The familiar story about religion in public life is populated with stock characters repeating conservative diatribes and constructed from worn plotlines that circle endlessly around wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. A recent AP story titled “Christians Optimistic but Disappointed in Obama” largely followed this script, focusing heavily on evangelicals, just one slice of the diverse Christian family.
But now, as the late Paul Harvey would say, we are getting “the rest of the story,” as more diverse religious voices are entering the public sphere. What might be surprising to many Americans is the existence of a large number of Christian clergy who are liberal-minded, politically engaged, and eager to be more involved in public debates on social justice issues.
These clergy, who are more concerned with the common good than with sectarian strife, are signs of hope for our troubled times. President Obama’s faith was nurtured in a mainline Protestant denomination (the United Church of Christ), and the data shows that he’ll find in mainline clergy a deep well of support on many of the defining issues of the day. While many conservative religious leaders and pundits continue a tired refrain, mainline Protestant clergy are widely supportive of energetic government action to tackle economic problems like unemployment, environmental protection, and the catastrophe of millions of Americans who lack access to adequate health care.
More than three-quarters of mainline clergy today agree that the federal government should do more to solve broad societal problems like unemployment, poverty, and poor housing. Almost 70 percent say the government should do more to protect the environment, even if it raises prices and costs jobs. And more than two-thirds agree that the government should guarantee health insurance for all citizens, even if it means higher taxes.
This very different public face of Christian clergy is documented in a recently released extensive survey conducted by Public Religion Research among clergy from the seven largest mainline denominations: United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches USA, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This isn’t a homogenous group, and there are some significant differences across denominational lines, but support for an activist, justice-seeking government that works for the common good cuts across all of them.
These Christian clergy also bring a fresh voice on social issues. Among mainline clergy, there is broad support for efforts to promote equality and to dismantle discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. Conservative clergy and pundits have worked overtime to create the impression that there’s only one “Christian” position on these issues—but they are profoundly wrong. About two-thirds of mainline clergy support some legal recognition for same-sex couples, passage of hate crime laws, and protections against anti-gay discrimination on the job. And a solid majority supports adoption rights for gay and lesbian people.
Mainline Protestant Christians haven’t gotten nearly as much public attention as evangelical Christians, maybe because their denominations and congregations include a broader diversity of views, and maybe because they prefer a less confrontational and dogmatic approach to politics—aptly characterized by sociologist Robert Wuthnow as “the quiet hand of God.” They certainly have a complex approach to public activism. While almost two-thirds agree that the United States should “maintain a strict separation of church and state,” for most that doesn’t prohibit clergy from advocating for policies that reflect their values.
It’s true that mainline denominations have shrunk in recent decades—a trend now being seen among some evangelical denominations as well—but mainline Protestants still represent about 18 percent of Americans and nearly a quarter of voters. They’re swing voters who’ve been following their clergy in moving slowly but steadily away from the GOP and establishing themselves as a complex, progressive-leaning middle. It’s clear that mainline Protestant churchgoers, as well as their clergy, can bring to our public debates voices that are grounded in Christian churches and committed to working toward the common good. The degree to which that is surprising is testimony to our need for different voices of faith in these challenging times.
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Note: Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., served as the principal investigator for the recent “Clergy Voices Survey,” the most comprehensive survey of mainline Protestant clergy every conducted.