US Protestant clergy have become more politically active...

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US clergy increasingly
active in local politics

By City Mayors’ Special North America Correspondent*

1 February 2011: Ten years ago, the US federal government began funding anti-poverty programs by religious organizations. Money that previously went directly to cities and states is now channeled to churches and religious charities. Urban mayors, following the money, set up city offices of faith-based initiatives to partner with religious organizations to deliver services.

Clergy in the US, particularly Protestant clergy, have become more politically active in the last decade. A new study, however, finds that the public is becoming uneasy with the political activities of religious leaders, raising questions about the future of government contracts with faith-based groups.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat fighting to save his presidency after sweeping losses by his party in the midterm Congressional elections, signed into law federal welfare reform legislation. The new law, written and passed by the newly-elected Republican Congress, dramatically changed the way the federal government assisted the poor. It included stringent work requirements for working-age individuals and time limits on public assistance. It also provided increased coverage for child care and guaranteed medical coverage for poor children.

The “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 law – overlooked by the media at the time – encouraged religious institutions to play an active role in the deliver of community services to the poor.

Shortly after becoming president in 2001 with the strong support of evangelical Christian conservatives, George W. Bush took charitable choice to a new level by opening a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Office was funded with $2.5 billion, more than one hundred times the amount previously allocated in a single year. The logic behind the initiative was that religious organizations knew their communities intimately, had the trust and support of residents, directed large volunteer networks, and could deliver services more economically and effectively than government. Religious organizations competed for grants, and were prohibited from using public funds to directly support religious worship or proselytizing, or to discriminate on the basis of religion.

Every state in America opened an office of faith-based initiatives to help religious organizations identify and secure federal funding, as did many cities. It’s all about “leveraging assets”, said Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Michigan upon announcing his city’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

Religious organizations quickly gained responsibilities previously assumed by state and local governments and secular nonprofits. New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, contracted with several churches to start a program to get welfare recipients into city jobs; Jacksonville, Florida Mayor John Peyton engaged religious groups to mentor troubled youth; and Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker enlisted ministers to fight climate change.

President Obama issued an executive order in 2009, which created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new Office continues the process of engaging religious organizations to tackle poverty, but with a new emphasis on funding “best practices.”

Clergy and politics
As more money flowed to religious organizations, their leaders became more powerful, more influential, and, often, more vocal. The Cooperative Clergy Research Project, sponsored by the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, has gathered information from thousands of Protestant clergy since 2001. The research project found that the typical cleric engaged in seven political activities in 2009, ranging from urging people to vote to civil disobedience, up from five in 2001. More than 70 per cent of clergy approved of contributing money to a political candidate, party, or lobbyist.

It’s not difficult to find an American city where religious leaders are active in politics, usually at the invitation of the mayor. Within the last few months, for example, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu created a Cops, Clergy and Community Coalition to "serve as a uniting force” in building residents’ trust in the city’s police department. And La Mesa, California Mayor Art Madrid invited clergy from 33 local churches to work with the city to address social ills. “Clergy and congregations are an important part of the fabric of a community and represent a vast reservoir of our social capital," explained Mayor Madrid. Often, religious leaders try to pressure mayors into making political changes. Currently, clergy in Ashville, North Carolina are pressing the city to adopt gay equality protections, and their counterparts in New York City are petitioning the city council and mayor to pass living wage legislation. 

Religious leaders are following the federal government’s call to be more active, but, in so doing, often oppose the views of their congregations. The Cooperative Clergy Research Project found that half of all Protestant clergy approve of using the pulpit to advocate a political position, while 60 per cent of Protestant worshippers say it’s never right for a minister to take a political stand while preaching. 

According to the research project, as religious leaders have become more prominent in public affairs over the past ten years, conservative clerics generally have become more conservative than their congregations, and liberal clerics have become more liberal than their congregations. In 2009, only 32 per cent of all clergy reported sharing the political views of their congregations, down from 46 per cent in 2001. A recent National Study of Youth and Religion found that nearly 70 per cent of youth between the ages of 18 and 23 believe that too many religious people in the US are “negative, angry, and judgmental”.

Scholars at the Brookings Institution and elsewhere are examining the performance and cost-effectiveness of faith-based initiatives over the past decade. They almost uniformly agree that the results obtained by religious social service providers are no better or worse than those of government or secular nonprofit providers. They also verify that that since President Bush opened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives ten years ago, clergy have gained more attention and more political access throughout America.

The United States Constitution calls for the separation of church and state. The courts have interpreted this to mean that religious organizations are exempt from paying federal income taxes as long as they don’t try to influence legislation or intervene in political campaigns. The involvement of many clergy and religious groups in government issues is prompting calls to rescind their nonprofit status. It’s something “we take very seriously,” said Joshua DuBois, director of the Obama administration’s faith-based initiatives. 

With dwindling public support, mediocre performance reviews, and constitutional questions, faith-based initiatives would appear to be prime candidates for federal budget cuts. If this happens, it’s unlikely that funding for the services provided by faith-based organizations would be shifted elsewhere in the federal budget. Funding would end, many services to the poor would stop being provided, and cities would be the big losers.

*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form

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