Do Americans Disagree When Church Leaders Mix Religion, Politics?

The majority of Americans disapprove of their religious leaders getting involved in politics, reveals data collected from the General Social Survey. And according to one professor, the disapproval has only grown over the past two decades.

"The percent of people who say they strongly agree that religious leaders should not do those things really went up quite dramatically,” said Duke University Sociology and Religion Professor and American Religion author Mark Chaves to The Christian Post.

"Three times since 1991 – once in 1991, once in 1998 and most recently in 2000 – [the General Social Surveys] ask whether they (respondents) agree or disagree with two different statements. One of them is 'Religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote in elections' and the other one is 'Religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions,'" he described.

In 1991, 30 percent of respondents said they strongly agree that religious leaders should not influence voters in an election. In 2008, that number rose to 44 percent, he said. Combine that with those who simply agreed with the statement, Chaves says the survey shows a solid majority of Americans (73 percent) agree that religious leaders should not influence elections.

"It's a clear trend in the direction of disapproval of religious leader involvement in politics," he concluded.

But Southern Baptist ethicist Dr. Richard Land says survey data in the recently published American Religion: Contemporary Trends are too vague to accurately suggest Americans do not want religion mixed into their politics. Land also says evangelicals are growing in number despite the book's claims of the declining religious base for the Tea Party and the religious right.

Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, noted, "There's no definition for 'religious leaders,' there's no definition for 'involved,' there's no definition for 'politics.' So people are left to their own interpretation, which basically makes the survey rather meaningless."

Land, who is also executive editor of The Christian Post, says most people would likely interpret the statements to mean they want their pastors, elders, priests and church leaders to endorse political candidates or get involved in campaigns.

"I don't think that religious leaders ought to do that," he said.

However, Land does believe that “religious leaders ought to deal with what the Bible has to say with public policy issues, and we should be looking for candidates who endorse us."

Chaves acknowledged the data leaves respondents to rely on their own interpretations of a "religious leader."

However, he stands by what he believes is a growing disapproval of religious involvement in politics and says he personally believes that this growing disapproval is the reason why the public is lashing out at the Tea Party.

Just last week, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) remarked at a Los Angeles town hall, "The Tea Party can go straight to hell."

Nearly a third of the grassroots conservative movement identify themselves as evangelicals, a Public Opinion Strategies survey found, and are prone to gravitate to candidates who esteem religious values as part of their political platform.

"It is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose," David Campbell and Robert Putnam, professors and authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, asserted in an August 16 editorial.

Campbell and Putnam noted that the Tea Party ranks lower in a New York Times/CBS public opinion poll than often maligned groups atheists and Muslims.

Twenty percent have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party while 40 percent hold a negative opinion of the group.

Chaves also notes in his book that American religiosity is in a state of slow decline. He says the proportion of Americans who believe in God or a higher power has dropped from 99 percent in the 1950s to 93 percent in 2008.

Land admits the membership among the Mainline Protestant churches is declining, but asserts that evangelical membership is growing.

"If you look at the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals and born-again Christians, then according to [pollster the Barna Group] it's going up," he cited. "In the early 1980s it was 31 percent; now ... 45 percent of adult Americans [claim] to be born-again Christians."

Both Chaves and Land agree that America is still a very religious nation compared to Europe, Canada and Australia.

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