Sacramental Politics

Religious Worship as Political Action

by Brian Kaylor (Author)
©2015 Textbook X, 260 Pages


Religion and politics have often been called taboo topics for polite dinner conversation, but in political campaigns and religious services, the two often mix. This book looks at how religious worship remains embedded with inherent political messages and behaviors, showing that conflicts between church and state exist not just in the public arena, but in each sanctuary and house of worship. To explore this religious-political tension, the book first examines more obvious examples of worship as political action, such as when candidates speak during church services or when political parties hold prayer services at party events. The initial analysis acts as a foundation for the idea of worship serving a political purpose, and is followed by analysis of non-partisan and less obvious political worship services. Religious sacraments (such as baptism, confirmation, communion/mass, and confession) function as key moments in which religious participants pledge allegiance to a power that resides outside Washington, D.C. or statehouses, thus highlighting the alternative political messages and space carved out through worship.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Praise of the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Religious Worship as Political Rhetoric?
  • Doubly Taboo
  • Transubstantiated Rhetoric
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2. Religious Worship as Partisan Politics
  • Party Faithful
  • Conventional Prayers
  • Bully Pulpit
  • Freedom Isn’t Free
  • Riot Act
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3. Religious Worship as Public Policy Promotion
  • Mourning in America
  • Katrina Service
  • 9/11 Service
  • Church of the Rotunda
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4. Religious Worship as Political Messaging
  • Bishops and Pawns
  • Altar Call
  • Presidential Devotion
  • Political Harangue
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5. Religious Worship as Political Space
  • Space Exploration
  • Crossing Borders
  • Hymn of Allegiance
  • Third Way Space
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6. Religious Worship as Inherent Political Action
  • Shared Identity
  • Picking from the Cotton Patch
  • Common Politics
  • Psalter at the Altar
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7. Religious Worship as Politics
  • This I Believe
  • Summary of Sacramental Politics
  • Benediction
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The greatest influence on my research and writing has been Dr. Mitchell McKinney, who happens to be one of the series editors for this book. His mentorship during my M.A. and Ph.D. studies at the University of Missouri left an indelible mark on my style. That influence led to my dissertation winning several awards as a dissertation and a book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics). I am pleased he once again provided guidance and helped refine this present book. All errors or controversial ideas are, however, fully mine. I am also grateful for the many others at the Peter Lang team who played critical roles in moving this manuscript from my computer to published form, including Mary Savigar, Sophie Appel, Stephen Mazur, Jackie Pavlovic, and others who I may not even have known were assisting.

Other individuals have also been encouraging as I worked through this manuscript and as I sometimes talked out concepts (even though they did not always know I was fleshing out the ideas for this book). My colleagues at James Madison University, especially those in the “research group,” were particularly helpful. It was great to at least have support at the faculty level. Students in my courses at James Madison and in Bible studies at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church allowed me to talk through various issues related to religion and politics and often joined the dialogue with helpful perspectives. Also, I am ← ix | x → thankful for my encouraging colleagues at Churchnet and Ethics Daily as they gave me numerous opportunities that informed this book. Dr. H. K. Neely, the first Executive Director at Churchnet (then known as the Baptist General Convention of Missouri), took a chance on a young kid finishing up college and opened many doors for me.

Throughout this endeavor, I have been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of my family, especially my parents (Doug and Carol Kaylor), my in-laws (John and Ronda Credille), and my siblings (Cristina and Nate Earley, and Pam Credille). Most of all, I have been blessed by my wife, Jennifer, who puts up with a lot as I dive into various projects. I am thankful each day for her and Kagan.

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A couple dozen people gathered in the Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson, Arizona, on Pentecost Sunday in the spring of 2013. One of the holiest days in the liturgical calendar, the date celebrates the account in the biblical books of Acts when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples during the “Festival of Weeks” (celebrating God giving the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai). The Mennonites in Tucson—like Christians around the world—gathered to pray and sing as they reflected on that dual referent to the coming of God’s religious-political law and the Holy Spirit. They also joined Mennonites across the country in setting time aside that day to write to their congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.1 With paper and pen in hand, some grabbed a hymnal and others a Bible to have a hard surface on which to write. Reviewing public policy information provided by the Mennonite Church USA, each of those gathered started to write their personal letter to their state’s U.S. senators and their U.S. House member. As they wrote, their pens left words on the paper and slight indentions from their advocacy on the hymnals and Bibles. A few letter-writers paused to sip coffee as they pondered their word choices. Others sat still, thinking—perhaps even praying—about what to write. A white-haired man leaned over to read his wife’s letter as he considered what else he should add to his own. As they finished ← 1 | 2 → their letters, they marched forward—almost as if responding to a revival altar call—to add theirs to the stack. Soon, the church’s fax machine came to life. With electronic beeps and rustling of paper forming a unique choir’s anthem, the letters arrived in congressional offices. The topic of the letters—and their prayers that day—hung heavy on their hearts and on the minds of those in the nation’s capital: comprehensive immigration reform.

