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Lyman A. Kellstedt, James L. Guth, Corwin E. Smidt, and John C. Green

The Bully Pulpit, Revisited

Clergy and politics in the United States: new trends.

For students of religion and American politics, ironies abound. In a recent New York Times column, Charles M. Blow trumpeted the "Rise of the Religious Left," joining a bevy of liberal commentators and political strategists congratulating the Democratic Party for attracting religious voters to counter the power of the Christian Right. At the very same time, sociologist James Davison Hunter's To Change the World criticized both Left and Right as too fixated on politics and too likely to conceive of "power" in narrow political, rather than cultural, terms. Despite a profound difference of perspective, both Blow and Hunter assumed the centrality of religious institutions and their leaders in the process of "changing the world."

Clergy occupy strategic positions in both politics and culture: they are key intermediaries between the public and political leaders and they influence parishioners' attitudes by word and deed. Thus, they provide the regular guidance on political candidates and public policy that Charles Blow expects, as well as shaping the broader cultural formations that Hunter emphasizes.

Personal experience certainly suggests that clergy do both. We know one pastor who over a long career never mentioned political issues in his sermons, but during election years festooned the parsonage with campaign signs for all to see. Or, on the Sunday after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, one of us attended a church service that felt like a Republican campaign rally. The congregation cheered loudly in response to the pastor's query, "Isn't it wonderful to have such a godly man in the White House?" Another author regularly hears sermonic admonitions about "creation care" as a Christian responsibility, a more subtle effort to shape laity culture. No doubt readers can add their own examples.

As social scientists, however, we need to confirm such anecdotal evidence with rigorous analysis of representative national surveys. For three decades we have conducted an extended study of clerical politics, involving over twenty denominations. Perhaps the most valuable insights come from ministers in the seven major Protestant churches we polled during the presidential elections of 1988, 2000, and 2008. These include the largest evangelical and mainline denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the United Methodist Church (UMC), respectively; as well as the Assemblies of God (AOG), the largest white Pentecostal denomination; two Reformed bodies, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA); the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), the largest Presbyterian group, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although not fully representative of all Protestant clergy, these ministers span the theological spectrum.

In The Bully Pulpit (1997), we documented the extensive political activity of clergy. Most pastors are very interested in politics, have strong convictions about public issues and often talk about them with their congregations. We found that "orthodox" clergy stressed "moral reform" issues (abortion, gay rights, gambling, evolution, sex education), while "modernists" spotlighted "social justice" concerns (poverty, healthcare, the environment, affirmative action). In addition to activities inside their churches, pastors often engaged in outside political endeavors, even working in partisan electoral campaigns.

A key finding was the centrality of Protestant orthodoxy in structuring pastoral politics. Orthodox ministers (those with high views of Scripture and strong adherence to traditional doctrines, such as the virgin birth and the exclusive role of Jesus in providing salvation) were strongly Republican and conservative, while modernist pastors (those less committed to such doctrines or even rejecting them) backed the Democrats and liberal causes. Indeed, orthodoxy trumped all other explanations for clergy political alignments. In a real sense, the theological "two-party" system that historian Martin Marty saw emerging from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early twentieth century had, by the 1980s, become a political two-party system as well, as theological perspectives morphed into political alignments.

Has any of this changed? One intriguing finding of our 2008 survey is that adherence to Protestant orthodoxy has actually increased somewhat in these churches (excepting only the invariably orthodox Assemblies pastors). Although the picture varies by denomination, greater orthodoxy among new clergy and the retirement of liberal "New Breed" ministers of the 1960s have offset growing numbers of less orthodox female clergy and those with advanced seminary degrees. These changes suggest, on balance, a slightly more conservative political posture by Protestant ministers in the 21st century.

But old battles over orthodoxy may not explain fully today's clerical alignments. As any reader of the religious press knows, new issues involving the roles of women and gays in the church, as well as the influences of feminist, liberationist, and environmental theologies, have increasingly split denominations. We'll use the rubric "new liberal theology" to encompass these complex currents. We might well expect these perspectives to modify, if not supplant, the old dividing lines over orthodoxy in explaining clergy political behavior today.

To map the penetration of these new currents, we asked several questions about key tenets of liberal perspectives. Between our 2000 and 2008 surveys, adherence to these views was fairly stable (our limited questions did not permit us to say much about the situation in 1988). For the most orthodox denominations—the AOG and SBC—support for such new perspectives actually declined over the decade, as it has, marginally, for UMC pastors. On the other hand, slight increases occurred among evangelical CRC ministers and among the mainline RCA and PCUSA clergy. Disciples of Christ pastors retained the same strong support for new liberal trends that they exhibited in 2000, the highest among the seven denominations.

