Churches don’t just follow the opinions and actions of their followers on political issues, they can shape them as well.
Despite the separation of church and state in the American Constitution, American religious institutions and movements are often active in politics. But do they follow the existing opinions and actions of their followers or do they influence them? Using data from national surveys, André P. Audette and Christophe L. Weaver see that churches engage their faithful politically; at least 50 percent of worshipers engage in at least one form of political activity, such as attending a rally or registering voters, and a substantial number have also heard sermons dealing with political issues such as voting, the Black movement Lives Matter and abortion.
- On June 15, 2021, LSE Religion and Global Society (RGS), in collaboration with the American Center and the Department of International Relations, hosted an LSE public conference, Religious freedom under the Biden administration. Alongside this event, RGS and the Central United States USAPP Blog launched a joint series focusing on Religion in American Society, bringing together experts to explore the relationship that different faith groups have with American society. Read the other articles in this series.
Despite the apparent separation of church and state in the United States under the First Amendment to the Constitution, religious movements have long been very active in American politics. Over the past few decades, white evangelical Protestants have become heavily involved in political activism for conservative causes and candidates. While evangelicals were first mobilized around supposedly religious social issues, evangelical conservatism now extends to a much wider range of issues, including national security, immigration and taxation. This same extends resistance to COVID-19 countermeasures. White Evangelical Republicans are even more likely to refuse vaccination than even other Republicans. As an even more extreme example, observers also noted the number of Christians who participated in the attack on the United States Capitol in 2021.
Less clear, however, is the specific role of churches in this political activity. In the above example of COVID-19 political attitudes, some churches have made headlines for their closing resistance, push for reopening, and opposition to preventive measures. In addition, many faithful and conservative leaders support this resistance. As advocates of COVID-19 countermeasures push organizations and community leaders to encourage their members to comply, it raises the question of whether churches shape members’ opinions and actions on politicized issues. Are such churches herding their flocks and pushing their members to take more skeptical positions towards COVID-19 and countermeasures such as vaccines and mask warrants? Alternatively, do the shepherds follow their flocks and simply respond to the views of their devotees and adopt policies that they believe will attract or keep these members?
How do churches rule the political views of their followers?
Analyzing the details of this dynamic has been one of the main subjects of study in the field of religion and politics. Indeed, we have already argued that churches can engage in politics at least partially as a means of attracting politically interested worshipers into a declining religious market. Nevertheless, there is also good reason to believe that churches actively influence the behavior of members rather than simply responding to their preferences. Churches have the potential to influence both the actions of their faithful and their opinions: churches could lead their faithful directly in political action, but they can also inform the political opinions of their faithful via pulpit messages.
To help explore these questions, we use data from the most recent wave of the Study of National Congregations (NCS), who in 2018 surveyed a nationally representative sample of American churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship to gather information on the demographics and activities of these congregations from congregational leaders. A number of these possible activities are political: voter registration, participation in a march or rally, lobbying elected officials, organizing groups to discuss politics, welcoming a candidate for a speaker position and distributing guides. of the voter.
Photo through FALL CUTTER to Unsplash
As shown in Figure 1 below, a substantial number of congregations engage in each of these activities, and approximately 50 percent of all congregations engage in at least one of these activities. Voter registration is the most prevalent form of organized political activity, but almost as many congregations organize participation in marches and rallies or distribute voter guides to worshipers. In this way, churches directly mobilize their followers to take political action during or outside of elections. It should be noted that this data was collected in 2018 and therefore may not reflect the higher levels of engagement expected in a presidential election year.
Figure 1 – Frequency of political activities of the congregation
A small number of congregations also reported engaging in other types of political activity. For example, 2.4% of congregations said they publicly supported or opposed a candidate for public office. What’s more, an additional 12.8 percent said they would have publicly supported a candidate if it had not exposed them to tax risk. Regarding non-electoral political activities, 3.8 percent of congregations have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented migrants, and 10 percent have considered doing so.
Mobilize the faithful from the pulpit
In addition to directly engaging the faithful in politics through organized activities, churches can also shape the views of members in ways that inspire political action or influence the target (s) of that action. The clearest mechanism by which leaders can inform worshipers comes from the pulpit itself: according to the data collected by the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of American church sermons included explicit political messages in the months leading up to the 2020 election. Likewise, Bench data show worshipers are aware of these messages with a substantial number saying they have heard sermons regarding voting, protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, abortion or coronavirus policies. It seems that the heads of congregation use the pulpit to convey political messages and that the faithful listen.
While a certain degree of self-selection may mean that churches are “preaching to the choir” in the sense that their followers already agree with the views of congregation leaders, churches also have a significant effect on the political actions and attitudes of the faithful through a variety of mechanisms. As we have seen above, this can include direct mobilization through organized activities or messages through sermons. As such, it appears that churches have the ability to determine whether and how their followers engage in politics, and in turn these churches may also bear some responsibility for the actions of their adherents. In the data referenced above, it may be notable that 31 percent of evangelical church followers heard sermons opposing COVID-19 restrictions, as only 7 percent of evangelical Republicans overheard their clergy talk about the attack on the United States Capitol in 2021. All of this points to the conclusion that churches are indeed politicized spaces and that conversations about politics and politics should involve consideration of the role of churches as political actors.
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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
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About the authors
André P. Audette – Monmouth College
Andre P. Audette is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Monmouth College. He researches and teaches in religion and politics, law, identity politics and political behavior.
Christophe L. Weaver – Northeast State University
Christopher L. Weaver is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northeastern State University. His research and teaching focus on American political behavior and identity politics. He is particularly interested in how identity and beliefs affect political behavior and public opinion, particularly among religious and marginalized groups.