Bill Ballenger, who has been watching politicians in Lansing for close to half a century, had an interesting survey last week in his biweekly newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics.
He decided to find out how many members of the legislature are members of each religious denomination, something he does every few years.
What struck me as most interesting is that some people didn’t want to be pinned down as to what religion they were.
That was, he said, because some politicians prefer “to give the impression that the legislator could be affiliated with any number of faiths with whose parishioners she or he might actually worship from time to time.”
That’s an interesting concept.
Years ago, politicians often pretended to be liberal on civil rights in the north and conservative in the south. Maybe we soon will have legislators who are Muslim in East Dearborn, Roman Catholic in West Dearborn, and African Methodist Episcopal in nearby parts of Detroit.
But Ballenger did manage to pin every one down.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the religious divide isn’t all that different from what it is in the general population.
The largest group of legislators is Roman Catholic; they account for forty-six out of one hundred and thirty-eight lawmakers.
Most of the rest are Protestants, with United Methodists the largest group of these; there are seventeen of them.
There are well over a dozen other Protestant denominations, plus one Mormon, one Muslim, five Jews and one lonely agnostic.
Once upon a time, the dominant political denomination was Episcopalian, the religion of the upper classes at the time of the American Revolution.
These days, Episcopalians are well represented in Washington, but account for a mere three legislators in Michigan, all women.
Two are in the Senate: One, Tonya Schuitmaker, is a conservative Republican; the other, Rebekah Warren, a liberal Democrat.
When I was growing up enlightened people thought that religion had no place in politics, that this had been settled when John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic elected president.
But it matters in a different way today, because of the abortion issue and the power of the Right to Life lobby.
Ballenger, who himself served as a moderate GOP legislator more than forty years ago, thinks this is significant.
He observes “if Roman Catholics are added together with Protestant sects who are ‘pro-life’ on a variety of social issues, it’s safe to conclude that well over half” the legislature supports a social agenda more conservative than that of the general population.
Ballenger may not be completely right as far as Catholics are concerned; despite the teaching of their church, a number of Catholic Democrats are clearly pro-choice.
But it is certainly true that socially conservative Republicans are in power in both chambers.
Politically, however, that may not necessarily be a good thing for them.
Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, usually supports GOP candidates. But he believes the party may be dooming itself by talking about social instead of economic issues.
Half a century ago the leaders of both parties agreed we were far better off keeping religion out of politics.
In this case, the old days really may have been better.