As Pentecost 2013 neared—which fell on Sunday, May 19—Washington remained abuzz with debates about comprehensive immigration reform. And so spring of 2013 soon blossomed with a mixing of prayer and politics, liturgy and lobbying, altar and advocacy. Hoping to influence the national dialogue, religious groups spoke out. Some conservative evangelical Protestants filled the airways with pro-reform radio ads while some liberal Catholic nuns hopped on the highways for pro-reform rallies. Working even more to blur the line bet­ween the holy and the civic, the Mennonite Church USA embraced Pentecost Sunday as an occasion for congregations to push for “fair, just and compassionate immigration reform.”2 Calling the effort “Prayer and Faxing,” the focus was to contact congressional representatives and urge them to back comprehensive immigration reform. Churches were encouraged to even write and fax letters during their worship services or other Sunday activities. The effort’s webpage offered resources to guide the writing of letters to be faxed, including legislative talking points and worship suggestions like prayers and hymns. One suggested worship service included a liturgical moment with several people lighting candles as they made immigration-infused spiritual statements:

1st Person: I light a light in the name of God who lit the world and breathed the breath of life into all people: rich and poor; documented and undocumented; citizens and residents—all God’s children.

2nd Person: I light a light in the name of the Son, the refugee, migrant, undocumented Christ, who saved the world and stretched out his hand to all people of the world.

3rd Person: I light a light in the name of the Spirit who travels with each one of us; the Spirit, who migrates with and blesses all souls; the Spirit of hope and love and peace.

4th Person: I light a light in the name of all undocumented persons living in the shadows, who pray unceasingly for life and legislation that will set them free.

5th Person: I light a light of hope that will illuminate this day and all days, so that no one in this country will have to live in the shadows but will walk and work and live openly, as welcomed sisters and brothers.3 ← 2 | 3 →

Given the spiritual nature of lighting candles during worship services, these statements function like a typical sacred moment, except for the topical focus on undocumented persons.

A much less politically-active group than evangelical Protestants or Catholics nuns, Mennonites historically shy away from overt political activism.4 Hoping instead to simply focus on the church being the church, few Mennonites have served in political office beyond city councils or local boards, and many Mennonites remain wary of political engagement for fear it will corrupt the faith. Yet, a church heavily composed of immigrants—often those who fled religious or political persecution—and a church historically concerned with caring for the oppressed, Mennonites naturally gravitated toward the immigration debate. A few Mennonite pastors made visits on Capitol Hill to advocate for immigration reform along with the small staff of the Mennonite Central Committee–U.S. Washington Office, an office that includes only five staffers, a couple of whom serve as volunteer missionaries with just living expenses covered. However, the larger effort undertaken by Mennonite leaders and churches came during church services and gatherings on Pentecost Sunday. While the Mennonite effort’s name (“Prayer and Faxing”) used a play on words to gain attention for the effort, it also paired the advocacy effort with prayer and associated it—through wordplay—with fasting. Additionally, putting the advocacy effort on Sunday added to the spiritual association. Therefore, advocacy became not just something Mennonites were to do because of their faith, but as part of their faith. Advocacy became an act of worship and perhaps even a spiritual discipline. As one of the documents for the Praying and Faxing effort declared, “The biblical tradition is one that instructs its followers to welcome strangers—as we welcome the stranger we welcome Jesus himself.”5 An act of advocacy on behalf of the stranger becomes a sacred moment of welcoming the divine. Can singing the Christian hymn “God loves all his many people” be a political act? Can praying to God “to grant our federal and state legislators compassion and wisdom as they consider various proposals for immigration reform” be a political act? Do the political implications of these acts negate their spiritual substance? Can prayer be political? Can faxing be spiritual? Can a sacred act also function as a form of advocacy? This book explores these questions.

