Politics from the pulpit

North Carolinians on both sides of the aisle say their faith influences their vote, but is it their of view of God thats different, or their view of government?

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Alexis Upchurch

RALEIGH — Throughout 2016, North Carolina’s biggest cities were regular sites of prayer vigils, campaign rallies and images of clergy electing to be led away from protests in handcuffs. Politics in the last year or two has seemed to pull more from the pulpit than ever before. In issues ranging from state budgets to criminal justice to social policy, conservatives and liberals both turn to their faith for guidance, but many are reading the same passages and coming up with a different answer.Faith has long been a flashpoint in American politics. In the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, one of the big attack campaigns against Jefferson was the inaccurate accusation that Jefferson was atheist. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns throughout American history.”You had Baptists in the early tradition who wanted less of the state involved because they had been persecuted so heavily in Europe and when they came to America they wanted the state out of religion,” said Ray Nothstine, deputy opinion editor of the North State Journal. “Now some Southern Baptists want to see a more moral formation in government. Neither is right or wrong but you have splits. The religious left has grown because it’s in part a backlash to the religious right of the 1980s and 1990s.”Baptist minister Franklin Graham led prayer vigils in state capitals across the country, including Raleigh, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, drawing thousands of faithful. The election results came as a shock to many on the left as voters sent Republican Donald Trump to the White House and swept Republicans into office at the state and local levels nationwide. Democrats’ new effort to tap into the religious left as a voter base became urgent. Since the election the liberal Christian activist group Sojourners say donations have picked up by 30 percent.”You see the rise of the religious left with Soujourners and one of the things they believe is that government can help bring in the commands of Jesus by using the welfare state, that the government can really do great things in providing for the needy,” Nothstine said. “While some on the right would say that it needs to be the churches driving the care for those in poverty. It really comes down to a fundamental difference in what do you believe government’s role is.”I think that’s part of the crisis we have today with increasing secularism. People are looking to government for answers instead of to higher things,” he added.The “Moral Mondays” movement, launched in 2013 by the N.C. NAACP’s the Rev. William Barber, tapped into a liberal base of N.C. voters looking for state government to mandate and fund various social policy issues including abortion access, discrimination and entitlement expansion. The near-weekly marches and fiery speeches gained national media attention but also served to polarize N.C. politics in a way few secular gatherings could.Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the “religious left” is now aiming to further engage their liberal base hoping to become a larger force in U.S. politics.This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, says they have been propelled into political activism by Trump’s policies on immigration, health care and social welfare. Leaders of Faith in Public Life, a liberal policy group, coordinated 300 clergy members for a January rally at the U.S. Senate attempting to block confirmation of Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, because of accusations of controversial statements on race. Sessions has repeatedly denied the allegations. A key test of Democrats’ strategy will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections.”It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.”It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square,” Hornbeck said.Poverty is one of the issues where dialogue between liberal and conservative Christians often disagree. Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and spoken often of helping the needy. However, whether the Bible directs government or the church to be the saviors of the poor is a fundamental question for many Christians.”Jesus is teaching about taking care of the poor, which is absolutely true, but it’s that dichotomy of is it the state’s involvement or is it your duty as a Christian?” said Nothstine. “You have mandate to take care of the poor but are you really taking care of the poor by having taxes seized from you? Is that really the mandate that Jesus is talking about?”The Christian political gap isn’t as far as some think. According to a recent survey, 57 percent of Republicans assert that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches compared to 40 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, 61 percent of Republicans versus 48 percent of Democrats say their religious faith is important in their life.