THE BLOG
10/23/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Religitics

God has been rather active in politics recently.

"Religitics" are the days when religion is becoming synonymous with politics, when to sign up for one means one signs up for the other. The lines were already blurry for a long time between economic conservatives, gun-rights activists, and Christian lobbies of the Republican Party -- so much so that an individual was often found in odd company if his or her primary beliefs on fiscal policy were conservative, leading the person to select a candidate of similar financial beliefs. Imagine the shock of the person waking up a few months later in a house full of outspoken Christians and gun enthusiasts as his or her new best friends. Odd company.

Likewise, if an Evangelical wanted to vote for a Democratic candidate in support of more social programs, he or she might be surprised at the liberal-minded, spending-focused, gay-rights-promoting company now sharing the same corner.

To complicate matters again, religions that take political stands and actions compel members to do the same, not only diffusing religious messages but also adding to the odd, dysfunctional group dynamics already delicately in place.

We now have fundamentalist Christians grouped with gun-touting yahoos, and free-speech watchdogs grouped with abortion- and gay-rights adversaries (as well as financial conservatives.) On the other side, we have more liberal-minded, social-welfare and scientific-research supporters grouped with overspending and, at times, financially irresponsible leaders.

How can so many Americans fit into either of these odd buckets? It is comical to think about either of these groups together in one room. What do they talk about?

No wonder the group of independent voters is growing so strong. Where else does a person go when, upon learning the issues, they just want to vote for what is important to them?

This week, a study was released by Sojourners suggesting younger evangelicals aren't quite as entrenched in what many call "far right politics" as previously thought. In the study, it was revealed that Young Evangelicals in the 2012 election are thinking a bit more broadly about religion and politics, or what I like to call "religitics." And while the young evangelicals are still largely pro-life, other social issues weigh on them differently than previously factored.

We tend to forget that one generation's voting patterns and values doesn't predict the next. Values among certain blocks of voters are not constant. Priorities shift with time and circumstance, and this certainly appears evident for our younger generations, who have become infinitely more connected to the issues in the world than their predecessors.

The study, which can be read here, collected data during May and June of 2012. And it points to young Christians who value public engagement, but "question the trustworthiness" of many major social institutions.

Key findings in the Study of Young Evangelicals:
  • 92 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone
  • 52 percent "strongly disagree" or "disagree" that America is a Christian nation
  • 88 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" that it is important for Christians to vote
  • 91 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" that it is important for Christians to volunteer for charities
  • 42 percent would rank same-sex marriage and abortion as the top two most important issues affecting their votes

This study is somewhat consistent with a Pew Forum study in 2008, in which some 66 percent of the American public was reported to be uncomfortable with churches that endorse political candidates. The study revealed that the majority of churchgoers support the role churches play in public life, however, they reject the role churches are increasingly playing in political life.

As we get closer to the election, quite a few churches are preaching which candidates their members should vote for. Some are publicly endorsing candidates, and some are even giving political contributions to campaign funds. Under our constitution, this is their right, as long as they give up their tax-free status.

More subtly, plenty of places of worship are highlighting the merits of certain candidates without going all the way to raise funds for them or risk losing their status as a charitable organization.

These "religitics" are happening with such frequency that it may seem alarming to some older people who remember the days when there was some effort to separate politics from the pulpit.

For some younger voters who have grown up with this trend of religitics, maybe everything seems perfectly normal, but it is not. In past generations, privacy in matters of voting was respected and individuals had to think. Support of sitting presidents was universal.

Oddly enough, it may be the young Evangelicals who pull us back toward what their grandparents remember, rebuilding the invisible wall between church and state, at least to a degree, with a large sandwich generation serving up their God And Country Soup, a separable blend of religion and politics. Trending interestingly, for what may be a generation in motion toward the center, this is a group worth watching.

In August, Baylor University Press published Stumping God: Regan, Carter, and the Invention of Political Faith by Andrew P. Houge. This book explains the roots of modern religious politics. But at the same time, it is encouraging readers to sift through religitics for themselves, and it seems they actually already are.

It is almost as though one Evangelical trend bumped into an opposing Evangelical trend.

Now what?

At the moment, we have two kinds of important Evangelicals -- politically speaking. We have a growing trend of important voters who are indoctrinated into the far right Evangelical religitics that started in the 1980's, and we have an emerging group of younger important voters who do not place the same premiums on the same things.

Evangelicals aside, the number of independents is also growing at the same time that religion and politics are merging. Maybe this is not a coincidence. More people are finding less common ground with either big party. Since 1952, when Independents were first surveyed in the U.S., the group has grown from 22 percent to over 30 percent of voters.

That's a lot of Americans. That is one powerful group, without a unified stance.

With fallout from all Christian and Jewish denominations at record levels, we have to wonder about the connection and the disconnection of the faithful in politics. As religious people free themselves from their churches and synagogues, will grow more independent in their voting patterns as well? If these people can think independently enough to decide to disassociate themselves with the religious teachings of their faith institutions, will they also manage to think through ballot issues differently on their own?

It will be interesting to watch which way the faithful but independent trend in their voting in 2012, because one thing independents like less than joining forces with either major group is to hear sermons about politics in church or synagogue. Will political pressure from the pulpits result more independent voters in the U.S.?

I, for one, think it will.