Read an ExcerptPulpit and Politics
Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2004 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.
Theological and Political Orientations of Clergy within American Politics: An Analytic and Historical Overview
Corwin E. Smidt
The advent of the new millennium provides an important opportunity to examine afresh the theological and political positions expressed by clergy within contemporary American life. Clergy have long been important forces in American politics, whether one considers their public pronouncements during the Revolutionary War, their championing of benevolent societies during the Second Great Awakening, their involvement in the abolitionist movement of the mid-1800s, or their efforts in the civil-rights era of the 1960s. Thus, the new millennium provides an important symbolic marker for a survey of the theological and political landscape within which contemporary clergy operate.
There are, however, more vital analytical grounds for examining the theological and political positions of clergy. First, clergy have important resources at their disposal to shape the political thinking and actions of their parishioners, and they enjoy ample opportunities to do so. Such resources and opportunities would be of limited political importance if clergy did not convey political messages or become engaged in the political arena. But, in fact, clergy do participate in political cue-giving activities (as well as in other kinds of political action) both in and out of the pulpit (Guth et al. 1997).
A second analytical reason for examining clergy orientations is that neither denominational life nor politics is static in nature. Old patterns of clergy involvement in politics may no longer be evident, and new patterns may emerge. Changing environmental conditions (whether in terms of varied economic conditions, deteriorating social structures, increasing global interdependence, etc.) may affect both religious and political life, altering the way in which the two spheres interrelate. Changes in the nature of the clergy ordained by each denomination (or in the candidates nominated by political parties) may affect the theological emphases advanced by clergy (or the political agendas advanced by candidates for public office). And changes in the nature of their constituents may change the ways religious and political leaders choose to relate to those whom they both serve and lead. Accordingly, the theological and political orientations of clergy at the turn of the millennium may well diverge from patterns discovered only a decade or two previously.
Finally, there are special historical reasons for examining clergy politics at the turn of the millennium. The specific features of the presidential race of 2000 provide an important basis for reevaluation. The election was highly contested and controversial and was unique in that it was the first time a Jew, Joseph Lieberman, was part of a national ticket. Moreover, religious themes, messages, and concerns were clearly evident from start to finish. For example, a leader of a Christian Right organization, Gary Bauer, sought the GOP nomination for president. George W. Bush and John McCain skirmished over the Catholic vote in both the South Carolina and Michigan presidential primaries. But religious considerations were not confined to the GOP nomination process. During the general election campaign, Republicans talked of restoring morality and integrity to the White House. Bush and Gore debated whether the government should provide vouchers for poor parents to send their children to private (even religious) schools, and both raised the issue of faith-based government programs. Thus, religion presented a much more public face in the 2000 campaign than in previous contests; as a result, the election serves to provide an important context for the study of clerical politics.
This volume contains chapters that examine the theological and political orientations of clergy in the election year of 2000. Each chapter analyzes the theological and political beliefs expressed by clergy of one denomination or religious body, their assessments about what constitute appropriate political activities for clergy, and the extent to which clergy in contemporary American political life are actually engaged in politics. Before beginning this examination, it is helpful to assess some of the different ways in which clergy can serve as political actors, discuss the potential importance of that role, and provide some historical background of clerical involvement in politics.
CLERGY AS POLITICAL ACTORS
The Political Roles of Clergy
Members of the clergy can be active in politics in a variety of roles. They may choose to make contributions to particular candidates or parties, join political associations, and exercise their democratic rights at the polls. In such matters, ministers enjoy the same privileges of citizenship as other American citizens.
Second, ministers may be political activists as a result of their leadership roles in local churches. The fact that many congregational members gather weekly enhances pastors' ability to politicize and mobilize their flocks, by expanding the opportunities both to educate church members politically and to advance their particular agendas. Whether or not a minister can shape the views of his or her congregants depends upon a variety of factors: the nature of the congregation, the pastor's personality, and the pastor's skill in dealing with the congregation (Vidich and Bensman 1968, 239). But recent research has suggested that pastors and local congregations can be important factors in explaining the political attitudes and behaviors of those who attend church. Clergy, in fact, recognize the potential influence they have over their congregations; ministers report that they could exert much political influence over their congregations, should they desire to do so (Djupe and Gilbert 2001b; Guth et al. 1997).
