Did 2012 Make Religion Less Political?

Yes, in Some Corners. But the Partisan Faithful Doubled Down.

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Hence even though the public is weary of seeing faith reduced to thinly veiled partisan politics, the UCC and other outspoken denominations hope their people have a higher tolerance than most. Perhaps some Americans love to hear the Gospel wrapped in campaign slogans. Some churches are doubling down because political activism has become part and parcel to their denominational calling cards. They’re not ready to change that.

Other religious tribes are meanwhile celebrating with new passion the non-partisan essence of their respective identities. It’s no coincidence that Mennonites, whose pacifist tradition meant they shunned voting altogether a half-century ago, were the driving force behind Election Day Communion. They’re suspicious of both parties’ willingness to fund military campaigns and glamorize war efforts. They’re also hard to pigeonhole politically as they tend to be staunchly anti-abortion, anti-violence and pro-environment. Having never cozied up to either party in the culture wars, Mennonites can now comfortably ride the current wave to depoliticize religion and take religion out of politics, all while reclaiming their distinct spiritual identity.

Or consider America’s 75 million Catholics. Like Mennonites, they don’t fit easily into either of the major political parties. One big reason: neither party reflects Catholic social teachings in a coherent way. Republicans share Catholics’ disdain for abortion; Democrats side with the church’s opposition to capital punishment; and so forth. The Catholic Church’s political independence might help restore trust in the institution as the public hungers for faith that keeps its distance from the corruptive effects of partisanship and raw power struggles.

To be sure, some Catholic leaders mixed it up in the partisan fray this year. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan openly tangled with the Obama administration over contraception and Obamacare. Nuns on the Bus fast became media darlings and heroines of the left as they offered a Catholic critique of potential cuts under a Romney-Ryan administration. And dozens of parishes took part in June and July’s Fortnight of Freedom, which some saw as a GOP-friendly effort to suggest Obama has imperiled religious liberty.

Yet for every Catholic leader who grabbed headlines by dabbling in overt partisanship, there were scores who took pains to keep a lower profile and avoid taking sides. Pastors are famously “undecided” voters as late as October, according to LifeWay Research. Religion scholars explain the phenomenon this way: being uncommitted (at least in public) keeps them from alienating as much as half their flocks. Staying out of partisan rancor might turn out to be the shrewdest politics of all – at least for religious leaders whose traditions will allow it.


G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). Check out his work at: www.gjeffreymacdonald.com and www.thievesinthetemplebook.com

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G. Jeffrey MacDonald
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