With the 2012 election less than six months away, congregations are getting the message that Americans want religion out of politics. But that doesn’t mean they plan to keep mum in the public square. Instead, they’re revamping how congregations mobilize voters by focusing on a broader set of issues than in the past. Preachers are largely avoiding the political fray, and hot-button social issues are relegated to simmer in low-profile church study groups. Why? For one, Americans are growing impatient with religious politicking: 54% want houses of worship to keep out of politics (up from 52% in 2008 and 43% in 1996), according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Churches seem to be responding.
“The biggest change we see is a drop-off in the percentage of people saying they hear politics from the pulpit,” said David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political scientist whose Faith Matters project tracked 3,100 people over five years. “It’s been happening everywhere,” Campbell added. “People say they don’t want to hear about politics in church, and they’re actually hearing less of it.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the public is clamoring for a totally secularized public square. Some believe the backlash is against a particular type of religious activism that aligns closely with one party’s agenda or set of candidates. “When people say they want religious organizations out of politics, they mean religious organizations telling people who to vote for,” said Gordon Whitman, director of public policy for PICO, a national network of more than 1,000 faith-based organizations. “We find … lots of consensus that our religious values should inform our positions on issues.”