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The Influence of Religion on American Politics


By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, OCT. 4, 2007 (Zenit) - The volatile mix of religion and politics is heating up as the 2008 presidential election in the United States draws closer. Candidates are being quizzed about what will be the consequences of their beliefs, while the media and pressure groups are anxiously scrutinizing politicians and voters alike.

A book published earlier this year gives a useful background study of the relationship between faith and politics. "The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections" (Praeger), was written by John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Religion had a big impact in the 2004 presidential elections, argues Green. Members of conservative religious groups voted strongly for President George Bush. He adds, however, that the pejorative labeling of these groups as "fundamentalist" by some in the media is an unjustified oversimplification.

A 2004 survey showed that just 10.8% of the American adult population identified themselves as Protestant fundamentalists. Moreover, Green adds that a good number of these do not exhibit fundamentalist characteristics such as biblical literalism. Therefore, he puts at only 4.5% of the adult population those who could accurately be termed as fundamentalists.

Media attention tended to focus on just a few conservative Christian groups, without taking into account the full range of voters for whom religion and moral values played a part in determining how they voted.

Religion, in fact, has a long history of influencing politics in the United States. In the past, it was often linked to ethnic groups, such as the Irish Catholic involvement in big-city politics. In more recent times, many of the ethnic groups have assimilated into society, but membership of a religious denomination continues to play an important role in determining beliefs, values and voting patterns.

Active or passive?

There are also, however, divisions within religious groups, so they should not be regarded as monolithic blocs when it comes to voting, Green explained. One important factor in determining to what extent religion will influence voting patterns is the degree to which an individual is an active member of a religious group.

Thus, in terms of electoral behavior, a Catholic who is a regular Mass attendee has more in common with regular worship attendees in other religions than with less observant Catholics.

Another factor that has a strong influence in determining the extent to which religion will influence political behavior is the degree to which someone actively supports, by donating either money or time, a religious group. Whether an individual has an active prayer life is another important consideration.

Nonetheless, Green notes that religion is only one of many factors that help explain how someone votes. In reply to exit polls in the 2004 presidential elections, just under a quarter of voters did indicate that moral values were a priority for them in deciding which candidate to support. This category, however, comes only in third place, after foreign and economic policy, which people identified as priorities.

Religion will continue to be an important factor in coming years, Green predicts. Divisions over abortion, marriage and other moral values show no sign of diminishing. Moreover, political operators in both major parties are well aware of the need to mobilize religiously-oriented voters and will continue in their efforts to activate the faith vote.

Communion controversy

Within the Catholic world, a divisive issue in the religion and politics debate is how to treat Catholic politicians who are manifestly pro-abortion. A recent contribution to the question came from Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, in an essay published in Volume 96 of the canon-law journal Periodica de Re Canonica.

The article, titled "The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin," noted the differences in opinion, including among bishops themselves, over whether support for anti-life legislation should disqualify a politician from receiving Communion.

After a detailed analysis of Church teaching on the question of Communion and those in grave sin, Archbishop Burke concludes that "a person who obstinately remains in public and grievous sin is appropriately presumed by the Church to lack the interior bond of communion, the state of grace, required to approach worthily the reception of the Holy Eucharist."

A consistent public support of policies that are in grave violation of moral law, he pointed out, can indeed be classified as "gravely sinful."

The archbishop clarified, however, that denying Communion in these circumstances should not be interpreted as a penal sanction against the person, but rather it is concerned with respect for the Eucharist.

The United States, Archbishop Burke commented, is a society that "canonizes" radical individualism and relativism, thus making it very difficult to apply sanctions such as denying Communion.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, if a bishop or priest preaches Church teaching on life matters, but does nothing when a Catholic who publicly supports anti-life legislation comes to receive Communion, "then his teaching rings hollow," Archbishop Burke judged.

Too many Christians

Conflicts over religion and politics occur in many other countries, of course. In Australia, where national elections will shortly take place, Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd recently addressed, via an Internet hookup, 770 churches across the country.

After their debate, Senator Lyn Allison, the leader of the Democrats, complained that there were too many Christians active in politics, reported The Australian newspaper on Aug. 10.

On Aug. 7, the Australian bishops published a brief statement to help guide Catholics in the national elections. The document focused on a number of issues that the bishops argued are of vital concern. Subjects such as respect for life, support for the family, education, health and the environment were among those raised.

"We encourage Catholics to look beyond their own individual needs and apply a different test at the ballot box -- the test of the common good," the bishops urged.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, another country preparing for national elections, on Aug. 23 the bishops reaffirmed the validity of a statement they had issued in April. Our Catholic faith, they stated, calls us to grow in our commitments as citizens. Christians should discover their vocation in favor of the common good, they recommended.

The document called for human life and the family to be protected. Poverty and inequality, along with a need to avoid excessive divisions within society, were other points mentioned.

Our faith in the risen Christ, the bishops stated, should motivate us to renew our lives and live them according to the principles of truth, liberty, justice and solidarity.

True justice

Benedict XVI also recently addressed these matters in a speech made Sept. 21 to participants of a meeting of Centrist Democrat International.

Justice is truly human, the Pontiff affirmed, "only when the ethical and moral vision grounding it is centered on the human person and his inalienable dignity."

After referring to issues of the economy, safeguarding life and the family, the Pope warned that when truth or the family is undermined, then "peace itself is threatened and the rule of law is compromised, leading inevitably to forms of injustice and violence."

Religious liberty is another vital issue to defend, he continued. "Openness to transcendence is an indispensable guarantee of human dignity since within every human heart there are needs and desires which find their fulfillment in God alone," said the Pope.

The Church's social teaching, Benedict XVI explained, is motivated by love for humanity and a desire to contribute to a world which respects the dignity and rights of all people. An objective all can share, even though they may not agree about the best way to achieve it.

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