Friday, July 27, 2012

New Pew poll indicates Americans are confused about the religious beliefs of politicians

Pew is one of the few polling agencies I generally like.  Part of it is that they have less obvious bias than a lot of other pollsters, especially on social issues.  Second is that they are more likely to issue polls I'm actually interested in.

A couple days ago, Pew released a series of polls on public perception of religion and the major presidential candidates in the US.  This is fairly standard for them, but is perhaps particularly interesting this year considering that the GOP candidate is clearly a member of a religious minority and arguably the Democratic candidate is as well.

The big surprise from this poll, or at least what is getting the most attention, is that while 60% of registered voters identify Mitt Romney as LDS (more commonly known as Mormon), only 49% identify Barack Obama as Christian.  17% of registered voters identify President Obama as Muslim.

If you pay much attention to really conservative media (by which I mean to the right of Rush Limbaugh), you hear a lot of talk about Obama being a closet Muslim.  If you break down the numbers further, you aren't surprised to find that 34% of "conservative Republicans" think he is a Muslim.  The puzzle remains, however, why so many others aren't sure Obama is a Christian.

I think I can shed some light on this.  My guess is that a decent percentage of the people who don't identify Obama as a Christian don't do so because of ignorance, but due to a nuanced perspective.  Let me give two examples.

Last night I was talking politics with a friend who is Black, highly educated, from Chicago, and a huge Obama supporter.  She does not believe Obama is a Christian.  She thinks he started going to church for political leverage.  As evidence, she cites that fact that he grew up in a non-religious home and that he didn't start going to church until after he moved to Chicago after to be a community organizer.  Translation: he started going to church to network and be electible in his community.  Obama's faith, she claims, is just for show.

The second example is very different.  Among theologically educated religious conservatives, many do not identify Obama as a Christian because he does not seem to adhere to certain basic tenants of Christianity (what used to be called "the fundamentals").  Having not read any theological writing of his beyond a belief in the mandate to help the poor, I can't speak to his theological views and whether they fit into the basic tenants of Christianity.  As far as I know, there is no public indication of what his theological views are.  It is quite understandable that a significant chunk of the theologically sophisticated would have questions about how to categorize Obama.

Now, these two groups can't explain all of the 31% who can't identify Obama's religion.  However, if you take these into account, it demonstrates more clarity about Obama's faith than the 32% who can't identify Romney's faith.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gingrich's win and the influence of Evangelical leaders today

The other day my friend Prof. Knowsome (not his real name) dared me in his Trying to Explain Politics blog to explain why voters in South Carolina picked Gingrich over Santorum and what that had to say about the influence of the old-guard conservative evangelical leaders. 

The success of Gingrich at the cost of Santorum came as a surprise to many, especially those with certain stereotypes about evangelical voters.  I'm not sure I can fully explain what happened, but at the same time I wasn't surprised.

One thing you have to remember is that not all evangelicals are the same.  I am personally an evangelical, but have consistently disliked Newt Gingrich since the early 1990s.  Culturally, I am more of a Midwestern evangelical (like those found in Iowa) than a Southern evangelical (like those found in South Carolina).  Midwestern evangelicals trace their political roots to William Jennings Bryan, a populist who supported both moral values and government intervention where appropriate.  Southern evangelicals trace their political roots to resistance to federal government intrusion after the Civil War.

Some of the things Rick Santorum proposes are very attractive to Midwestern evangelicals.  Things like raising some taxes/fees to pay for an increased child tax credit is something Midwestern evangelicals are more likelely to find appealing than would more libertarian-minded Southern evangelicals.  Midwestern evangelicals are much more sensitive to insincerity and are more likely to reject Gingrich due to his morally questionable personal history.  Southerners are more concerned about ideological than personal purity, so Gingrich's marriages don't bother them as much.  Southerners are also attracted to fiesy politicians and tend to ignore more mild-mannered ones such as Santorum.

(Note: All of the things stated above are generalizations.  There are plenty of individuals who break these generalizations in both regions.)

Now, to address the seeming loss of influence of evangelical leaders.  To provide a bit of background, about a week before the South Carolina primary, a group of established conservative evangelical leaders met in Texas to join together in support of a single candidate.  They chose to endorse Santorum.  Many whose political minds are 10-15 years behind the times assumed this would be a huge boost to Santorum.  In reality, the endorsement didn't seem to make any difference at all.

This did not come as a surprise to me or many other close observers of the interaction of religion and politics.  Over the past couple of decades there has been a gradual transition of power in the evangelical community away from more politicized and partisan leaders such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson and towards less partisan leaders such as Rick Warren, Gary Chapman, Mark Driscoll, or Bill Hybels.  The politically conservative evangelical leaders who met in Texas are no longer recognized as the leaders among the rank and file evangelicals in the churches.  In other words, the voters in South Carolina didn't really care.

So, what about Mitt Romney?  Why didn't Romney get more evangelical voters?  It seems to me that, among Southern evangelicals, there is more concern about ideological purity in their politicians than purity in their personal lives.  As I mentioned in a previous post, there is also a nervousness among evangelicals about voting for those they do not believe to be Christians.  In the Midwest, the evangelicals are a bit more open to such things.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Are Iowa and New Hampshire good for America?

