Faith Finds Its Way Into The Voting Booth Through Numerous Issues
On a recent Thursday evening, as commuters whizzed by on a busy Springfield street, a handful of activists gathered inside the First Unitarian Universalist Church.
“You’ll login with an ID and password, which I’ll give you,” Susan Schmalzbauer instructed the volunteers, who are part of Missouri Faith Voices, a multi-faith organization that pushes for equality across economic and racial lines.
“They’re getting ready to call people across the state,” Schmalzbauer said.
According to the nonpartisan project Patchwork Nation, many counties in the Missouri Ozarks are deemed “evangelical epicenters” — those are the spots with the highest concentration of evangelical Christians in America. Faith Voices tends to champion issues supported by Democrats, but southwest Missouri has long been a Republican stronghold, which often overlaps with the evangelical faith population.
Schmalzbauer is a Methodist, and Faith Voices is rallying behind Proposition B, which would raise Missouri’s minimum wage.
“One of the things we know is that our families need to have a living wage that is viable and that they can support their families on. And the current wage is not enough for a family to live on,” Schmalzbauer said.
She said many Bible verses urge Christians to serve the poor and downtrodden. When looking at candidates, that’s a major factor for her, she said: “It matters how you treat the vulnerable. Are you kind?”
Evangelicals like Georjene Tilton, who lost in the GOP primary for for Missouri’s 137th House seat earlier this year, looks to other things when it comes to the intersection of faith and politics.
“Can I just start by telling you that I’m a Christian: a nondenominational Christian, evangelical. And so, a strict Bible-believing Christian,” said Georjene. “And God set up three institutions: the Church — capital ‘C’ — the family, and government.”
A major issue for her is the federal government’s debt.
“Whether it be the local level, state level, or national level, because that’s a very important thing, especially in our country, where we the taxpayers own everything. So our representation is accountable to us as the taxpayer. And that is actually a Biblical principle,” Tilton said.
She’s referring to passages like Proverbs 22:7, which says “the borrower is slave to the lender.”
In Missouri, lawmakers are required by law to pass a balanced budget each year, but Congress isn’t. Tilton pointed to incumbents who haven’t reined in spending.
“Can we at least pass one budget where you’re just keeping it at the same level we are now so that we can start working on reducing it? Because don’t tell me in every single bureaucracy that you can’t reduce the budget. There’s a lot of waste going on there,” Tilton said.
She supports President Donald Trump, and even though the national debt has grown since Trump entered office, Tilton said she believes it will decrease over time because she feels Trump’s policies are leading to economic prosperity.
In Greene County, where Springfield is, Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by a nearlytwo-to-one margin; in some Ozarks counties, like Howell in far southern Missouri, Trump garnered almost 80 percent of the vote.
Abortion is another major issue, one that Tilton said that will affects her vote for the U.S, Senate race between Attorney General Josh Hawley and incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.
“I believe that abortion is the civil rights issue of our time. And I think it’s as abhorrent as slavery was,” Tilton said.
Like her more liberal neighbors, Tilton sees serving the poor as a Christian obligation, too.
Springfield is home to Council of Churches of the Ozarks, a group of more than 70 churches that provides join hands to shelter homeless women, responds to natural disasters, and feeds provide food to the hungry. But the need is still great, executive director Mark Struckhoff said.
"In just every category, I would say, demand for our services is up," he said, adding that even the area’s churches don’t agree on whether this demand should be met by the government, the faith community or both.
"My sense is that there is not a consensus about that — and my sense is that that's OK," he said.
For Tilton, it’s the church’s responsibility, not the government’s.
“What’s happened is that the church has abdicated that responsibility to the government, because the government has the power of taxation,” Tilton said, adding that she believes some government policies enforce what she calls “generational welfare,” or a cycle of poverty and dependence.
Schmalzbauer said she sees things differently than Tilton, due to her own faith.
“I think the churches are really good at acts of mercy. But the reason why Faith Voices is here, and why we gather, is because it gets really tiring pulling people out of the river who are in crisis.
“These are good things. The churches should continue doing these things. These are important things. But what is also important is why are people finding themselves in crisis in the first place?” Schmalzbauer said.
Both women agree on the need to reform or do away with predatory lending, or so-called “payday loans.” That’s been an issue in other states, but won’t be on Missouri’s November ballot. Nonetheless, Schmalzbauer and Tilton are taking notes on where the state’s political candidates stand on that issue.
This story is part of Beyond the Ballot, a collaborative reporting project by KBIA, KCUR, KSMU and St. Louis Public Radio about the motivations and desires of Missouri voters in November's midterm elections.