Don’t Talk About That: Politics & Religion

How has politics influenced religion in America?

The history of politics and religion in America is no secret. Most of us grew up being taught, in fact, that freedom of religion was one of the very core reasons why America’s founding populations sought out the land in the first place. While a debate rages as to whether that was freedom to practice any religion VS freedom to practice a specific religion, nonetheless most can agree that religion had a strong hand in the country’s foundation.

What may not be as well known, however, is just how profoundly the history of religion and politics in America is intertwined, and how much they have influenced one another. It is interesting to note that, alongside the popular notion that it is improper to talk about the two topics in polite company. If something is so critical to the makeup of our society, shouldn’t we talk about it all the more? (Hence, this piece that you’re reading…)

I won’t pretend that this is an exhaustive list of all the ways politics and religion have influenced one another. I’ll let you do that research on your own. Books like “Jesus & John Wayne” and “Bad Faith: Race & The Religious Right” dive deeply into those waters. Swim there if you like.

For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the combustible topic of abortion.

While it will not surprise you to hear that word in the context of politics and religion, it will surely surprise you to hear the history connected to it.

In 1968, five years before Roe V Wade, Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society, led by twenty-six evangelical theologians, put out a guiding statement on the issue of abortion. It read, “Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”

In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan signed into California law the most liberal abortion bill in the country.

In 1970, the United Methodist Church General Conference worked to make abortions more accessible. In ’71, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution which said, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” They again reaffirmed that statement in 1974 and ’76, years after Roe V Wade had been decided.

In 1973, James Dobson (yes, that James Dobson) was ambivalent on the topic of abortion and stated that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being.”

While the Catholic Church has a longer history of antiabortion sentiment, the Protestant/Evangelical church has not. When Roe was decided, the justices were actually siding with the majority evangelical view in America, not against it!

In fact, it was primarily due to a Catholic effort that the Republican Party initially saw the abortion issue as a defining one for the future of their party. In 1978 in Iowa, a democratic incumbent lost a race to an outspoken antiabortionist republican. The voting districts were heavily Catholic and the catholic population had spoken out heavily against the democrat because of his abortionist views. With this upset, the wheels of the political machine were put in motion, and antiabortion became a centerpiece of the Republican Party.

Over the next several decades, major personalities in the evangelical sphere began to change their tune and toe the party line. It must be said that many of them (not all) also simultaneously found prominence in the public eye with their newfound influence in political platforms.

Just to be clear, none of this is designed to make a claim about the rightness/wrongness of abortion or which political party anyone should align with. This is just one example of how we may have wrongly believed something about the history of politics and religion. My hope is that it stirs you to consider that not all is as it seems and deserves a deeper investigation and greater consideration.

Should I vote for a certain party based on my religion?

Despite the rhetoric, political parties are not as monolithic as they seem, and the dominant platforms of those parties change more over time than we realize.

Before the Cold War era, it was the Democratic Party that was more favorable to the Christian vote. Only after combining the ideals of patriotism and godliness against the “godless evils of our communist enemies” did the majority Christian vote swing republican.

Christian scriptures are completely silent on the issues of American government and political parties, though that is not always the case from Christian pulpits. Rather than committing our votes to a particular party or any particular issues, militantly believing that one party, or one person, can be the change we need to save us and our society, we ought to allow each person the freedom to vote their conscience under the grace that a Savior already exists and we do not need to elect one.

From the mailbag:

Over the last few weeks, several readers have answered the call to share their views on politics and religion. Here are a couple of things they said:

“As a Christian, I believe that God should be the Lord in all aspects of my life, including politics and religion. In reality, I can’t say that He is in all things all the time. …As Christian Americans, we have a privilege, responsibility and a unique opportunity to create a “Caesar” or government that should or could reflect the will and teachings of Christ. In reality, we don’t always do this because we do not seek God’s will in voting or making laws. We seek our own will like we do in other aspects of our lives. We don’t want to offend someone or we don’t want to think that our view may not align with God’s.” — LH

“I think bad men corrupt both [politics & religion].” — CS

Should Christian faith influence my politics?

In short, absolutely. Any genuine faith should influence all parts of a person’s life. If you say you believe one thing, but you quickly abandon that belief in specific situations, then it may not truly be a belief.

But again it is important to realize that, like political parties, faith groups are also not a monolith. Across denominations, across demographics, across time and locations, one “religion” will have many different takes on what is and what isn’t, what is true and what is not, what is good and what is bad, and how the political machine should be involved in those issues.

For those in the Christian worldview who profess a belief against salvation by works, believes in guidance from a Holy Spirit, and claims a Savior who has already done everything necessary, grace and compassion for one another must rule the day; not which way you vote.

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Ryan Mayfield

Ryan Mayfield

Want to know what things are on my mind this week? Here’s where you can find it! Think of this like us sharing a cup of coffee and catching up on life.