Religion and politics mix – what matters is how they mix

This week in North Philly Notes, L. Felipe Mantilla, author of How Political Parties Mobilize Religion, writes about the rise of religious political parties.

A glance at global headlines suggests that religion is playing an ever-growing role in electoral politics. Islamist parties have become fixtures in Muslim-majority countries from Morocco to Indonesia, conservative Catholics are entrenched in Poland, Evangelicals flex their political muscles in Brazil, and Hindu nationalists are dominant across much of India. In all these settings, secularists often express fear that the political success of religious groups will threaten democratic institutions and endanger minorities.

My new book, How Political Parties Mobilize Religion: Lessons from Mexico and Turkey, aims to bring some nuance to the debates prompted by the rise of religious political parties. One of its main arguments is that religion often enters the electoral arena, but that it can do so in strikingly different ways. Religious mobilization by political parties is not monolithic, and secular laws and religious leaders can have a great deal of influence on how religious parties behave in practice.

In the United States, for example, the idea of a clear separation between church and state is embedded in American political tradition. Yet religion and partisanship are clearly intertwined. Candidates often speak publicly about faith, craft appeal to religious voters, and place their personal beliefs on public display. While churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if they engage in explicitly partisan activities, these restrictions are widely disregarded in practice. Given electoral laws that favor a two-party system, religious activists operate within broader coalitions rather than form their own party organizations. As a result, both Democrats and Republicans engage in religious mobilization.

Still, there is a great deal of diversity in how political parties engage with religion. Consider the contrast between the religious services attended by Donald Trump and Joseph Biden on the eve of the 2020 election. Biden sat at a pew in St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church and was treated like a regular parishioner; his presence was not mentioned in the sermon. Trump, attending an evangelical congregation in Las Vegas, was repeatedly praised and blessed, declared to be “lighting a bright light for God and for all those who believe in a good America, a noble America, a righteous America,” and was invited to speak to the congregation.

In my book, I argue that much of this difference can be explained by the contrasting patterns of religious organization among Evangelicals and Catholics. Individual leaders of Evangelical churches can benefit from the fervor and national visibility that brazen partisanship brings, even if their stances alienate most Americans and potentially antagonize elected officials. In contrast, the contemporary Catholic Church is a hierarchical, transnational organization, and as such is more wary of the potential costs of partisanship. Gaining a thousand devout converts by antagonizing millions is fine, perhaps even smart, if you are running a local church but makes little sense if you are leading a world religion.

These differences are not unique to the United States. In Peru’s recent elections, the absence of effective legal restrictions on religious partisanship created an opening for religious political mobilization. In that Catholic-majority country, it led some lay Catholics to launch campaigns based on appeals to religious values and identities. However, Catholic leaders largely withheld their blessing, preferring to make broad statements about the importance of electoral participation. In contrast, many clerics linked with Peru’s rapidly growing Evangelical minority engaged in openly partisan activities, such as praying with specific candidates and organizing events on their behalf.

My book also shows that changes in the rules and regulations governing elections can affect the mobilizing strategies used by religious parties. In 1950s Mexico, electoral rules that disadvantaged opposition parties drove away all but the most committed activists, many of whom were devout Catholics. This left opposition parties dependent on religious activists. As legal reforms gradually made it easier for challengers to gain seats, they began to attract more diverse supporters and the relative influence of religious activists waned. In Turkey in the 1970s, electoral laws gave a competitive edge to small parties. Religious activists took note and formed specialized organizations that catered exclusively to devout voters. However, when constitutional reforms made it harder for these organizations to gain seats in parliament, religious politicians reorganized and moderated their policy proposals to appeal to more mainstream voters. In both cases, religious activists responded strategically to incentives created by electoral laws.

In other words, it makes little sense to support or condemn religious political engagement in general. In democratic settings, religion and political parties are bound to interact. What matters is how political parties engage with religion, and that is something that can be shaped by legal reforms and religious leadership.

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