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.

Books that honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week, in North Philly Notes, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we focus our attention on our books, new and old, that speak to a dedication to civil rights and human struggles.

The Civil Rights Lobby: The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Second Reconstruction, by Shamira Gelbman, investigates how minority group, labor, religious, and other organizations worked together to lobby for civil rights reform during the 1950s and ’60s. Shamira Gelbman explains how the diversity of this interest group coalition both hindered and enabled lobbyists to generate broad-based support for reforms that often seemed risky to legislators. They coordinated their efforts by identifying common ground among member organizations, developing coalitional positions on substantive and strategic questions, and exhorting organizations to mobilize professional and grassroots lobbying resources accordingly. The result was to “speak with one booming voice” to ultimately help secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair: Nigrescence and Eudaimonia, by William E. Cross, Jr., revisits his ground-breaking model on Black identity awakening known as Nigrescence. Cross connects W. E. B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness to an analysis of how Black identity is performed in everyday life, and traces the origins of the deficit perspective on Black culture to scholarship, dating back to the 1930s. He follows with a critique showing such deficit and Black self-hatred tropes were always based on extremely weak evidence. His book sets out to disrupt and agitate as Cross attempts to more accurately capture the humanity of Black people that has been overlooked in previous research.


Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, by Michael Awkward captures the disputes over the meanings of racial politics and black identity during the post-King era in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking closely at four cultural moments, he shows how racial trauma and his native city’s history have been entwined. Awkward introduces each of these moments with poignant personal memories of the decade in focus, chronicling the representation of African American freedom and oppression from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion by Bettye Collier-Thomas, is a groundbreaking book that provides a remarkable account of the religious faith, social and political activism, and the extraordinary resilience of Black women during the centuries of American growth and change. As co-creators of churches, women were a central factor in their development and as Collier-Thomas skillfully shows, Black church women created national organizations to fight for civil rights and combat discrimination.


God Is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler, edited by Aparajita Nanda and Shelby L. Crosby (forthcoming in June) examines Octavia Butler’s religious imagination and its potential for healing and liberation. In her work, Butler explored, critiqued, and created religious ideology. But religion, for Butler, need not be a restricting force. The editors of and contributors to God Is Change heighten our appreciation for the range and depth of Butler’s thinking about spirituality and religion, as well as how Butler’s work—especially her Parable and Xenogenesis series—offers resources for healing and community building.

The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, by David Howard-Pitney, shows that Black leaders have employed the jeremiad, a verbal tradition of protest and social prophecy, in a way that is specifically African American. David Howard-Pitney examines the jeremiads of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as more contemporary figures such as Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes. This revised and expanded edition demonstrates that the African American jeremiad is still vibrant, serving as a barometer of faith in America’s perfectibility and hope for social justice.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis examines inequality in America. The 1968 Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” In Healing Our Divided Society, Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, along with Eisenhower Foundation CEO Alan Curtis, re-examine fifty years later the work still necessary towards the goals set forth in The Kerner Report. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work—and not work.

Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin, collects passionate and justifiably angry voices providing a literary response to today’s political crisis. Inspired by and drawing from the work of writers who participated in nationwide Writers Resist events in January 2017, this volume provides a collection of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons that wrestle with the meaning of America and American identity. Who Will Speak for America? inspires readers by emphasizing the power of patience, organizing, resilience and community. These moving works advance the conversation the American colonists began, and that generations of activists, in their efforts to perfect our union, have elevated and amplified.

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