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How does Religion Affect the Political Process?
Religion has a deep and powerful influence on all aspects of the political process in America. This influence spans the entire political landscape from fund raising to influencing the legislative agenda and even to drafting the wording of legislation. Before we look at how this influence is exercised, let us first take a look at what drives those who see the world through the lens of religion.
In modern American politics, people with strong religious view see their mission as a responsibility. The Catholic Church for example put in place a social structure around the teachings of Jesus Christ. Two recent quotes from organizations that lobby on behalf of Christian views demonstrate this. George Grant, executive director Coral Ridge Ministries wrote, “Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission and a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ, and to have dominion in civil structures just as in every other aspect of life” (www.cc.org, 2005). D. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Ministries, said at a Reclaiming America for Christ conference in February 2005 that “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. As the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors in short, over every aspect and institution of human society” (www.cc.org, 2005). These strong views underlie the rise of the religious right over the past twenty five years.
The religious right is a broad union of organizations. While conducting my research I came across a list of these organizations which share the common goal of spreading the role of religion in America. The American Family Association founded by Rev Donald Wildmon, a Methodist minister, organizes and runs articles in its monthly magazine criticizing the separation of church and state. The AFA has a legal arm which attempts to influence the curriculum of public schools. Then there is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights founded by Reverend Virgil Blum. This organization publishes a monthly newsletter opposing the separation of church and state and also focuses on aid for parochial schools. Next is the Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, which is a legal aid group, founded by Jay Alan Sekulow. This group argues for the rights of students to distribute religious literature in schools. This group has joined forces with Pat Roberts and the 700 Club. The organization I found most useful in my research was the Christian Coalition founded by Pat Robertson. This powerful organization makes use of its internal revenue status by organizing to raise funds and getting people involved in politics. Most religious organizations have a 501 (c) (3) status which limits their ability to support any one party. The Christian Coalition is a strong supporter of the Republican Party and in some cases runs local party units. The Christian Coalition also supports a network of Religious Right attorneys who litigate church-state issues without fee. The Christian Coalition gets its message out through the 700 Club TV show which uses the public airways to transmit clearly partisan political messages. Others such as Focus on the Family headed by J. Dobson, is an influential group which sells books on family life but also produces books and videos to train conservative activists for local political efforts such as school board takeovers. J. Dobson is often interviewed on the Fox network, CN and NBC and his views are sought by book clubs, the University lecture circuits and other public forums. The group publishes magazines including the popular magazine Focus on the Family. Dobson also airs a syndicated radio talk show on many evangelical radio stations. These organizations are great examples of how vital this information is. Books, videos, magazines, new letters, radio talk shows, TV shows, conferences, conventions and lectures from the stage are all methods to get the message out to believers and ultimately to voters.
However the influence goes deeper than merely spreading information. These organizations are very active. Take a look at the Christian Coalition website at www.cc.org, this site is a huge engine for obtaining funding for support of various initiatives. Members can join, donate, learn what the issues are, and learn how to get involved, learn how to influence current events, for example the nomination of Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court. They assert openly “Hundreds of pro-family political leaders have been elected to local, state and federal office. Pro-family activism is changing policy and influencing decisions from school boards all the way to the US Congress, you can help by joining with us” (www.cc.org, 2005). The website describes how they influence politics with statements like “Your becoming involved means that Christian Coalition of America can distribute more voter guides and scorecards, train more activists and sway more critical votes in Congress and the states. By joining with us, you won't just sway one vote, you will impact America forever” (www.cc.org, 2005).
It’s clear their strategy is not to merely inform the masses but to direct and decide the outcome of any issue or election. The church influences the political process at every step including organizing, raising funds, communicating and getting the vote out Churches analyze which candidate best represents their congregation’s beliefs and preaches the right vote to the attendees. Religious institutes will then organize transportation and any other accommodations they can to attract and gain a following to the polls. Since Catholicism has the largest following in America is it very important the potential candidates state clearly and precisely their view points on many of the major issues such as same sex marriage, pray in public schools and abortion. The candidate with the most religious view points will then secure the majority votes. Politicians know they can get more money and contributions when they add the notion of God into their speeches.
Church’s collect money on a very regular basis, they are able to advise where political contributions can be made and who to send the money to. By allowing this information to be available voters begin to back the candidate they deem most religious or who will follow the more Christian ways.
As discussed above the use of media can be very persuading in getting the message out. Talk shows, Fox network, magazines and newspapers are used on a daily basis to keep those curious informed and to persuade those who stand in the middle.
