On November 7, the Wheatley Institution kicked off its 3rd biennial conference, Religion in the Public Sphere, with a keynote address from BYU graduate and Notre Dame professor, Dr. David Campbell. His address, “When God and Caesar Mix: Religion, Secularism, and the Public Sphere,” focused on the recent convergence of religion and partisan politics and how it’s changing civic life for the worse.
Currently the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy, the chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame, and co-author of Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Campbell is well-qualified to speak on the current state of civic life in the United States. While writing American Grace, he and his co-author, Robert D. Putnam, conducted a series of surveys asking Americans about their religious affiliations and levels of participation in civic life, voluntary efforts, and community work.
They found that “religion is an engine of civic engagement.” Those who were more religious were significantly more likely to be involved in volunteer work and more likely to attend public or community meetings, in addition to their normal religious commitments. He explained, “It’s not that religious folks concentrate all of their efforts on religious causes. They spread their time around to both religious and secular causes.” But this isn’t just because religious institutions encourage their members to be involved; “what seems to drive the civic energy that you find among religious folks are the social connections made within religious communities.”
So, if the religious are more civically involved, does that make it okay to promote religion in these secular areas? Campbell bluntly advised against it, “Mixing religion and partisan politics is not a good idea.”
In the 1960’s a Gallup poll found that most Americans felt that the influence of religion in the United States was increasing. But when the same survey was conducted again in the 1970’s and 1990’s, there was a sharp decline in the role of religion in America. Why? Campbell argues, “This period can be explained by the mixture of religion and partisan politics and the rise of the religious right’s movement.”
Over time, one political party has become associated with religion, creating a sort of relationship between religious belief and political opinion. Through his research, Campbell has found that this intermingling actually drives away believers and polarizes others. “When we asked those with no religion why they left a religion… the answer that ‘my religion was too mixed up in politics’ is one of the most common answers.” It has caused many to look at the Republican Party and say, “If religion means that kind of politics, then that religion is not for me.”
Sound extreme? Campbell and his colleagues have conducted multiple interviews with respondents over several periods of time and have found the same growing opinion, every time. “Repeatedly, we find the increase in people who say they have no religion is almost exclusively driven by politics. It’s not that you start out religious and then become a Democrat or leftist; you start out on the political left and pull away from religion.”
Despite any good intentions that might have existed when combining religion and politics, “the religious right, as a political movement, has actually contributed to a decline in religious affiliation in American society.” This leaves the religious to ask, what is there to do now? Campbell urges those of faith to remember, “Religion’s influence has been most powerful when it has risen above political partisanship. Perhaps its influence will rise again, but only if believers put their religion, and not their politics, first.”
In order to encourage a more religiously pluralistic society, Americans must be willing to respect, converse with, and learn from their neighbors of differing faiths and political beliefs. “There are many issues on which religious people and secular people agree. It’s a myth that religious and secular people are sharply divided on all issues. They could form coalitions to make progress on issues where they have common ground.”
Campbell continued, “There are areas where they will not agree. How they resolve that is the challenge of a democracy, but that is not unique to religious vs. secular. That’s how democracies work; choosing to recognize the good in either side regardless of their differences.”