Mark Chaves: We’re fed up with church leaders’ political involvement

Disapproval of religious leaders' political activism has increased exponentially.

From the early 20th century temperance movement to the mid-century civil rights movement to the late century religious right, American religious leaders have a long history of political involvement. Religious leaders’ political involvement never has been universally welcomed by people (whether churchgoing or not), but disapproval of such involvement has increased lately.

Three times since 1991, the General Social Survey, a survey of a nationally representative sample of American adults, has asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with these statements: “Religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote in elections.” And: “Religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions.”

As the graph above shows, majorities of Americans have disapproved of religious leaders’ political involvement at least since 1991, but that majority has grown recently. In 2008, 73 percent disapproved of religious leaders trying to influence how people vote, up from 65 percent in 1991. And today 67 percent disapprove of religious leaders trying to influence government decisions, up substantially from 52 percent in 1991. People disapprove more when religious leaders try to influence voting than when they try to influence government in other ways, but not by much.

In recent years, religious leaders have been more visible on the political right than on the political left. One obvious question is whether the growing disapproval of religious leaders’ political involvement is limited to political moderates and liberals who oppose the positions advocated by the religious right more than they oppose such involvement in principle. Perhaps people do not particularly disapprove of politically active religious leaders so long as those leaders push candidates, policies, and positions they support.

This is not quite the case. Political moderates and liberals are significantly more likely than political conservatives to disapprove these days of religious leaders’ political involvement, but disapproval has increased across the political spectrum. It has increased the most among self-described political moderates. In 1991, among those who described their political views as moderate or middle-of-the-road, 53 percent agreed that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions. Today, 73 percent of political moderates say this, an increase of 20 percentage points. This compares with an increase of 9 percentage points among political conservatives (58 percent of whom now agree that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions) and 16 percentage points among political liberals (now at 72 percent agreement). Disapproval is lowest among political conservatives, and it has increased most slowly among that group, but it has increased nonetheless.

Disapproval of religious leaders’ political involvement also has increased among regular churchgoers as fast as it has increased among the general public. Those who attend religious services at least weekly remain less disapproving than the general public of religious leaders’ political involvement, but in 2008 a majority of regular churchgoers (53 percent) disapproved of religious leaders trying to influence government decisions, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) disapproved of religious leaders trying to influence how people vote.

Of course, widespread public disapproval, and even majority disapproval of people in the pews, does not mean that religious leaders should not do something they believe to be the right thing to do. But religious leaders should know that we are in a time of increasing disapproval of at least some kinds of clergy political involvement, and this rising disapproval is not just among people who disagree with the particular positions taken by the most politically active and visible religious leaders.