attention to the reasons why. Today, about 40 percent of Americans identify as independent, more than those who identify as Democrat (about a third) or Republican (about a quarter).

When faith factors into the mix, we run into generalizations about devout Republicans and secular Democrats. While true in the aggregate, these oft-repeated caricatures obscure a greater truth we observe in data and in front of our faces: The religious landscape is politically varied.

The fundamental question is one of causality. For decades, scholars and practitioners agreed that religion was the causal factor that, like sex, race or income, shaped political attitudes and behaviors. New research upends that assumption. Based on a wave of new studies, University of Pennsylvania professor Michele M. Margolis has convincingly shown that partisanship affects religiosity. This aligns with research suggesting that partisanship is a foundational social identity, driving rather than flowing from values and attitudes.


RELATED: How partisanship drives religious attitudes


What does all this mean for religion? For one thing, we should look at how people bring their social and religious beliefs in line with their party instead of assuming their faith shapes their politics. This goes a long way toward explaining, for example, white evangelicals’ overwhelming support for President Trump despite his obvious deficiencies.

Instead of assuming that Christianity is their primary loyalty, perhaps we should see evangelicals as Republicans first who toss religious values aside to accommodate their unconditional Trump support. Likewise, we should consider that ideology trumps theology when explaining progressives’ enthusiasm for the sexual revolution.

The rise of independents has implications for both religion and politics. Political parties craft focused appeals to specific religious groups because it is inexpensive and can be very effective. But without a party organization, independent candidates have no models or structures for faith outreach. Their difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of them are socially tolerant fiscal conservatives; religious values tend not to motivate their policies and religious rhetoric won’t win them over.

Last weekend in Denver, independent leaders and activists convened to assess their movement. I attended the meeting and noticed the absence of God talk. In one sense, it was a refreshing change because so much religious rhetoric in campaigns is empty pandering, discrediting both religion and politics.

But independent candidates likely will not succeed in a religious nation without understanding and accepting the values Americans bring to the political arena. And since the parties’ faith outreach has become so tired and predictable, an opportunity exists for independents to lead us in new, healthy debates and discourse.

In Kansas, Republicans rejected their sensible incumbent governor in favor of the famously anti-immigrant Kris Kobach, who led a voter fraud commission at Trump’s behest after the president outrageously claimed 3 million illegal votes were cast in 2016 (the commission found nine).

Kansas conservatives likely won’t vote for the Democrat, but independent candidate Greg Orman should ask Kansas’ many white Christians whether they want an anti-immigrant governor whose candidacy hinges on his ardent enthusiasm for Trump, a race-baiter who built his political career on the racist delegitimization of a black president.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, faces another tough election in Missouri. The state’s Democratic Party recently struck down platform language that would have welcomed pro-life Democrats into the fold. And the Republican National Committee stepped in and funneled money to the Trump-anointed pick (Josh Hawley) before Missouri Republicans had a chance to pick their candidate.

In this contest, independent candidate Craig O’Dear can appeal to voters caught in between ugly, unrepresentative party politics.

Maryland, home to large numbers of African-Americans and Catholics whose values do not fully align with either party, has an independent alternative in U.S. Senate candidate Neal Simon. The pro-choice, pro-Israel businessman emphasizes cooperation and compromise, and he stands out in a race dominated by the lackluster incumbent Democrat and an unelectable and mostly unknown Republican.

The growing number of independents running credible campaigns for state and federal office can craft creative, refreshing and effective appeals to voters, regardless of their party or religion. At its best, religious faith resists the lures of partisanship and political power. If more voters and candidates rise up to break the two-party duopoly, a new kind of politics can give more meaningful expression to Americans’ values.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Jacob Lupfer

28 Comments

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  • “we should look at how people bring their social and religious beliefs in line with their party instead of assuming their faith shapes their politics.”
    So … religious beliefs are supposed to conform with party politics, rather than reshape party politics?? I wonder, is that how Jesus runs his Kingdom?? Take another look at the Gospels!