Third, ministers may also be political activists by virtue of their roles as "religious professionals" who help shape ongoing political debates. Clergy are professionals and, as a result, associate and interact with their colleagues within regional, state, and national denominational and interdenominational agencies and organizations. As religious leaders, ministers may collectively issue pastoral letters, statements, or declarations. Likewise, they may work to secure official denominational pronouncements or become involved in lobbying activities. Thus, as members of a particular profession, clerics may collectively seek to influence and shape the course of political affairs, whether with regard to matters that directly affect their profession (e.g., clergy liability in terms of pastoral counseling) or matters that are shaped by their religious convictions (e.g., speaking out on behalf of the dispossessed).
The Potential Importance of Ministerial Political Activism
Regardless of the particular role adopted, ministers constitute political actors of some potential import because of two major factors: they possess important political resources, and they enjoy important opportunities to influence others.
Clergy possess important resources on which they can draw should they try to mobilize others for political ends. First, ministers tend to be highly educated, possessing important verbal and analytical skills. As a result, they are not only more likely to engage in ideological thinking than many of their parishioners with less schooling (Guth et al. 1997), but they are better able to frame issues within broader systems of thought of their own particular choosing.
Second, clergy have access to important resources that can be used for political purposes. Church rooms and auditoriums can be used for political gatherings, bulletin announcements can solicit volunteers, and church buses can transport church members to the polls (Wald 1991).
Third, ministers are expected to be models of high moral character. Honesty in language and deed are expected. Clergy are generally viewed as individuals who are aware of, and concerned about, the moral conditions of the world around them. They are not expected, therefore, to sit passively while moral standards decline; rather, it is assumed that pastors should take a stand and draw lines between that which should be embraced and that which should be shunned.
Fourth, ministers have traditionally been accorded a certain respect within American culture, by both those within and outside the church. Given this relatively high esteem in which clergy are held, not only will the political messages they transmit likely be given a respectful hearing, but they may be accorded substantial credibility as well (Wald et al. 1988).
In addition to possessing important political resources, pastors also enjoy significant opportunities to mold the political attitudes and behavior of others. Most Americans claim church affiliation, and approximately 40 percent report attending worship services on a weekly basis (Wilson 1989, 363). When parishioners are at church, ministers may be able to transmit political messages through sermons, adult-education classes, church bulletin announcements, and poster displays. These opportunities to provide political perspectives and guidelines to parishioners are no small matter. Given their numbers and the frequent interaction of members, religious congregations probably constitute "the most vital voluntary organization in a country that puts a premium on 'joining up'" (Wald 2003, 8).
In addition, clergy often have audiences receptive to the political cues they transmit. If those attending worship services thought it inappropriate for ministers to address political issues, political cue-giving messages could largely be dismissed. But church attendees appear, at least under certain circumstances, to be receptive to such messages. Biblical passages or church teachings can be given a variety of interpretations, and parishioners may have difficulty interpreting the political ramifications of their religious beliefs, leading to church members relying on pastors for political guidance. Moreover, studies have shown that parishioners, particularly those who attend regularly, not only perceive, but are receptive to, political messages from their pastors (Leege, Kellstedt, and Wald 1990).
The Political Significance of Clergy
Given the political resources and opportunities enjoyed by clergy, scholars have paid considerable attention over the past several decades to the role that ministers play in American politics (e.g., Hadden 1969; Quinley 1974; Guth et al. 1997; Crawford and Olson 2001). These studies have revealed that clergy can indeed be political actors of some significance.
First, clergy often provide political cues to their parishioners. Many of the millions who attend church do so not only to worship but to hear what their pastors have to say. Those who observe and listen carefully receive certain messages from the pulpit about issues and concerns they should pay attention to, care about, and act upon; often these cues are not ignored (Crawford and Olson 2001; Wald, Owen, and Hill 1988; 1990). This is especially true when clergy address certain issues regularly and when they speak to concerns that are salient both to their congregations and to society (Djupe and Gilbert 2001b). Under such circumstances, these messages and cues are not usually ignored (Crawford and Olson 2001; Fetzer 2001; Penning and Smidt 2001; Wald, Owen, and Hill 1988, 1990).
