March 9, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
While the number of Americans coded as "Mainline Protestant" has gone down (almost) twenty percent in (almost) fifty years, still (almost) one in five Americans and (almost) one in four voters are part of this often (almost) invisible cohort which receives (almost) no prime time or front page media and even (almost) no slot when pollsters interview and rank voters. You will see and hear more than usual about them, thanks to a Public Religion Research survey released Friday, entitled Clergy Voices: Findings from the 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey. Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox present their findings, which are active enough, but in their own way.
Until around 1960 this cluster dominated much public discourse, as it does not today. Happily, Jones and Cox don't waste any of their thirty-five pages revisiting the overdone analysis of reasons for their relative decline in size, status, and noise. Old stuff. The new stuff here is their set of findings about clergy voices and actions today (as of last August, that is). While the mainliners have enemies, mainly among conservative Protestants and think-tanks on the right, they go about their work in thousands of vital congregations and more struggling ones. Those enemies like to portray them as ideological leftists; Clergy Voices does not find them so. The word "diffuse" shows up in the reports. They have voices in public affairs, but rarely and mildly try to project or enforce social justice "dogma." Some see their limits as a result of lay reaction to leftism, but current members are not massively assaulted with radical preachments and policies.
Politicians who would organize and exploit them, as they do some other religious groups, would have difficulty doing so; constituencies vary too much by denomination, region, social class, and height of boundaries that might be used to keep members in and others out. Their members may have strong social justice commitments, but they blend them with those in other religions or in the secular order. Yes, half call themselves "liberal," because they are not afraid of the label, but a third are "conservative." Over half are Democrat-"leaning" and one-third "claim a Republican affiliation." No surprise here: More than three-quarters want the federal government to do more on the social problems front, especially in respect to environmental and health care issues. They fall into the "church-state separation" camp, and far more are worried about public officials who are too close to religious leaders than about those who are too far.
Four out of five speak up on hunger and poverty issues but-and this fits the stereotype-only one-fourth "often discussed the issues of abortion and capital punishment." They are friendlier than not to gay and lesbian people, and a majority supports their rights. Clergy? Ninety-three percent are still white, eighty percent male, only twenty-nine percent believe in biblical inerrancy, almost eighty-percent say they are strongly interested in politics, but most don't preach on specific legislative or candidacy themes. They and their members pitch in on other than directly political causes and prefer broad-based works of mercy through voluntary associations in church and beyond it. On the large screen, most "are firmly opposed to the war in Iraq and most think Israel has to make greater concessions to achieve Middle East peace. That, in our reading, is the solitary issue that prompts editorial and talk-show talk. They are generally for control of guns. Maybe that's a clue to the reasoning of those who attack them: Taking on guns, they attack what may be America's real religion.
Find information on the sponsoring agency of the survey at www.publicreligion.org; the survey itself is available at http://www.publicreligion.org/research/?id=167.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.