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Faith and Politics Do Mix

By Amber Veverka '90

The newspaper report was the kind of thing Corwin Smidt had come to expect.

It was the 1988 presidential election and a reporter had written about the influence one Protestant Christian denomination had on the results. The denomination was one of the most liberal branches of Christianity -- something almost any longtime practicing Christian would have known. But what did the report call the church? "Fundamentalist."

The imprecision -- and the ignorance from which it sprung -- is the kind of thing Smidt has sought to change by breaking new ground researching the way Americans' religious beliefs influence politics. Smidt, 51, is a political science professor at Calvin, chairman of that department, and the first holder of the Paul B. Henry Chair in Christianity and Politics.

The three-year term is the cornerstone of the Paul B. Henry Institute. The institute was formed in May 1997 with more than $1 million in gifts from friends and supporters of Henry, a former West Michigan congressman, who taught political science at Calvin prior to his political career. Henry died in 1993, from brain cancer, at age 51. The institute's mission is to encourage young people to consider applying their Christian faith in political study and public service and to promote scholarship in the field of faith and politics.

It's work Smidt warms to. Raised in Iowa, he is the son of a minister in the Reformed Church of America. At a young age, Smidt developed a passion for the political world -- and the way it is influenced by religious belief. "My high school yearbook goal was to become a U.S. senator," he said during a recent conversation in his college office. "I grew up in a very religious environment and that obviously contributed to my interests. I was interested in politics. When I started high school in 1960 it was the Kennedy-Nixon year. There was a lot of discussion about the role of a Roman Catholic running for president."

Smidt earned a Ph.D. in politics in Iowa and, when he didn't find work in his home state after graduation, moved to Michigan and abandoned the idea of running for office. He's now in his 21st year at Calvin. He and his wife, Marilyn, have a daughter, Andrea, a Calvin student, and a son, Cory, a high school senior.

Smidt's office is testament to his interests. Bumper stickers and campaign pins for Jimmy Carter, Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes share space with an "I Like Ike" button, a Hoover poster and dozens of other pieces of campaign memorabilia. Photos of Paul Henry and Abraham Lincoln are posted on another wall by one of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party certificates and a ticket to the 1920 Democratic National Convention.

Outside the classroom, Smidt has spent much time studying the way people's religious beliefs influence their involvement in the public arena and their voting habits. Most of the research, conducted by strictly controlled surveys and other established measures, just hadn't been done before. Too often, that which had been done wasn't done well -- influenced by researchers' ignorances about different Christian practices and beliefs, the way the newspaper report was in Smidt's example.

"For a long time, scholars just ignored religion," he said. "Part of it was undergirded by this notion that religion is a dying vestige of the past...Even today you still have to make the argument that religion matters." That is does matter, and matter dearly, has been borne out by surveys, Smidt believes.

Smidt and three longtime colleagues in the field, John Green of the University of Akron, Lyman Kellstedt of Wheaton College, and James Guth of Furman University, conducted a major survey of randomly selected Americans last year.

The team asked 4000 people questions that probed participants' religious affiliations, beliefs and activities; the extent to which their pastors addressed political positions; and their own positions on various candidates and groups.

The survey provided several interesting findings on side issues, among them the fact that fewer Americans are practicing Christians than is generally believed.

That's why this one, unlike some surveys, did not stop at asking what, if any, religion the participant practiced, Smidt said. Instead the questioner would query the person on the last time he or she attended a worship service and other particulars, to assess whether the person's claim of religious affiliation had its roots in actual practice.

But the overarching conclusion to the work, said Smidt, is that "social theology matters." "Social theology is how you choose to apply your Christian faith to the political world," he said. "And faith really shapes politics."

And shapes it differently, depending on a person's interpretation of basic Christian beliefs. For instance, Smidt and the rest of the team asked people,"If all people were to come to Christ, would all social ills disappear?"

"The answer to this makes a difference in what they (think) needs to be done in government," Smidt said.

The team also found that individual churches can be powerful motivators in members' political lives; worship services remain the most common weekly gathering in America and influences from them are strong. Seemingly small things proved this, such as the fact that churches that stacked political literature in the back of the building for members to take home tended to produce members more likely to vote than those churches that didn't.

Smidt has co-authored several books on faith and politics, including "The New Religious Order in American Politics," "The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Preachers and Religion," and "The Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front."

As any researcher, Smidt is careful to be as scrupulously objective in his work as possible so the results can be taken seriously by others, he said. His role is different as executive director of the Henry Institute, because he is actively promoting Christian involvement in American political life.

"There's certainly a tension between a believer and being an objective analyzer," he said. "There will always be value choices which are made."

Fellow political science professor Doug Koopman said Smidt has added much to his field of research. "(For) a lot of people who don't understand Christianity and politics, Corwin has been there to offer his background and expertise and the fact that he has studied it longer than other people have studied it," he said.

Koopman is the Henry Institute's other staff member; as program director he will put into practice some of the center's goals and will study the role of Christians in political institutions. He called Smidt "unassuming" and "a great scholar."

Over the years, the climate that surrounds Smidt's research has shifted, becoming a little more hospitable to the idea that people's religious beliefs do make a difference in the way they respond politically.

"Scholars are beginning to at least acknowledge the type of work we're doing and, I think, respect it. But they're still perplexed by it," he said. "When you're working with over 2,000 denominations in the United States...it's a world which for many of them, is very foreign."

Journalists, too, have become more sophisticated in understanding the differences in Christian practice and belief and how they affect people's views on government and social policy, he said.

The Henry Institute's role in encouraging Christians to step out into public life means more believers will be in positions to advocate policy that conforms to their belief. That doesn't mean imposing religious beliefs on society as a whole, but it does mean Christians don't have to leave their faith at home, Smidt said.

"To deny us our Christianity is saying the central thing of who I am is denied in the public sphere," he said. "As a Christian, you have something to offer in terms of your understanding of the world."

Amber Veverka is a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press.


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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 12/7/97.