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Pew Survey: Nearly Half of Americans Now Say Religious Leaders Should Express Views on Social, Political Issues

The Rev. Sam Rodriguez’s sermon about David and Goliath on Sunday included a modern-day connection: “I talked about how we’re confronting giants we’ve never confronted before, not only in the Middle East, but in America, where there is a great intolerance emerging against Christians,” he said. NA-CC831A_RELIG_G_20140922211508Rev. Rodriguez, who heads a national organization of Hispanic evangelicals and is outspoken on political issues including immigration policy and gay marriage, may be giving his Sacramento, Calif., congregation exactly what more Americans want. According to a Pew Research Center study released Monday, a growing number of Americans support religious leaders weighing in on social and political matters. The survey, conducted the first week of September, showed 49% of those polled said they support churches and other houses of worship expressing views on political and social questions—up from 40% in 2012. That still leaves the nation divided: 48% said churches “should keep out” of politics. The study, which polled 2,002 people aged 18 years or older from all 50 states, suggests a reversal of a decline in support for church intervention. It comes as the nation heads into midterm elections and the early phases of a presidential campaign, and at a time of friction between church and state. Religious groups say their freedoms are under threat by societal shifts, such as the federal health-care overhaul and same-sex marriage. Protestants and Catholics alike have fought the Obama administration over the part of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to cover contraception in workers’ health-care plans. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that private companies could invoke religious beliefs to avoid offering contraceptive coverage. Many religious leaders—including U.S. Catholics such as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley —have become prominent voices for changes to immigration law, and have advocated for the rights of recent waves of migrants coming across the southern border, many of whom are fleeing violence in Latin America. The study also reveals dueling pressures facing Republicans from within their own party. Members surveyed appear split on whether the party is too conservative or too liberal on issues such as abortion, immigration and same-sex marriage. “There are very monumental religious liberty concerns, and marriage culture is shifting. We need to be able to speak with kindness and conviction at the same time,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Moore on Sunday hosted a meeting for pastors in Tennessee on support for a ballot proposal that stipulates nothing in the state constitution “secures or protects a right to abortion” and would allow the state to enact abortion restrictions. Mr. Moore and other evangelical leaders have been meeting with potential Republican presidential candidates and said issues around same-sex marriage, abortion and religious freedom “are going to be of primary importance” to evangelicals in upcoming elections. Overall, more Americans believe religious leaders should endorse political candidates—up to 32% from 24% in 2010, Pew said. But most—63%—still believe churches shouldn’t back them. Religious leaders aren’t permitted to endorse candidates from the pulpit; they risk losing their group’s tax-exempt status if they do. But they can discuss social and political issues, and participate in more-direct political speech through outside groups and political-action committees. Many churches are challenging the constraint with an annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” launched in 2008 by Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona group, to encourage leaders around the country to “preach an election sermon.” This year’s event is planned for Oct. 5. Since 2006, Pew had found falling support for religion in politics. “To see those trends reverse is striking,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. One reason could be that a growing majority—72%, according to the study—say religion is losing its influence in U.S. life, Mr. Smith said, “and they see that as a bad thing.” “It could be that as religion’s influence is seen as waning, the appetite for it moves in the other direction,” he said. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist and agnostic group working to keep government free from religion, said that while there is a growing minority who support church leaders endorsing candidates, “two-thirds of the public still understands why we’ve got this prohibition” against it. According to Pew, six in 10 Americans still want members of Congress who have strong religious beliefs—a number that hasn’t changed since 2010. Fewer Americans—30%—believe the Obama administration is friendly toward religion, down from 37% in 2010. Far more Republicans—59%—support church involvement in politics than Democrats, at only 42%, according to the study. The findings reveal a “widening divide” between Americans who identify with a religion and the rising number who aren’t affiliated with one, known as “nones.” Catholics, Protestants and other religious Americans “have become significantly more supportive of churches…speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion,” the study says. But the “nones are more likely to oppose the intermingling of politics and religion.” According to the study, 54% of those who are religiously affiliated support church expression of political views, while only 32% of religiously unaffiliated support that view. The poll also tracked a slight decline in support for same-sex marriage, which is rapidly becoming legal in more states. The survey shows 49% of Americans support permitting same-sex marriage—a five-point drop from a February Pew poll—and 41% are opposed. According to the poll, the country is nearly split on the issue of whether a wedding-related business—such as a photographer or baker—should be required to provide services to same-sex couples, despite religious beliefs. Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president for The Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, said churches and synagogues must be careful when making political stands that may risk causing divisions within the congregation. “Then you sort of lose your spiritual mission. It’s a very delicate balancing act between having one’s religious commitments inform his or her own world view but at the same time not making it truly political,” he said. The Council has taken political positions that mirror conservative orthodox beliefs—including favoring some restrictions on access to guns, and criticizing the U.S. decision to work with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. “We chose those issues very carefully,” Rabbi Dratch said. While conservative Jews are largely unified in their support for Israel, that issue has in recent months split the more liberal wings of the Jewish communities. Mr. Rodriguez, the Sacramento preacher and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, informally advised Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaign, and has voiced opinions on legislation to ban gay marriage. But he has also criticized the GOP on its stance on immigration reform. “We can’t be married to the agenda of the donkey or the elephant,” he said. “The Republican Party has a problem with communities of color, and the Democrats have a problem with communities of faith. That leaves me as an orphan, but not a silent orphan.”

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