Moreover, congregation members may give greater credence to stances taken by their pastor than they would to a position heard or read about in some news medium (Buddenbaum 2001). It is true that clergy may often be preaching to the converted. But, even under such circumstances, ministers can still influence their congregational members by intensifying their attachments and reinforcing their preferences, thereby encouraging activism (Jelen 2001b). Thus, it is probably not too surprising, as a number of studies have shown (e.g., Wald et al. 1988; 1990; Gilbert 1989; Jelen 1990), that congregations frequently serve as "contexts for the transmission and reinforcement of political attitudes" (Welch et al. 1993, 3).
Finally, clergy may well move beyond exhorting or merely offering political cues to their congregations to more direct forms of activity. Some pastors have led their congregations in political actions intended to achieve political and social change. They may also mobilize their flocks into political action on behalf of particular candidates (e.g., Hertzke 1993) or particular issues (e.g., Tays 1990).
Relationship between Theology and Politics
Clergy are also politically significant in that they are in the business of connecting particular theological and religious beliefs to political attitudes and orientations. Ministers operate within the domain of religious beliefs and are steeped in theology, which is central to their belief systems, providing them with a worldview within which they understand and approach all of life.
Parishioners also hold theological beliefs, but given their relative lack of theological training, members vary more than clergy in theological sophistication. Moreover, even if parishioners express the same religious beliefs as clergy, they are less likely to understand and fully appreciate the social and political ramifications of these tenets. Hence, to understand how particular religious beliefs may shape specific political attitudes and behavior, the analyst may be better served to examine such relationships among clergy than among parishioners.
Possible Erosion of the "Two-Party System"
Finally, the theological and political orientations of clergy today are also directly related to the issue of how and to what extent religious differences may be manifested politically. As recently as a decade or two ago, the politics of many clergy were still strongly influenced by theological disputes that arose in the late nineteenth century. These profound disagreements ultimately served to form what Martin Marty (1970) called the "two-party system" in American Protestantism.
Although the contours of this division are complex and remain far from static, by the end of the twentieth century, most Protestant clergy and denominational leaders could be largely placed within either the evangelical tradition, comprising denominations and churches dominated by orthodox forces, or the mainline tradition, in which modernists were much more prevalent, at least among clergy and denominational leaders (Kellstedt and Green 1993).
Other analysts, however, have argued that such a two-party division tends to obscure important features of American religious life. As Wuthnow notes, "To state that American religion is divided neatly into two communities is to ride roughshod over the countless landmarks, signposts, hills, and gullies that actually constitute the religious landscape" (1989, 23). In so doing, the bipolar division of American religious life fails to give attention "to the nuances and complexities of American religion" (Jacobsen and Trollinger 1998, 7). Therefore, to place the chapters of this volume within the context of this broader debate, it is necessary to provide a brief historical overview of shifting cleavages within American religious life.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
As the twentieth century began to dawn, important tensions and divisions were emerging in American Protestantism that affected the nature and level of clergy involvement in American social and political life. The emerging bifurcation of American Protestantism was related, in part, to changing intellectual perspectives. By the end of the nineteenth century, two major intellectual challenges confronted American Protestantism: the teachings of Charles Darwin and the contentions of German higher criticism of the Bible. Darwin's thesis about the origin of species, which flooded America following the Civil War, seemingly stood in opposition to scriptural teachings about the origin of man and challenged the integrity of the Bible. German higher criticism of the Bible argued that the biblical texts must be interpreted in terms of the social and historical contexts in which they were written. From the perspective of German higher criticism, the gospel was much more complex than the "simple gospel" of the Bible as read by the laity; this perspective challenged not only literalism in biblical interpretation but also the inerrancy of biblical texts in historical and scientific matters.
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