Religion Today

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is Religion Irrelevant to the 2012 Presidential Election?

Even before primary voting began nearly a year ago, media coverage of the presidential campaign was emphasizing religion and the role it plays in the contest for the top job. The religious views of every Republican candidate were featured and parsed, looking for clues to voter preferences. For several months, Mitt Romney’s Mormon beliefs were a visible problem for the party’s Evangelical voters, and at some moments, the primaries seemed to be a search for a candidate with a different religious identity.

Religion was less debated on the Democratic side, if only because President Obama’s record over the past four years provided so much more to discuss. Obama’s mainline Protestant identity has provided little fodder for debate this time around, even though it was featured in the 2008 election.
Since the conventions, the media interest with the candidates’ religious beliefs has continued. Time magazine’s Oct. 8 cover story featured “The Mormon Identity,” while many major news organizations used the debate between the vice-presidential candidates to discuss the Catholic beliefs of both contenders.
But, while the media have focused on the candidates’ religious character, they have missed the big story. Coming down the home stretch, the candidates' religious identities are essentially irrelevant to the voters, no matter what their own religious persuasion.
Press reports have frequently observed that Republican voters are more “fired up” this fall than Democratic voters. This observation applies even to the party’s large Evangelical block. While a recent Pew Forum survey indicates that more than 90 percent of Evangelicals are “uncomfortable” with Romney’s Mormon beliefs, they will vote for him by a margin of more than three-to-one.
Polling this year further indicates that the decades-old block of Catholic voters has disappeared. Catholics are just as divided as the electorate, as a whole, with about a third of Catholics breaking for Romney, a third going for Obama, and a third in the “undecided” middle.
For both groups, Evangelicals and Catholics, views on abortion provide a better indicator of their vote than religious identity.
In the midst of all the election coverage, an important religious story has had only a little public play. The United States no longer has a Protestant majority, even though Protestants have made up the majority since European migration began centuries ago. According to this month’s Pew survey, people identifying themselves as Protestants have dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent this year.
This is not an isolated development, but is accompanied by related trends. This year marks the first time that the Republican Party lacks a Protestant on its presidential ticket. Similarly, the Supreme Court no longer has any Protestant justices.
In part, the reason for this decline is the rise of people who are unaffiliated with any religion. Even though Catholics remain about 22 percent of the nation’s citizens, those checking “none of the above” on religious surveys now number 20 percent. And the trends indicate that the number of “nones” is growing, while the percentage of the other two religious groups is shrinking. This means that soon Catholics will only be America’s third largest religious group, behind the unaffiliated.
And how do they vote? It is unclear at this point. While there are some indications that the nones lean towards the libertarian side of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, they also are focusing more on economic matters in this election.
In the end, it turns out that roughly 40 percent of Americans do not know the religious affiliation of one or the other presidential candidates. That is a clear indication of the irrelevance of religion in this election.
Perhaps there is one exception to the unimportance of religion in this fall’s presidential election. The number of people who mistakenly believe that President Obama is a Muslim has risen from 11 percent in 2009 to 18 percent in 2010. This may be enough to impact the election. We will just have to wait and see.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

You Saw it Here First!

The Manifold Greatness Blog sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities and others has reposted two Religion Today columns which featured the King James Bible.  They can be found at the following two URLs:

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Pay to Pray, or, the Dangers of Church-State Entanglement

When you are sitting in church and the offering plate is passed, do you feel uncomfortable? Does the social pressure of your neighbors watching impel you to put in more than you planned? How do you handle the stares of those near you when you put in nothing?

More than a century ago, churches in Germany solved this problem. They don’t pass the plate anymore. Instead, the federal government deducts a payment for your church on your tax bill. It happens automatically, so you don’t have to think about it. It is invisible, so your neighbors do not see it. And, it is probably less than you would put in the offering, no more than 9 percent of your tax bill -- compared to the tithing expectation of 10 percent of your total income.
The “church tax” as it is called, goes not just to church operating budgets, but also to social services provided by the churches for all citizens, such as kindergartens, old-people’s homes, hospitals and so on.
But how should the church react when individuals stop paying the tax (it is voluntary), yet still want services the church provides, such as communion, baptism, weddings, burials and funerals and other services?
The bishops of Germany’s Catholic Church decided this would be allowing freeloaders to mooch off the payments of paid-up members. So they recently issued instructions requiring parishes to refuse to permit those who do not pay the church tax to participate in church activities.
The morality of this move has caused a great deal of debate. On the one hand, many faithful parishioners feel relieved of carrying the financial burdens of other people. On the other hand, many believers feel uneasy about restricting access to “spiritual services” (e.g., divine forgiveness and even entry to heaven) to people who pay a tax.
The right of the Catholic Church to issue such a ban was challenged in court by a retired law professor on the basis that Canon Law determined church membership according to an individual’s belief, not by their financial link to the church. The court ruled against him.
The implication of this ruling is potentially significant, for it establishes a new standard for church membership in Germany. More importantly, from the viewpoint of church-state relations, the decision about membership was made by a secular court, not by a church body.
Not only did the court’s actions establish jurisdiction over matters of church membership (i.e., indicating it had the authority to decided membership questions for the Catholic Church), but its very decision ruled that belief was not the primary factor in determining membership. The secular act of tax payment trumped all.
Of course, the bishops made this decision in light of the financial strains on the church following the sexual abuse scandals rocking the church and years of economic downturn. Combined, the two causes have increased the rates of people withdrawing from the church.
But the implications go beyond this. They reshape the church to be like a private club rather than a universal institution. Rather than worrying about the salvation of all humanity, the church has made it clear that it is focusing on serving its members. Its “pay for pray” approach makes it more like the Rotary Club, or the Elks Lodge, or even Sam’s Club, where paying membership dues gives you rights and services unavailable to non-members.
While this column has featured Germany’s Catholic Church because it is in the news, the Protestant churches are just as closely tied to the government. Although they have not forbidden non-payers access to communion, Protestants have restricted employment in church-based services, such as hospitals and kindergartens, to church members only. So now one has to pay the church for the privilege of working for it. America’s separation of church and state avoids this set of problems. Good for us.

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