- Deseret News - Friday, October 24, 2014

When Arlene Nehring tells the story of Democrats and Republicans gathering for a book discussion at her church, it’s hard not to anticipate a punchline given the longstanding tension between America’s two main political parties.

But at Eden United Church of Christ in Hayward, California, the political differences were put aside at that meeting more than 3 years ago in favor of united action, paving the way for church-wide involvement in campaign season this fall.

Ms. Nehring, pastor of Eden Church, describes her community’s extensive work this year in support of ballot measure L as a natural extension of its commitment to educational opportunities for local children. The bond initiative would allocate $229 million to school improvement projects in the area.

However, committing time and energy toward registering community members to vote, distributing voter literacy materials and hosting school board candidate forums would not suit every church. Ms. Nehring’s advice for any house of worship getting involved in the political process: proceeding carefully and prayerfully.

“[A church] should spend some time in biblical study and prayerful discernment about its vocation,” because each faith community has different assets, she said. “What each can bring to the table is different.”

The relationship between churches and politics is difficult to navigate is cited by Pew Research Center in 2012 as one reason many Americans have fled organized religion. But new research released by Pew in September showed a surge in support for churches speaking out on ballot issues, a development that encourages faith communities to incorporate political activities into their work.

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committeeman and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said although it may be hard to strike the right balance of campaign involvement in faith communities, such activities are an important part of a church’s work in the world.

“Even though a church’s mission is not to pursue a political agenda, pastors certainly have a responsibility to keep people educated on the issues and get people involved,” he said.

Support political expression

In its 2012 study on the rise of religious nones — men and women who do not affiliate with any religion — the Pew center reported that 67 percent of the group agreed that churches and other religious organizations are too involved in politics. That belief, coupled with other concerns about money, power and strict doctrines, drove Americans away from church involvement, Pew explained.

However, frustration with political gridlock in Washington, D.C., likely shifted people’s perception of the role of the church in politics, said Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington office of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries.

“As people saw corporate businesses and wealthy individuals pumping more and more money into campaigns around a very narrow set of self-interests,” they began to seek a “common-good” approach, she said. Faith communities have emerged as one solution to chaotic campaign seasons, “promoting the common good and the interests of the whole community.”

The Pew center’s latest research on the role religion plays in society, released last month, bolsters Ms. Sorensen’s conclusion, showing increased support for church involvement in politics among religious groups and individuals in both political parties.

“The public is now evenly divided on the question of whether churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions: 49 percent say they should do this, while 48 percent say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters,” Pew researchers reported. Calls for churches to be vocal about their beliefs were up 5 percent from 2010.

Increased support was most pronounced in Republican and religious subgroups. From 2010 to 2014, Republicans or voters who lean Republican jumped 11 points to 59 percent approval of churches sharing their political views. At 54 percent in 2014, support among the religiously affiliated increased 9 points over four years.

Even Democrats and voters who lean Democrat are growing more supportive of church involvement in politics. The group’s approval rate increased two points to 42 percent.

Although support for church involvement among the religiously unaffiliated went unchanged at 32 percent from 2010 to 2014, the group did jump 8 points to 23 percent approval for church endorsements of political candidates, an activity that is illegal under IRS regulations for non-profit organizations.

Inconsistent church involvement

Since getting hooked on the Nixon-Kennedy debates in his youth, RNC member Scheffler has “loved politics with a passion,” volunteering for political campaigns and then working full time for presidential candidates in the 1980s and 1990s, always with an eye to incorporating his faith into his work.

In his current position with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Mr. Scheffler witnesses firsthand the hesitation many church leaders feel to comment on political issues, whether out of compliance with IRS regulations or out of fear that political debates would lead to congregational conflict. Some churches refuse to hand out his organization’s voter guides, even though they’ve been carefully vetted for violations.

Research on American churches seems to confirm Mr. Scheffler’s anecdotal evidence. Duke University’s National Congregations Study, which has national church survey data for 1998, 2006 to 2007 and 2012, reports low levels of church involvement in politics.

In the study’s 2012 update, uncontroversial initiatives like encouraging voter registration or holding “get out the vote” drives were somewhat more popular than more emotionally charged group discussions about politics or inviting an elected government official to speak, but still only happening in fewer than 20 percent of congregations.

In 2012, 11.1 percent of congregations worked to register church members to vote, compared with 17.8 percent in 2006-07. Nearly 20 percent led “get out the vote” programs, which represented a 3 percent drop from six years before.

These low levels of engagement continue in spite of concerted faith outreach by a majority of candidates. For example, President Obama had an entire team dedicated to faith-based communities during his 2012 re-election campaign.

Christopher Hale, who helped run Mr. Obama’s Catholic outreach, said he empowered lay Catholics to apply the religion’s social teachings to the realm of politics, which he considered an important part of church’s role during the election process.

“Christians are called to get caught up in the grittiness of public life,” said Mr. Hale, who is now a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

Several prominent American religious denominations also have established channels through which they encourage member churches to engage with politics.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an assembly of the top American leaders in Mr. Hale’s Roman Catholic faith, provides a variety of resources through its “Faithful Citizenship” program. Catholic dioceses depend, in large part, on bishops and trained community members to organize political efforts in individual parishes.

Other denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, rely on written and spoken engagement with political issues at the national level to inspire action among everyday believers. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention regularly publishes dispatches about debates happening in the public square.

Empowering faith communities

Through her work with the United Church of Christ’s “Our Faith Our Vote” program, Mr. Sorensen seeks to increase church engagement in politics by providing examples of non-partisan initiatives and resources that outline what churches and clergy can and cannot do during election season.

Although aware of the potential pitfalls of politicizing a church community, Sorensen believes that religious leaders have a responsibility to speak up about political issues, provided that they keep dialogue civil and allow all voices to be heard.

“For faith communities, our role is to be a prophetic voice that’s not beholden to a particular party or candidate,” she said.

Ms. Sorensen’s advises that discussions of politicized topics focus on the believers’ personal stories rather than ideological positions.

“I think when people come to a conversation sharing their stories, it’s much less likely to become adversarial or heated. You can’t really disagree with a story,” she said.

Nehring’s experience supports Sorensen’s claim. The members’ commitment to increasing community awareness of ballot measure L began with personal experiences on the local Parent Teacher Associations and volunteering to tutor kids after school.

Ongoing formal and informal discussions around the community’s need for a bigger school building enabled the church to gradually become one of the city’s most vocal supporters of the bond initiative.

Eden United Church of Christ’s level of political engagement this fall wouldn’t work for every church, Ms. Nehring said. But she feels strongly about the need for religious leaders to commit to finding personalized ways to get involved.

In communities across America, “churches have the power to convene people in a way that no one else can,” she said. And after careful discernment, they can use that power to bring faith to bear on political issues.

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