Religion and politics: how much mixing do Americans want?

Author:Boston, Rob

A recent poll by the Pew Forum on the issue of religion and politics sparked headlines that, at first glance, seemed alarming. "Americans want more politics with their preaching," one newspaper blared.

Well, yes and no. Americans have always had a pretty high tolerance for religious leaders addressing political issues. That's nothing new. In this poll 49 percent of respondents said churches should express their views on politics, while 48 percent said houses of worship should keep out of politics.

Pew made a big deal out of the fact that the number of people who favor churches speaking out on political issues jumped six points since the last time they asked about it. The poll also saw a slight uptick in the number of people who favor allowing churches to endorse candidates, although opposition to that still tops 60 percent.

Pew is a respected organization that does solid research in this area. But all pollsters, no matter how conscientious, face certain problems when questioning people over the telephone, because people naturally bring their own biases and preconceptions to bear. The idea of a church bringing its voice into politics sounds non-threatening to many because they put that experience through their own filter. They like the views of the church they are most familiar with, so political engagement sounds like a good idea.

A gun enthusiast who hears his conservative pastor talk favorably about Second Amendment rights will smile and nod. If the pastor were to suddenly demand gun control, that same congregant would likely mutter, "He should stick to talking about prayer and Jesus!"

In other words, people are capable of telling a pollster one thing while behaving quite differently in real life.

Remember, were talking here about houses of worship addressing political issues, and there's a long history of that in the United States. Progressive houses of worship spoke out against Jim Crow laws in the 1960s, and it's not uncommon today to hear liberal religious leaders address issues like immigration reform, gun control, and so forth. On the conservative side, we often hear churches speak out against legal abortion and marriage equality. Frankly, I'm surprised that nearly half the population opposes houses of worship speaking out in the area of political issues. That's quite high for a country steeped in religion.

Do the people who think churches should stick to preaching really mean they favor no political activity by houses of worship at...

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