Speakers discuss influence of religion on politics
The CEO of a nonpartisan institute on faith & public life was joined Oct. 10 by an Elon professor to share insights as the elections approach.
Does the pulpit create the partisan, or do voters tend to find churches with congregations that share their political views? How will issues like abortion and same-sex marriage influence the election next month?
And do Americans really believe religion is under attack in contemporary society?
Those questions and more were explored Oct. 10 by a leading national expert on the intersection of faith and politics, who was joined onstage in Whitley Auditorium by an Elon University faculty member whose research interests examine similar topics. The program, “Religion and Politics 2012: National and State Perspectives on the Role of Religion in the Presidential Election,” unfolded over 90 minutes before a full house.
Associate Professor Lynn Huber moderated an evening that featured Robert Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., and Assistant Professor Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon University Poll.
Jones discussed a recent national survey by Pew that showed the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is nearly 20 percent of the population, and that the number of self-identified evangelicals and mainline Protestants have fallen below 50 percent of the population for the first time in history. And Jones pointed out that the economy, health care and other issues top social issues in influencing voter decisions.
“If you look at the two hot-button issues, abortion and same sex marriage … only 1 in 20 Americans are saying in this election, ‘These are the most important things driving my vote,’” Jones said.
Jones is the founding CEO of PRRI and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life. He is the author of two books and writes the weekly “Figuring Faith” column at the Washington Post’s On Faith section. He served for six years on the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics Section at the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board for the journal “Politics and Religion,” a journal of the American Political Science Association.
His official biography also notes his active membership in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Society of Christian Ethics, and the American Association of Public Opinion Research. Jones earned his doctorate in religion from Emory University, where he specialized in sociology of religion, politics, and religious ethics.
Nor do a majority of people believe their faith is threatened by government. Jones discussed the public controversy over the contraception mandate initially imposed by the Obama administration on all insurance plans as part of the health care reform act he signed into law. The administration soon amended its requirements - allowing religious organizations to opt out of that clause - but certain faith leaders continue to cite it as a threat to freedom of religion.
It does not appear to be having an effect on the American psyche, Jones said. Leaders might be better off citing the removal of holiday displays on public land or prohibition of reciting prayers in school or at government meetings.
“Most Americans actually do not think religious liberty is under attack in America today,” he said. “And really what Americans (who do) mostly have in mind ... are older arguments about removing religion from the public square.”
Husser’s formal remarks followed Jones’s presentation and led his comments by talking about the recent narrowing of the polls in the presidential contest between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“We normally do see convergence toward the end of presidential elections. This is no real surprise,” Husser said. “Oftentimes a challenger converges toward the end and gets closer to the incumbent.”
In addition to his interest in religion and politics, Husser also researches American political behavior and survey methodology. The native of south Louisiana arrived at Elon University this fall after completing his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 2012.
Husser countered the popular notion that the relationship between faith and candidate preferences is “one way.” While religious beliefs can certainly influence how voters behave in the voting booth, he said, it’s just as likely that Americans with particular political beliefs will look for churches that have members with similar attitudes.
Churches are social organizations, Husser said, and perhaps that’s partly why a growing number of self-identified Democrats in national surveys say they no longer attend a particular church - not because they disagree with religious teachings, but because they feel they don’t belong in places where so many more people think differently.
That makes it hard to swallow when both Congress and the American public are more deeply divided than at any point since the Civil War.
“People have political preferences, they watch political television shows, talk about politics with friends and family, then carry that into a congregation,” Husser said. “If the congregation is not aligned with those preferences, they tend to leave.”
The program was sponsored by the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society.