Church as Civics 101
Have Americans withdrawn from civic life? Have we become a "nation of couch potatoes," choosing HBO over the PTA, MTV over the YMCA? Political scientist Robert Putnam thinks so. Putnam argues that Americans have become increasingly disengaged from voluntary associations since the 1960s, spending more time in front of the television and less time with their fellow citizens. While surveys show that Americans devote less time to clubs and groups and belong to fewer of them, organizations such as the Red Cross, the PTA, labor unions, and fraternal organizations report steady declines in membership. Even worse, fewer Americans belong to bowling leagues, preferring to "bowl alone." 1
The publication of Putnam's article, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," along with a subsequent book, has led to a vigorous debate about the level of civic participation in America. Citing rival surveys, some scholars argue that participation in voluntary associations has actually increased.
Others argue that Putnam has focused on the wrong sorts of groups. To be sure, they concede, membership in bowling leagues and fraternal organizations has declined, but what about soccer leagues and Habitat for Humanity? 2
And what about churches? Religious congregations remain the most widespread form of voluntary associations in American society. Has participation in American congregations also declined? In Bowling Alone, Putnam estimates that "attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent" since the 1950s and 1960s. 3 Despite a temporary post-9/11 surge in religiosity, church attendance is back where it was before the attacks on Washington and New York. 4
But do attendance figures tell the whole story? In Congregation and Community, sociologist Nancy Ammerman argues that Putnam seriously underestimates the civic vitality of America's 300,000 congregations. Her own study found that many churches serve as civic places, "hosting community gatherings and political debates." 5
Providing even more evidence of the civic role of religious congregations, a growing body of research in the field of political science suggests that churches "function quite effectively as political communities." As political scientists Michael Welch, David Leege, Kenneth Wald, and Lyman Kellstedt point out in Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics, "overt political messages and subtext are often interwoven in the conversations among parishioners, the context of church bulletins, and other symbols (e.g., artwork and posters) of a congregation's collective stance on sociopolitical issues." In their estimation, the "most important role in this process of political communication is played by the clergy." 6
Indeed, for much of the 20th century, mainline Protestant clergy encouraged their congregations to get involved in public issues, preaching the "Social Gospel" and crusading for social change. In Martin Marty's terminology, mainliners stood for a "Public Protestantism," focusing on "the social order and the social destinies of men," while evangelicals embraced a "Private Protestantism" that emphasized "individual salvation out of the world" and a "personal moral life." 7
Much has changed since the 1960s. While mainline Protestant clergy are still known for their political and social engagement, they preside over a much smaller flock. Today much of the religious activism in American politics takes place in evangelical churches. Walk into many evangelical churches and you are likely to see copies of Focus on the Family magazine and Christian Coalition literature. Stroll through the parking lot and you are apt to encounter bumper stickers proclaiming "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart" and other prolife slogans. If it's a presidential election year, the SUVs and minivans may also feature endorsements of the Republican ticket. It would seem that evangelical clergy and congregations have become as politically engaged as their mainline counterparts.
According to The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy, that is exactly what has happened. The most extensive survey of clergy politics since the 1960s, the book—published five years ago, but losing none of its relevance in the interim—is an indispensable guide to the political attitudes and activities of both evangelical and mainline Protestant pastors. Coauthored by James Guth, John Green, Corwin Smidt, Lyman Kellstedt, and Margaret Poloma, it is based on surveys of over 5,000 clergy in four evangelical denominations (Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist Convention, Evangelical Covenant Church, Christian Reformed Church) and four mainline denominations (Reformed Church in America, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church-USA, Disciples of Christ). 8
Using a battery of theological questions (on biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Jesus and salvation), the authors divide their sample into "orthodox" and "modernist" clergy. One of the most striking findings of the book is that orthodox clergy are increasingly likely to report a high level of interest and involvement in politics. For example, 79 percent of the "most orthodox" and 83 percent of the "most modernist" pastors reported a "high level of interest in politics." Likewise, 95 percent of the "most modernist" and 92 percent of the "most orthodox" said they had taken a public stand on a political issue.
The political transformation of evangelical clergy from private to public Protestants can be seen most dramatically among Southern Baptist respondents. Between 1980 and 1992 the percentage of the "most orthodox" Southern Baptist pastors approving of protest marches "rose from 19 percent to 52 percent; of action groups, from 42 percent to 55 percent; and of joining national political organizations, from 31 percent to 42 percent."
While modernists were more likely to have formed a political study group in their church, contributed money to a political candidate and joined a national political organization, there were much smaller differences between modernist and orthodox approval of pastoral "cue-giving activities." In fact, the surveys show that orthodox clergy were more likely than their modernist counterparts to approve of pastors taking a public stand on a "moral issue," and more likely to say that they have endorsed a candidate from the pulit or publicly prayed for a candidate. The very denominations that have grown the most since the 1960s (the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God) have also experienced a surge in clergy activism.
Culture Wars and the Clergy
The robust civic engagement of Protestant clergy flies in the face of Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" thesis. Still, the question remains: which vision of civic life are Protestant clergy trying to promote? Are modernist and orthodox clergy engaged in a "culture war" between liberal and conservative visions of the common good?
