Should churches get involved in political issues, such as the marriage amendment?

In a procession brightened with sashes and crosses, more than 100 religious leaders passed beneath the pines outside the State Fairgrounds last week, singing of letting their little lights shine.

The spiritual leaders were at the State Fair to rally against the proposed  constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the November ballot.

Bishop Ann M. Svennungsen, of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), spoke of seeking pathways in life as welcoming as the radical welcome Jesus Christ offers to all.

“The Gospels have always divided good people,” said Pastor Michael Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis, who also opposes the amendment.

Church leaders in favor of passage speak with equal conviction.

But can churches damage themselves by becoming engaged in a process, whatever the spiritual dimensions, that’s also political?

Some indicators suggest there’s a risk.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in March published a survey showing that slightly more than half of the public, 54 percent, believe churches should keep out of politics.

Back in 1996, exactly the same percent of the public indicated that churches and religious leaders should express their views on social and political topics.

But there’s more.

University of Notre Dame Political Science Professor David Campbell, who along with Harvard University Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam coauthored the highly acclaimed book American Grace, a study of religion and politics, notes a dramatic rise in the percentage of people, especially the young, who have turned away from religion.

“For decades, about 5 percent of the U.S. population said they had no religious affiliation. That has now risen to about 18 percent, and that rise has happened in just 20 years,” Campbell said in an email.

The best available evidence, including data Putnam and Campbell analyze in their book, is that people are increasingly turned off to religion because they see it mixed up in partisan politics, Campbell explained.

Indeed, between 2006 and 2011, while the percentage of people turned off by religion increased modestly, religious disenchantment among younger people increased fivefold.

Evidence suggests they’re reacting to perceived flaws in the religious right, Campbell and Putnam noted in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

“Interestingly, though, we have also seen a sharp decline in the amount of politicking in churches (and all places of worship) over the last five years or so, which suggests that clergy have recognized the danger in mixing too much Caesar in place of God,” Campbell said in the email.

Minnesota pastors and religious leaders, while in general not dismissive of the idea that churches can be sullied through political activity, appraise the risks differently.

“I think we’re all uncomfortable,” Pastor Tegeder said.

But churches have always reacted to events in society, he said.

Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader, came out of the African-American Baptist church.

He witnessed or presided at thousands of  marriages, explained Tegeder, and it’s the commitment, not the sexes, that’s sacred.

Pastor Deb Stehlin of Light of the World (ELCA) Lutheran Church in Farmington, indicated she understood her personal advocacy for defeating the proposed amendment could be misunderstood.

“There’s a risk,” she said.

Still, she remembers church leaders urging young ministers not to confine their faith within the walls of the church but live it in the larger world.

“I still hear my bishop’s voice,” she said.

Stehlin bases her advocacy against the amendment on her understanding of God as revealed by Jesus Christ — all loving, all embracing, she explained.

“God doesn’t really have any favorites,” Stehlin said.

Beyond this, her advocacy stems from the unfairness confronting same-sex couples — things like having no say in the medical treatment of spouses.

Pastor Jeff Evans of Christ Church Twin Cities in Edina bases his support for the marriage amendment as keeping faith with the teachings of the Bible.

“We really see it as a nonpolitical issue,” Evans said.

“We are not of the donkey or elephant,” he said of ties to the Democratic or Republican parties.

“We are of the Lamb,” Evans said, referring to  Christ.

Rather than the divisive issue critics claim, the proposed amendment has brought churches together, he said.

It’s dangerous for any church to become politicized, said Minnesota Catholic Conference Executive Director Jason Adkins, but that simply is not the case with the conference’s support of the marriage amendment.

To argue the conference was somehow a branch of the Republican Party is “completely false,” he said.

For one thing, the proposed amendment isn’t partisan in a traditional sense, he explained.

Many Democrats support it, Adkins said.

Indeed, the Democratic-leaning Iron Range is a citadel of support, he argued.

The “vast majority” of church-going Catholics support the amendment, Adkins said.

Personally, he would rather be working on other matters — the conference is involved in issues ranging from immigration to health care — but it’s the advocacy of same-sex marriage supporters that has forced the matter, Adkins explained.

“It (marriage) needs to be strengthened and not redefined,” he said.

Still, churches or religious-based groups can damage themselves by too frequent contract with political issues, Adkins indicated.

“You must be very careful if you intervene,” he said.

Out of the thousands of bills that pour out of the state Legislature every session, the Catholic Conference becomes involved only with a double-handful, Adkins said.

One amendment supporter, Rev. Tom Parrish, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, who has testified on behalf of the proposed amendment at hearings at the State Capitol, spoke of a perceived ugly attitude among amendment opponents.

Every time he puts a “Vote Yes” sign up in his yard, it disappears, he explained.

“Fortunately, I have 25 more in the garage,” he said.

Religious leaders at the rally outside the State Fair charged amendment supporters were trying to shut down conversation on an important issue.

The rally was sponsored by Minnesotans United for All Families, an anti-amendment group listing dozens of religious leaders on its website as opposed to the amendment.

Minnesota for Marriage, a pro amendment group, has a lengthy list on its website of churches supporting the amendment.

The proposed amendment passed the legislature with overwhelming Republican support.