Once the churches have got the votes they need, they make it very easy to vote. They organize volunteers to phone members of the church and let them know where the various candidates stand on issues of importance to the church. Finally they make sure people can physically get to the poll booths by providing church buses and other forms of transportation. However it is not just one way. It’s not just the Religious Right courting the Republican Party. There is an equal fervor in the Republican Party courting the support of the Religious Right. Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist, recently gave a talk at a church rally organized by the Family Research Council and spread to millions via satellite and cable. The talk was on the need to guard against activist judges who do not support the Republican beliefs.
The churches are most concerned with issues such as same sex marriage, abortion and the right to live. Under any circumstances are same sex marriages going to be supported by the churches in America. They believe it to be unhealthy, unnatural and sinful. They also argue that no one should have the right to destroy a human embryo. President Bush stated he would veto the bill if it were to pass the United States Senate. He argued the use of federal dollars to destroy life is something he does not support. Also, churches are trying to pass the “Holly Law’ banning the purchasing and selling of abortion pills. These issues vividly shows the passion Religious organizations have for key issues and the extent they are prepared to go to have their way. These issues vividly shows the passion Religious organizations have for key issues and the extent they are prepared to go to have their way.
The debate on the separation of church and state will go for centuries to come. Perhaps the greatest line ever delivered on the influence of the church on politics was spoken by the late President Kenney when he said “I do not speak for the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church does not speak for me”. Americans are together in wanting their politicians to be religious but they are split on the extent to which religion should play an integral part in politics. The most recent loss by Democratic candidate Kerry shows the power of the church in bringing out the votes in states like Ohio, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana where religion is deeply engrained in the psyche of the people. So are things going to settle down or will people further divide, what does the future hold? The demographics of America are changing with a significant and visible portion of the population of Hispanic origin and the rise of minority religions such as Islam and Buddhism. Would America allow those religions to influence politics as Christianity has done? Precedents set by today’s Religious Right will give support to the religious demands of different religions and this in turn will cause turmoil. This is precisely what happened in Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when people came to realize that it was highly dangerous to mix religion and politics. The purpose of government is to enforce law not beliefs. “Not all indicators of American society have declined. Life expectancy, standard of living and many medical advances are up (Boston, 229).”
An ideal example of the role religion plays is in 1953, Federal legislators were lobbied by religious leaders from the Knights of Columbus, as well as the Hearst Newspapers and the American Legion, who were worried that orations used by godless communists sounds similar to the Pledge of Allegiance. A bill was then introduced in the House by Republican Louis Rabaut, and in the Senate from Senator Homer Ferguson, to add the words under God to the Pledge of Allegiance. The religious right, for example, played a very big part in getting President Bush and Ronald Regan elected and the defeat of President Carter. This topic has brought about much discussion especially recently with the debate about including “God” in the pledge of allegiance. Since the Supreme Court banned nondenominational prayer in public schools in 1962 with the Engel v. Vitale decision, people who feel students should be able to pray in public school classes have been fighting to allow it once again. According to a Gallup poll conducted in July, 1999, seventy percent of Americans agree students should be allowed to say prayers out loud daily during class time, and since the United States is a democracy meaning the polls do stand for a lot why not? The rates of drug abuse and pregnancy among teens today is the highest it has ever been, so what is the government waiting for? The answer for some is that there needs to be a separation between church and state. They do agree there has been an increase in the percentages of divorce, but people against prayer in public school protest the reason for high divorce rates are due to the growth of the economy and the independence of women. The final answer by the Supreme Court is that Religious upbringing should solely rest on the parents and family not on the schools and government. Identically the debate over whether or not “God” should be included in the pledge of allegiance has raised much conflict. It was not until 1954 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower implemented the words “under god” did it begin. Those for, argue it doesn't specify a particular religion, or our nation's moral fiber has weakened ever since we took the concept of "God" out of our schools this act would leave little or no hope for the future. Those against, argue what right does the government have to impose religion? Hot button topics as these create much room for religion to play a role.
Many religious people are arguing the lack of religion is hurting the American life. Teen pregnancy and aids are on the rise however “not all indicators of American society have worsen. Life expectancy, standard of living and many medical advances are up (Boston, 229).” This debate will continue and I believe be an on going controversy.
1) www.cc.org -The Christian Coalition
Robertson, Pat. 2005
2) http://www.theocracywatch.org – Theocracy Watch is a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at CornellUniversity.
Boaker, Joan. Established 2002. Last updated March, 8 2005.
2) Why the religious right is wrong – about separation of Church and State
Boston, Robert. Copyright 1993., Prometheus Books, New York