A surge in faith-based lobbying

November 22, 2011

The number of religious advocacy groups in the nation's capital has
more than tripled since the 1970s, with conservative groups experiencing
the biggest growth, according to a new report.

Together,
faith-based lobbying and advocacy groups spend $390 million a year in
Washington to influence lawmakers, mobilize supporters and shape public
opinion, according to the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public
Life.

The study reflects shifting fortunes in religion and
politics: the rise of the religious right 35 years ago, the decline of
mainline Protestant churches and the outsized presence of the Roman
Catholic Church.

The largest category of advocacy comprises the
54 groups that either represent multiple faiths or advocate for
religious and moral causes without representing a specific religion.

Conservative
groups have seen some of the largest budget increases. The National
Organization for Marriage, for example, which has racked up victories in
its fight against gay marriage, saw its budget grow from $3.2 million
to $8.5 million between 2008 and 2009.

There are now as many
Muslim advocacy groups (17) as mainline Protestant groups (16), and
evangelicals and Roman Catholics constitute 40 percent of religious
lobbyists in and around Washington.

"Religious advocacy is now a
permanent and sizable feature of the Washing­ton scene," said Allen
Hertzke, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma and the
primary author of the analysis released November 21.

Hertzke's
report surveyed 212 reli-gious advocacy groups, ranging from the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops to the American Jewish Committee to the
American Friends Service Committee (Quaker). The number of groups
surveyed by Pew has grown from 67 in the 1970s to 212, and Hertzke
conceded that figure is probably an undercount. "We don't claim to have
gotten all of them," he said.

Using financial reports from public
tax forms, Hertzke said the biggest spender is the pro-Israel American
Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spent $87 million on advocacy in
2008. U.S. Catholic bishops were second, with $26.6 million spent in
2009, followed by the Family Research Council, with $14 million in 2008.

The biggest winners and losers—at least as judged by their budgets—reflect the turbulent politics of the last few years:

  • As the Obama administration took office and the recession worsened, the
    progressive PICO National Network boosted its budget by about $100,000
    to advocate for the poor, health-care reform and other social justice
    causes.
  • The nation's Catholic bishops boosted their advocacy
    budget by $1.4 million as fights heated up against Obama's health-care
    overhaul and same-sex marriage.
  • The Muslim American Society
    boosted its budget by 29 percent, and the American Islamic Congress by
    41 percent, between 2008 and 2009 as Islamophobia intensified in the
    form of opposition to mosque building and the so-called Ground Zero
    mosque.

Many religious advocacy groups are relatively modest
operations; the median annual budget was about $1 million for the 131
groups whose financial data were available.

Most groups split
their portfolios between domestic and international issues, with a
plurality (42 percent) representing individual voters or constituents.
Just 15 percent represent religious bodies such as denominations.

Despite
their presence in the nation's political capital, only a small sliver
of groups—7 percent—have formed political structures that are able to
advocate for or against particular candidates. The vast majority of
groups are tax-exempt and prohibited from partisan politics.

That
surprised Maggie Gallagher, cofounder of the National Organization for
Marriage, who traced the rise in religious advocacy to the political
ascent of conservative Christians in the late 1970s and 1980s.

"Not
everyone has to be involved in politics, but if you are going to claim
to want to be involved in politics, you need to build institutions to
accomplish your political goals," said Gallagher, who has been targeting
candidates who support same-sex marriage. —RNS