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Religion and Politics: A Discussion

As the election season kicks into high gear, religious leaders and groups are taking an active role in promoting issues important to them. Over the Labor Day weekend, clergy at more than 30 Missouri congregations discussed the proposed increase in the minimum wage. On September 21st at 7P-M at the Central Assembly of God church in Springfield, there will be an event that's being billed as the area's first "Christians Against Human Cloning" rally. Event organizers will discuss reasons to oppose the stem cell ballot initiative with religious leaders and the public. KSMU's Missy Shelton recently sat down with John Schmalzbauer, who is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies in the department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.

Shelton: As the election season is unfolding, in what ways is religion playing a part in politics?

Schmaltzbauer: I think religion is playing into politics in both parties which is something that's relatively recent. In the past, Republicans have tried to mobilize churches for a conservative, moral agenda. Now you see the Democrats trying to make moral arguments.

Shelton: How does the public feel about the mix of religion and politics?

Schmaltzbauer: We're an overwhelmingly religious country. Ninety percent of Americans claim a belief in some kind of supreme being. Thirty to forty percent of Americans attend a house of worship weekly. There are enough Americans that see religion playing a legitimate public role that if it's not overbearing and intolerant, there's some sympathy for some religious language. But it's tricky because I think Americans can be bothered by certain forms of faith in the public sphere.

Shelton: For example?

Schmaltzbauer: You can see in Missouri an issue like stem cell research, the governor who tries to attract religious conservatives has taken a more moderate position on stem cell...and I'm not trying to make any moral arguments here...but from a political strategy stand point, there are probably more voters even in Republicans ranks that may go with him on that. If Matt Blunt say were to be more aggressive on some issues he might turn off some swing voters. It's very hard to say though.

Shelton: Later this month, there's the rally against the stem cell ballot proposal and it's targeting ministers and Christians. Over Labor Day weekend, we had a number of religious leaders who spoke in support from the pulpit, so to speak about raising the minimum wage, an issue that will be on the November ballot. Is it surprising that you're seeing religious leaders on both sides taking an active role in politics?

Schmaltzbauer: I think what's more surprising is the emergence of a group of liberal/progressive clergy on the minimum wage issue because that's been dormant. In the 60's, all the great social movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War movement had a religious component but this minimum wage thing is a sort of a resurrection of progressive religious political involvement. The stem cell opposition from Christian conservatives is not all that surprising because it's been going on for quite some time and is much larger than the progressives on the minimum wage.

Shelton: Why is that?

Schmaltzbauer: For one thing, they tend to be based in denominations and congregations that confer a little bit stronger sense of religious identity. A lot of the more progressive movements are stronger in denominations and congregations that are trying to figure out how to generate high levels of commitment. Certainly, the people are committed in those denominations are committed but there are a lot of people who have dropped out of the so-called mainline protestant churches. Even the Catholic church, which tends to be more progressive on some issues and more conservative on others has had trouble holding on to young people sometimes.

Shelton: How well does the public sense the sincerity of a politician who is using religious references or religious speech?

Schmaltzbauer: I think that insincere people don't do it very well. Among democrats, John Edwards sounds a lot more sincere than Howard Dean did who said his favorite book of the Bible in the New Testament was the book of Job, which is not in the New Testament. So it was obvious that was kind of inauthentic. Whereas if people can speak the language...Bill Clinton was very good at speaking the language of American Evangelical Protestants even though a lot of evangelicals didn't like him. In fact, he was more "Jesus Talk" than George Bush according to people who try to count these things.

Shelton: So, when we're looking at religious leaders who are talking about political issues or candidates, just how far can they or should they go in expressing their support or opposition?

Schmaltzbauer: Legally, the churches can do an awful lot just short of endorsing candidates from the pulpit. That's a no-no in terms of the Federal Election Commission. Being a moral advocate on issues is certainly a first amendment right of churches and so as long as they're careful not to say "Candidate X is the candidate that all good Methodists should support." I think they're ok. Now, where is the appropriate line between church and state in our society? I think that issue is very much in play and the answer depends on who you're talking to.

Shelton: From an academic standpoint, is the infusion of politics and political issues into religion and religious services healthy for religion?

Schmaltzbauer: Yeah, I guess healthy is in the eye of the beholder. Some scholars who would argue that over politicizing things kind of transforms the religion into a political party. Or the group becomes so concerned with winning, demonizing enemies, win at all costs...I don't think it has to be that way. I think there's a way for churches to speak out on moral and ethical issues from both sides of the political spectrum, and from synagogues and mosques and Buddhist temples as well without subverting their religious missions.

Shelton: We've been talking about religion and politics...but what about people who aren't religious. What do they make of politicians using religious language?

Schmaltzbauer: It could be kind of something for people to be concerned about, fearful of but I think folks who are not religiously involved should take the time to acquaint themselves with the diversity of religion in America and American politics. Not all religious voices in politics are the same. I think you see interesting coalitions sometimes between secular folks and religious people and they don't always have to be at odds.

Shelton: I've been speaking with John Schmaltzbauer about religion and politics. He's the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies in the department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.