By Bob Smietana
Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University, has a word of caution for church leaders.
Be careful when you get involved in politics—or you may drive some people away.
Political victories often come with costs, says Djupe—especially when conservative Christians are involved.
A new study in Political Research Quarterly, co-authored by Djupe, looks at the rate of so-called “nones”—Americans who claim no religious identity—in states where conservative Christians supported bans on same-sex marriage or laws that affected gay rights.
In those states, the rate of nones went up.
“Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories,” Djupe and his coauthors wrote.
Djupe told Facts & Trends that politics can have unintended consequences for churches. Political debates don’t drive away core churchgoers, he says. But they can cause some people to swear off religion altogether.
“When churches take political stands,” he says, “people are going to start to evaluate them based on those political criteria and not religious criteria.”
A similar study Djupe was involved in showed that people on the edges of church life are more likely to leave over politics.
“We found that it was marginal attenders in churches who were exposed to disagreement that were likely to leave,” he says. “If you were a frequent attender who is engaged in church activities outside of worship, these disagreements didn’t make much difference.”
For the study published in Political Research Quarterly, researchers examined how the percentage of nones increased from 2000 to 2010. They found even in so-called red states, which tend to be more religious, the number of nones increased.
“One of the more remarkable things is that the rate of nones is really catching up across the country,” he says. “There are still some pretty sizable gaps if you compare Oregon or Vermont to Alabama, but on average, it’s close.”
Churches can’t swear off any involvement with politics, says Djupe. But he is concerned that churches can become too identified with either political party.
Instead of evaluating a church on religious or spiritual terms, people may begin to judge a church solely on its politics.
And pastors should know that political involvement has a cost.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s going to have implications for the extent of their ministry outreach,” he says. “There are people that are just going to reject that and walk away. So they may segment the possible reach of their ministry (to only certain groups).”
A New York Times story earlier this year found a “quiet exodus” of African-American worshipers from evangelical churches after the 2016 president election. The Wall Street Journal reported last week on mainline Protestant churches that had seen church members leave—and some newcomers show up—due to political activism.
Writing in Christianity Today, Djupe and co-author Ryan Burge from Eastern Illinois University say their previous research showed Clinton voters were most likely to leave evangelical churches after the 2016 election. But churches at their best should be able to overcome partisan divides.
“The study results also indicate that American churches could benefit from being a place that welcomes, tolerates, or charitably engages voters of either party,” they wrote.
“As research has shown again and again, churches tend to be diverse places where people have the chance to work with others around a shared mission and shared faith.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.