Political scientists are discovering that clergy may be more influential in American politics than previously assumed, especially when it comes to the impact that women, “postmodern” ministries and evangelicals are making in the churches.
Those are a few of the findings from a special section of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (December) that brings together recent surveys conducted on the political involvement of clergy. The surveys, part of a project of the Henry Institute at Calvin College, cover most of the American denominations and the involvement of their clergy in political activity leading up to the 2000 elections.
On the whole, most clergy express an interest in politics and address such concerns in their sermons, but there is more variation in the political activity these clergy engage in–both between and within denominations. Clergy from evangelical denominations were found to be just as politically active as their counterparts in the mainline churches. They vote overwhelmingly Republican, but it is those evangelical clergy who hold a “clear set of moral reform issues” and are involved in New Christian Right organizations who are the most involved; the level of doctrinal orthodoxy has little effect in such involvement.
Most mainline clergy tended to be politically involved, but there was some unusual variations. Clergy from the Presbyterian Church (USA) were the most likely to express a high level of political interest, but they showed the lowest level of participation. Clergy from the Reformed Church in America were the least likely to express political interest yet showed the highest rate of political activity.
The more unexpected findings (largely because they have not been surveyed much) came from the pastors connected with the postdenominational, or postmodern, churches connected with the Willow Creek Association. These “new paradigm” churches (often megachurches) stress contemporary approaches to reaching out to seekers and include mainline as well as evangelical churches. The survey conducted by Lyman A. Kellstedt and John C. Green, found that these pastors are almost as Republican as those clergy from evangelical denominations. The Willow Creek clergy are highly involved in politics — as much as other mainline clergy — and their churches have among the largest number of social programs, which, the researchers write, “can add depth and staying power to such political efforts.”
A study on the political differences between male and female clergy finds that women are far more likely to embrace democratic politics. To the surprise of the researchers, women were no more likely to be involved in traditional church social work than men. They conclude that as women clergy embrace a liberal feminist approach to politics, often with a concern for gay rights, they may hold considerable influence both in politics and in their denominations as they wrestle with related issues.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148)