With the 2012 election months away, congregations are getting the message that Americans want religion out of politics. But that doesn't mean they plan to keep mum in the public square.
Instead, they're revamping how congregations mobilize voters by focusing on a broader set of issues than in the past. Preachers are largely avoiding the political fray, and hot-button social issues are relegated to simmer in low-profile church study groups.
Why? For one, Americans are growing impatient with religious politicking: 54 percent want houses of worship to keep out of politics (up from 52 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 1996), according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Churches seem to be responding.
"The biggest change we see is a drop-off in the percentage of people saying they hear politics from the pulpit," said David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame (Ind.) political scientist whose Faith Matters project tracked 3,100 people over five years.
"It's been happening everywhere," Campbell added. "People say they don't want to hear about politics in church, and they're actually hearing less of it."
Still, that doesn't mean the public is clamoring for a totally secularized public square. Some believe the backlash is against a particular type of religious activism that aligns closely with one party's agenda or set of candidates.
Religious involvement in partisan politics appears to be driving those under 35 away from organized religion, Campbell said. Some evangelical leaders see this young adult drift as a factor that makes nonpartisanship a practical necessity for churches seeking to grow and thrive.
"The last generation of Christians saw [the two major parties]as strategic allies in pushing their agendas," said Jonathan Merritt, 29, author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars (FaithWords, 2012). "The next generation is reconsidering how that has blinded us and harmed us."
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