Power and the cloth Restructing Protestant America along ideogical lines

Jim Castelli

November 14, 1990|By Jim Castelli

RELIGIOUS GROUPS had a lower profile in the 1990 mid-term elections than they've had in recent years. But a new study shows that Protestant clergy -- of all political persuasions -- are a highly active political force.

Corwin Smidt and James M. Penning, two political scientists from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., examined survey responses by ministers from the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, the Disciples of Christ, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. They presented their findings in a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Nov. 9-11.

Smidt and Penning found a highly activist -- and, for the most part, polarized -- clergy.

First, they concluded, "it is clear that important ideological and partisan differences exist among American Protestant clergy."

In general, they said, ministers from the more conservative denominations -- Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God -- are much more ideologically conservative and much more pro-Republican. Ministers from mainline denominations -- Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ -- were much more liberal and pro-Democratic.

They found the most diversity among Methodists, who were pretty evenly divided between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.

(The Methodist ministers were particularly interesting for another reason: Smidt and Penning said they were "a clergy in political ferment." For example, while 59 percent of Methodist ministers who said they were liberals at 21 remained liberals, only 57 percent of those who said they were conservatives at 21 remained conservative).

A second important conclusion was that "American Protestant clergy tend to express more extreme ideological and partisan perspectives than their parishioners."

Smidt and Penning noted that there is a gap, long noted, between politically liberal ministers and their more conservative parishioners. But, they said, "such a clergy-laity gap was also found in more conservative denominations, with clergy tending to be more politically conservative and pro-Republican than their congregants."

The study also found that Protestant ministers have had dramatic shifts in ideological and partisan views over time. It compared current views with the views ministers said they held at age 21. In general, Smidt and Penning said, ministers in the conservative denominations became more conservative and pro-Republican; those in the liberal denominations became more liberal and more pro- Democratic.

Protestant ministers across the denominations surveyed were highly active politically, the study found. For example, 37 percent of Southern Baptists, 36 percent of Presbyterians, 41 percent of Disciples of Christ, 17 percent of Assemblies of God and 12 percent of Methodists said they worked actively for a candidate in the 1988 presidential election.

The study also found that 15 percent of Assemblies of God, 17 percent of Southern Baptists, 11 percent of Methodists, 22 percent of Presbyterians and 26 percent of Disciples of Christ worked for a candidate in the primaries.

Smidt and Penning said these figures support the belief of sociologist Robert Wuthnow that "there may well be a restructuring of American Protestantism into opposing ideological camps.

"Except for United Methodists," they said, "there appears to have been a collapse of the middle within the group of ministers surveyed."

This study suggests that American Protestant ministers will continue to be politically polarized. But polarization across denominations may be less important than the increased gap between the clergy -- both liberal and conservative -- and their congregations. That kind of gap is likely to lead to even more tensions between pastors and parishioners, a trend that has already been increasing in recent years.

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