My friend Phil over at Trying to Explain Politics thinks so.  His argument is essentially that you need a highly engaged electorate to trim down the list of candidates and that there aren't very many states that could effectively do the job.  It's an interesting argument, but I don't see a lot of citizens in other states agreeing with him.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

I discovered a new blog to enjoy

I recognize that my readers come from three categories: 1) friends and loved ones who are trying to figure me out, 2) those from the Aspie community (especially the relatively small number of Christian Aspies), and 3) those who are interested in my political, social, and religious perspectives.

Well, today's post is for those of you in the third group who have been griping that I've catered too much to those in the second group.  (By the way, if I ever get my act together, I will try splitting this blog into two or more blogs to cater to the individual audiences.  I wouldn't hold my breath until at least May, though.)  Thanks to a recent column from one of my favorite columnists, David Brooks, I discovered a new blogger whose work I really appreciate.  Rod Dreher writes for the American Conservative and comes down more on the Communitarian side of conservativism (which is closer to my position as well).  But not only is his political commentary insightful, but his writing about his life I find very interesting.  He recently moved from a major city to a small town in Louisiana to be near family and re-connect with a community.  His discussion of community life is both heart-warming and interesting for someone like me who has never personally experienced that kind of community outside of college.  So, for my readers of a more Communitarian bent, I encourage you to check Rod Dreher out.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Online quiz to help you decide who to support in the GOP primary

My friend over at Trying to Explain Politics just posted a link to a really good online quiz for those trying to figure out who to support in the Republican primary.  (For those of you not interested, feel free to disregard this post.)  You can find it at Real World Machine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Should Christians only vote for other Christians?

As an openly Christian political scholar, I get asked this question a lot.  People want to know if it is somehow morally acceptable to vote for someone of a different faith.  To try to answer the question, the Bible does not deal with this question directly (seeing as how there wasn't a lot of voting going on back then).  I tend to hear two different arguments on this issue.  Those who argue that we should only vote for Christians claim that voting for non-Christians is equivalent to being "unequally yoked".  Those who say that voting for non-Christians is acceptable cite the passages that tell us to be good citizens, no matter who is in charge.

Personally, I don't find either argument particularly persuasive.   I don't see how voting for someone is being yoked to them.  One might argue that choosing someone as your leader is being yoked to them, but then the command would have to be interpreted as saying, "If the leader of your government is not a Christian, then you have to move because you can't be unequally yoked."  Back in the days when none of the government leaders were Christian, this reading of the command would have been problematic.

Regarding the second argument, the commands are to be submissive to governmental leaders, even if they are non-Christian.  This does not necessarily condone actively participating in the selection of a non-Christian to lead you.

Since we don't seem to have any specific Biblical guidance in relation to voting, what are we to do?  There is a book I read back in college that I think provides a good, biblical, understanding of what to do in these situations.  It is Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and Robin Maxson.  Their central argument (for purposes of this discussion) is that Christians are given broad principles of guidance through the Scriptures and, when specific situations come up that aren't directly addressed, we use wisdom to make a decision based on the broad principles.

So, on this view, we should look at broad principles in the Bible, pray about them, and use wisdom to decide who to vote for.  My personal view on this (and feel free to disagree with me) is that it is perfectly justifiable to vote for a non-Christian if the non-Christian will do a better job of advancing the principles found in the Bible. 

I have a slight advantage in saying this.  I've personally met a lot of these "Christian" politicians, and I can safely say that there frequently isn't a substantial difference between the Christian and non-Christian in how they live their lives or how their faith influences their political activities.  All other things being equal, I would rather vote for a non-Christian who is at least open about the fact than vote for a "Christian" who is only professes faith for appearances.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When did "social justice" become a bad term?

When I am on long drives, I frequently listen to political talk radio. In most of the country, this means conservative talk radio such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, etc. Over the last couple weeks, I probably spent 30 hours in the car, and a significant amount of that time I spent listening to these conservative talkers.

While listening, I heard an unusual theme. Far more often than I would have expected, they ripped on the concepts of "social justice" and "economic justice". Unfortunately I did not get enough context to find out why this was the target of particular wrath, but it was clear that most of them were talking about it and warning about its "dangers".

Glen Beck was particularly interesting to me in this regard, because he was spelling out the dangers as if they were theological heresy. He was opposing it on religious grounds. Although I am not an expert on all the theological positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka, the Mormons) to which Beck belongs, I am fairly certain they do not have any official theological objections to social justice, as they frequently practice it as a church. But Beck was ranting on it the way I have heard some ministers rant on dangerous theological heresies (ironically, such as the LDS).

Beck, while being the most explicit, was not alone. All of the hosts I heard talk about it, with the exceptions of Limbaugh and Neal Boortz, spoke of it as antithetical to their faiths. This included two professed Roman Catholics and two professed Evangelicals.

My guess is that these conservative talkers were conflating two very different concepts: "social justice" and "social gospel". Adherents of the "social gospel" might argue that "sharing the good news" means helping the poor, and does not deal with personal salvation from sins. "Social justice", however, does not necessarily do this at all. In fact, many evangelical leaders today argue that helping the poor and disenfranchised goes hand-in-hand with sharing the Good News of salvation from sin and restored relationship with God.

So, what happened? My guess is this is a legacy of "Fox News Channel Christians", people who conflate the teachings of the Bible with American conservative ideology. (See my previous post if you want to read more about that concept.)

This has not been my first post on social justice, and I'm sure it won't be my last. If you are interested in my thoughts on this, please browse around the blog.