Tag Archives: evangelicals

Decline in Religious Affiliation Favors Democrats

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The saying goes that in politics demographics is destiny, meaning that the sectors of the voting public you appeal to will determine the outcome.

There has been a lot of analysis about how Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans were doomed in this election because they lost Hispanics, women and other subgroups.

I’m not convinced by the “demographics is destiny” argument. I think if an old white guy with the charm and political skills of Ronald Reagan came along, demographics would get swamped by popularity. But looking at how people voted along religious lines does yield some interesting trends.

The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life (http://www.pewforum.org) has the best overall analysis of how the faithful voted. According to Pew, things did not change much in 2012 from the last few elections: “traditionally Republican groups such as white evangelicals and weekly churchgoers strongly backed Romney, while traditionally Democratic groups such as black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated backed Obama by large margins.”

Obama did not do as well with almost every religious group as he did in 2008, but the declines were not significant enough to swing the election. One exception where he did better, by 3 percentage points: Hispanic Catholics.

The recriminations among white evangelicals toward Romney and the Republican Party might be summed up in an opinion piece by Mat Staver, chairman of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal advocacy organization.

Staver wrote on the web site of Charisma, a magazine aimed at Pentecostals, that the problem lay in the Republican establishment, who favored the moderate Romney, and in Romney’s refusal to discuss social issues in favor of a single-minded focus on the economy.

“While evangelical Christians represented 26 percent of the total vote in 2008 and again in 2012, the issues that matter to this voting bloc were largely ignored! This enormous voting bloc could produce positive change if it had a pro-life, pro-marriage candidate who would inspire and unify them,” Staver wrote.

Staver’s claim that some conservative Protestants stayed home in this election may be correct, but according to Pew, Romney actually polled better among white evangelicals who did vote than did John McCain in 2008.

“Romney received as much support from evangelical voters as George W. Bush did in 2004 (79%) and more support from evangelicals than McCain did in 2008 (73%),” Pew reports. So much for evangelicals’ reluctance to vote for a Mormon.

In fact, Romney’s faith – a point of contention during the primaries – mostly disappeared from the radar after it was clear he would be the nominee. Prejudice against Mormons was not the reason Romney lost.

Demographics do count for something, and a graphic from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates the religious challenge facing Republicans. Titled “The End of the White Christian Strategy,” it shows that the coalition of religious groups that voted for Romney is virtually identical to the religious makeup of Americans 65 and older. Obama’s coalition of religious groups is similar to that of Americans 18 to 29.

The challenge especially falls along the lines of the religiously unaffiliated vs. regular churchgoers. Studies have shown that the numbers of Catholics and Protestants who are most faithful are declining, while the fastest-growing group is comprised of those who claim no religious affiliation. White evangelicals were the biggest bloc in Romney’s coalition – 37 percent of his total. Religiously unaffiliated voters were Obama’s biggest bloc – 23 percent.

It’s always possible that younger voters might be swept with religious fervor as they age and migrate to the Republican Party. But as the parties are currently constituted, a key Republican component will be gone within 20 years, while the Democrats’ future looks bright.

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Abuses Shielded by Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A harrowing recent series in the Tampa Bay Times detailed how for 30 years a handful of homes for troubled youth have used a misguided exemption in Florida law to get away with all manner of abuses by using religion as a shield.

These homes have gone unregulated because of a 1984 provision that removes religious homes from state oversight and places them under what is essentially a self-regulatory body whose oversight is, to say the least, lax.

Among the abuses committed by these homes were beatings, extended isolation, shackling and sexual crimes as well. The homes have almost completely gotten away with it until now, and fortunately the Times series has forced the state to start an investigation.

The series did not give the history behind the 1984 exemption, only that it was passed due to the efforts of a handful of pastors – presumably of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion – and a powerful state legislator. Reading between the lines, my guess is that this exemption and the mess it created has to do with corporal punishment, which was beginning to be forbidden in schools and state-supervised homes about that time.

The behavioral sciences have since the 1960s discouraged corporal punishment on the grounds that it does more harm than good, and this defines a clash of values. The issue is not just about spanking. Fundamentalists, and sometimes their more moderate cousins, evangelicals, distrust the philosophy that would forbid corporal punishment.

It’s true that psychology and sociology sometimes have far-out ideas, but for conservative Protestants the distrust lies in their assumptions about the nature of human beings. The behavioral sciences tend to assume that human nature is naturally disposed toward improvement. The right techniques that lead to greater self-awareness will result in better mental health, more happiness, etc.

Protestantism traditionally has taken a more skeptical view. Protestant theology has asserted that human nature is naturally sinful and incapable of improvement on its own and that the only remedy for this is reliance upon the grace of God. Only by obedience to the will and ways of God is a human being able to find joy and ultimately salvation.

Regrettably, this theology sometimes has been twisted and exaggerated to produce a harsh, unyielding form of disciplining children that has little to do with the Bible from which it is supposedly drawn. It is overlaid with secular conservative values – independence, traditional views of gender roles, admiration for physical courage and so on.

So when psychologists say that spanking is bad for a child, it goes against the grain. It’s one more bit of evidence to fundamentalists that  the behavioral sciences embrace views that are contrary to the word of God.

