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March 12, 2010

Mark Chaves: What congregations are more political?

Just as the Bush Administration’s Faith-Based Initiative called attention to congregations’ social service activities, the 1980s rise of the Religious Right called attention to congregations’ political activities. The organized Religious Right is not what it used to be, but concerns and debates about the appropriate limits of congregations’ political involvement emerge every election season. Clarity about some basic facts might inform these debates.

In both 1998 and 2006-07, the National Congregations Study asked congregations about eight different kinds of political activities. The figure above shows the percent of churchgoers who attend congregations that have engaged in each activity within the last year (The voter guide numbers give the percent of people attending churches that have ever distributed voter guides). Some things changed between 1998 and 2006: churches became more involved in voter registration drives, Catholic churches became more politically active in general, and fewer of the voter guides distributed by churches were produced by Religious Right organizations. But I want to emphasize two things that have not changed since 1998, so this figure combines data from both surveys.

First, notwithstanding extensive media coverage of political mobilization within conservative churches, conservative white Protestant churches do not stand out in their level of political activity. Catholic and black Protestant churches, overall, are more politically active than either liberal or conservative white Protestants. About three-quarters of Catholics and black Protestants attend churches that engaged in at least one of these eight political activities, compared to about half of white Protestants, either conservative or liberal (Synagogues’ political activity rates, by the way, are as high as the Catholic and black Protestant rates).

Second, although political activity of some sort is common in American churches, religious traditions have different political styles. Distributing voter guides is the most common way that white conservative Protestant churches do politics. These churches distribute voter guides at about the same rate as Catholic and black Protestant churches do, but they are much more likely to distribute voter guides produced by Religious Right organizations. Two-thirds of the white conservative Protestant churches that distributed voter guides used guides from those sources, compared to only 1 in 5 mainline churches, 1 in 10 Catholic Churches, and 1 in 20 black churches. We tend to think of voter guides as a political tool of conservative Protestants, but mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and Catholics all have their own versions of voter guides.

Beyond voter guides, black churches are much more likely than white churches to engage in electoral politics by having a candidate or elected government official speak at the church, or by participating in voter registration drives. And Catholic churches are much more likely than Protestant churches to engage in the direct action and pressure group politics of marching, demonstrating, and lobbying elected officials.

It is difficult to say why religious groups have such different political styles. Congregations in highly centralized denominations may do politics differently than independent congregations or congregations in decentralized denominations. Religious groups also focus on different issues, and perhaps different issues elicit different political strategies and tactics. More broadly, religious groups differ in the kinds of church-based political actions they consider appropriate. All of these factors probably shape a religious group’s political style.

In any event, differences among religious groups in how they do politics seem more important than differences in how much politics they do.

Mark Chaves is Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University and Director of the National Congregations Study.

6 Comments

Defining Types of Churches

Professor Chaves,
Which denominations fit into which categories, for the black and white Protestants? I belong to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which is NEITHER evangelical nor "mainline"--but quite conservative.
And where are Orthodox Christians in this typology? They, again, are white but neither mainline nor evangelical.

What about the LDS Church? It

What about the LDS Church? It is neither Protestant, Evangelical or mainstream--and yet it is very politically active. In the late 1970's it was the LDS that was the most active and effective in the defeat of the ERA. In 2000, the LDS Church mobilized its members in Colorado to go door to door passing out literature opposing the legalization of medical marijuana. The LDS were those most supportive of Romney's presidential bid; during the primaries he only won in states (Utah, Wyoming, etc.) in which the LDS make up a large portion of the population. Most recently the LDS Church has mobilized it's over 7 million US members to fight against same-sex marriage. It is universally acknowleged that it was LDS Church activism in California that resuled in Prop 8 being passed.

Categorizing Denominations

It’s true that these categories are fuzzy, and the “mainline” and “evangelical” labels are imprecise. But I think these categories do capture real differences among Protestant denominations in views about the Bible, attitudes about adapting religious traditions to cultural change, and openness to working with government and other secular institutions to solve social problems. Perhaps “liberal” and “conservative” would be better labels, and perhaps placing denominations along a continuum would be better than putting them into categories, but every way of organizing and labeling information comes with its own set of problems.

Whatever the labels, the largest group in the liberal or mainline category is the United Methodist Church. Other sizable groups in that category include American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, and United Church of Christ. The largest group in the conservative or evangelical category is the Southern Baptist Convention. Other sizable groups in that category include Assemblies of God, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and Seventh-day Adventist. Mormons and Eastern Orthodox churches usually are not included in either category.

For more details about this way of categorizing Protestant denominations, see “The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State of the Art,” by Brian Steensland and colleagues, Social Forces, Vol. 79, No. 1 (September 2000), pp. 291-318.

Passion and compassion for the underdog?

It's interesting how North Americans use American English, freely banding around terms like "liberal", "conservative" and "evangelical" to mean things apparently quite different to what they mean to those who first started using the terms outside the USA.

In the UK, by contrast to the USA's Episcopal Church, the Church of England, while remaining a broad church, can still be seen conveniently as maintaining the High and Low Church divisions of the 19th century, the former always looking more closely towards the traditions of Rome; the former more associated with the upper classes; the latter with the working classes; the middle classes somewhere in between.

Evangelical Anglican missionaries, however, like the two 19th century Cornishmen, Bishop John Colenso of Natal, mathematician and Pentateuch controversialist, and his cousin William Colenso, the New Zealand printer, botanist and explorer, came from somewhat different English social classes, the former more middle class, the latter more working class. The former was highly educated in the formal sense, the latter an autodidact. Both men were highly political: passionate advocates for the Zulu and Maori respectively, in a way that I suspect would simply bemuse most North American Episcopalians, even those with any knowledge of Anglican Church history.

My take on North American Protestants today, is that they tend to be very tribal, very self-interested – looking after the underdogs of groups different to their own simply doesn’t cross their minds. How many prominent, white North American Protestants have dedicated themselves in recent years in any shape or form to the plight of the most worse-off native North Americans, for example?

Please tell me I am wrong. Perhaps such men and women simply don’t get much coverage during election time, in the NYT or anywhere else in the US.

What Congregations are More Political?

Reading through your chart is a real eye opener and all the facts being put out it is amazing how many are political in much of their thoughts and actions. However, is it not necessary to speak out when one is witness to injustice?

Evangelicals in Politics

The data(and Mr Chaves) did not make a judgement whether it is good or bad for congregations to have political involvement.

As far as speaking out against injustice... there are issues where one congregation speaks out on the opposite side of the issue than a different congregation. Which is fine. One thing we dont want is to have government deciding which issues and which side of an issue congregations should be allowed to speak about.

The "Evangelicals are too political" line is exposed as a myth by the data in Mr Chaves report.

Now we ought to wonder why that myth is promulgated. What is the reason for it? Who benefits?

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