Church and state

CHURCH AND STATE…. About a week ago, at the candidate forum at Saddleback Church, the Rev. Rick Warren kicked off the event with a fairly straightforward message: “We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics.”

As it turns out, a growing number of Americans disagree.

For the first time in more than a decade, a narrow majority of Americans say churches should stay out of politics, according to a poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The results suggest a potentially significant shift among conservative voters in particular. In 2004, 30% of conservatives said the church should stay out of politics while today 50% of conservatives today express that view.

Conservatives are now more in line with moderates and liberals when it comes to their views on mixing religion and politics. “Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that previously existed on this issue have disappeared,” Pew reports.

The results are encouraging, and more than a little surprising. In the decade between 1996 and 2006, Pew Forum surveys showed a stable trend — a narrow majority of Americans wanted houses of worship to be publicly engaged in policy debates. Now, the numbers have reversed, and a narrow majority wants ministries to “stay out.”

There’s bound to be debate as to how this trend developed, but my best guess would be a combination of public disgust for the religious right movement and the unpopularity of George W. Bush, who has been enthusiastic in mixing religion and politics.

That said, I suppose the next politically salient question is how this might affect the 2008 race. The conventional wisdom suggests Barack Obama has been more proactive in adding a religious component to his campaign than John McCain, which might help the Democrat connect with the faithful.

But what if, after eight years of Bush, voters are moving in the other direction?