A Pox On Pulpit Politics: Americans Again Say No To Politicized Houses Of Worship

It’s a no-brainer: People attend houses of worship for spiritual reasons.

A recent survey by the Pew Forum indicated that the number of Americans who falsely believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim has actually increased since his election. That astounding and dismaying finding has understandably captured a lot of headlines.

In fact, it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to bang your head against the wall in frustration. But before you do too much of that, it’s worth taking a look at the rest of the survey. There is some interesting and positive news buried within.

This nugget caught my eye: “The survey also finds that Americans continue to overwhelmingly oppose churches and houses of worship endorsing specific candidates for public office. Fully 70% say churches should not come out in favor of candidates during political elections while just a quarter (24%) supports such endorsements. These opinions have changed little in recent years. More than half of every major religious group opposes such endorsements.”

As far as I can tell, 70 percent is the highest this number has been since Pew began asking this question about a decade ago. It’s certainly compelling evidence that the American people overwhelmingly reject the Religious Right’s scheme to politicize churches.

Americans are also growing uncomfortable with houses of worship that spend too much time addressing social and political issues. A majority, 52 percent, now says houses of worship should keep out of political matters; 43 percent disagree.

Interestingly, these results aren’t coming about because Americans are growing hostile to religion. Elsewhere in the survey, majorities express the belief that elected officials should be religious. And Americans are generally comfortable with candidates who talk about religion.

Asked about religious expression by political leaders, 37 percent say there has been too little, while 24 percent said the amount is right. (Twenty-nine percent say there is too much.)

So what’s going on here?

You don’t have to be a sociologist or an expert on religious belief to understand why people attend houses of worship: to engage in spiritual activities and enjoy fellowship with like-minded believers. People want to get closer to God (and they are increasingly defining that term in many different ways).

Few Americans go to a church to get a list of candidate endorsements. In fact, the constant harping about partisan politics that emanates from some right-wing pulpits only serves to put barriers between congregants and God. All too often, the message sent is that you aren’t a good believer, or you won’t get close to God, unless you vote for candidate X.

(I am reminded of Chan Chandler, a North Carolina pastor who in 2005 told church members who had voted for John Kerry to resign. Many congregants – including some who hadn’t voted for Kerry – were outraged, and Chandler ended up losing his job.)

The people in the pews know why pulpit politicking is divisive and unhealthy for churches. More and more of them are rejecting it.

It’s a no-brainer: People attend houses of worship for spiritual reasons. They’re happy to leave the often-sordid world of politics to the smoke-filled rooms of paid consultants, attack-ad creators, opposition researchers and their operatives.

Are you listening, Alliance Defense Fund?