To examine the impact of theology on political behavior, we generated both orthodoxy and new liberal theology measures, scored from zero to one hundred.Orthodoxy scores range from a remarkably high 99 and 97 for the Assemblies and Southern Baptists to 56 and 52 for the PCUSA and Disciples, with the three other denominations falling in between. Thus, even for the mainline ministers, scores lean in an orthodox direction. On the liberal theology measure, only the United Methodists, PCUSA, and Disciples clergy have scores that point in a liberal direction—51, 58, and 59 respectively. In contrast, Assemblies and Southern Baptist pastors score 29 and 27 respectively, indicating little support.

Although the old orthodoxy and the new theology measures are conceptually distinct, they are correlated fairly strongly. Nevertheless, their relative influence appears to have shifted: in 2000, orthodoxy was almost invariably the best predictor of political attitudes, but in 2008 that advantage is confined to moral issues (abortion, gay rights, teaching creationism), while the "new liberalism" has more influence on domestic and foreign policies.

To illustrate the joint impact of these theological measures, we used six items from each set in an expanded index of "traditionalism-modernism." This procedure produces a distribution of pastors weighted toward the traditionalist side, but for purposes of illustration, we divide them into quintiles, with twenty percent in each category, ranging from the most traditionalist clergy to the consistently modernist.

How does theology shape clergy politics? Party identification is the best single predictor of political attitudes and behavior, and in these seven denominations Republicans have an advantage overall. Nevertheless, traditionalists are overwhelmingly Republican, while modernists favor the Democrats by almost the same lopsided margin. A similar pattern appears in the 2008 presidential vote, with McCain enjoying a solid margin among all clergy in these seven denominations, but with ministers once again starkly divided by theology.

Not surprisingly, the same tendencies appear on critical issues. On same-sex marriage, the most traditionalist clergy almost unanimously support "traditional" marriage, while the most modernist have a solid majority for same-sex marriage, with the remainder favoring civil unions. The intermediate groups vary predictably, depending on their degree of traditionalism or modernism. And on this issue, traditionalists are much more likely to "speak out" than are modernists. This same pattern of conservative views and vocal activism by traditionalists extends to other "moral reform" issues, such as abortion, teaching scientific creationism, and sex education in schools.

Foreign policy reveals similar divisions. Queried as to whether "the current war in Iraq is fully justified," a majority said "no," favoring the "modernist" response. Nevertheless, the same theological structuring appears, with traditionalists more inclined to see the war as just and modernists almost unanimously on the other side. Here modernists had the activity advantage, being much more vocal. On the legitimacy of preemptive military action by the United States, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, greater military spending, and support for the United Nations, traditionalists take more "militant" positions and modernists opt for less reliance on the military and more on the UN. Once again, modernists speak out publicly on such issues more often than traditionalists do, with only the latter's strong support for Israel an exception.

Pundits often argue that religious views are irrelevant to domestic policy. To test that notion, we considered two hot topics—government sponsorship of health care and stricter environmental regulation. On health care, the clergy split almost evenly, with a crucial small undecided group. On the environment, a clear plurality favors stronger regulation. But once again, in both instances, theology structures policy choices. Traditionalists overwhelmingly oppose government-sponsored health care and stricter environmental rules, while the most modernist favor both—almost unanimously. Similar patterns appear on other domestic issues, whether affirmative action, the rights of women, government assistance for minorities, or welfare reform. And on all these questions, modernists are much more likely to express their views publicly.

Our analysis produces a consistent pattern for 2008: theological traditionalists are closely aligned with the Republican Party and take conservative stances on issues, while theological modernists are very Democratic and solidly liberal on key policy questions. In this respect, the results replicate those in The Bully Pulpit. Nevertheless, looking at 2008 alone misses two important developments over time. First, the clergy are more polarized politically than they were in 1988, both reflecting and perhaps contributing to the national political divisions so lamented by many observers. And second, this polarization reflects wider theological divisions, especially over the new theological agenda. While divisions over orthodoxy will no doubt continue to influence the "moral reform agenda," the new liberal theology is producing wider gaps on foreign and domestic policy issues, ranging from the proper international role of the United States to the way we shape our economic and public welfare institutions.

All this would not matter much if the clergy were talking to themselves. But the divisions among clergy increasingly characterize laity as well, creating a true religious "restructuring" of American politics. In that restructuring, columnist Blow would find a good bit of reassurance and sociologist Hunter would discover much to analyze (and deplore). For us, that is a story for another installment.

Lyman A. Kellstedt is professor of political science (emeritus) at Wheaton College; James L. Guth is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Furman University; Corwin E. Smidt is Paul B. Henry Chair in Christianity and Politics and Executive Director, Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College; John C. Green is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron and serves as senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. They have written extensively on religion and politics in the United States for over thirty years.

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