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Clergy’s role in election was overstated, observers say

 


Clergy’s role in election was overstated, observers say

Dec. 21, 2004         

A UMNS Feature
By Tamie Ross*

It was unpredicted, yet predictable, as political strategists and campaign advisers worked in different ways to get out the vote.

Church attendance became a better predictor of vote choice than income, education, union membership, region or gender. But did pulpit directive affect the turnout of “church voters” – and how they voted? Can that explain the outcome of the 2004 elections?

Not likely, said James Matthew Wilson, who teaches political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and is an expert on church-state issues.

“I think the role of clergy is often overstated,” Wilson said. “Secular people like to think of religious voters as naïve, unthinking automatons who are specifically instructed by their pastors on what candidates to vote for. For the most part, though, voters don’t need specific political direction from clergy to find the candidates who most closely align with their values.”

The Rev. Scot Ocke, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Marysville, Ohio, jokingly wishes he had that kind of influence.

Ocke said a reaction to a recent sermon he preached on marriage and divorce illustrated the depth of disagreement over many topics among church members. Influence, he said, is more a matter of being salt and light than leading people by the hand.

“Some are very passionate about issues on both sides of the table,” Ocke said of voters in Ohio, a high-profile state in each presidential election. They believe “strongly their morals were correct for them.”

A United Methodist pastor in Oregon said he thinks the church affects more voters than it influences.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Steve Ross

The Rev. Steve Ross, pastor of the McMinnville United Methodist Church, said those outside the church may have been driven further away by what some perceive to be a “very triumphalistic attitude among the conservative right.”

“When people talk about taking this country back, that sets this type of person off,” Ross said. “To them, they’re being told they’re unholy or ungodly and to go away.”

Conversely, Ross expects some in his community to become more interested in religion as a result of the media post-election talk about Christians’ role in the recent vote.

“In my part of the country, 80 percent of the people are unchurched,” he said. “They consider themselves spiritual, but they’re highly individualistic and, at the same time, interested. They might wonder what religion has to offer, if it obviously can get people together to accomplish something.”

Wilson said Oregon provides a good example for anyone looking for answers about the 2004 election and those to come.

Oregon, viewed as a liberal state, was one of 11 states where the ballot included a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The amendment was ratified there – and in all 10 other states.

“I think the last two presidential campaigns have set a pattern that will endure for the foreseeable future,” Wilson said. “The issues at the core of the values debate – abortion, gay marriage, religion in schools – are not going to go away any time soon.” 

Clergy’s role is best limited to presenting voting in the historical context and limiting personal admonitions, he added.

“Clergy may play a role in helping to emphasize the moral dimension of politics,” he said, “but that is usually the extent of it.”

*Ross is a freelance journalist based in Dallas.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

 

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