People of faith have played a longtime role in encouraging civic participation

Written by William C. Duncan

November 4, 2022

With Halloween now past, skeletons and gravestones will start disappearing from our neighborhoods, but a spooky atmosphere is still here … because it’s still election season. Jack-o’-lanterns are gone, but political mailers with the disfavored candidate’s face in lurid lighting – and commercials predicting scary outcomes – haunt us yet.

While politics can be frightening, broad participation in elections and voting is a sign of civic health.

A recent survey by Pew looked at one aspect of that participation: the influence of religious groups and people of faith.

A significant majority of respondents (67%) said churches should stay out of political matters. What does that mean? Some hearing that question might assume this reflects opposition to churches endorsing political candidates. That question, however, was asked separately. Direct endorsements are prohibited by law and 77% of survey respondents opposed these endorsements. Presumably, if respondents believed involvement in political matters and specific endorsements were the same, their answers would have been the same.

Perhaps it means that respondents believe that churches should not speak about policies and issues that are considered political. If so, that view might be shortsighted.

Historically, religious groups and people have faith have played an important role in securing broader voting rights. They were prominent in the movement to secure women’s suffrage. One of the most important milestones in the effort to secure “equal voting rights” in the face of “policies – such as literacy tests, poll taxes, English-language requirements, and more – aimed at suppressing the vote among people of color, immigrants and low-income populations” were the protest marches from Selma to Birmingham, Ala., led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. These protests led to the Voting Rights Act enacted later that year.

When Martin Luther King III spoke at BYU in 2021, he encouraged greater emphasis on civic responsibility, including voting: “Being taken seriously as an adult means that you take your love for your fellow citizens and your love for America to the ballot box, where it counts.”

Religious groups play an important role in encouraging civic participation, including voting. As the title of an article published by Rice University noted: “The Black Church has been getting ‘souls to the polls’ for more than 60 years.” Other religious organizations, like the Sikh Coalition and the Episcopal Church, provide examples of recent nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts.

Religious schools, in particular, seem to promote civic involvement. Of students who attended public, private and private religious schools, those in the latter reported the most involvement in political organizations. Students from private religious universities were significantly more likely than students in public universities to believe they had a moral obligation to participate in the political process.

We all benefit when diverse voices are included in the public discussion. One benefit could be a greater involvement of a wider proportion of the nation’s citizens in civic affairs, including by voting.

Of course, some people will disagree with specific moral issues on which religious groups and people of faith take a stand. This was also true in the past, when religiously motivated abolitionists and opponents of eugenics were criticized. It is OK to disagree with religious people on issues, but – as history demonstrates – to categorically dismiss their viewpoint because of its religious motivation is detrimental.

It could also be dangerous to everyone’s freedom. To borrow the logic of Abraham Lincoln regarding arguments in favor of American slavery, the same arguments being used in attempts to silence religious voices in the public square (e.g., they promote hate and harm others) can become the basis for silencing other voices as well. If opponents of religious viewpoints are successful in suppressing them, they may be planting the seeds for their own suppression at some point in the future.

In the Pew survey on religion and politics noted above, another potential response to the question of whether churches should “keep out of political matters” was: Churches should “express views on day-to-day social/political questions.” That view was not as popular, but it more accurately reflects what churches have done in the past, leading to results that have benefited all Americans.

It is ironic that some of the most important actors in securing and supporting voting rights are now seen by many as disqualified to speak to civic issues with moral and religious implications. Our nation’s experience shows that this viewpoint is misguided. Religious groups and people of faith have an appropriate and vital role in securing civic health.

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