The Fretting About Whether Democrats Are “Friendly” To Religion

Earlier this week, Pew released a poll showing that — horrors! — more people are back to thinking the Democratic Party is “unfriendly” to religion. The survey was conducted in August, before the Democratic leadership in the House caved to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ insistence on restricting even private coverage for abortion services in the health care bill.

From Pew:

After peaking at 38% in mid-2008 during Obama’s presidential election campaign, the number of Americans describing the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion returned in mid-2009 to levels similar to those seen in 2005 through 2007. About one-in-five say Democrats are unfriendly toward religion (22%), up from 15% who felt that way last year but about the same as in surveys conducted in 2005 and 2006.

Views of the Democrats’ stance toward religion have soured sharply among groups that were already inclined to view the Democratic Party negatively, such as Republicans and white evangelical Protestants. But they have also turned more negative among both independents as well as Democrats who are ideologically moderate or conservative. 

What Pew leaves out of that summary is that among liberal Democrats, the view of their party’s “friendliness” to religion remains unchanged from August 2008 to August 2009 (56% find it “friendly”).

But a more important unanswered question is: why should we care?

The thing about these “friendly to religion” polls is we don’t know whether respondents think it’s a good or bad thing for political parties to be “friendly” to religion, nor do we know what the definition of “friendly” is. Are you “friendly” to religion if you go to church or take a call from a lobbyist for the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops? Are you “unfriendly” to religion if you castigate the religious right for poisoning our politics?

The friendly-unfriendly metrics are all about electoral politics, of course, but as with all incursions into religious pandering, elected officials risk running afoul of the Establishment Clause if they craft policy or legislation to suit a particular religious denomination. I’m not saying you’d win at the Supreme Court making that argument — given the current composition of the Court — but it’s not just a legalistic argument, it’s a practical one too.

A big part of religious lobbying is smoke and mirrors; this pastor is influential because he has a big megachurch; the bishops are influential because they preside over 19,000 parishes across the country. But we don’t have a plethora of good measurements of whether the people who go to those churches care about or pay attention to leaderships’ political positions, and if they do, whether they agree with them or even like the idea of religious leadership trying to influence legislation.

Since there are pro-choice Catholics in Congress, certainly they are well aware that good Catholics can part company with the hierarchy on any number of issues, including abortion. Catholics represent about 23% of the American population, so they are obviously a significant voting bloc with a chunk in the middle that are crucial swing voters. But the quest to satisfy them by bending to the bishops or straining to be “friendly” to religion is not only misguided, but undemocratic.

According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, only 9% of Catholics go to church more than once a week; 33% attend weekly. But 19% attend only once or twice a month; 20% only a few times a year, and a combined 19% seldom or never. That would mean that a good chunk of Catholics probably didn’t receive the bishops’ bulletin insert on abortion in the health care bill at mass. Moreover, only 19% of Catholics believe “there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion” while 77% believe “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

A recent poll commissioned by Catholics for Choice found that “68 percent of Catholic voters in the US disapprove of US bishops saying that all Catholics should oppose the entire healthcare reform plan if it includes coverage for abortion and 56 percent think the bishops should not take a position on healthcare reform legislation in Congress.” The poll further found that “only a small minority of Catholics, fewer than 15 percent, are in line with the bishops in believing that all abortion should be banned. The rest can see circumstances in which legal abortion is an acceptable, even essential, aspect of health care.”

Here is some non-scientific evidence of Catholic discontent: after an interview with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, appeared in the Houston Chronicle, a Catholic wrote a scathing letter to the editor about his statements about the bishops’ role in lobbying against abortion in health care reform. “I regard the church’s stand as extremely hypocritical and insensitive to women who risk their health bearing the burden of having more children than they can afford,” wrote Clara Dobay of Houston. “This issue should be decided within the family without coercion from any church. The cardinal’s effort to influence secular government on family decisions by holding Congress hostage is outrageous and should be considered a breach of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.”

Another issue here is transparency. Churches can lobby, as long as it comprises an insubstantial percentage of their overall activities (but the Internal Revenue Service has never defined what that is). Churches are, however, exempt from the Lobbying Disclosure Act which requires other lobbyists, corporate and otherwise, to file quarterly reports showing how much they spent on lobbying and what laws they lobbied for and against.

Churches get all sorts of benefits from their status, including the tax exemption and an exemption from transparency in both lobbying and generally (unlike other non-profits, they do not have to file publicly available tax returns). This is because politicians are friendly to organized religion, and give them breaks other organizations do not enjoy. But if churches are going to pressure legislators to shape legislation to their will, it seems like there is an even greater, not lesser, need for lobbying transparency: the Establishment Clause. If churches are permitting to lobby, the public should at least have the right to see how they’re going about it. That’s not about being “friendly” or “unfriendly.” It’s about being transparent and accountable to the public.

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