    “This goes a long way toward explaining, for example, white evangelicals’ overwhelming support for President Trump despite his obvious deficiencies.”
    To what degree are these evangelical leaders bringing Jesus into the discussions with top political leaders? In Matthew 14:1-12, John the Baptist publicly scolded Politician Herod for his sins of immorality. Which of the evangelical leaders, while meeting with President Trump and his advisors, scolded them for their sins?
    In Acts of the Apostles 24:10, 24-27, the Apostle Paul explained to Governor Felix about sins, salvation through Jesus Christ, and the coming judgment. Which of the evangelical leaders, while meeting with President Trump and his advisors, explained salvation through Jesus Christ to them? Vice President Mike Pence is more outspoken about his faith in Jesus. More recently, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been more outspoken. Where is Jesus in any of these public statements?!

  • Trumpism makes this simpler. A person either DOES support this president (and those aligned with him) after considering the totality of what he says and does, or one DOES NOT. There really are no Independents unless they never vote at all. Otherwise, people are either voting with the Trump Train, or they are voting against it.

  • By your reasoning ( “There … are no Independents unless they never vote at all.”), then, there have NEVER been any Independents, since they generally do vote for one of the major candidates. Trump then has nothing to do with it.

    But that is not what the term “Independents” historically means. It refers rather to those not belonging to any political party, regardless of whether they vote or not.

  • I know what the term historically means. I also know where the dividing line is at this time. People who vote are choosing to vote for those who support Trumpism or those who oppose Trumpism. It’s one or the other. They may choose to think of themselves as “above” the indignity of being a joined Democrat or a joined Republican, but they are not. If they vote in any elections for state and federal officials, they are leaning with those votes to liking and furthering Trumpism—–or leaning against it. Occasionally, there is a Gary Johnson or a Jill Stein to waste a vote on and a few do that as their personal protest, but not that many.

  • “Which of the evangelical leaders, while meeting with President Trump and his advisors, scolded them for their sins?”

    Which sins, particularly?

  • But the same can be said for just about every other time as well. In the past, Independents who voted were choosing to vote for those who supported Obama-ism or those who opposed Obama-ism, those who voted for FDR were choosing to vote for those who supported FDR-ism or those who opposed FDR–ism, those who voted for Lincoln were choosing to vote for those who supported Lincoln-ism or those who opposed Lincoln-ism, etc., yet they remained Independents, freely giving their vote to whomever they most agreed with at that particular time, but neither feeling nor professing any loyalty to any particular party. This time is not some watershed moment significantly different than other times, although the hysteria of some (real or feigned) leads them to think it is.

  • The trouble with being an Independent these days is the lack of a real party and a dearth of suitable candidates.

  • The two parties have done everything they can to prevent the rise of new parties after Ross Perot threw a real scare into them.

    The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain–Feingold Act) was the classic response disguised as “campaign reform”.

    What it was in fact intended to was cut off funds from other than the two parties and make it nearly impossible for a third party to finance the sort of multi-billion dollar campaigns that the entrenched interests can mount.

  • Actually, this is a watershed moment for the transfer of wealth and political power dramatically upward into fewer and fewer hands, mostly already accomplished by the election of 2016 and continuing in progress. But, aside from that, I do not worship the so-called “independents” as though they are better citizens or more discerning than partisans. The reason why is that they are mostly mythical as any real “thing”. They ARE on a general side. They PRETEND their choices might shift back and forth when they really don’t much . They PRETEND that they can vote in bipartisanship when they actually CANNOT. They like hiding their pet issues, rather than discussing them in the open.

    Don’t get me wrong. These people deserve their political freedom like everyone else does.
    But I’m not into putting them on their self-defined pedestal. They generally HAVE one world view or they HAVE the other. It mostly aligns with the positions of one of the party’s shtick or it mostly aligns with the other one. You believe the federal government is “too big” or you don’t. You talk a lot about “states’ rights or you don’t. You believe “political correctness” is something to be made fun of—–or you don’t. You support more secret money in political persuasion or you don’t. You are concerned about climate change or you are not. You speak of secular “human rights” or you don’t. You want some gun restrictions or you don’t. It’s a long list from which no one escapes—–unless——they 1) don’t vote, or 2) waste votes on fringe parties which never have any chance of getting elected.

  • I think you are promoting a false dichotomy. There is a third choice offered by the Independents. They are definitely not Trump BUT they also aren’t pro Democrat.

    I think having three choices is better than just having two choices. I saw this last election as a protest against the establishment. Independent candidates can fill the bill in a positive way. NOT in the negative way the Trumpites chose.