According to Nancy Ammerman, the answer is no. In Congregation and Community she writes that "most of the people we met have simply not learned the ideological lesson that if they believe in promoting social justice, they should place less emphasis on witnessing; or—at the other pole—that if they believe in witnessing, they should be wary of calls for social justice." She notes that other studies of lay public opinion have found the same thing.
Yet that is not the picture that emerges from The Bully Pulpit. In fact, the 5,000 clergy surveyed were divided along precisely the ideological faultlines that Ammerman downplays as unimportant, differing significantly in their conceptions of "the role of the church in the world," or what the authors call "social theology." While orthodox clergy embraced an "individualist" social theology, stressing the "vertical" relationship of the "individual soul to God" and the "cultivation of personal morality," modernists were much more "communitarian" in outlook, emphasizing the importance of "horizontal" relationships among "interdependent individuals" and the "redemption of society."
The authors of The Bully Pulpit relied on a sophisticated set of survey questions on the relationship of church and society. On every one of these questions, orthodox clergy gravitated toward the individualistic response, while modernists weighed in as communitarians. Sixty-eight percent of the most orthodox clergy agreed that "if enough are saved, social ills will disappear," while only 19 percent of the "most modernist" group felt the same way. Likewise, 82 percent of the "most modernist" clergy agreed that the "Social Gospel is at the heart of the New Testament," compared to 36 percent of the "most orthodox."
These underlying differences in "social theology" were reflected in the political agendas of orthodox and modernist clergy. While orthodox clergy offered strong support for a "moral reform agenda," speaking out regularly on issues such as abortion, pornography, and homosexuality, modernist clergy were more likely to favor a communitarian "social justice agenda" of civil rights, feminism, and anti-poverty measures. Not surprisingly, orthodox clergy tended to identify as conservative Republicans, while modernists were more likely to describe themselves as liberal Democrats.
The political columnist E.J. Dionne argues that the contemporary American political debate has "revolved around what sins should matter most to us as a society." While "liberals have tended to emphasize one set of sins: materialism, prejudice, racism, sexism, a lack of individual and social generosity," conservatives have emphasized "a different set of sins: personal irresponsibility, hedonism, a lack of regard for the importance of family life and the responsibilities of parenthood."
Without much modification, Dionne's characterization of liberal and conservative views of sin could be applied to the politics of Protestant clergy. While modernist clergy have tended to focus on the sins of economic injustice and environmental degradation, their orthodox counterparts have focused on lapses in individual morality.
"Re-Forming the Center"?
Recently, a number of mainline Protestant and evangelical scholars have written hopefully about "re-forming the center" of American Protestantism. Rejecting the polarities of the culture wars, they have sought a middle ground between the social justice and moral reform agendas. In light of the political and religious polarization reported in The Bully Pulpit, what role can Protestant clergy play in articulating a centrist vision of American politics?
While documenting deep divisions between liberal and conservative Protestant clergy, Guth et al. offer at least some hope for a re-formed center. They note that "many orthodox clergy are quite supportive of many social justice policies," adding that "there is—at least in theory—some possibility of broader liberal coalitions, but only if conservative clergy become convinced that these issues deserve attention and activity." Though social justice-oriented conservatives rarely share such views with their congregations, the potential for them to do so is there.
Second, clergy affiliated with three small "ethnic heritage" denominations (the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the Evangelical Covenant Church) are noticeably more centrist than their counterparts in other denominations. According to the authors, such groups contain more communitarian clergy "than their orthodoxy would suggest, perhaps reflecting residual ethnic communalism." Together, these ethnic denominations have had a disproportionate impact on evangelical political thought. It is no accident that many moderate to progressive evangelical intellectuals have had ties to one of these immigrant denominations (especially the Christian Reformed Church).
Finally, orthodox pastors in mainline Protestant denominations have the potential to play a role in cooling down the culture wars. Though evangelical United Methodists and Presbyterians, for example, often find themselves embroiled in bitter fights at denominational meetings, they are often less conservative than their Southern Baptist and Pentecostal counterparts and thus are well-positioned to act as mediators.
In the final analysis, The Bully Pulpit offers both good news and bad news about Protestant clergy in the United States. On the one hand, it documents the impressive social and political activism of American pastors, casting further doubt on Robert Putnam's thesis on the decline of social capital. On the other hand, it shows that the polarizing divisions between liberal and conservative clergy have not gone away, despite important pockets of political and religious centrism.
John Schmalzbauer is E.B. Williams Fellow and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education (Cornell Univ. Press).
1. Richard M. Valelly, "Couch-Potato Democracy?" The American Prospect, March/April 1996, pp. 25-26; Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No.1 (January 1995), pp. 65-78; Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
2. For a response to Putnam see Michael Schudson, "What If Civic Life Didn't Die?", The American Prospect, March/April 1996, pp. 17-20. Schudson's piece (and three others critiquing Putnam) are available online at www.prospect.org/print/V7/25/25-cnt.html.
6. Michael Welch, David Leege, Kenneth Wald, and Lyman Kellstedt, "Are the Sheep Hearing the Shepherds? Cue Perceptions, Congregational Responses, and Political Communication Processes." In Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics, ed. David Leege and Lyman Kellstedt (M.E. Sharpe, 1993), p. 235.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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