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Roy Moore scandal illustrates risks of close relationship between religion, politics

POSTED: November 20, 2017 8:10 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Public Religion Research Institute

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When sexual assault allegations mounted against film producer Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood actors and executives joined together to expose more tales of abuse.

When NPR's top editor was accused of illegal harassment, one of the company's reporters interviewed NPR CEO Jarl Mohn on-air about the organization's unsatisfying policies.

But when The Washington Post published accounts of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore pursuing sexual relationships with teenaged girls while in his 30s, many evangelical Christians stood by their man.

"It comes down to a question of who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser," said Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, to Religion News Service. "I believe the judge is telling the truth."

The Moore scandal showcases the ethical acrobatics required to keep religious convictions compatible with a political agenda, according to experts on religion and politics. Close associations between faith groups and political parties threaten the moral authority of people of faith.

"When religious believers put politics ahead of their religion, they risk betraying their own principles," said Notre Dame professor David Campbell during a recent presentation at Brigham Young University.

Chasing political power creates moral blind spots for faith communities, gradually eroding strongly held beliefs, said Richard Clark, who hosts a podcast for pastors.

For example, since 2011, there's been a surge in willingness among people of faith to forgive a political candidate's personal indiscretions.

Six-in-10 white mainline Protestants, 58 percent of Catholics and nearly three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (72 percent) said in 2016 that an elected official who commits an immoral act in private can still behave ethically and fulfill their professional duties, compared with 38 percent, 42 percent and 30 percent, respectively, five years earlier, Public Religion Research Institute reported.

"I don't think anyone says, 'I'm just going to have to compromise here this one time,'" Clark said. "They convince themselves they're not even compromising."

Mixing religion and politics

Clark is an evangelical Christian, personally and professionally. He sings spiritual songs with his 2-year-old son, prays often and leads editorial development for a pastor-focused publication from Christianity Today, CT Pastors.

It's an exhausting life these days, which is not to say that Clark dislikes fatherhood or his faith-focused work. Being an evangelical Christian is exhausting because of widespread assumptions about what that label means.

"I'm aware that I have to provide disclaimers every time I talk about my religion or my spiritual life," he said.

Without an explanation, Clark's neighbors might assume he hates all liberals or longs to pray in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump. They might think he's more likely to keep supporting Senate candidate Moore after the sexual misconduct accusations, like 37 percent of Alabama evangelicals.

Clark challenges these assumptions about his faith community, but others have stopped trying. Evangelical Christianity's close ties to conservative politics are driving people away from the flock, said Randall Balmer, chair of Dartmouth College's religion department.

"People are looking for other labels to identify themselves with because they find the term 'evangelical' so fraught and associated with things they don't embrace," he said.

When faith leaders become the mouthpieces for a particular political party, they risk alienating current and potential congregants, Campbell said.

"It is the politics that is driving the turn away from religion and not the other way around," he said.

Political alliances also threaten religious convictions, since few candidates are perfect. The Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, but some evangelicals changed their tunes on divorce in the process, Balmer said.

"Very often if you were a divorced evangelical (before then), you were kicked out of your congregation or marginalized," he said. "That stigma vanished almost immediately with the embrace of Ronald Reagan."

Franklin Graham, son of the revered Christian evangelist Billy Graham, admits that sometimes political engagement requires voting for "the least of the two heathens." But he says it's essential for religious believers to help elect people who will represent their interests, offering similar arguments as those who support Roy Moore.

"If all the Christians in the U.S. voted in each election, it would turn this country around. I want to see the Christian voice back in politics," he told the Deseret News last year during his nationwide tour to promote faith-based voting. "We … have been sitting on the side and letting people who have completely different ideas and opinions about what America should look like and be set the agenda."

However, Moore's supporters who have praised their candidate as a God-fearing Christian should consider the message their support is sending to the women and girls in their congregations, tweeted Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is not related to the Senate candidate.

"A church that worships Jesus stands up for vulnerable women and girls. A church that worships power sees them as expendable," he said.

In general, involvement in the messy business of politics undermines the real work of religious communities, which is glorifying God and sharing the gospel, as Alec Ryrie, a historian of Protestantism, told the Deseret News in September.

"Political religion usually doesn't work out, and I don't mean it leads to political stuff going badly wrong. I just mean that if you're a religious group that stops being interested chiefly in religion, then you're cutting off where you get your energy from," he said.

What's next?

As the Roy Moore scandal unfolds in Alabama, policymakers in Congress are navigating a different aspect of religion's entanglement with politics: the ability of pastors to endorse candidates for office.

Tax reform plans from both the House and Senate would allow direct faith-based engagement with elections, as the Deseret News reported earlier this month. Under the new proposed rules, faith leaders could endorse political candidates from the pulpit without risking their church's tax-exempt status.

Some members of the clergy have been calling for this change for years, arguing that political endorsements are part of full religious freedom. Falwell has described the limits on political engagement for faith groups as a government effort to silence its more conservative critics.

However, more than 4,000 faith leaders signed a letter opposing this change, explaining that their communities are best served when there is distance between political campaigns and religious activism.

"Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines," the letter reads.

Their statement echoes commentary offered elsewhere on the need to ensure that religious beliefs, rather than political concerns, inspire people of faith's actions in the public square.

"Let us never forget that the way this world counts power and influence means nothing to our God," wrote Michael Wear, author of "Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America," in a Nov. 10 blog.

Examples of this brand of faith-driven politics are few and far between during a highly politicized cultural moment, but Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona., was recently praised for choosing his moral convictions over his political affiliation.

"(Mormons) are taught to stand up for what we know is right and also to be decent," Flake told The New York Times after delivering a scathing critique of Trump from the Senate floor on Oct. 24. "I hope I'm acting on the faith I believe in."

Regular citizens may never have an opportunity to make such a bold statement, but they can rebel against close ties between religion and politics in other ways. Clark said he'll focus on raising his son to believe in Christ and attend church.

"It's not important to me that he sees himself as an evangelical Christian or even knows what that means," he said. "It's the Christian part that I'm more obsessed with."
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