Religion and politics: Engaging faithfully without compromising our faith or our religious freedom values

By Amanda Tyler

A stylized image of a large number of American flags on a black background

The presidential campaign season is officially in full swing. Our social media feeds and smartphones are abuzz with political news at the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, with the Republican National Convention set to begin on Monday.

The last night of the DNC highlighted religion and faith, including prayers from religious leaders of different beliefs as well as speeches with religious themes. A moving tribute to the life of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who often talked about how his faith animated his public service, was followed by a gospel-inspired musical performance. The Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joe Biden, spoke personally about his Catholic faith. I anticipate that we will also see religious speakers, speeches and themes prominently featured at next week’s RNC, including from President Donald Trump.

Scripture invoked in political speeches and prayers offered at party conventions are neither novel nor unexpected. The fact that people of faith can talk openly about religion in the public square, including in political campaigns for public office, is a core protection of religious freedom that we can all celebrate.

But before we get too far down this road to November, it’s a good time for some election-year reminders.

God is not a Democrat or a Republican. Individuals of both parties will be inspired by their faith to vote their values in the election, but God is much bigger than any candidate or political party. To suggest that people of “real” faith automatically vote for a particular candidate or party disrespects and disregards the religious and political diversity of our communities, a diversity that enriches our shared life together.

Jesus is not American, and one need not be Christian to be a true American. While both patriotism and religion are prominently featured in elections, they should not be equated. There are no second-class faiths in this country, but the prominence of religious — and usually Christian — imagery, language and themes during election season can send a signal of exclusion to voters who do not identify as Christian. For Christians, equating patriotism with religion can conflate religious and political leadership in a way that leans toward idolatry.

Our elected officials do not have to be Christian or even religious. For many candidates, as for many people, their religious faith inspires their vocation. They can and should feel free to speak openly about their faith without violating principles of separation of church and state. But our Constitution — specifically, Article VI — ensures that there is no religious test for public office. Our elected officials pledge to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, representing all people, regardless of what faith they practice or whether they practice a faith. While our candidates are free to be openly religious, we must be clear that that is not a required qualification for public office.

Christian nationalism is a threat to Christianity and to our unity as Americans. Many of the concerns outlined here point to the impact of Christian nationalism — an ideology or cultural framework that merges Christian and American identities. Christian nationalism is not confined to one party. You do not even need to be Christian to espouse it or be affected by it. You can learn more about what Christian nationalism is, how it shows up in our society, and how to engage in civil dialogue with your neighbors about it on the Christians Against Christian Nationalism website.

Religious leaders interested in partisan campaigning should beware of pitfalls. Candidates and political parties will be eager to get the support and endorsement of faith leaders. While religious leaders may support candidates in their personal capacities, they should be wary of attempts to co-opt their faith for campaign purposes. As soon as a religious leader joins at the hip with a particular candidate or party, her prophetic witness — the ability to speak truth to power — is hindered. A leader that endorses or appears to endorse a candidate also risks his credibility and integrity as he may be associated with the candidate’s positions and statements, including those he might not approve of.

There are also legal and practical reasons to ensure that the partisan activity is not done by or through churches or other 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. The “Johnson Amendment,” shorthand for the long-standing provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits partisan campaign activity by nonprofits, has shielded houses of worship from political pressure and additional dangers that come with endorsing and opposing candidates.

Faith communities can and should encourage voting and civic participation in our democracy in nonpartisan ways. I recently read an inspiring story about Queen Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia. This congregation organized a socially-distanced voter registration drive that included free COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment and fresh produce for community members. For congregations who would like to do similar work, BJC’s newest resource outlines how churches and nonprofits can be ADVOCATEs, not PARTISANs, during this election season.

The 2020 election and its outcome will affect all of us, from atheists in Anchorage to Zoroastrians in Zion, Illinois; from Baptists in Birmingham to Muslims in Minneapolis. I hope that we the people, regardless of our religious or non-religious commitments, can approach this election with appreciation for religious freedom and religious diversity. This respectful engagement can only enrich our democratic process.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.

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