  • But the question would be: is there a candidate that would have the courage to walk the middle taking heat from all sides? And, would they actually get enough votes to win? Plus, donors are on the far left and far right; they are not going to donate to a guy who is not going to vote for the donors secondary or tertiary issues.

  • I don’t “like” the dichotomy as it exists, but I don’t deny that it exists. If we had viable third AND fourth parties on the far left AND far right, we might have choices which were not merely a give-away advantage to one of the big two. That is not our reality. Those who liked Ralph Nader (as I did) needed Al Gore more than they needed George W. Bush.
    But we know what happened.

  • The transfer of wealth and power is accomplished when citizens VOLUNTARILY give up their individual freedoms to the statists who think they know better than the people.

  • I have yet to see a person outside of a Political Science professor use the term “statist” correctly or intelligently.

    Libertarians bandy about the term to describe anything which they disagree with. Fact is such people have a dim view of actual individual freedoms and civil liberties and prefer a fancy version of “Might makes Right”. Government not only can restrict freedoms, it also protects them as well.

    In this case we have a government which is supported by Libertarians which actively attacks freedoms and civil liberties in favor of cronyism. Go figure.

  • I guess I’m the first….
    The statist which you seem to agree with desires extensive control over the lives of the citizenry through social and economic law; almost to the point of paralysis.
    The question is; do you agree with their vision of the country? Is power better in the hands of the few government officials or spread among the people and local jurisdiction.

  • Nope. Still using it like a derp to describe a position where any act of the government is considered inherently bad, while private industry can do no wrong for sociwety.

    “almost to the point of paralysis”

    Annoyed about having to support a social and physical infrastructure you derive benefit from. How infantile. Not seeing any sign of that “paralysis” anywhere.

    ” do you agree with their vision of the country?”

    I don’t even agree that vision of the country exists or there is a real “their” to speak of.

    “Is power better in the hands of the few government officials or spread among the people and local jurisdiction.”

    Depends on the issue. The 14th Amendment is proof positive that we cannot, nor have any reason to trust state and local authorities on the subject of civil liberties. “State’s Rights proponents” are generally hypocrites and liars. They support states rights when it comes to excuses for discrimination and pollution, but little else. Nothing which actually involves government serving the people governed.

  • Those are all thoughtful questions. One report I saw said that Dems are now about 1/3 of the population and Repubs only 1/4 and Independents are now about 40%. In religious issues we see the strong rising of the Nones so maybe this trend will spill over into political affiliations? Time will tell.

  • This is silly politics & sex education.

    Knowing the answer is a resounding Yes, why again should “independent candidate[s] ask …. many white Christians whether they want an anti-immigrant governor whose candidacy hinges on his ardent enthusiasm for Trump, a race-baiter who built his political career on the racist delegitimization of a black president”?!

    Because “religious faith resists the lures of partisanship and political power”?!

    CORRECTION, please: “Religious faith [STRIPS NAKED, like a ho and an XXX addict, to] the lures of partisanship and political power.”

  • I like this new kid on the block! Proving himself like this and much more to come! Because of him I’m finally, after a year & a 1/2, upvoting!

  • “‘State’s Rights proponents’ are generally hypocrites and liars.”

    That certainly does not speak well of the authors of the Bill of Rights.

    Then again, being a loyal American has never been your shtick.

  • “I have yet to see a person outside of a Political Science professor use the term ‘statist’ correctly or intelligently.”

    As if you’d know.

  • Alleged immorality (hush money)? Financial fraud and mismanagement? Abuse of stewardship resources? (John 8:4-5; Luke 19:8-10) … if I understand correctly.

  • Bob Arnzhole, p!ss off with the insults, you worthless piece of sh!t. Spuddie is a million times the loyal American that you are, you co​wardly, lazy old turd.

    Now your boyfriend Donald Trump is heading for impeachment. It’s coming, so suck it up and suck hard, little Bob Arnzhole.

  • Bob Arnzhole, p!ss off with the insults, you worthless piece of sh!t.

    Now your boyfriend Donald Trump is heading for impeachment, no matter how often you’ve bent over for him. It’s coming inevitably now, so suck it up and suck hard now, little Bob Arnzhole.

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