Are We Getting Enough Religion With Our Politics?

The Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project has a new survey out about the role of religion in politics (among other things), and the headline is that there has been something of an increase in the desire for religion to take a more active political role. So what would that look like?

The survey only asks a few questions about that topic in particular, but here are the results:

Not surprisingly, it's the religious group that already has the most political power as at least something of a bloc—white evangelical Christians—that is the most eager for more religious involvement on all these scores. But even they oppose church endorsements of candidates (by 54-42), which suggests that the idea of churches becoming real partisan players causes some discomfort.

But let's be realistic: we have that already, on both the right and the left. Lots of evangelical churches function as a locus of organizing for the GOP at election time, just as black churches do for Democrats. The rule against explicit endorsement of candidates is like the brown paper bag covering your can of beer—it's not that anybody doesn't know what's in there, it's just that we've all agreed to maintain the fiction.

On candidates talking about their faith and prayer (which 68 percent of evangelicals say there isn't enough of), I actually don't have a problem with it on an individual level, much as I might bristle at the endless Prayer Breakfasts. The reason politicians don't do it more isn't because there's some kind of stigma associated with proclaiming your piety, because there isn't. They don't do it more because they know it comes off as exclusionary. If you ran a campaign under the slogan, "John Smith: Because we need more Baptists in the Senate," everyone who wasn't a Baptist would think you won't care about them and their concerns, and that isn't something too many candidates want to risk.

Politicians don't want to draw those stark lines, which is why there are only a few (who come from homogeneous districts) who talk publicly in religious specifics, like mentioning "Jesus" as opposed to just "God." Likewise, they want the churches' help, but they could probably do without direct church endorsements, because then it would look like they're the candidate of one particular sect.

Which is to say that even if lots of voters express the opinion that they'd like to see more religious involvement in partisan politics, what they have right now is probably all they're going to get. And that's plenty.