Beyond Belief: Faith in Texas: The Intersection of Religion and Politics

According to the Pew Research Center, about 60 percent of Texans say religion is important in their lives. That can likely affect voting.

To begin to understand the importance faith plays in public life in Texas, look no further than the state legislature. The days begin with a prayer and on the wall it says, "In God We Trust."

“Separation of church and state is different from the separation of religion from  public life. The constitution intends church and state to be institutionally separate, but people of faith are always going to bring their religious convictions into the political order because it shapes their concept of what is right, what is wrong,” said Matthew Wilson, associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Wilson knows the relationship well. He has authored a book about politics and religion and teaches a class on the subject matter.

“Religion affects the way that many of the voters perceive the world ought to be. And so, therefore, they bring pressure to bare on their legislators, to advance their conception of the good society, and the good life that derives from religion. On things like marriage, on things like human life, on things like family relation, also on school books, the way religion is talked about in history texts, sometimes in science texts, in social studies texts, ” he added.

The Pew Research Center also reports 77 percent of Texans are Christians.

The majority religion can influence state politics.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was elected in 2013 by an overwhelming majority.  Before that, he served as the state's attorney general defending a suit challenging the presence of a religious monument at the state capitol.

“A lot of people know that the way the constitution is written is there is freedom of religion. Over the past few decades there's been a growing hostility toward religion. The Constitution doesn't guarantee hostility towards religion, and so I fought back against that hostility. That's why I fought back to defend the 10 Commandments monument on the Texas capital grounds all the way to the Supreme Court and won,” said Abbott.

Pastor Bill Lovell is very familiar with the intersection of religion and public life.  He is the Pastor at Christ Church in Carrollton and a former Republican party chair in Carrollton as well.

“I am all for Christians who want to specifically bring Christian thinking to a particular issue. I am all for them running and I am all for them being elected,” said Lovell.

But should the beliefs of one group be turned into legislation that does not reflect the beliefs of all faiths in Texas?

“It is absolutely fair. I think we live in a democracy and people get to vote on what they want to vote on. We have a constitution that controls those things,” said Lovell.  "But I am all for people of every faith. I am a Christian. I will vote in line with those convictions, but I am all for people of other faiths having a role, voice in public discussions as well.”

In both major parties, Democrat and Republican, there is an understanding that faith plays a role.

“Peoples religions are part of their own personality and character,” said Dallas Democratic Chairwoman Carol Donovan.

Donovan knows voters pay attention to faith and values when it comes to voting. But she has frustrations with legislators who introduce bills regarding abortion, birth control and bathrooms.

“Some people, I believe, especially those who are extreme, try to make everybody like them. I mean, it is one thing to have your belief system and to pick your candidates accordingly. It’s quite another to try to pass legislation that is going to force everybody else to have the same belief systems you are,” said Donovan.

But Texas may be changing for a few reasons, according to Wilson. He points to a growing Catholic population, a big influx of people from out of state and more Texans who may not be religiously affiliated.

“I think as we move into the future we are going to see more of a kind of secularist, non-religious pushback against some of those things. So there will be changing dynamics, but religion is going to continue to be an important part of Texas politics for the foreseeable future,” Wilson added.

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