Of Bishops And Ballots: Election Results Show Voters Are Weary Of Church Politicking

Political pundits are still poring over the results of last month’s election looking for deeper meaning. Here’s one lesson they shouldn’t overlook: Americans don’t want religious leaders telling them how to vote.

Consider the case of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Several bishops and priests spent the lead-up to the election promoting Republican hopeful Mitt Romney. Some bishops went so far as to issue letters warning parishioners that if they voted for candidates who support reproductive rights and marriage equality, it could put their souls in jeopardy.

The threat of eternal damnation was met with a yawn by many Cath­olics. President Barack Obama outpolled Romney 50 percent to 48 percent. In a poll issued before the election, a whopping 86 percent of Catholics said they believe they are under no obligation to follow a cleric’s instructions on how to vote.

How will the bishops react to this rebuke? Unfortunately, they will probably ignore it. That’s too bad because Americans are sending an important message to religious leaders who presume to tell their congregants how to behave in the voting booth. That message is, “Stop it.”

Not only is such activity illegal – federal law bars tax-exempt entities from intervening in elections – it’s also arrogant. All too often the bishops (and their allies in the Religious Right) obsess over a handful of social issues, chiefly legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

These religious leaders elevate their political concerns above all others. Yet many Catholics say they see other issues as equally compelling or even more important – social and economic justice, for example. Others argue that the church puts too much emphasis on political issues and needs to get back to spirituality.

No matter how they phrase it, the vast majority of Americans who hold religious views are clear about one thing: They are tired of church-based politicking. They are weary of members of the clergy who smugly believe they can issue political marching orders to their flocks. They’ve had it up to here with churches becoming cogs in some candidate’s political machine.

A slim minority of ultra-fundamentalists are ready to follow their pastors lemming-like into any political swamp. Everyone else has had enough. Some are doing more than just ignoring the clerics’ advice; they’re voting with their feet and their wallets.

The bishops can react to this in one of two ways: They can adjust to this reality and stop behaving like a political action committee or they can dig in and insist that everyone sitting in the pews must listen to them on all matters, political as well as spiritual.

The bishops will probably choose the latter course. That is a shame. The results of Nov. 6 indicate that their flock is trying to tell the hierarchy something. If only they would listen.