Bell Shoals Baptist Church member Jeff Lukens admits his recent sighting of a car displaying both Obama 2012 and Bell Shoals bumper stickers surprised him.
Although the church doesn't officially endorse any political candidate by name, Lukens said Bell Shoals' stances on issues including abortion and same-sex marriage lead most members to vote Republican.
And, despite the tax exemption law prohibiting nonprofits from participating in any political campaign, Bell Shoals and other local religious organizations don't shy away from political discussion.
In July, Lukens helped organize a candidate forum at Bell Shoals, where candidates running for office in the Aug. 14 Florida primary participated in a question-and-answer session. The church invited all candidates from both parties but, of those in attendance, Republicans outnumbered Democrats two to one.
More than 400 people attended.
"Our members tend to go the same direction (politically) for the most part," Lukens said. "But it's about the views of the church and the views of the candidates and how closely they match up. If the church ever told people, this is how you will vote, I think they would rebel against that."
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Intentional or not, reports show places of worship do influence voters. A recent survey of potential voters by the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian research and polling organization, concluded that an individual's religion directly impacts their political views.
The survey showed that, although the abortion debate ranked last in importance among all potential voters, anti-abortion concerns ranked third among churchgoing evangelical Christians. When asked, half of evangelicals said they considered a candidate's faith a major factor, though only 23 percent of non-evangelical born-again Christians agreed.
Following the 2008 presidential election, Barna reported that the majority of Christian voters, regardless of denomination and including Catholics, sided with John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, while three-fourths of atheists and agnostics gave their vote to Barack Obama.
Among voters surveyed from other faiths, including Judaism, about half were registered as Democrats, 30 percent as independents and 23 percent as Republicans.
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Michael Gibbons, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Florida, said faith plays a definite role in the outcome of national and state elections.
"Don't underestimate the influence of religion on this part of the state," Gibbons said. "There is a group called United Christians of Florida and they have put out election guides. When it comes to the state elections, if a candidate can get a dozen mega churches on their side, they can be set."
Though United Christians of Florida is a political action committee, not a church, a note at the bottom of the group's "2012 Hillsborough County Sample Ballot Recommendations" page states, "please copy and distribute by print, email and Facebook for churches, clubs and polling locations."
Among the group's recommendations are Republicans Mitt Romney for president and Connie Mack for U.S. senator. The group also suggests locally known conservative Christian activist Terry Kemple for School Board District 7 and lawyer Ross Spano for state House District 59.
Both are members at Bell Shoals.
"As long as they (churches) don't endorse a specific candidate, then there can be somebody there outside the church with what happens to be a list of people who might be good to consider voting for," Gibbons said. "I think all religions seek to influence American politics."
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Candidate forums aren't unique to Christian congregations. On Oct. 14, Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon hosted Republicans, Democrats and no-party candidates running for Florida offices. All parties were equally represented, said organizer Janice Perelman. The 15 candidates in attendance spoke for four minutes each and answered audience questions.
In 2008, 57 percent of Jewish voters identified themselves as Democrats, according to a recent study conducted by the Solomon Project, a civic organization of the American Jewish community, and the majority considered themselves liberals. Perelman said she already voted by mail-in ballot, but prefers not to discuss her personal politics.
"We want people (Beth Shalom members) to make their own decisions based on being well-informed," Perelman said. "We don't put any undue influence on anybody to do anything."
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In contrast, Catholic bishops have gone so far as to withhold Communion from abortion rights advocates. Sanctity of life is just one moral issue the church considers pertinent.
On Oct. 23, Tampa lawyer Stephanie Martin presented "Catholics in the Voting Booth: the Call to Faithful Citizenship," at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.
The church doesn't engage in endorsing specific candidates, but Martin spoke about a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publication, which focuses on how Catholics should "form their consciences for voting."
The publication notes that "Catholic teaching challenges voters and candidates, citizens and elected officials, to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of public policy issues. In light of ethical principles, we bishops offer the following policy goals that we hope will guide Catholics as they form their consciences and reflect on the moral dimensions of their public choices."
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African-American churches also influence voters, with the majority pushing for President Obama without directly referencing his name. In 2008, the Barna Group reported that race influences African-American voters more than religion; churches focus their efforts on voter turnout.
On Saturday, the first day of early voting, pastors in South Florida were to gather for Operation Lemonade, a large voter-turnout operation.
And today, 44 Florida churches are set to participate in Souls to the Polls, an NAACP movement to encourage early voting. Church leaders will meet members and board buses headed for the polls in six cities, including Tampa. The effort also includes Hispanic voters.
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Gibbons, the USF professor, said he suspects religion's voice in the public square may get louder each year.
"It's an important debate — where do we draw the line?" he said. "In the 1960s, (John) Kennedy met with Southern ministers to assure them religion would not play a role in his job. Now, we have Republican candidates insisting their religion will absolutely play a role in their job."
Lukens, the Bell Shoals Baptist congregant, said politics has had a place at Bell Shoals since the 1980s, when the church hosted its first candidate forum. He said the goal is education and community involvement. No one will catch a pastor holding a campaign sign at the pulpit. Still, Lukens scratches his head when he thinks of Baptists for Obama.
"It happens," he said. "Everybody makes their own choices."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.