As Mennonites prayed and faxed, some in Washington questioned the motivations of governmental officials embroiled in a scandal that broke during the week leading up to Pentecost. With the news that IRS officials ← 3 | 4 → targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups by delaying their taxexempt status applications and demanding answers to extra questions, a serious scandal erupted that quickly threatened to overshadow immigration reform and other legislative priorities. Two days before Pentecost, Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, added to the controversy by noting an especially provocative question asked of one group. Schock asked the IRS’s former Acting Commissioner:

Their question, specifically asked from the IRS to the Coalition for Life of Iowa: Please detail the content of the members of your organization’s prayers. Would that be an inappropriate question to a 501(c)(3) applicant? The content of one’s prayers?6

Schock misrepresented the question, but correctly noted the IRS posed a prayer-related question to the Iowa group. The IRS question actually asked this:

Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3). Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organization spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.7

The question was not, as Schock suggested, about the content of the prayers, but rather about the nature and purpose of the prayer meetings. Many have blasted the IRS for asking the prayer question, especially since 501(c)(3) groups are allowed to engage in religious activity. Yet, the IRS question raises an important consideration by suggesting that the prayer meetings are not merely religious, but also political advocacy. Can prayer, especially public prayer, be more than a spiritual act but also a form of partisan politics? Does praying outside Planned Parenthood (or a governmental building or the office of a public policy group) inherently carry political undertones and perhaps even an explicit partisan tone? While the content of a prayer could be political (by praying for or against a candidate), can merely praying in a specific space be political? This book explores these questions.

As congressional leaders debated IRS questioning of conservative prayer meetings and as chaplains led official congressional sessions in prayer, congressional staffers found the prayerful faxes from Mennonite congregations. While scholars and pundits often talk of the separating line between church and state to discuss where it should be drawn and how, religious worship ← 4 | 5 → serving as political acts do not neatly fit within the categories. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offers two religious clauses to govern church-state matters by both preventing the establishment and allowing free exercise. Yet, as numerous Supreme Court cases (such as the one examined in chapter 4) demonstrate, political, religious, and legal experts often disagree on the proper balance. Worship moments like the “Prayer and Faxing” effort add additional layers of complexity. Starting in a worship service and ending in a political office, these faxes seemed to cross the unseen church-state line as they electronically flowed through the phone lines. Or did these letters exist on both sides of the line all along? If prayer can be political and faxing can be religious, then where is the line? And what about rhetorical acts that operate in a more blatantly political sense (like prayers at a political nominating convention) or a more explicitly spiritual realm (like a communion or baptism service)? Can these moments simultaneously operate on both sides of the church-state divide? If worship—even services that do not include advocacy like the Prayer and Faxing effort did—carry political implications, then politicians, religious leaders, and scholars must give more careful—and perhaps even prayerful—attention to such matters. The literal Church Street in Washington, D.C., sits as a short four-block road several blocks from the White House, but perhaps the intersection of the figurative church and state streets remains much more complicated and congested than we may think.

Doubly Taboo

Religion and politics are sometimes referred to as taboo topics for polite dinner conversation. Yet, the two not only increasingly pop up in conversations at family Thanksgiving tables, in coffee shops, and on Facebook, but also frequently intermingle in these spirited chats. These discussions—and sometimes heated debates—also emerge in sacred spaces like Bible study meetings and in political places like congressional offices. While politicians speak about God and their personal faith in hopes of finding political salvation through the ballot box, religious leaders often play the role of political pundits on cable news programs or attempt to transform their followers into grassroots political movements. Scholars increasingly join political strategists and religious leaders in considering the implications of the intersections of religion and politics. Generally, these analyses focus on politicians utilizing faith appeals or religious leaders speaking out about politics. ← 5 | 6 →

It seems many politicians discover God every two or four years. With religion playing a critical role in some presidential campaigns, scholars have increasingly examined the faith appeals of politicians. Among those political leaders receiving the greatest attention have been John Kennedy,8 the first Catholic to occupy the Oval Office; Jimmy Carter,9 a born-again Sunday School teacher who often brought religion into his speeches; ministers Jesse Jackson,10 Pat Robertson,11 and Mike Huckabee,12 who all sought to move from the pulpit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; Ronald Reagan13 and George W. Bush,14 both of whom emerged as heroes for conservative Christians; and Bill Clinton15 and Barack Obama,16 both of whom championed the causes of liberal religion. Other politicians garnering scholarly attention for their faith appeals have included Ted Kennedy17 and Mario Cuomo,18 two liberal Catholics who attempted to explain their policy disagreements with the Catholic Church’s leadership; Joe Lieberman,19 the first Jewish major party vice presidential nominee; and Mitt Romney,20 the first Mormon major party nominee. Examining presidential campaign rhetoric from 1976–2008, I argued in a previous book that the most religiously outspoken general election candidate won each of those nine presidential contests.21 In this age of “confessional politics,” candidates are expected to use religious language that is testimonial, partisan, sectarian, and liturgical. Those who do not meet such rhetorical expectations and submit themselves before the public confessional have not had a prayer of winning the White House.

