Mark Chaves: What makes congregations march?

Not surprisingly, abortion and homosexuality. More surprisingly, international aid and poverty. And few actually demonstrate over anything.

According to a recent news report by Yonat Shimron of the “Raleigh News and Observer,” William Barber, the African American clergyman who leads North Carolina’s NAACP, urged a meeting of ministers from mostly mainline churches to bring their congregations to a march that will call attention to the state’s unemployment crisis and protest the Wake County school board’s plan to end its diversity policy.

How common is this sort of political activity among congregations? And what issues lead congregations to participate in marches or lobby elected officials? What issues move congregations from the sanctuary to the streets or into the offices of elected officials?

In the 2006-07 National Congregations Study, when a congregation reported that they lobbied elected officials or participated in a demonstration or march within the last year, we asked what issues they worked on. Their answers are revealing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, abortion is by far the most common issue that marching or lobbying congregations marched or lobbied about. One in three of all congregations that engaged in these activities focused on abortion. Almost all of this activity was on the pro-life rather than the pro-choice side of the debate.

The rest of the list may be more surprising. International affairs is the second most common type of issue mentioned (perhaps because this survey was conducted during a wave of protest against the Iraq war), with poverty and homosexuality close behind. About two-thirds of church involvement on gay and lesbian issues opposes equal rights for gays and lesbians; about one third supports equal rights. Interestingly, recent religious attention to environmental issues has not yet led many churches to demonstrate or lobby. Fewer than 1% of lobbying or marching churches said they lobbied or marched about environmental issues.

There are denominational differences. Abortion is the main issue (by far) for politically active Catholic and white conservative Protestant churches. Education and poverty are the main issues for black churches and white liberal Protestant churches, and international issues top the list (again, by far) for synagogues and other non-Christian congregations.

Keep in mind that these percentages refer only to politically active congregations, and only 13% of all congregations demonstrated, marched, or lobbied at all in 2006-07. That means that, although 33% of marching or lobbying congregations focused on abortion, only 4% of all congregations (33% of 13%) marches or lobbied on that issue. And that is the most common issue named by politically active churches. Similarly, 17% of marching or lobbying congregations focused on poverty, but that means that only 2% of all congregations lobbied or marched on this issue.

So, even though political activity of some sort is relatively common in American churches, no issue in contemporary American life has led more than 4% of congregations to participate in demonstrations or lobbying efforts. Moreover, a relatively small set of issues accounts for most congregational political activity of this type.

So when an African American minister encourages liberal Protestant churches to march about education and poverty, he is emphasizing exactly the issues that, when these types of churches march, they are most likely to march about. And if he got more than 2% of these churches to show up for the march, he would have exceeded expectations for church participation in this sort of event.