Americans Mix Politics and Religion, Dulling Line Between Church-State

For more than a decade, conservative Christians have been making political inroads in the US - capturing seats in local school boards and influencing national elections with strong views on social issues ranging from abortion to gay rights.

Nor are they about to disappear. Today, if anything, both the intensity of conservative values and the number of politically involved Christians are rising.

These trends have contributed to a sweeping change in American society, according to a pathbreaking study released Tuesday. A majority of adults in the United States now believe that churches should be able to express political views - an attitude that is already changing the longstanding separation between church and state.

"There is a lot of religion in politics and politics in religion these days," says Andrew Kohut, who led the study by the Pew Research Center. "And there is more acceptance of it than 30 years ago."

The increase of white Evangelical Protestants is of particular political significance. Some experts refer to the phenomenon as the political mainstreaming of white Evangelicals. These individuals, many of whom eschew traditional "old-line" denominations like Methodist or Episcopal, represent 24 percent of all registered voters. That is up from 19 percent in 1987, the study finds.

"The people who do hard-core day-to-day politics in Washington have never looked in a detailed way about how the votes [of Evangelicals] stack up," notes Maureen Steinbruner, president of the Center for National Policy, a nonpartisan Washington political study group that oversaw the survey. "Now they are."

The intensity of conservative religious values among these Evangelicals is driving the change. "The conservatism of white Evangelical Protestants is clearly the most powerful force in politics today," said the study, "The Diminishing Divide ... American Churches, American Politics." "There is little indication of a coherent pattern of liberal belief associated with any major ... religious group."

In a shift, 54 percent of Americans now say churches and clergy members should "express their views on day-to-day social and political questions." Thirty years ago, in a Gallop Poll, 53 percent of Americans said politics and religion should remain separate. Not surprising, this finding troubles some groups.

"We find that Americans don't mind preachers talking about political issues," says Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington. "But there is still discomfort among parishioners about being told how to vote."

According to the study, some 1 in 7 Christians today can find political campaign materials in their churches.

So far, the Republican Party has been the main political beneficiary of the new trend. However, in an anomaly, and partly due to divisive feelings in the Republican Party over abortion and other social issues, it is not yet clear whether GOP candidate Bob Dole will pick up the lion's share of the evangelical vote in November. On June 22, Mr. Dole's more "tolerant" platform on abortion was handed a defeat in Texas, where most of Dole's Lone Star state delegates to the GOP convention in San Diego were defeated by organized religious conservatives in the party. Religious conservatives in the GOP are positioned to set a fervent tone in the convention and influence Dole's choice of a running mate.

THE rise of a conservative religious influence in politics is growing worldwide. In the past six weeks, for example, conservative and orthodox political parties in India, Israel, and Turkey, have either captured or are partly controlling their respective governments. Most advocate an end to corruption in politics, and appeal to voter's desire for security and a strong traditional identity in a time of moral decay and rapid change.

For much of the 20th century, committed Evangelicals considered participation in politics an anathema - politics was worldly, a dirty trade, and good Christians spent their time in pursuit of family, prayer, and preparation for the kingdom of heaven. Yet scholars point to a growing segment of Americans who feel isolated and troubled, "not feeling at home in the world, and looking for a place of identity and security," as one theologian put it.

Evangelical scholar David Wells of the Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Hamilton, Mass., says the melding of religion and politics is part of ongoing "culture wars" in America. "There is a search for some kind of transcendence in the political sphere."

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