Does God really care who wins a political election?
“Probably not. I don’t think God takes sides. But it is clear that the values of people’s faith traditions impact how they vote,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Green will explore the question “How Does God Want You to Vote?” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at First Congregational Church, 292 E. Market St., Akron. The 90-minute forum, sponsored by the Akron Area Interfaith Council, also will include an interfaith panel whose members will respond to questions from the audience.
Scholars, like Green, have conducted research that shows religion does influence the way people vote. Religious values can inform voters’ decisions about a variety of issues, including who is taxed, what is regulated, how jobs are created and how those in need should be helped.
A recent survey by Pew shows that one in five Americans has no religious affiliation and that for the first time the number of Americans identifying themselves as Protestants fell below half, at 48 percent. Because unaffiliated religious voters tend to support the Democrat party, that vote could become as important to Democrats as the traditionally religious vote is to the Republican Party, Green said.
The group of religiously unaffiliated, nicknamed the “nones,” tends to be liberal on social issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, but mirrors the general public and religiously affiliated on its preference for a smaller government providing fewer resources.
At 24 percent, the “nones” are the largest Democratic faith constituency, with black Protestants at 16 percent and white mainline Protestants at 14 percent. Comparatively, white evangelicals make up 34 percent of the Republican base.
An analysis, compiled by Pew, on how the faithful voted during the 2008 presidential election showed the Democrats’ largest gains were seen among unaffiliated religious voters — 75 percent supported President Obama. The group also supported the Democratic candidates in 2004 (67 percent) and 2000 (61 percent).
Despite the growing number of Americans who are not part of a traditional religious denomination, the religious vote remains important. Seventy-nine percent of Americans identify with a traditional faith group, and many of the “nones” indicated they pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines.
The four panelists who will join Green at the forum said they hope to shed light on how their faith affects their decisions at the voting polls. They are:
• The Rev. Sandra Selby, associate pastor at Furnace Street Mission.
• The Rev. Joseph T. Hilinski, pastor at St. Barbara Catholic Church in Cleveland.
• Dr. Ghulam N. Mir, president of the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent.
• Surinder Bhardwaj, Hindu priest and member of the Akron Area Interfaith Council.
All four panelists agree it is not the job of religious leaders to tell the faithful how to vote, but that each individual is responsible for deciding who and what to vote for. That decision, they say, will be informed by the individual’s value system, which often is rooted in their faith.
“Hinduism is a faith in which the divine manifests in a great variety of ways. Any politician or issue that expresses diversity is closer to Hindu values,” said Bhardwaj, professor emeritus of geography at Kent State University. “Hindus ask God for enlightenment of their intellect to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. As enlightened individuals, we make political decisions based on what is right.”
Like Bhardwaj, Mir, a local gastroenterologist, said the Islamic faith encourages its followers to support issues and candidates who will contribute to the betterment of all people.
“Our values should guide us to vote for a candidate who is decent, honest, fair and just. Someone who is interested in empowering everyone and who lives with integrity,” Mir said. “One thing that religion should not do is polarize us. There should be no stand taken by faith leaders in favor of one party. People should be left to make up their own minds.”
Like all voters, people of faith vote for different reasons, Hilinski said. Those reasons also factor into the decision-making process.
“Everyone interprets their vote in a different way and everyone has to decide what their vote means. Are you actually voting for a candidate or are you voting to say something? And not everyone votes with the same seriousness. Sometimes it has to do with who has the power,” said Hilinski, who serves as delegate for ecumenical and interfaith affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. “But if you believe something deeply, it will affect how you vote — and that includes religion. I believe my vote should be cast with integrity and a sense of consciousness.”
For Selby, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, that consciousness is rooted in the great commission to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
“As people of faith, we are to look to the common good, not to what will benefit us individually, economically or otherwise, in determining how we vote this election season,” Selby said. “God is not a Republican or a Democrat, but he is revealed to us in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I think Jesus was pretty clear that we’re not in this alone. It’s not all about me. It’s about us, so I will make my decision based on the common good.”
The goal of the forum, which includes the four religious leaders and Green, is to highlight the importance of faith in the election process and to provide an opportunity for civil conversation within a diverse faith community. The event is free but registration is required. Go to www.akronareainterfaithcouncil.org or call 330-329-5132.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org