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Why We Should be Grateful to Religious Groups at Election Time

An op-ed this Sunday by Katherine Stewart in the New York Times singles out the political activism of the evangelical churches for complaint. But it reflects political paranoia, religious hostility, and an impoverished understanding of the needs of democracy. One of its main points is that the evangelical churches skirt the restrictions on endorsing candidates by pressing their antiabortion position. They thus steer their congregants to vote for the Republican party, which has far more officeholders opposed to the legality of abortion.

There is nothing at all wrong with a church focusing on issues of concern to their members, even if the discussion has the natural and even intended consequence of leading to more votes for the Republican party. It is not illegal. The so-called Johnson amendment prohibits only express endorsements of candidates by charitable organizations. Advocacy for a moral position is not immoral. Indeed, if one believes that abortion is the taking of a life, publicizing the parties’ positions on abortion around election time is a moral duty.

And such activism is not bad for democracy. One of the great problems of a modern democracy is that special interest groups, like unions or particular industries, whose concerns are generally monetary and narrowly-based, have disproportionate influence on elections. Unlike diffuse groups of citizens, they can avoid free rider problems that discourage people from giving to more broad-based causes. But religions can also motivate people to vote based on visions of the common good. We should be grateful for their participation in the public square

I doubt the New York Times would have run an op-ed worrying about the influence of mainstream Protestant churches and predominantly African-Americans churches when they made civil rights a top political priority, even though that implicitly called for the defeat of segregationists across the nation.

And today many charitable institutions have a left-liberal issues agenda and we do not hear objections to their activities either. Many foundations have programs pressing for the expansion of “reproductive rights.” Prominent universities have explicitly endorsed the Paris Climate Change Accords and relentlessly promote issues of identity politics that lean left. And I have heard more than a few students complain that their professors openly engage in partisan commentary, none of which is pro-Republican.

Thus, it is very likely that today the influence of charitable institutions, as a whole, pushes to the left. It reflects both institutional ignorance and political paranoia to focus only on evangelical churches. Indeed, the op-ed itself comes close to religious bigotry by labeling the evangelists that it discusses “Christian nationalists.” That is not how they describe themselves, and the issues they are pressing, as described in the article, are emphatically not centered in claims of national chauvinism, but of universal morality. Stewart does not like their positions but that is no reason to make their faith sound sinister. If she called an association of Muslims “Muslim nationalists” or indeed “Muslim internationalists” without basis, she might be fired or shamed, but casual denigration of evangelicals is a marker today of what passes for cosmopolitanism.

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