DECEMBER 15, 2003
Politics in the Pulpit
Martin E. Marty
"Clergy As Political Activists" takes up most of the December 2003
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR), a special issue edited
by Corwin Smidt. Smidt lined up 30 social scientists to survey and report on
clergy: Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, African-Americans, "Willow
Creekers," rabbis, Unitarian-Universalists, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints.
Evangelicals made the most news. Had we data from 1947, when the late Carl F. H. Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, we would have found the fundamentalist-"neo-evangelical" antecedents of today's evangelical clergy massively, if not unanimously, opposed to tainting their gospel endeavors with political action; they considered it risky if not sinful. Well, it's about-face time. No more fear of taint or risk or sin troubled the clergy of 2000 election-time. They are often "cue-givers, community activists, and campaigners." And evangelicals are gathered, as a mass, in the administration's core constituency; they are "overwhelmingly Republican" and 87 percent voted, and 87 percent of them voted for George Bush. Only 16 percent reported no political action that year.
The team of eight who surveyed evangelicalism asked what their "civic gospel" contained. Here's what they uncovered: "That the United States was founded as a Christian nation, that free enterprise is the only economic system truly compatible with Christian beliefs, that religious values are under attack in contemporary America, that government needs to act to protect the nation's religious heritage, that there is only one Christian view on most political issues, and that it is hard for political liberals to be true Christians." On voting and opinion issues "evangelical clergy are monotonously predictable" in their Republicanism.
The mainline Protestants, on the other hand, support both social justice and moral reform, dealing with "issues of economic injustice, poverty, and rights," but putting less energy than evangelical clergy into "issues addressing the human body and family arrangements." They are significantly less involved with political activism and cue-giving than evangelicals; "fully one-fifth ... report no political activity whatsoever in 2000." Who are the voters for Bush? In the six mainline denominations, they break down as follows: American Baptist, 63 percent; Reformed Church in America, 64 percent; Presbyterian Church-USA, 42 percent; United Methodist Church, 46 percent; Disciples of Christ, 29 percent; and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, 26 percent (my church home). How about Republican identification? In the same order, they are 41 percent, 43 percent, 27 percent, 25 percent, 18 percent, and 14 percent.
More predictable are the counter-weights to evangelicalism, notably "Black clergy," 85 percent of whom voted for Gore. Most are "enthusiastic about their roles as community leaders," as "locally-based, activist preachers." They are rather conservative on "moral" issues and very liberal on "justice" issues. Rabbis "remain part of a core Democratic constituency," with only a "very few conservative rabbis" identifying with or voting with the GOP. "Most Catholic priests," more of whom voted Democratic than GOP, "appear to hold 'liberal' positions on issues such as the death penalty, race relations, or government assistance to the poor, and 'conservative' positions on issues such as abortion, educational choice, or school prayer."
I wish we had space to report on the other surveyed clergy, but I think these patterns, for all the relativity that goes into survey-research, look billboard-size clear and sound megaphone-amplified loud. The day when clergy were seen as aloof from or above politics, unwilling to get their hands dirty and extremely cautious about giving cues to members (who may or may not pay attention), is past. And the clergy of various religious communities are seriously divided as they line up with parties and issues.
Editor's Note: Find the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in libraries or consult http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/.