In this case, they wielded political muscle to isolate themselves from  obeying the laws of the state, laws that were put in place to protect children from the excesses that some of these misguided people thought were necessary to uphold their values.

To be fair, not all evangelicals hold these views, as the Times’ Alexandra Zayas points out in one of her stories. And even officials at Southern Baptist Children’s agencies were against the exemption at the time it was proposed because of the potential for abuse.

It goes without saying that this exemption was a bad idea from the beginning. When the welfare of children is at stake, even well-intentioned people cannot be given a blank check.

Of course, if the people running these homes had paid closer attention to the teachings of Jesus, including the Golden Rule – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” – there might not have been any abuses in the first place.

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Public Money for Religious Schools? No.

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Several ill-advised proposals to amend the state constitution are on the ballot next week, and one of them would do away with Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment that forbids state money from being used for “sectarian” purposes.

“Sectarian” refers among other things to religious matters, and this proposal, Amendment 8, taps into a complicated history.

In the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants protested the practices in public schools, which reflected the prevailing Protestant ethos of the country and frequently included prayers and exhortations that had an unabashed Protestant character.

So Catholics started their own school systems, and they complained that because the alternative was forcing their children to endure Protestant indoctrination paid for by tax dollars, Catholics were entitled to public money to pay for schools that supported their own faith.

In 1875, James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House, proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have made it clear that no public money should ever be given to religious or religiously sponsored organizations. Blaine was not anti-Catholic himself, but there was strong sentiment against public funds going to Catholic schools.

Even though the amendment failed, states were quick to pick up the effort, and eventually 37 state constitutions, including Florida’s, had Blaine Amendments.

Supporters of Amendment 8 have tried to spin it different ways: that it eliminates a vestige of bigotry against Catholics; that because religious organizations cannot bid for state money they are being treated unfairly, and so on. They have also tried to say it has nothing to do with funding private religious education through vouchers, which is very hard to believe.

Times have changed, and today it is evangelicals complaining about their kids being indoctrinated with secular ideologies in public school. They’ve teamed up with Catholics, whose position has never changed, and they are salivating at the prospect of tapping state coffers to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools.

After all, private education is expensive and a voucher for the per-pupil amount the local public school would get makes St. Perpetua Catholic School or Triumph Christian Academy a lot more attractive to the parents of prospective students.

In theory, the U.S. Constitution forbids this under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers may be permissible under some circumstances. The ironclad language of the Blaine Amendment is standing in the way of Florida private school administrators, and Amendment 8 is their weapon to smash that barrier.

Contrary to the convictions of militant atheists and the ACLU, there are certain circumstances in which a partnership between the state and religious institutions is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. Where a denominational organization provides social services, they should be able to do so under contract with a modicum of guidelines about proselytizing.

But education is a very different kettle of fish. Religious groups have no rights to public money when it comes to funding private schools, precisely because religious indoctrination is part and parcel of the mission of those schools, and taxpayers should not have to pay for that.

Religious groups can complain all they want that they are being discriminated against, but one U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, there is a long legal and cultural tradition against mingling public monies with private religious education. What they call discrimination is in fact only being compelled to obey that tradition.

Some religious organizations that might otherwise legitimately be able to contract with the state are shut out under the Blaine Amendment, and that’s too bad. But if that’s the price to pay to keep religious schools’ hands out of the state till, so be it.

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Consider The Man, Not His Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Now that Mitt Romney is officially the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 could assure him the prize – he faces winds of religious prejudice. And that’s a pity.

Romney is a Mormon and some evangelical Christian leaders publicly oppose him based on his beliefs.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Internet preacher Bill Keller, the evangelical version of Ann Coulter, said, “Romney and Mormons lie when they claim to be a Christian, since the teachings of Mormonism are inconsistent with biblical Christianity.”

Keller’s remarks parallel those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said in October: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

At an ad hoc meeting last weekend at the Texas ranch of Judge Paul Pressler, a stalwart in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders looked for an alternative candidate. Romney’s faith was not mentioned, according to one report, but after prodigious prayer and three ballots, they settled on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

At a time when the American economy is at a critical point and we should be having a serious debate about Afghanistan, appropriate levels of government spending and a host of other issues, obsession with Romney’s religion is a distraction.

Just what problem do evangelicals have with Mormons? The short answer is the doctrine of the Trinity – the Christian doctrine that says God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all “of one substance.” The Mormons, part of a 19th century movement that questioned the use of ancient creeds, claim to be Christian, but believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.

Traditional Christians also reject the claim that The Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith, regarded as a prophet by Mormons, as holy scripture. And until 1890, there was that little matter of polygamy.

The U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but you can’t forbid deeply held religious prejudices that have dominated politics for decades.

However, prejudices are subject to change. Before John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Protestants said they would never vote for a Catholic. In more recent times, opposition to abortion and gay marriage have bridged the divide between evangelicals and Catholics, hence the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum, a staunch Catholic.

America has elected many presidents who, like Romney, did not believe in the Trinity. Among them were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Quakers Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Their theology was not an obstacle to their governance.

Religious creeds have a place as markers of belief, but they should not matter in evaluating presidential candidates. And indications are strong that Romney’s beliefs do not matter to most GOP voters, no matter how much some evangelicals wail and gnash their teeth.

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