While some studies consider the use of religious appeals by politicians, others zero in on the political rhetoric and activity of religious leaders. In particular, the political efforts of Jerry Falwell22 and his Moral Majority23 have attracted scholarly attention, as well as the work of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.24 Other scholarly works have targeted the political communication of conservative Christians in general,25 Catholic bishops,26 and liberal evangelical Christians.27 With the religious-political infrastructure that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, religious groups—especially conservative Christians—have become particularly potent political players at the local and national levels.28 Such religious-political activism not only impacts public policy debates and decisions, but also places pressure on politicians to acquiesce to today’s confessional political expectations. With over forty percent of churches engaging in some sort of political involvement—such as inviting a politician to speak from the pulpit, distributing voter guides to parishioners, and registering people to vote29—such targeted political information can be particularly influential.30 Many pundits, politicians, and scholars talk about ← 6 | 7 → the “god gap,” a trend in most presidential elections where more frequent church attenders generally vote Republican and less frequent—or not at all—church attenders generally vote Democratic. Data clearly demonstrate how religious-political voting trends moved from being along denominational lines to splits along religiosity lines within denominations and traditions.31 Some scholars, however, question the pervasiveness of the so-called “god gap.”32 Other scholars argue that the factors often used in such analyses are biased toward behaviors that evangelical Christians prioritize (e.g., frequent church attendance, daily prayer, and Bible reading), while tradition-adjusted scales—those which test each individual’s religiosity according to what their religious tradition places more value upon—produce only modest differences.33 Scholars on both sides of the “God gap” debate demonstrate how religious activity—like worship attendance, praying, and seeking guidance from religious teachings—impacts political attitudes and behaviors. Overall, the extant research clearly demonstrates how religious leaders and groups of all political persuasions and across the religious spectrum are impacting political rhetoric and elections.

Mostly missing from scholarly attention are worshipful events that seem to ride underneath the radar of scholarly examinations of politics. Although not necessarily explicit efforts to bring religion into politics or politics into religion, these religious moments still come with political tones and implications. In particular, key religious rites like baptism and communion (also known as the Eucharist, Mass, or Lord’s Supper) greatly influence individuals’ identities and worldviews. Yet, only a few studies have even considered the political residue of religious worship. Paula V. Lippard explored the Quaker’s silent form of worship as a unique rhetorical style that led to, among other things, their influential political involvement.34 Using a biblical metaphor, she argued this small group has conquered large socio-political concerns: “Their commitment to a silent participatory rhetoric has enabled Quakers to perform David’s work in a world of Goliath social and political problems.”35 Richard Ward analyzed a church service in the midst of the Eastertide (the important fifty-day period between Easter and Pentecost in Christian liturgy) and right after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to consider the religious messages of the liturgical performance and their interplay with the political context of a presidentially-declared national “Day of Mourning.”36 Laura Reese, Ronald Brown, and James Ivers considered the radical political impact of black Christians worshipping in a politicized church and holding a theological image of a black Christ.37 Siobhán Garrigan examined worship practices ← 7 | 8 → in Catholic and Protestant churches in Northern Ireland to demonstrate how the worship practices—including songs, prayers, and communion—worked to undermine efforts towards social and political reconciliation.38 In a study analyzing an archbishop denying people communion in the midst of political and religious disputes, I noted the extreme salvific importance of communion within the Catholic tradition and the intermingling of religion, politics, and power within its offering and denial.39 And Patricia Ehrkamp and Caroline Nagel have explored the impact of places of worship on political debates about immigration.40

Despite the dearth of scholarly attention to political messages and implications of religious worship, such rhetorical performances could greatly impact political attitudes and behaviors. Scholarship already demonstrates correlations between church attendance and voting patterns, such as the so-called “God gap” with regular church attenders more likely to vote Republican (especially among whites), or the important role played by black churches in the civil rights movement. Additionally, research suggests that religious symbols can bring to mind political messages and actually affect voting behavior, such as one study that found voting in a church swayed Christians who voted in these locations to cast their ballots more to the right.41 Perhaps correlations of shared political voting trends among coreligionists cannot merely be explained away by factors of self-selecting associations; perhaps political beliefs are actually moved by the very experience of religious worship.

Transubstantiated Rhetoric


X, 260
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
church state tension
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Brian Kaylor (Author)

Brian Kaylor (PhD, University of Missouri) is the author of For God’s Sake, Shut Up! (2007) and Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics (2011). He is the Communications and Engagement Leader for Churchnet and a contributing editor for Ethics Daily. He previously taught political communication at James Madison University.


Title: Sacramental Politics
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272 pages