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Politics in the pulpit

Clergy are becoming more politically active, despite evidence that congregations prefer their pastors to steer clear of activism. Take our quiz to test your knowledge of the gap between clergy and laity on politics.

November 23, 2010

Editor’s note: Scroll down for quiz.

A new study finds that Protestant clergy, both mainline and evangelical, have become more politically active in the last decade. And they are doing so despite a growing disconnect with the political and social views of large numbers of their flocks.

While most people in the pews say they want their pastors to steer clear of politics in the pulpit, half of Protestant clergy say it is OK to take a political stand while preaching, according to the 2009 Cooperative Clergy Research Project. More than seven in 10 clergy approve of contributing money to a candidate, party or political action committee, the study found.

The Cooperative Clergy Research Project also found that just 32 percent of clergy said they held similar views on political issues as most members of their congregations in 2009. The figure represented a steady decline from 1989, when 46 percent of clergy said they were on the same page politically as their flocks.

Like secular political groups such as the Tea Party and MoveOn.org, clergy are moving away from the center.

“What seems to be happening is theological orthodoxy is increasing at the same time there is an increase in theological liberalism,” said Lyman Kellstedt, an emeritus professor of political science at Wheaton College and a lead researcher.

Yet recent research indicates that both liberal and conservative political activism can turn off people in the pews. Sociologist Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research said church members often report a desire for pastors to stay away from politics. For a lot of “regular folks” in mainline Protestant churches, he said, “the church is there for spiritual fulfillment, and if it’s not about that, the people go away.”

Moreover, there has been a growing body of research showing that politically active conservative religious leaders are turning off potential churchgoers, particularly young people. More than two-thirds of 18- to 23-year-olds in the National Study of Youth and Religion said too many religious people in the United States are “negative, angry and judgmental.”

But those findings are not stopping clergy from entering the political arena, according to the Cooperative Clergy Research Project coordinated by the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. Some 20 scholars have been involved in the project, which gathered data from 8,800 clergy in 2001 and 3,200 clergy in 2009. The United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church (USA) were among the denominations that participated.

The research project found that the mean number of clergy political activities, ranging from urging people to vote to civil disobedience, increased from about five in 2000 to just over seven in 2008.

Some researchers hypothesized that clergy with political views closest to those in their congregations would be most able to take stands on political issues. But what they found was that clergy who were much more liberal than their congregations were the most involved politically. Clergy who were somewhat more conservative than their congregations also were more active.

What is motivating clergy to become involved in politics? Seventy-nine percent cited their own theological beliefs, and 72 percent their own political beliefs, reported Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute, at the October 2010 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting in Baltimore. The finding is from the paper “A Diminishing Divide? Changing Perceptions of Clergy-Congregant Gaps on Economic and Social Issues.” Thirty-five percent said the duties of their positions motivated their activism.

Many church members would prefer that clergy stay out of partisan politics. Fifty-eight percent of Protestant respondents to the Religion and Politics Survey, 2000, said it is never right for clergy to discuss political issues from the pulpit. However, it is not necessarily a major source of conflict, researchers noted. The key, Smidt and Thumma say, is how well clergy meet the spiritual needs of congregants outside their political activity.

If clergy fulfill the spiritual and religious needs congregants have, Smidt said, members have greater tolerance for pastors’ political stances, even if their pastors’ views differ from their own.